Okay, so the NFL released the 2010 schedules for everyone. And, as we all know by now, the Panthers supposedly have one of the "easier" schedules based on the winning percentages of last year's teams. But a lot changes from year to year. Almost every season, you see about a 50% change-out on who makes the playoffs one season vs. who makes it the next season. For many, that's what makes the NFL so great. Parity. It means fans can renew their hope for seeing their team make a run for the Superbowl every year.
So, given that, what can really expect out of the 2010 Carolina Panthers, much less their upcoming opponents and any "breaks" or obstacles this year's schedule will bring. I'm going to make an attempt to run through some of the more obvious things that leap out at me. And, I'm going to do a very rough analysis of each opponent they'll face and what we might expect in terms of matching up with them, both the good and the bad. So, without any further ado, let's get into it...after the jump...
One of the first things I usually pay attention to for the Carolina Panthers is what kind of changes they're undergoing from one year to another. We all expect for there to be some personnel changes. Free agency always takes its toll. The draft brings in some new guys that we look to keep around, if not plug into the starting lineup for immediate playing time. So, what have the Panthers been doing?
Well, for starters, we're getting younger...big time. Many of the veterans were released and many of them had starting roles for us last year...e.g., Jake Delhomme, Julius Peppers, Brad Hoover, Muhsin Muhammad, Na'il Diggs, Ma'ake Kemoeatu (although he was injured last year, we still would have expected him to be a starter), Damione Lewis, Keydrick Vincent, and yes, even the kickoff specialist, Rhys Lloyd. The bottom line is that next year's team will have a lot of new faces getting the majority of the playing time. And that's on both sides of the ball.
Last year, we had the 3rd ranked rushing offense in the league. How well will we be able to maintain that? Actually, I think we'll do pretty well. We keep most of our offensive line intact. And, where we lost anyone, we acted to shore it up with some free agents. Our lack of depth last year is minimized a little more since the backups have some more playing experience. And, who knows what we'll do to address any further needs via a late-round draft pick or free agent signing once the rosters get trimmed down again? The area where we might take a hit is in our lead blocking (Fiammetta steps in for Hoover) and our downfield blocking (i.e., who will replace Muhsin Muhammad?). Our running backs should be healthy again (and hopefully stay that way). We've still got Sutton and Goodson in the stable with another opportunity to improve in training camp and the preseason. So, while I don't necessarily expect us to improve in our running game, I also don't expect it to fall off that much. We should continue to be a legitimate running threat.
If you look at our passing game, we were ranked 27th last year, thanks in large part to Delhomme's poor early-season performances as well as higher focus on running the ball to eat up clock and protect the ball. If anything, I expect us to improve this showing. For starters, we will face some teams with really low rankings in pass-defense. In addition, there's a lot of pressure, but just as much hope that Matt Moore can protect the ball better than Delhomme did. Again, our offensive line remains mostly intact from a pass-blocking perspective. Fiammetta and the other RBs might have to improve on their protection schemes when they're called to pass-block. We still need some better weapons at the WR2 and WR3 position. Jarrett showed at least one flash that he might step up. We're probably targeting a 2nd or 3rd round draft pick on getting another WR to pair with Steve Smith. But all in all, we should get better in our passing offense.
Now, lastly, on defense we ranked 4th against the pass and 22nd against the run. The latter stat owes more to our DT problems in the early season last year. We found what seems like some plausible pieces to address that need. But we also let Damione Lewis and Julius Peppers go. We need Dan Connor to step up at strongside LB. Hopefully, Richard Marshall gets his head out of the sand on the unfairness about being an RFA in the worst year possible. There's a lot of flux on the defense. And that was our strongsuit last season, especially toward the end when everything seemed to start clicking. We're going to need Ron Meeks to maintain that for everyone, while also giving him some pieces at DT and DE to rebuild the defensive line into something better. All in all, I think we may take some steps back on defense this season, because of some of the turmoil and youth/inexperience we may have to call upon. But, I don't expect us to be horrible, by any means. In addition, even if we do take a step back, our schedule is potentially easier this year than last. We'll face some pretty poor running teams on our schedule (which I'll get into in a moment), and I expect our pass defense to stay pretty stout, both in coverage and hopefully in terms of the pass-rush, too.
Okay, so given all that analysis with regards to the Panthers expected capabilities on offense and defense, let's take a look at some of the matchups we'll have in the 2010 season:
@New York Giants - The Giants were pretty average across all of last year...14th and 15th against the run/pass...and 17th and 11th on offense when running or passing. We thumped them big-time last year to close out their season. In fact, I'd go so far as to say we embarrassed them. As such, they're going to be really ticked off hosting us in their new stadium. You better believe they'll use that as motivation to start their 2010 season off right. I fully expect us to lose this game. Both as a combination of youth/inexperience/still-trying-to-find-our-identity on our part and a revenge/improve-on-last-year/defend-our-new-stadium mentality the Giants will undoubtedly have. If we win this game, it'll be money in the bank for later down the road. But, if we lose it...it'll make the next few games much tighter for us in order to avoid getting off to a bad start again.
Tampa Bay (game one) - The Bucs were pretty miserable last year, especially against the run (where they ranked dead last), but they were pretty decent against the pass (10th). What they really lacked was consistency on offense...23rd in rushing, 24th in passing. They played some close games, but there's a reason they wound up with such a high draft position this year. I fully expect them to work on improving their run defense and passing options. In fact, most mock drafts have them focusing on that. How quickly will any rookies pay off for them? You never know. But this is a division game. If we lose at New York and then come out flat at our home opener, it'll be a huge blow to our psyche. I expect us to win this game. It may be tough in the early going, but I think we'll have enough to persevere.
Cincinnati - The Bengals are a wild team to assess. They ranked 7th vs. the run and 6th vs. the pass last year, so their defense seems stout. They ran the ball decently (9th in the league), but suffered in the passing game (only 26th overall). They're going to be looking to improve Carlson Palmer's options in the passing game. And, if they can maintain their defensive intensity and production, they could spell real trouble for us. Of course, we ran against some so-called, vaunted run defense teams last year and Double-Trouble lit them up anyway. This is also a home game for us. But, if anything, I expect this to be a "growing pains" game. Depending on how well we play against the Bengals at home just might determine how bright our young stars shine in their opportunity for more playing time. This could be a game that sets the tone and defines our season. Personally, I think we win it. But I don't think it's a given. Turnovers and special teams could play a significant role.
@New Orleans - Ah, the Superbowl champions. This will be a game where our guys will want to prove themselves. Yes, we split with the Saints last year, but we all know that final game of the season was absolutely meaningless to everyone...other than the fact that our guys wanted to avoid a losing season by going 8-8. New Orleans ranked 21st vs. the run and 26th vs. the pass last year. But, they had the 6th ranked running offense and 4th ranked passing offense. Simply put, they scored at will. We'll have to find ways to stop that and outlast them. The Saints also won a lot of close games last year. The young(er) players on the Panthers will need to harden their mentality if they're going to pull games like that out at the end. Do we win this one? It's in New Orleans. It's our second division game. I'm just not sure we'll have the weapons firing on all cylinders (on both offense and defense) to stop them. Maybe later when we get them at our house. But not this one.
Chicago - Oh, boy. Julius comes back to Charlotte. I can hear the booing of the crowd already. Presumably, he's going to want to show us up. Our defense is going to want to show everyone that we never needed to pay him that much. But it's really going to come down to what the rest of the Bears can do. Last year, they were 23rd vs. the run. Will Peppers shore that up? I don't expect him to...as that's just never been his strongsuit. If we control the line of scrimmage and run at him enough to wear him down, we may well neutralize his pass-rush effectiveness so Moore doesn't have to worry about him. The rest of the Bears ranked 13th in pass defense, and so we'll need good protection if we want to ensure Matt has enough time to throw the ball. Meanwhile, Chicago was 29th in running the ball and 17th in passing. We'll need to capitalize on their mediocrity in those areas as much as possible. Personally, I think we win this game. As much as the Giants may have a revenge factor going against us in our opener, I think this is the game where our guys have a lot of motivation to stand up to the Peppers-led Bears.
Bye Week - So, we get the bye after about a third of our season is done. That's not a bad place for a breather. If we reach the bye at 3-2, that'll be a good thing. If we're 4-1, I'll be very pleasantly surprised. And if we're 2-3, I won't be surprised. The good news is the schedule might be a bit softer coming out of the break. But let's see what we've got...
San Francisco - The 49ers have to fly cross-country to our house. We'll have had an extra week to prepare for them. So what will be up against? Well, they ranked 6th against the run last year. That's pretty stout. We'll need to find a way to take the pressure off our running game. Luckily, the 49ers were only 21st against the pass. If Moore is in sync with Smith and the rest of his receivers, that could work well for us. The 49ers also ranked 25th in running the ball and 22nd in passing. They're looking to improve those areas via the draft (according to several mocks I've seen), so we won't really know how much that holds up until we see them. But, considering this game will be Week 7 in the schedule, hopefully we'll have plenty of game film to assess their identity on offense and exploit any weaknesses we find.
@Saint Louis - The Rams. Wow. What a mess. They were 27th vs. the run, 25th against the pass and only rated 20th and 28th in running and throwing the ball themselves. I don't think they're going to turn all that around in a single draft or what's admittedly been a down year for free agency signings. This should be a gimme game for the Panthers. But we also have a tendency sometimes to let these kind of games be a lot closer than they should be. But I think we take this one.
New Orleans (round two) - Okay, if we come into this game having already lost once to the Saints in New Orleans, this should be our chance to split with them. Not only should we have the motivation to pay them back, but we should also have an entire game of actual experience against them to better exploit any matchups that favor us. We also seem to split with the NFC South teams a lot (except on really down years). So, I think we might take this one.
@Tampa Bay (game two) - Another division game. If we beat Tampa earlier in the season, and then manage to squeak by New Orleans and tie our series with them, this game against the Bucs will have trap written all over it. If all that plays out, we cannot afford for our guys to letdown against Tampa. We'll be the road team. Hopefully, that helps us focus, because quite honestly, we've shown a tendency to get distracted and come out flat a lot when we're playing at home (just based on previous years). I still think this game is infinitely winnable. But I also recognize that teams in the NFC South have a nasty habit of climbing out of the cellar every year to shake things up. We'd better not let the Bucs do that us. Otherwise, this could become one of those games we look back on and think "what could have been" when we don't make the playoffs.
Baltimore - Ah, the Ravens. We played them last year and didn't fare too well. We also get to see them in the preseason this year again. Not sure that helps us considering it's the first preseason game and we'll hardly see their starters. Baltimore also ranked 5th against the run and 8th against the pass, so we'll be facing one of the toughest defenses in the league at that point. Also, the Ravens had the 5th best rushing attack and 18th ranked passing game, which they're looking to improve via the draft this year. This will be a tough, tough game to win. We get them at our place (if it matters), but I just don't think we'll have the means of winning this one. It's probably a loss.
@Cleveland - The Jake Delhomme reunion! As much as they need a consistent QB in Cleveland, I'm just not sure Jake is it at this point in his career. It'll be interesting to see if he's still starting by this point in the season. I'll assume he will be, as I'm not that down on him. And, a change of scenery and a new offense with some new receivers might be good for him. Even so, the Browns were 28th against the run and 29th against the pass, so hopefully our offense keeps Jake from even having to handle the ball very much. Of course, special teams could be a big factor in this game. The Browns have a dynamic return man in Joshua Cribbs and we'll need to be much improved in that area to stop him. Offensively, the Browns also ranked 8th in the run, but dead last at 32nd in passing. They're trying to improve their passing offense, obviously, but I still think they have too far to go to win this one.
@Seattle - The Seahawks were 15th against the run last year, 30th against the pass and ranked 26th and 15th in their own running and passing game. They're a work in progress which may or may not sort themselves out by this point of the season. Will Hasselbeck remain injury-free and help them succeed? I don't know. For the time being, however, I just don't sense Seattle will have enough for us, despite their 12th man stadium.
Atlanta (game one) - We finally see the Falcons, but very late in the year. I'm surprised the schedule makers held off on these rival games that long. Maybe it's just to make the season's end more exciting? The Falcons ranked 10th against the run last year, much of it playing against us...so they're quite familiar with our RBs and blockers. They were only 28th against the pass and though they'll be facing Matt Moore rather than Delhomme this time, they'll probably have plenty of film to note the differences by this point in the season. Most importantly, however, is Atlanta ranked 15th and 14th in the run and pass, respectively. That's deceptively middle-of-the-road, as I think they still pose a legitimate threat if our much-changed defense (personnel-wise) can't figure out a way to stop them. Personally, I think we take them. After all, it's a home game. We should be playing for some significant positioning in our division by this point of the season. So, we'll have a lot to play for...
Arizona - The Cardinals are undergoing a lot of flux, just like us. Defensively, they've really changed. Last year, they ranked 17th against the run and 23rd vs. the pass. I'm not sure they've improved anything. Meanwhile, they were 28th in rushing and 12th in passing. If anything, the loss of Warner and Boldin may hurt them some. I think we do okay here and win again.
@Pittsburgh - Will Big Ben even be playing for them when we get here? If he isn't, will they have a new rookie QB they picked up in the draft? Regardless, the Steelers ranked 3rd against the run last year and that's not gonna bode well for us. They were 16th vs. the pass. And, they had the 19th ranked and 9th ranked running and passing offense. Depending on how well they keep things together, I could see us winning or losing this game in grand fashion. It's at their place, late in the year, however. So, it might be a tough one to pull out. We probably lose. But maybe not.
@Atlanta (game two) - A repeat of a game just 3 weeks removed. How much will change between the two games? I don't know. But I do expect that we'll split with the Falcons this year. This is probably the game where that happens. Or, if we lose to them in our first meeting, this is probably the game where we come back on them.
Okay, so that's an analysis of where I see the Panthers at this stage of the off-season, as well as a look forward at their upcoming schedule and how we can expect those teams to fare based on their previous year's rankings. These numbers don't necessarily mean a lot. After all, things change because of the draft, free agent acquisitions, injuries, and how teams develop and grow over a season. We'll be needing to develop and grow as well. And I'm hoping we do well enough at all that to at least have our shot at the playoffs.
But that's just my two-cents,