Six Positions of Concern for Panthers in 2015

Six Positions of Concern for Panthers in 2015

The Carolina Panthers should have a stifling defense once again this year, so when I began to think about positions that might be a bit shaky this season, I was surprised to acknowledge that four of those six are on the defensive side of the ball!

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Gettleman Keeping the Machine Oiled with Shaq Thompson Selection

Gettleman Keeping the Machine Oiled with Shaq Thompson Selection

Okay folks, raise your hand if you had Shaq Thompson penciled in at #25. Raise your hand if you saw him there in ANY mock draft. Raise your hand if you saw him in the first ROUND of ANY mock draft. Now you see why I'm no fan of "mock drafts."

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Carolina's Secondary - The Legion of Bums

I'm writing this as the Carolina Panthers are down 21-0 at Green Bay, having saved it from becoming 28-0 on a pick-six by "virtue" of the intercepting DB being blatantly guilty of pass interference. 

Yes, our first first down of the game came because of a penalty and the defense still looks like it doesn't know which team is the "bad guys" - the guys in the OTHER uniforms or the guys in the SAME uniforms.

With the rapid demise of a once-great defense (last year and the first two games of this one), I have been giving their issues a LOT of thought the past month. Cam Newton and Kelvin Benjamin are the only two real bright spots for the offense along with Greg Olsen's continued steady if unspectacular playing, but the offense isn't helping the defense consistently. This is about the defense itself.

So what IS the issue here? What happened to the defense from last year?

In short, David Gettleman's "defensive backfield on-the-cheap" strategy has come back to bite him, and the entire team, right in the rumpus.

He and Rivera have been improving the front-seven during their few years recently in Charlotte, and have been successful after a couple of poorly-chosen DTs before Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short were picked in last year's draft.

But to be fair, Gettleman at least made a gesture towards the defensive backfield, using the 4th and 5th-round picks on DBs. 

Tre' Boston, a strong safety candidate from UNC, was a pick I never personally liked for reasons Roman Harper has been demonstrating consistently - I wasn't impressed with Boston's ability to tackle in space. 

He has been injured almost his entire pro career (this season) and hasn't been a factor. In his case, it's probably a GOOD thing.

That 5th-rounder, CB Bene' Benwikere (ben-WICK-uh-ree), has looked solid as a nickle corner. Fine.

Here are the biggest problems: SS Roman Harper, FS Thomas DeCoud, CB Antoine Cason, CB Melvin White, and CB Josh Norman.

We simply lack talent in the defensive backfield, and Gettleman's history of re-treading other teams' rejects isn't working. 

I think out of the entire group, Roman Harper is the biggest offender. I've been over and over his poor plays and his being out of position so I won't beat it to death here. Suffice it to say that he has been doing it since his arrival.

It would be okay if he were at least a good pass defender, and he was tied for the NFL lead in interceptions with many others coming into today's game with three. Two of those were off deflected passes that he got lucky on, but at least he caught them. Otherwise, he's slow...physically and, apparently, mentally as well.

Not only is he out of position too often, but at Green Bay in a simple Cover 2 (Tampa-two) defense, he was slow getting over to help out Antoine Cason against Jordy Nelson. Oh well - it isn't like Nelson is at or near the top in every meaningful receiving category, is it? 

When he did get to him, Nelson made him look like a lumbering defensive lineman completely out of his element. How in the world IS this defense EVER going to be any good when your starting "strong" safety has the speed of a tackle and the open-field tackling ability of a kicker?

Harper barely even laid a finger on Nelson, if at all, while allowing him to get right by him for a long touchdown.

On the front end of this so-called Cover 2 against Nelson? Antoine Cason. He dove lazily at Nelson's feet on the play I just mentioned that Harper couldn't clean up in part due to the fact that HE lazily made HIS way over to Nelson.

Jordy made them both pay.

As the team gets behind now 28-0, I'm thinking of Robert Lester and his being waived...turning my attention to Thomas DeCoud.

DeCoud isn't quite as bad as Harper in pass coverage but he seems to have gotten worse after the first couple of games as well. Although I have seen him make some nice form-tackles in the open field since then, I've seen him miss his share of tackles as well. 

If Robert Lester was SO much worse than DeCoud, apparently Lester doesn't even belong in the NFL because DeCoud doesn't look like he does these days, either.

Roman Harper and Thomas DeCoud are "athletes" that even our defense-starved division competitors didn't want. Harper was waived by the Saints and DeCoud by the Falcons.

The rest of our CB group, aside from Benwikere, has been playing as if they don't belong, either. Truly, they were all either low-priced re-treads from other teams or undrafted rookies the Panthers picked up over the past few years. 

In Josh Norman's case, a late-round pick. Oh, I almost forgot Charles Godfrey...the most overpaid 3rd-string safety in the NFL!

It's quite normal to use ONE late-rounder or rookie UFA in your rotation in the defensive backfield, but with today's pass-happy NFL, it stands to reason you want some guys with TALENT back there to at least help be that last-ditch effort to stop a long play.

It looks to me like this lack of draft talent is rearing its ugly head and there's not a single thing, short of making a mid-season trade before a rapidly-approaching deadline, Gettleman OR Rivera can do this year to fix it.

But the defensive malaise runs deeper than "just" the least-talented defensive backfield in the NFL...whom I officially dub "The Legion of Bums."

With Greg Hardy's absence - rightly or wrongly handled - the defensive line isn't generating pressure like it did last season. They aren't holding their ground well against the run, either.

If our prized possession on defense, third-year All-Pro MLB Luke Kuechly, can't be free to make tackles, fellow LB Thomas Davis has to take up the slack. He has been unable to do so, having missed HIS share of tackles as well. I'm not "dogging" TD here, but both he and Luke aren't playing up to what we're used to seeing from our dynamic duo.

Again - it goes back to the line not generating pressure as a 4-man rush. The results are that the linebackers often have to shed blockers or make their way through traffic to make the stop. Kuechly leads the NFL in tackles again this year as much due to the fact he's on the FIELD so much as anything else.

In fact, nobody - not one single player - is playing up to the level we saw last season. The only constant missing is Greg Hardy, and I don't think a single player would turn the second-best defense last year into the second-worst one this year. We don't have a new system or new defensive coordinator, either.

I think Hardy's absence makes one of the NFL's best defensive lines a bit more mundane for sure. You can't be missing a guy who makes a sack per game and all that goes with that and NOT have it make a difference, but this is way too much.

What we're seeing is the effects of having to not only use castoffs and re-treads from other teams, but multiple years' worth of doing so. When you roll over your entire secondary from year to year, there's no stability to build upon. 

The result? Missed assignments. Missed tackles. Letting things get out of hand and not playing with urgency are but two negative results of poor play. It all feeds off each other and has a snowball effect, each one amplifying the others.

Without even getting much into the deep issues we have at the offensive tackle position, next year's draft should include one of those as a high pick. The rest should be spent on the secondary and yet another pass-rushing DE but can hold up against the run as well, with thoughts of replacing an aging Charles Johnson. CJ hasn't been stout against the run himself - he never has been known as a great run defender but not a bad one either - and with his salary, he'd need a huge pay cut to stay past his current deal.

Sorry folks, but I still see a LOT of rebuilding needed...this time, starting with the back end of the defense.

If you can't put consistent pressure on the QB, you'll at least need guys who can somewhat cover receivers and fill holes against the run.

Being cheap and doling out revolving-door 1-year deals is officially a failure.

Follow me on Twitter @Ken_Dye

Carolina Plays Pivotal Game Against Chicago Today

Too many times, announcers especially like to prop up the game they're calling by saying it's a "must-win game." The problem is, there ARE no "must-win games" in week TWO.
This is week five, however, and with the Panthers having given up 30+ points in consecutive losses, the third time is the charm as the saying goes.

Chicago has a potent offense both on the ground with Matt Forte and in the air with four very good skill players: QB Jay Cutler, WR Brandon Marshall, WR Alshon Jeffery, and TE Martellus Bennett.

Forte's forte - such as it is - is catching passes out of the backfield. Yes, he has 4.4 speed and when he gets the ball in space, he can be a very explosive player. With the Bears' offense, it's a case of picking your poison.

With the Panthers having vomited up 37 to a Pittsburgh offense grinding it out and 38 to a potent air attack in Baltimore, the Panthers need to get their act together this week. If you can't stop the run OR the pass, what are you doing out there?

What's particularly baffling is where they DID go. As we all know, the Panthers' defense entered the season as the strong suit of the team, finishing a close second to Seattle in most meaningful defensive categories last season and returned the strength of that part of the squad in the front seven.

We also know of Greg Hardy's legal and league issues, but I'm not so sure missing one guy turns a defense that gives up 12 points per game to one giving up 37.5 points per game. The issues are far more systemic than not having one of your top players - not even your top pass rusher.

Even Ron Rivera said he had counted fourteen different plays against Baltimore where at least two defenders were out of position....not to mention plays where "only" one was.

So what's the explanation for this "regression?"

That's a baffling question because the answers aren't very obvious at first glance. The team has the same defensive coordinator, Sean McDermott, and as I've said, basically the same front seven (Hardy being the exception).

Since the safeties and some of the corners are new to the team this season, the defensive backfield is the obvious culprit, but they aren't entirely to blame, either. MLB Luke Kuechly isn't playing up to the level he had last season when he was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Even HE has been caught out of position on some long gains, including the 81-yarder that Le'Veon Bell ripped off on us two weeks ago.

So why would Kuechly regress? I'm not so sure that "regression" is the right term for him. With the defensive backfield being obviously confused in assignments at times, he may feel he has to do even more than he should, and therein lies the rub: when you "do too much," you become more aggressive and tend to commit yourself too early in an "all or nothing " other words, he may be thinking "If I don't make the play, nobody will."

The results are on film. He'd be better served, like the rest of the defense, to play what I call "robotic" football. That's where you don't care what your teammates are doing and only care about what YOU can do. Coach says, player does. Robotic.

This is not to say you don't play with passion - the entire team does that. I'm not questioning their desire or heart or work ethic. I'm questioning their focus and grasp of the system - at least the safeties for now - and if this is causing a ripple effect of sorts. With Roman Harper having been out of position as much or more than anyone I've seen on the defense, perhaps others feel like they have to "cover" for him so to speak, or "hide" him by trying to do a little bit more....and that's the trap the defense may be falling into.

It isn't a personnel issue. It isn't a faulty scheme. It isn't a bad coordinator.

That narrows things down considerably. What it comes down to is a matter of playing disciplined, smart defense.

People used to talk about Hall of Fame linebacker Dick Butkus, saying "Not only did he not want you to gain a yard, he didn't want you to gain an inch!"

In the run-happy days of the 1950's and 60's, that style of play often worked. Aggressive, stop the run at all costs football.

That approach simply doesn't work in an NFL when a QB can take a snap, a 3-step drop, and have the ball out of his hands in less than two seconds. At least, it won't consistently work unless you're playing against this year's version of the New England Patriots. I'm convinced it's because I drafted Tom Brady for my fantasy league, but that's an entirely different article.

I think the team would be better served to go back and look at last year's game film and this year's game film, see what the differences are, correct them, and go back to being a top-five defense again. I'm sure McDermott has been going through that very process and has been under a lot of heat from Rivera these last couple of weeks.

Even the best defensive teams have bad nights for whatever reason. Take, for instance, the 1985 Chicago Bears....regarded by many as the best single-season defense of all time.

Yes, that's Ron above and his team lost only a single game, but in the process they looked completely beatable. I remember it because I saw it live. They played against Dan Marino on Monday Night Football in the Orange Bowl and would send 8 guys after Dan.

One problem: Marino got rid of the ball more quickly than anyone ever had in NFL history - before or since. He'd take that three-step drop and actually throw fairly long passes - he'd just loft it up, let the single-covered receiver run under it, and "pull the string" on the pass, dropping it out in front of him perfectly. They scored at least two TDs using this method and won the 14 points. And it was never even that close.

However, the Panthers aren't exposing their secondary by blitzing, they're exposing it by not generating the pass rush from the D-line they used to last season. Yes, Hardy's absence doesn't help, but Charles Johnson hasn't had a good year thus far either. DE Wes Horton, starting for Hardy, hasn't had a single sack in 2014. Mario Addison is a good pass-rusher as a reserve and could well start in Horton's place perhaps, since not only does Horton not have a sack, he doesn't even have an unassisted tackle.

Gettleman's selection of Missouri DE Kony Ealy is looking better all the time, but he still needs time to grow into the position.

So, we've got a defensive backfield low on talent, rookie Ben "The Fed Chief" Benwikere notwithstanding, and many of them are first-year Panthers. The D-line isn't having the season they had last year as a whole, and Thomas Davis didn't even play against Baltimore.

I see issues at every level of the defense. Perhaps the sum of the "missing" parts is greater than the whole, but every team has injuries or key cogs gone for some time. Baltimore beat us even with the Ray Rice distraction, which is far greater than Hardy's in the public eye, for instance.

The pivotal part of today's ball game is indeed the defensive unit. If they can correct the issues they're facing and play more solid football, Carolina has enough offense, assuming they don't have to press my grandmother into service at running back, to put up enough points to win the game at home despite..."average" offensive tackles, to be kind.

If the defense continues its confused play, even the New York Jets could put up a score with a 3-handle on us....and that won't help us win against ANYONE.

A third consecutive poor showing by Carolina's defense would seem to indicate deeper systemic problems than I think may exist at this point and would be a symptom of problems that may take more time to fix than the Panthers have time to limit the numbers in the loss column.

Lastly, nobody seems to want to win the NFC South so far. Nobody is above .500. Even if the Panthers "back into" a division crown at, say, 9-7 or 10-6, from what I see, we'll have a very quick exit to the playoffs....just like last year.

And last year, we had a great defense!

Rivera & Co. need to get that bilge pump running and fast.....the ship is riding lower and lower in the water. It can still be saved, but it means focusing on doubling down on the hard work.

follow me on Twitter @Ken_Dye

Why the Carolina Panthers Will Repeat as NFC South Champions

Yesterday, I posted a rather long piece of sober reality with a laundry-list of reasons why the Carolina Panthers won't repeat in the NFC South as champions. While the odds are stacked against it, since nobody has ever done so, but as the saying goes, "There's a first time for everything."

If you want the nuts and bolts of what goes into it, please go back and read that article because I'm not going to spend most of this piece repeating those things although I will briefly touch on some of them as points of reference.

Instead, I'm looking at a series of scenarios that, while they all could happen, are doubtful to all occur. However, if they should, the Panthers could wind up at the top of the heap:

Okay, first off, the breaks pretty much ALL have to go the Panthers' way. This is going to be true of any team winning their division, and often the case is exactly that. The NFC East excluded because you can screw up a lot, go 9-7, and win that division.

- The Panthers will HAVE to get off to an uncharacteristic fast start

One look through the Panthers schedule after September should clue you in as to why. Week six starts a murderous stretch where we play at Cincinnati, at Green Bay, at home against Seattle and New Orleans, then a road game in Philadelphia. That's five games we could all either win or easily lose.

The problem lies with the undeniable fact that we're using a journeyman (at best) guard-bodied, undrafted guy at left tackle in Byron Bell when last year we had an All-Pro tackle retire in Jordan Gross who made that Pro Bowl as recently as...last year.

Say what you will about Bell, but I certainly don't see him as a Pro-Bowl tackle. In fact, the offensive tackle spot in general is the weakest position of all on the entire team. Nate Chandler has "upside" at the right tackle position, but is still learning it so I expect up-and-down play from him especially to start the season. Garry Williams is the 3rd tackle and even HE played guard last year.

Byron Bell could play over his head

This is where coaching and Cam's growth and experience comes into play. Despite moving Bell to the left side, there IS a silver lining of sorts here: The two guys (Cam and Byron) came into the NFL together - albeit from diametrically opposed routes as Cam was the top overall draft pick and Bell wasn't even drafted at all - and therefore "grew up together." There has to be a bit of a kinship there that most All-Pro tackles and future Hall of Fame QBs don't have with each other. None of the others in the division have that wrinkle working in their favor.

Each guy knows what the other guy can and can't do well, so with any given play call, they'll have a slight step-up on things. Cam will have a protection scheme in mind should the coaches miss it and could audible for help in case of reading a pre-snap blitz so perhaps one of the backs can be another protection layer for Cam's blind side - if he needs it.

What Bell may lack in ability at the position he's been asked to play, he and Cam should be more "in-tune" with each other than most. With a number of tweaks to the pass protection and with more imaginative play-calling, the coach and teammates could collectively run a scheme that emphasizes blind-side protection, taking some of the direct heat off of Bell that way.

The dual-TE formation

Then, there's the dual TE set that so many people expect to see this season.  I like this idea because it gives the offense some options, but again, in the NFL there is no such thing as a free gotta give up something to get something.

In this case, the offense will sometimes give up a significant portion of their route-tree so that guys like Greg Olsen and Ed Dickson can "chip" block whoever is going up against Bell. Often, that's all it takes for an average tackle to get the upper hand on even the most talented defender. I don't know exactly when this really became popular, but I do recall when Andy Reid was in Philadelphia, he'd pull his slot WR in towards the line so close that he looked almost like a TE split a tad wide instead.

Complicating this maneuver, however, would be straight-up press-man coverage. If the other defense is playing that type of scheme, if an eligible receiver "chips" a rushing lineman or a DE on a roll, he himself is likely to get punished because you can't chip-block AND fight off a press corner at the same time.

See what I mean about no "free lunch?"

However, I have faith in Ron Rivera as he has taken this team from winning only 5 games his first year to losing only 4 last season. Even after Rivera's patented 1-3 start last season and fans were calling for his head, I wrote "It would be a shame to get rid of Rivera now that he's got 75% of the job done." I really wanted to let him have the whole season played out before we went switching horses in mid-stream. Unless the coach is just entirely horrible, that rarely helps your team that year. It helps for the NEXT season - and only if you keep on the "interim" Head Coach.

Rivera's certainly no dummy and neither are his assistants. Neither is Cam. They'll all know if a receiver is called to "chip," he likely won't be where he's supposed to be when the ball has to come out, so Cam would mentally re-arrange his progressions to take that into account. Since that chip block will help buy him an extra second or two, it should give Cam the time to realize what his best match-up is, given the pre-snap read, and either get the ball to him, the "hot" receiver, or throw it away if need be.

The front seven is even better than last year

Yes, we have the same 7 starters plus some good depth - especially on the D-line - who have ALL been with the team for at least a full NFL season. This gives Sean McDermott the luxury of installing even more wrinkles to what that defensive unit does. You won't see too many missed assignments - that much I've noticed in the preseason. The most glaring one was on that wheel-route TD to Shane Vereen that Tom Brady threw, but that was AJ Klein's fault. He hesitated on his coverage. He ran wide, shadowing Vereen wide, then inexplicably stopped for a split-second. When he started again, Vereen was already starting down the sideline and past him for 6 points.

The pressure will be on our front seven even more this season, and it's quite possible that special group of guys can be even more special and up to the challenge, but it's still a tall order. With a defensive secondary that doesn't seem to have the "upside" that last year's did at this time as Mike Mitchell rose to the occasion and played himself into a nice contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers, this year we're forced to use safeties that nobody else in the division wanted.

Carolina's safeties earn their positions

Roman Harper missed half of last season as the Saints became tough on defense under Rob Ryan and therefore became expendable. Thomas DeCoud, a free safety-type, is a castoff from the worst defense in our division in the Atlanta Falcons, but has showed me that he can be a steady tackler that doesn't give up "truck" yards as I call it.

I think DeCoud will be a much steadier player this season than his time in Atlanta, which just highlights our superior coaching. Same guy - better player. Mike Mitchell last year? Same guy - better player. I see no reason DeCoud should be as well; it's just that he doesn't have the physical tools Mitchell did.

Perhaps he just fits better into our system - or both. Roman Harper always had high tackling numbers in New Orleans, but a lot of that was due to the offense. Teams would get destroyed by Brees & Co. and be forced early and often to the air. Harper made a lot of those tackles on intermediate routes, and is pretty good at what he does there. He's a smart guy who doesn't have a huge ceiling, but he's also got a fairly high floor in Carolina, I think. He should play about as expected this season and he's not afraid to step up and take on physical running backs in run support.

So long as our safeties aren't asked to become man-coverage guys but instead are allowed to play as their position name suggests - a SAFETY - then their jobs should be to clean up any messes on the back end. I don't see any problems there as the defense is a zone-style defense instead of straight-up man-on-man like those that teams like the Jets like to run.

Even with the mightiest front-seven, sometimes things get by them. If DeCoud and Harper can keep fairly big plays from becoming bigger ones or scoring ones, offenses are REALLY going to have to work and work hard in order to get a touchdown against us. Our red zone defense might even be second to none, with Seattle's right close there too. I have just seen too many successful goal-line stands for the rest of the NFL NOT to take notice on that. Wouldn't surprise me if we lead the NFL in fewest rushing TDs allowed, either.

Now - we've planned for the weakness at offensive tackle and let loose the hounds of the front seven to create as much mayhem as possible. So far, we've made our offense less explosive but more protective of the ball, and that's a trade-off I'm willing to make with the defense we have in place. Look to the 2015 draft - and even a possible first-round trade-up on our part - to snag a top-3 LT out of college next year and move Bell back to the right side then.

The Secondary needs to be steady without giving up big plays

*I* think the keys in the secondary are going to be Melvin White's development and that of rookie 5th-round pick Bene Benwikere...."The Fed Chief."

The Professor here at C3 has a catchier nickname for him - "Sticky Wiki" - but that's something he'll have to earn on the field. That said, if we're calling him "Sticky Wiki" due to him picking off passes by midseason, that's going to be key for us.

Last year, our offense was pedestrian at best - I don't think anyone denies that. The Carolina Panthers were dead last in "explosive plays" - plays from scrimmage of 20 or more yards - but we STILL went 12-4.

Jonathan Stewart Stays healthy - and productive

IF - and it's a big "if" for sure but still possible - RB Jonathan Stewart stays both healthy and effective all season, we'll have a four-headed Hydra backfield for running the ball with Tolbert, D-Will, and if you include Cam in that equation. Surprise reserve RB Fozzy "Bear" Whittaker can spell any of the backs and with the o-line being built to run-block by default, if Offensive Coordinator Mike Shula can start thinking outside the box juuuuust a bit, it'll give enemy DCs FITS - just to stop the RUN!

That's what makes the play-action pass so successful. They go hand-in-hand.

On offense, seeing the running game improve is the key. I think most fans recognize that, despite great-looking rookie WR Kelvin Benjamin, we're going to be a run-first offense. The passing yards will come, but it won't be our strong suit and I don't think most fans ever thought it would be - at least for this season.

If we'll pass when we're supposed to run, run when we're supposed to pass, and sometimes just cram the run up the middle and down the other team's throat like they used to do to us a few years ago, we can keep games close with the help of the defense.

Kraken on a mission

One other thing I do want to mention about the front-seven is Greg Hardy. He's playing under the "Franchise" tag this season but had the "domestic abuse" trouble in the off-season. He has already pled guilty to one charge, but the bigger stuff won't come up until at least November and his attorneys can probably push things back into next off-season.

That said, he's in a contract year and wants to get paid. He knows he just cost himself millions of dollars due to his perceived increased risk but knows if he improves his sack totals again this year, as he's done in each year as a pro so far, he'll not only break his own franchise record for sacks in a season that he set last year with 15, but if Carolina doesn't want to pay him, 31 other teams would love to have him.

Either way, he'll be a man on a mission this year for sure, and that can only mean 110% effort from him on every play of every game - guaranteed.

With all of the above in mind, should it be able to come together just right like it did last year, the Panthers could very well repeat as division champs. Traditionally, the division winner is the team with the best defense and that makes a very strong case for Carolina repeating right there.

Having the ball bounce our way

Carolina will once again have to win all the close games and some things out of their hands will have to go their way - but that's usually the case for whatever team wins a division. There's always at least a LITTLE bit of luck (small "l") involved.

That said, the teams that should give Carolina the most trouble are those that take care of the football themselves, have a very, very stout rush defense, and have a top-10 or so passing game.

Right there, I'm eliminating two of the three NFC South foes. Atlanta doesn't even HAVE a defense, and while Tampa Bay looks to be much improved as much because of getting a new coach as anything, they certainly don't have a proven passing engine that runs on autopilot - not with Josh McCown and Mike "The Giraffe" Glennon. McCown played wonderfully for Lovie last season when called to do so, but don't quite have the experienced people on offense that Chicago has. The Bucs' O-line is so much in question they signed high-priced Logan Mankins to fill one void there and wouldn't surprise me if they sign Richie Incognito as well.

Defense is suspect in Atlanta; the O-line is still suspect in Tampa Bay. It's the Saints that should give us the most problems.

The Saints defense takes a step back

Yes, Drew Brees will once again be Drew Brees, but the team looks to be a bit more balanced than in the past. Bust RB Mark Ingram is himself in a contract year, has looked pretty good in the preseason, and has that added incentive to prove he belongs in the NFL. If he doesn't, Pierre Thomas is a very well-rounded guy who can tote the rock and catch out of the backfield. They've added blazer Brandin Cooks apparently to play the Darren Sproles/long-handoff/flare pass role to get him in space, but trying to beat our defense by going wide almost never is a good idea.

It's teams like the Saints that should give us the most trouble. They have a pretty good offensive line, and if we cannot consistently pressure Brees, he can eat any defense up if he has time. That's the key - if he has time. Since our secondary is no better than last year's was (I'm gonna whine over losing Mike Mitchell forever), the Saints are a team that can consistently use the short, quick-throw passing game to move the chains since even a defensive backfield like that of the 1984 San Francisco 49'ers (where all 4 DBs made the Pro Bowl) who stymied Dan Marino in the Super Bowl won't be able to stop WRs because of the offense-friendly rules changes on defense and the resulting flags we all saw all over the place in general this preseason. Brees is such the perfectionist at what he does, and is SO accurate in his throws, the New Orleans Saints are always going to be a tough out.

However, do the Saints REALLY have a top-five defense? Rob Ryan's scheme for the team is now archived in game film, adjustments to it will be made, and I think the Saints could slide a bit from last year's defense. That "amoeba" defense has always made me wonder why, when a QB sees that, he doesn't audible into a power, straight-ahead run. The "Amoeba" has zero down linemen and that begs the question - Since our O-line has to be all "down in stance" and therefore automatically has an advantage in getting leverage, I'm thinking Cam would just quick-snap that ball upon seeing that defense, letting all 5 linemen (center Ryan Kalil and what amounts to 4 guards in physical stature) just blast forward, mowing down everyone they can get to, while Cam weaves his way through openings to get almost a sure 5 yards or more. Perhaps that's an adjustment the offense will make.

Now I'm getting down into more nuts and bolts than I had wanted to once again, but I wanted to illustrate how we might be able to turn apparent disadvantages into strengths....but we have to play the game TO those strengths. The offense will NOT be "pretty," but rather like a 1970's style Miami Dolphins team who also had three very capable RBs....Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick, and Eugene "Mercury" Morris. Passing rules? pshaw!

The tough times will come when the other team gets up on us by over a touchdown. No secondary is perfect, especially with 21st century passing rules, so they're all tied with a hand behind their backs so at least that part is even and will only help in our own passing game as well, when we do throw it. win any division you have to play your best over the entire season, have some breaks just fall your way (like New Orleans losing at Seattle late last season), and you have to maximize your chances by taking advantage of turnovers and turning those into points whether by defensive returns or by setting up the offense in good field position.

The biggest trouble spots once again are the offensive tackles and the secondary, none of which are unknown surprises to the Panthers coaching staff. They'll make adjustments to their schemes, as all teams have to do with their own shortcomings, and that front seven will not only negate a lot of errors, but should provide opportunities for the offense to score on a shortened field. Winning the turnover battle is key, and if we can have just one ball-hawk emerge in the defensive backfield, this team still could go far on the backs of the defense and an improved running game. After all, Drew Brees can't hurt you if he's watching from the sidelines now can he?

As far as what the Panthers can control, a fast start out of the gate is imperative. Right now, the Panthers aren't getting ANY respect, and that's something that motivates a team like nothing else can. It worked last year. Will it work again this year?

It certainly can...and it will.

NFL's "Sorriest Receivers" out to prove otherwise

Do you think every Carolina player doesn't have that "NFL's Sorriest Receivers" article taped inside their lockers? Not to mention others dissing their chances? Hell, they could have my post from yesterday taped up - not that I'm so popular or widely-read that they'd even know about it, but the point is such articles aren't hard to find. It's only lighting that much more of a fire under each and every guy in that locker room.

If Rivera insists on using the running game and the "vertical passing" game, I'm not so sure that will be as successful as it was in Cam's rookie season. If Rivera decides to establish the run, and can do so in most of the games, and THEN use the "vertical passing" game and/or the play-action pass en route to long passes, I think the team will find more success.

Difficult Schedule could still be manageable

Last year, we had a signature win at San Francisco, 10-9. Week seven this year gives us a similar chance when we play at Lambeau Field against the Packers. The key will be that 5-game stretch I mentioned because the very beginning and very end of the schedule is softer than the middle is. I think we can win at Cincy, which narrows things down to 4 games. If we can just split those and go 2-2 with a fast start, it'll carry a LOT of momentum for us going into the final stretch of the season. Of our final six games, the only really scary one is playing at New Orleans. If we lose that one and lose at home to Seattle, that's 4 losses.

With the early, "easier" schedule in September, the team could play just well enough to win those games while Cam gets healthy and more familiar with his receivers - just in time for the hardest part of the schedule. Sure, there are a couple of somewhat unlikely things that have to happen, but they're things that are within the realm of possibility so long as the team adjusts well along the trip.

Some guys will need to produce more than we think coming in, but that happened last year as well....Star and Kawann come to mind and they're a year more experienced now.

If we can somehow win all those other ball games - in other words "beat everybody we're supposed to beat," we could very well go 12-4 once again...and that, my friendly fans, should be enough to win the NFC South once again and make history in the process.

It happened last year, so it can happen again. These guys have been there before and MADE it happen. WILL it? Like yesterday's article, we won't know for sure until the end of the season, but just as we have issues, everyone else has issues someplace too. I have faith in our coaches to put the team in the best position possible to win any given game. Are the odds against us? You bet.

Then again...they were last year too!!

Let the games begin....and #KeepPounding!

Follow me on Twitter @Ken_Dye

Why the Carolina Panthers will not Repeat as NFC South Champs

Okay folks, it's time to get "real" with a single day between the Carolina Panthers and their opening day game at Tampa Bay.

First of all, of course I'm psyched about the season starting and, as always, I'm very hopeful about the prospects for the Panthers this season. They've had a lot of change in the roster, especially at wide receiver, the offensive line, and in the defensive backfield.

However, I've never been a "homer" and always try to tell it the way I see it, and along that vein "hope and change" hasn't worked out as well as we had been led to believe in a more general sense. 

So, let's take a look at specifics...and stay within the parameters of the NFL from here.

What got better:

The short answer here, ironically, is the drafting of 6'5" Kelvin Benjamin. He appears to be all we fans had hoped he would be and even more. Panthers' WR coach Ricky Proehl has worked his magic again, it would appear, and this time he's been given a big ole lump of clay to shape the way he sees fit instead of trying to revive veterans' careers while working with lots of them on one-year deals. 

THAT, my friends, is one heck of a difficult task...and one that he just began anew once again but with former Jets WR Stephen Hill. However, Hill likely needs even more work than did Kelvin and probably won't be a factor at all this season as he works on the practice squad. If he does contribute, it won't be until late in the season and even then, I don't see him being anyone to scare defenses, despite his athleticism, until he is almost literally a new man. 

Proehl's good, but it takes more than him snapping his fingers to do that.

Another thing that should improve is our interior defensive line. No, we've not added anyone but we didn't really need to. Last year's first two picks, both defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, played up to their ability and perhaps even beyond expectations - especially in Star's case and Kawann looks more disruptive than last year - and now they come into the NFL with a year of knowledge under their rather large belts. This helps them come into camp allowing Sean McDermott the luxury of being able to start at a higher level and go from there than he was able to last season. Star and Kawann were kindergartners in 2013's preseason, in elementary school the first month of the NFL, and finished the season well into high school if you follow the metaphor. 

Instead of having to teach "ABCs," McDermott could start training camp with "college prep" courses and have those two key tackles learning college material now, while the second half of the season should see them graduating and working on their Masters in "mastering" their positions and their assignments.

That's what experience does for you, and the front seven returns completely intact from last year. That means they'll be even better now from day one, and the best middle linebacker in the game leads them all. I see several completely dominant performances by this unit this year and if you don't have a solid offensive line across the board, our guys will certainly take advantage without having to bring extra people.

The third thing that should really improve is the interior offensive line. Injuries decimated the O-line actually the last two seasons running. If Ryan Kalil and Amini Silatolu can stay healthy and Trai Turner, projected to start at right guard pans out, the Panthers should have one of the better interior units in the NFL.

So much for the good news.

What got worse:

Oh boy, now the fun begins. 

First off, Cam Newton's health is obviously worse, although the ankle has been "bothering him since college." It is uncertain how much the ankle has healed since he had surgery on it 6 months ago now, not to mention the cracked ribs in his back from preseason. Ron Rivera says his play in week one will be a "game-time decision," but I'll be quite surprised if he doesn't play. Even if he doesn't, the offense is in capable hands with Derek Anderson, who is widely considered the best back-up QB in the NFC South and one of the better ones in the entire NFL, so that's a bit of help. 

However, Newton had no such issues at this time last season, so the situation is worse. This carries over into the second point....

...the yearly "rent-a-roster spot" guys collectively aren't as good as they were last year. At least, not on paper. Mike Mitchell leads the departed defensive group while Roman Harper rings in the new. Mitchell had speed, youth, and physicality on his side and used our front seven to play himself out of our price range for 2014. Good for him - it means he was a difference-maker in our secondary last year - but it leaves us with a hole. I'm rooting for Roman to do as well, but if the 31 year old safety is that good, why would he be available and for a cheaper price than Mitchell? 

Harper, despite chatter, IS durable, having played in all 15 games each season save his rookie year - not surprising in and of itself there - and 9 games last year. The same year the Saints' defense shot up the charts like a rocket. Hmm. Doesn't bode so well for us.

I think at best, Harper should provide a steadying influence on a still relatively young group of corners, including rookie Bene Benwikere. "The Fed Chief" is the wild card of the secondary this year, but hasn't shown much in the preseason and may take time to develop - all while the team is ringing up wins and losses. I like Melvin White's gritty play, but the team still lacks anyone in the secondary that I'd consider an above-average player.

The "rent-a-roster" approach didn't end in the defensive backfield. Just like last year, Dave Gettleman brought in a hapless group of wide receivers on one-year contracts, hoping one or more of them can surpass their previous ceilings they had established in the NFL. Ted Ginn, Jr. was the guy who did it last year but still had inconsistent hands in the passing game although he was a great help to the return game.

We don't have an established kick returner this year, and Rivera has already cut one of the one-year WRs in Tiquan Underwood as Kelvin Benjamin has risen to the top of the depth chart as a rookie.

We also haven't seen much of Jerricho Cotchery in the preseason. We know he's a very experienced guy who had a fine season last year. While teammate Antonio Brown got the lion's share of targets, Cotchery only had 600 yards or so, but with ten TD receptions. Those TD receptions are a statistical anomaly, however, as he hasn't had but 6 TD catches in any other season since entering the NFL in 2004.

Beyond Benjamin, the Panthers once again have a roster full of "threes and fours" - in terms of talent - which means defenses will be smothering the rookie on passing downs. 

Ah....passing. It's something that truly scares me this season, especially after Pro-Bowl LT Jordan Gross retired.

The Panthers have an offensive line that reminds me of one of those small-school basketball programs. They are starting a center and four guards. Please try not to giggle too much.

Yes, Byron Bell is now in his fourth NFL season so we know what he can and cannot do, but Rivera still moved him from playing out of position at right tackle to playing out of his league on the left side. 

Don't get me wrong. I like Byron as a person and he seems to make a wonderful teammate. I've never heard him complain about anything at all, he stays out of trouble, and is an all-around class act. I've said it before and I'll keep ON saying it - I really do root for the kid.

That said, he's NOT a tackle. He's most DEFINITELY NOT a LEFT tackle. He doesn't have the feet for the position and if I had my way as coach, he'd be a right guard all day long and twice on Sundays. Err....well, you know what I mean.

Speed-rushers make him look bad, period. Pittsburgh Steelers' LB Jarvis Jones fell in the draft last year in part due to a slower than expected 40-yard dash time - WAY slower at 4.92 seconds - and Byron Bell made him look like an All-Pro.

One particular play had Bell fooled into thinking Jones was heading outside on the pass rush when he used a crossover move to take the inside route - which is the most direct route to the quarterback - and Bell barely even touched him. 

Not much later on in the game, Bell had a false start penalty on a passing down as he tried to get a jump on the protection by timing the snap exactly right. He was wrong, early, and forced the 5-yard penalty as a result.

The same thing was happening against New England the game before. Chandler Jones abused him pretty regularly in that game as well.

Even so, it might have been possible to slide protection to that weak side to help him out, but the right tackle position isn't in any better hands. Nate Chandler is a converted defensive tackle who began learning the offensive tackle position early last year but is still very raw with his technique and doesn't have the shiftiest feet around, himself. It's probably part of why he was a defensive tackle to begin with, and also why he wasn't drafted. In fact, the entire Carolina Panthers' roster has zero offensive tackles that were drafted at any position!

That alone is hardly a ringing endorsement of the strength of the position. I know both tackles will try their best, but more and more I'm feeling it as a "square peg/round hole" type of situation. I have no doubt in my mind that they'll try their best every single snap on every single day, but they just aren't guys that God made to grow up to be offensive tackles in the NFL. They're both much, much more suited to be guards due to their sheer size (Bell is 340 pounds, for instance) and that they lack the lateral quickness and agility that tackles on BOTH sides need, frankly, in today's pass-happy NFL.

Some of this can be compensated for with using the 2TE set that has been whispered about so much by us fans. The TE can help by using a "chip" block, where they go out in their pass patterns but give the defensive end a not-so-friendly shove on the shoulder, arm, or ribcage to hopefully upset their balance before they can get started into their pass rush, but doing that would limit the depth of the route to maybe 10-15 yards at the most while allowing only 3 other eligible receivers on any given play (other than the other TE). With Chandler's rawness, Greg Olsen may be "chipping" away at the D-line too. 

It also means more "max-protect" blocking schemes, again, which limits the number of receivers in the pattern because not only do all TEs stay in to block, so does the RB. 

In any case, it also means more times where the "hot" receiver (the guy designated to run a very short pattern and/or break off his pattern to make a very quick target for the QB) in case of a blitz or heat on the QB, which looks to happen as often as not. 

All of these issues on offense add up to Mike Shula being Mike Shula - calling a vanilla game plan, taking few chances, and hoping the defense can create a turnover or outstanding punter Brad Nortman can pin the other team inside their 20 (which he's really good at doing) and flipping the field so the offense won't have to be conducting 70- or 80-yard drives to hit paydirt.

Yes, the team has issues but don't all NFL teams? 

That's true - all NFL teams have issues....some are just more glaring than others. The Seattle Seahawks, for example, have a pretty pedestrian offensive line but Russell Wilson is a brilliant young field general who makes the right reads and not only "manages" that offense, but makes plays with both his legs and with his right arm when he's asked to do so. He's also very accurate, which is something Newton has never been known for.

Specifically, the teams in the NFC South have improved overall since last season...other than the Panthers.

Carolina got a little better with the front-seven due to experience gained and added a nice, big target for Cam on the outside. That's really about all the "good news" the Panthers have this season over last. 

This year, they come into opening day with the WR corps having exactly ZERO receptions with the Carolina Panthers. In likely descending order of production this year, there's Kelvin Benjamin, Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant, and another guy I'm really rooting for in Breston Bersin. Bersin's got a great, hard work pays off story, but it won't make him an All-Pro.

The receivers should settle into their duties as the season progresses but the offensive tackles will not. Bell's feet won't get any quicker and neither will Chandler's. 

The lowdown is that defenses will know all of these things, they'll watch as game tape piles up more and more as the season progresses and pass-rushers all around the NFL are circling Carolina on their schedule and placing "friendly wagers" with their teammates as to how many sacks they'll get. The defensive coordinators may even be thinking of playing the strong safety "in the box," knowing we want to establish the run and that Mike Shula is a magician that wears short sleeves so they won't be seeing a lot of things they haven't seen before, and with Cam's ankle still an issue, the "read/option" plays should be limited as coaches want Cam to take fewer hits and Cam likely won't be tallying the 111 rushing attempts he did last season.

It all adds up to a more predictable AND less capable offense overall than even last year's iteration. The defense will keep us in most ball games, but unless they start scoring more points themselves, it's going to be a long season in Charlotte vs. fan hopes and expectations.

What about other NFC South teams?

Atlanta's defense should be a bit better than it has been in the last couple of years due to an influx of drafted talent and a healthy offense. As long as Julio Jones and Roddy White are on the field, Atlanta has as good a duo there as anyone in the NFL. They had a breaking-down Steven Jackson last year with no good options past him, but added rookie Devonta Freeman in this year's draft. He's an improved version of Jacquizz Rogers (and if I misspelled his name I'm sorry but he's now 3rd-string at best so who cares) and looked good in the preseason. Still, I see the Falcons going 6-10 or 7-9, finishing last.

Next, we have the Tampa Bay Bucs, who actually might have the most talented 45-man roster in the division except at one critical position - quarterback. Mike Glennon showed growing pains and struggled as a rookie, but showed some flashes of ability. The Bucs improved their coach above all, trading in a college-style autocrat that players hated with Lovie Smith, a guy who got fired in Chicago because 10-6 wasn't good enough! He brought an experienced QB in Josh McCown along with him. The defense is stout but they struggled offensively last they went 100% offense in this year's draft, including Mike Evans at WR and TE Jenkins (because I don't want to look up the spelling of HIS name either) and trading with New England for proven guard Logan Mankins. So the Bucs improved their situation quite a bit, too. Still, it'll take some time for them to put things together and I'm actually glad to be facing them early rather than late as an away game. I see the Bucs finishing 7-9 to 9-7 this year.

Then, we have the New Orleans Saints. They improved themselves last year when they brought in the defensive coordinator I refer to as "the rock star," Rob Ryan, who transformed a dead-last defense into a top-five unit in a single season. Yes, they let RB Darren Sproles go to Philly, but drafted Brandin Cooks so that's a wash. If Marques Colston can stay healthy, he provides a target the same size of Kelvin Benjamin, but with the pinpoint accuracy of future first-ballot Hall of Fame QB Drew Brees throwing him the ball. Kenny Stills is a second-year deep threat type of WR who had a nice 650 yards and 5 TDs as a rookie and should only improve. LT Terron Armstead has a year under his belt now too. It also appears that RB Mark Ingram is poised to finally have his breakout season (and it doesn't hurt it's his contract year) and if he doesn't, they always have Pierre Thomas to fall back on, not to mention reserve WRs Robert Meachem and Nick Toon. Oh - I forgot one other guy....some fella named Jummy Graham. I think he only got the job because he's Billy Graham's long-lost cousin, but as a tight end had a mere 1,200+ yards and sixteen touchdowns. With all of THAT in mind, I can't see the Saints finishing worse than about 11-5 and I am kinda "feelin' it" this year as far as their chances go. 11-5 is a floor, but 14-2 is their ceiling. 

Even with all the issues the Panthers have internally going into tomorrow's opening day games (Thursday night not considered), I think the defense will keep them competitive and when games are close, anything can happen. I just think it's going to be difficult for the Panthers to mount the four 4th-quarter comebacks that Cam led last year to get to that 12-4 record when they would have been 8-8 without any. 

Gettleman better make acquiring a serviceable pair of offensive tackles his priority for next season...just as he did with tackles on the defensive side last year.

If he can get a pair of those that turn out at their positions as well as Star and Kawann have so far, 2015 could be the Year of the Panther. For 2014 to be that, everything will have to perfectly fall into place and if there's one thing in life I've learned, things rarely go exactly as planned...and the NFC South has yet to have the same team win the division in consecutive seasons. History is not on our side.

Follow me on Twitter @Ken_Dye

Oh Godfrey, No Safety in Carolina's Secondary!

Oh Godfrey, Cam broke a rib. Oh Godfrey, Carolina has an entirely new receiving core. Oh Godfrey, Jordan Gross's retirement pushed Byron Bell to left tackle, and this line could be even worse than last year's. Oh Godfrey, Panther fans are in a panic. What, there’s more?  Oh Godfrey!

Byron BellYes, there’s is another weakness that hasn’t been discussed as frequently--safety. Personnel deficiencies and injuries, just like last year, could place an undue amount of pressure on a defense that is almost entirely predicated on the pass rush. Those hogmollies up front best pin their ears back and get after the quarterback, because it’s not clear Carolina could stave off a powerful air attack.

Safety wasn't Carolina's strongest attribute last season.  Mike Mitchell's punishing hits and flashy safety blitzes created a false sense of strength, one that even landed Mitchell a fat contract with Pittsburgh. Carolina’s secondary just wasn’t the best dish on the defensive buffet.  Injury and inconsistency forced Gettleman to make-over the recipe with old-journeyman and fresh, near unheard, of ingredients. Sure the dish was edible, but hardly delectable.  

Captain Munnerlyn, the fan favorite mini-sized cornerback, and Mike Mitchell’s departure temporarily highlighted the deficiency.  Dave Gettleman's acquisition of two rival NFC South safeties, Thomas DeCoud (FS) and Roman Harper (SS), helped to quell some concerns as departures of Jordon Gross and Steve Smith grabbed most’s attention.  Although to a lesser degree, the problem remained. 

DeCoud appears to be locked in at free safety, but Robert Lester's inconsistent preseason and recent ankle injury, Roman Harpers oldness, and rookie Tre Boston's absence entirely, only sours the taste of this defensive dish once again.  There are some guys, like Anderson Russell and Colin Jones, who are battling to solidify a roster spot in this depleted backfield, but according to Joe Person, the Panthers haven’t been happy with what they have seen.

Roman Harper
The secondary has been a topic of discussion at C3 for quite sometime. We’ve been particularly interested in Charles Godfrey’s move to nickel corner.  The Panthers reasoned that Godfrey, who played some corner in college, could adjust to this position a little easier after his Achilles injury.  He provided a bigger body that could match up with some of those more athletic tight-ends and slot receivers, as Bene Benwikere developed.  In our Training Camp Cuts podcast, in mid-July, we speculated that Godfrey would wind up at strong safety before the season’s end.  We originally believed this would come from Roman Harper simply not outperforming the younger guys, while expecting Benwikere to develop faster than most expected.

After a C3 interview with Bill Voth and Lester’s recent injury, our perspective may have changed slightly, but the outcome remains the same--Godfrey will end back up at safety.  Our rationale was that Harper was just too old and a little too washed up, resulting in him losing the starting position. Voth, however, articulated an additional concern, Harper may just be nicked up all season and not have a chance to lose the job. Well Harper is back on the field for the moment, but the Panthers don’t expect him to do the job alone.  Today, Joe Person reported: 

Godfrey is moving back to safety, at least in some capacity. I like Godfrey in this role better. He hasn’t adjusted particularly well to nickel corner.  He’s been beaten in practice and in the preseason repeatedly. Godfrey was in on coverage on the play where Chris Hogan broke a big reception.  Now there’s a need, and he’s about the only experienced option the Panthers have at the moment. 

Oh Godfrey, the Panthers are in a pinch right now, and the secondary is a big part of the concern.  I’m interested to see how the Panthers try to address this weakness. Counting on Tre Boston to contribute is a bit far fetched.  Some believe that Colin Jones can help. We’ll be watching to see if Gettleman tries to pick up a road warrior like he did last year. He better be a gem, or you can hold your breath on every play where the front four doesn’t get at the quarterback.  Remember that last play in the Miami game?  Well that will be the spoiled milk if Carolina can’t plate the proper defensive dish this season.