Pre-Season Game 1 Preview: Panthers at Ravens

The day we thought would never arrive is finally just two days away, when the Panthers travel to M&T Bank Stadium Thursday to take on the Baltimore Ravens in the first preseason game of the 2010 season. Just like last year, the Panthers will get some national television exposure as the game will be broadcasted on ESPN at 8:00 PM, and if you're sitting at home in the lounge chair watching the game, be sure to check in with us here at CSR for our live gameday open thread, which will open on the hour at 7:00pm.

I don't know about you guys, but I'm stoked about the start of the season, and I can't wait to see how the young guys perform on the field in a live game environment (even if it's only preseason, it's still more of a challenge than they've seen thus far in training camp). There are a lot of guys that we need to keep our eyes on this preseason (I wrote an article outlining five positions to watch over the next few weeks, and if you want to read it, you can find it here.)

Let's take a look at how the Panthers will stack up against the Ravens on offense, defense, and special teams on Thursday. More after the jump...

Panthers Offense vs. Ravens Defense

The Panthers offense will feature a lot of new faces due to the release/retirement of some key older veterans (Moose, Hoover, and Delhomme). Matt Moore will get his chance to begin the preseason as the starting quarterback, and he hopes to fare better in the preseason than he has in years past. His early success is more important this season, as he has rookie draft pick Jimmy Clausen anxiously waiting for him to slip and fall so he can step in and prove himself to the coaching staff that he is indeed a franchise caliber quarterback.

We can expect to see a lot of Moore and Clausen early, and they will work with a few receivers who are fighting amongst themselves for the coveted #2 receiver spot on the depth chart. Steve Smith is out with a broken forearm, but that gives the other guys on the roster time to earn the respect of the coaches. Dwayne Jarrett, Kenneth Moore, and Brandon LaFell will probably see the most action out of the receivers, as they are the three guys who are in direct competition for the #2 spot. Also look to see some action from Armanti Edwards, and he could be used in return duties since he's been working on that skill in practice during camp. The tight ends should see some significant action as well, especially Gary Barnidge (who I predict will be the breakout player of the team this year).

The running game will feature DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart briefly (Stewie may not play at all, he's been held out of the majority of camp thus far), but look to see a lot of Tyrell Sutton, Dantrell Savage, and Josh Vaughan, as Mike Goodson is still banged up from a sore ankle he sprained earlier in training camp. Fullbacks Tony Fiametta and Rashawn Jackson should get a good portion of action as well, since they are competing against one another to replace fan favorite Brad Hoover as the lead blocker for Double Trouble.

The offense will have a tough test on Thursday, because the Ravens are known for their strong defense, and they have serious playmakers on that side of the ball. The defense is led by playmakers Ray Lewis (LB), Trevor Pryce (DE), Haloti Ngata (DT), and Terrell Suggs (LB); and fortunately for the Panthers offense, Ed Reed (FS) will be unable to play as he is on the team's PUP list. The Ravens will also be without 2nd round draft pick Sergio Kindle (LB) who fractured his skull a few weeks ago, but their 2nd round draft pick Terrence Cody (DT) should see some playing time with the 2nd team.

The Ravens had one of the better defensive units in 2009, ranking 3rd in the league in scoring defense and yards allowed. They had the league's best defense in terms of rushing yards allowed per carry (3.4), and the 5th best overall defense in rushing yards allowed. It's a shame that this is the first preseason game of the year, because it would be awesome to see how Double Trouble stacks up against the Ravens' rushing defense.

Baltimore's passing defense wasn't as stout as the rushing defense (but keep in mind their rush defense was phenomenal), ranking 8th overall in yards allowed and 14th in yards per pass. The Panthers will probably try to take advantage of this and throw more, since they are trying to evaluate quarterbacks and receivers anyway (and because we have a pass-happy OC).

Panthers Defense vs. Ravens Offense

The defense has been one of the most talked about parts of the team over the last few months. We've lost a lot of veterans (Peppers, Kemo, Diggs, & Hitman - just to name a few) and replaced them with young players with nothing but potential listed as attributes, and we are banking our success on their performance.

We will see a revamped defensive line, with Tank Tyler, Ed Johnson, Louis Leonard, Corvey Irvin, and Derek Landri competing for starting spots on the interior. Tyler Brayton and Charles Johnson are trying to hold their starting positions at the ends; and Everette Brown, Greg Hardy, and Eric Norwood are trying to earn playing time in the rotation as well.

The linebackers have familiar faces, but in different places. Jon Beason has moved to the weak side to replace the injured Thomas Davis, Dan Connor is taking over the middle spot to replace Beason, and James Anderson is holding down the strong side. Jamar Williams and Eric Norwood look to make an impact in backup roles, and the special teams unit should get some help from Jordan Senn and Quinton Culberson.

The secondary is led by veterans Chris Gamble and Richard Marshall at cornerback, with Charles Godfrey and Sherrod Martin at safety. Captain Munnerlyn has a hold on the nickel corner spot, and CJ Wilson is trying to earn a spot on the roster along with Brian Witherspoon and draft picks Robert McClain and RJ Stanford. Jordan Pugh is trying to win a spot on the depth chart at safety, battling with veterans Aaron Francisco and Marcus Hudson for one of the backup roles.

We should see a lot of rotation in the defense against the Ravens, because there are a lot of players that need to be evaluated by the coaching staff as they prepare to sort out the depth chart and the 53-man roster. The defense will have a good test on Thursday against Baltimore's offense, which was one of the better units in the AFC last year.

With the 9th best overall scoring offense last season, the Ravens bring a steady running game behind Ray Rice, Willis McGahee, and LeRon McClain. The passing game will be an improvement this year, after the front office traded for Anquan Boldin and signed Donte Stallworth. They also drafted tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta to complement Todd Heap, and they still have Derek Mason at receiver. They are led by quarterback Joe Flacco, who is coming off a season where he threw for over 3600 yards and 21 TD's. Flacco is a good quarterback, and their improved passing offense should be a good test for this young Panthers defense when combined with their already stout running game.

Can the Panthers stop the Ravens' running attack and keep the receivers in check? Seeing how they react to the Ravens' offense will be a good barometer as to where they are in terms of progress (although it won't be the ultimate test - after all, it's the first preseason game).

Special Teams

The Panthers have spent a lot of time in the offseason trying to improve the special teams unit. What was one of the most disastrous parts of the team last year should be vastly improved (but honestly, it would be very difficult to be any worse than last year). They have replaced special teams coach Danny Crossman with Jeff Rodgers, and have added players who specialize (no pun intended) in special teams play. Guys like Wallace Wright, Aaron Francisco, Marcus Hudson, and Brian Witherspoon were brought in specifically for special teams, and Armanti Edwards has been getting reps at punt returner. Dexter Jackson will probably get some work as a kick returner, along with Trent Guy - and if they can perform at a high level as return men, they could very well sneak onto the roster.

The Panthers decided to part ways with former kick off specialist Rhys Lloyd in the offseason, and are holding an open competition between punter Jason Baker and rookie Todd Carter for that role. John Kasay will still be putting the ball through the uprights, but will not be used in kickoff duties unless there is a smoothie emergency and Carter is unavailable.

The Ravens have a decent special teams unit. Their returners had an average of 26.2 yards per return last season, and their opponents were held to an average of 20.3 yards per return. They had one kickoff return for a touchdown (95 yards), and allowed one punt return for a touchdown from their opponents (77 yards).

I'm more anxious to see how the Panthers get down field in coverage and how they set up blocks for returns than I am anything else. I want to see if Rodgers has a better scheme than Crossman had, and I want to see if adding these players who are supposed to be experts on special teams is enough to make the ST unit respectable this season. I don't want to see a lot of poor field position because of terrible blocking on returns, and I don't want to see the defense on a short field because the gunners aren't doing their job and getting down the field. Hopefully Baker can get some decent hang time in his punts to give the gunners a chance, and hopefully they can make plays when they do get down field.

I'm not about to try and make a prediction on the result of this game, because the majority of the game will be played by backups competing for roster spots and guys who will be applying for jobs at Wal-Mart in three weeks. But, I do expect the first team units to have a solid performance, and if the first teams could be judged in a win/loss format, I'm going to say that our first unit beats the Ravens' first unit.

Get ready for the action guys, Thursday will be here before you know it.
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