Little King provided the perfect set-up for my Top 5 Concerns post with his positive spin on the Panthers upcoming season. Though I agree with his analysis for the most part the Panthers are not without their issues. Last season I had the need for our offensive line to gel as the top concern and the Panthers responded with the NFL's #3 rushing offense. I'm sure its no surprise to Panther fans most of my concerns this season reside on the defensive side of the ball. Let's count them down now:
#5: Heal the Walking Wounded
Every team struggles with injuries and the Panthers have had their fill this preseason. We've now lost two defensive lineman (Maake Kemoeatu and Corvey Irvin) and a safety (Nate Salley) for the season. More importantly we need to get the less seriously injured back on the field soon. Consider this list of key starters who's status is uncertain for the season opener: LB's Jon Beason & Thomas Davis, S Charles Godfrey and RB Jonathan Stewart. WR Steve Smith has been dinged as well. Each of these guys are starters or provide key roles that are not easily replaced. Getting them healthy and functioning at a high level is obviously key to early season success. If their season start is delayed the Panthers could find themselves in an early hole for the division crown.#4 - Competent Back-ups on the Offensive Line
Though the Panthers defense went 14 games without injury last season the offensive line was missing starters through a good portion of the season. Yet the Panthers running game rarely missed a beat as they plugged in experienced back-ups in most cases. That luxury is gone this season as other teams pillaged the Panthers reserves over the offseason. We instead find a number of untested players who may show promise but have yet to prove out when it counts. This is where coaches earn their keep, getting these untested players ready to step in a moments notice.
#3 - Reliable Kick Returns
There is no phase of the Panthers game that was down right ugly during the preseason then the inability of kick returners to hold onto the ball. The Panthers improved in this area in 2008 but the preseason has brought back flashbacks from 2006 & 2007. The potential re-signing of Mark Jones brings some comfort but instead I'd prefer a home run threat that can at least reliably catch the ball. It looks like rookies Mike Goodson and Captain Munnerlyn might get the call in spite of the early slippery finger syndrome. I expect HC John Fox will have them on a short leash if they get a shot. My hope is that generate enough excitement (of the good variety) and little bad stuff (which I won't mention) that it offsets the preseason concerns.
#2 - Generating a Pass Rush
The Panthers improved the pass rush last season to a respectable ninth with 37 sacks. So why do I have it as the #2 concern. Its simply; because our defensive scheme relies on it so heavily. It's obvious the Panthers are not going to blitz much or whip out any complex schemes to confuse our opponents offense. They will instead rely on the speed rushes from the edge to put pressure on the QB and help out the secondary. New DC Ron Meeks will also try to get some inside pressure on 3rd down by using three and four DE's across the defensive line to get pressure up the middle. Regardless of where the pressure comes from it had better come our we have seen how our soft zone secondary can get picked apart.
# 1 - Clogging the Middle of the Run Defense
Our need at defensive tackle has been well discussed on this site so I'm not going to go into a lot of detail. The Panthers have essentially a number of young players they will rotate in and out in hopes of clogging up the middle and forcing the plays outside where our speedy LB's can make a play. We've saw late last season what can happen when the middle guys get pushed around so hopefully the emphasis on big, strong (and fat) guys to clog the middle will at least perform marginally and not be a huge liability. My hope lies in the Panthers to perform some 'line magic' this season on defense just as they did last season on offense. Do that and the tough schedule will play out much better than expected.
So that's my Top 5 Concerns Panther fans. If you are a regular reader then not much of this will surprise you. Looking back at my similar post last season I don't think I was too far off. For those of you who think QB Jake Delhomme should be on this list I have to humbly disagree for now.
In spite of the negative tone of this post I truly am optimistic the Panthers will be in the hunt for a playoff spot come week 17. If they mitigate these Top 5 concerns then I can guarantee it.
On another note I know many of you are chomping at the bit to discuss the Panthers season opener against the Eagles in detail. We've got some things in the works to come out later on Wednesday with full on coverage by Thursday so keep checking back.