As everyone knows, last year the Panthers played a pretty easy schedule and this year we have the second-most difficult schedule in the league (right behind Miami) in terms of opposing team's records. On top of that, as most students of the game know, the running game often dictates the success (and hence, the final record) of a team more often than not. So last year, the Panthers had one of the best seasons ever running the ball...and we wound up 12-4. Many of the teams we ran against had the worst defensive rankings against the run...and so many of them wound up with the worst win-loss records in the league.
So, with that as a backdrop, I thought it might be interesting to do some analysis of what we're facing this season in terms of the increased competition we might face from opposing run defenses and what that might mean for our chances of success in posting another winning season. For the stat-lovers, here's the breakdown from last season for comparison. We played the following teams ranked in order of their run defense last year. I've also indicated how DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart each fared against those teams:
1st - Minnesota Vikings - (DW = 27 yds, JS = 53 yds)
5th - Chicago - (DW = 31 yds, JS = 77 yds)
9th - New York Giants - (DW = 108 yds, JS = 29 yds)
11th - San Diego Chargers - (DW = 86 yds, JS = 53 yds)
16th - Arizona Cardinals - (DW = 108 yds, JS = 10 yds)
17th - New Orleans Saints - (First Game: DW = 66 yds, JS = 68 yds; Second Game: DW = 178 yds, JS = 56 yds)
19th - Tampa Bay Buccaneers - (First Game: DW = 27 yds, JS = 12 yds; Second Game: DW = 186 yds, JS = 115 yds)
25th - Atlanta Falcons - (First Game: DW = 54 yds, JS = 55 yds; Second Game: DW = 101 yds, JS = 15 yds)
26th - Green Bay Packers - (DW = 72 yds, JS = 56 yds)
27th - Denver Broncos - (DW = 88 yds, JS = 52 yds)
30th - Kansas City Chiefs - (DW = 123 yds, JS = 72 yds)
31st - Oakland Raiders - (DW = 140 yds, JS = 21 yds)
32nd - Detroit Lions - (DW = 120 yds, JS = 130 yds)
First, I think it's important to note that, for the 2008 season, Deangelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart amassed 2,389 yards rushing with the help of their blockers. But, only 5 of our 16 games came against teams whose run defense ranked in the top half of the league. The other 11 games came against the bottom half of the league in terms of their run-defense strength...and, in addition, 6 of our total games came against the bottom third of the league in terms of run defense, including the bottom three finishers (KC, OAK, and DET). Of the total yardage cited above, D-Will and J-Stew only got 582 yards against the top-5 teams we played...i.e., less than 25%. And, 1099 yards came against the bottom third of the league...i.e., close to half.
So, I say all of that to indicate maybe we should take our running game's success last year with a grain of salt. We were good. And we certainly gained confidence as we went along. And, a big reason a lot of our opponents finished as low as they did in run defense last year was because of our success...and not just their weakness. So, it is what it is...and I just wanted to throw that out there for consideration.
Now, what about next year? Based on last year's rankings, what kind of run defenses will we be facing this time around? Here's our 2009 competition ranked in order of their run defense rankings last season:
1st - Minnesota Vikings
4th - Philadelphia Eagles
7th - New York Jets
8th - Washington Redskins
9th - New York Giants
10th - Miami Dolphins
12th - Dallas Cowboys
15th - New England Patriots
16th - Arizona Cardinals
17th - New Orleans Saints (2 games)
19th - Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2 games)
22nd - Buffalo Bills
25th - Atlanta Falcons (2 games)
From that listing, it's clear we'll play 9 of our 16 games against the top half of the league in terms of run defense...and 6 of those games will come against the Top 10. Luckily, everyone in our division is still ranked in the bottom half of the league and we get to play them twice. But it's hard to beat a team twice in the same season...and I don't necessarily think we can count on those as easy wins just because of our run game. But, if we do manage to dominate in the ground game...and take advantage of run defenses in our division...maybe we pile up a strong enough division record to make the playoffs.
Regardless, I thought I'd post this analysis to get some reaction from the other fans and readers here. Do you believe our run-game improved last year on its own merits and not just because of the level of competition we faced? Do you believe our run-game can have continued success, at or near the same level of results, against next year's competition. Why or why not?