Last week the Panthers came oh so close to pulling off a win in the season's inaugural contest against the, and this week the challenge doesn't get any easier as the defending Super Bowl champion make their way to Bank of America Stadium to take on the Panthers in the second game of the young 2011 season.
A lot of people are saying the Panthers don't have a chance to win this game, and if you only look at last year's win-loss record and statistics for both teams, you would make that same assumption. But, this isn't your 2010 Carolina Panthers. This team is different, as we witnessed last week with Cam Newton under center. Whether the national mediots want to acknowledge it or not, the Panthers do have a chance to win this game. Now, bear in mind that having a chance to win and actually winning the game are two completely different things, and I'm still not so sure the Panthers are going to pull off the upset on Sunday. But, I've been wrong before (shocking, I know), and I'm liable to be wrong again.
Anyway, let's take a look at the Friday Five, after the jump.
1. Special Teams
I don't like rehashing what went wrong last week against Arizona, but our Special Teams unit was atrocious, especially in punt coverage. We allowedto demolish us on a punt return late in the 4th quarter that ended up being the difference maker in the game, and we simply cannot allow that to happen this week if we want to have a chance at beating the Packers.
Green Bay has their own special playmaker on Special Teams in, the rookie 2nd round pick from Kentucky, who already has a kickoff return for a touchdown under his belt as he exploded for a dynamic 108 yard return against the last Thursday night. If the Panthers want to win this game, they must keep Cobb at bay, because allowing him to get huge kick returns gives the Packers a short field to work with, which gives an even bigger advantage against our defense.
Not only do the Panthers have to stop Green Bay's dynamic punt returner, they have to get results from their punt return unit. Armanti Edwards has to step up and make some quality returns on Sunday, and the rest of the punt receiving team needs to avoid stupid penalties that seem to strike any time Armanti gets a decent return. (Note to blockers: if you can read the name and number of a Packer's player, don't block him. The refs will throw a flag if you do.)
The bottom line is simple: the Panthers can't give the Packers a short field to work with, and they can't put Cam Newton behind his own 20 yard line if they want to have success on Sunday. It's up to the gunners to stop Cobb from getting big returns, and it's up to the blockers to set up running lanes for Armanti so he can get some decent returns to set up the offense for success.
2. Green Bay's Defense
Let's face it: Green Bay has an elite defense. Dom Capers is an excellent Defensive Coordinator. The Panthers are going to have their work cut out for them on Sunday, especially with a new offensive system and a rookie QB who has never seen a defense of this caliber. There are going to be struggles on offense for the Panthers, and the Packers are going to be aggressive as they try to contain Newton and shut down the running game.
According to Football Outsiders, the Packers had a tendency in 2010 to rush four defenders 52% of the time on defense. They rushed 5 defenders 28% of the time, but didn't rush more than 5 too often (4% of the time). Over half of their sacks (54.3% to be exact) came from the linebacker position, and the linebacker who was the most-used pass rusher was OLB. Matthews accumulated a team-leading 13.5 sacks last year, and you can bet your paycheck he's going to be gunning for Newton on practically every passing down on Sunday.
Carolina will have to combat the presence of Matthews by ensuring that someone on the offense gets in front of him and doesn't allow him to disrupt Newton from moving the ball downfield. The Panthers will most likely use a combination of offensive linemen, tight ends, and running backs to chip Matthews and attempt to slow him down enough to allow Newton to get the ball out of his hands. Well, at least I hope they will use a combination of players to keep Matthews out of the backfield, because if they try to rely on one player to keep him away from Newton they are going to be in for a long afternoon.
These three players are going to be critical to the Panthers' offensive success this week. While the Packers are going to use different blitzing schemes to throw off Newton's timing and attempt to confuse him, the Panthers are going to have to combat this by sending the tight ends and running backs (mainly Goodson, because he's the best receiving back on the team) on receiving patterns that match them up in space against AJ Hawk, who has only one notable weakness, which is being somewhat suspect in coverage. Greg Olsen is going to be a crucial player in Sunday's game, as he is the best matchup for the Panthers to use against Hawk because of his combination of speed, size, and catching ability.
Last week, the Saints were able to use RBas a receiver out of the backfield to moderate success (he had 5 catches for 56 yards), so I expect the Panthers to attempt to get similar results with Mike Goodson (but hopefully with a touchdown or two). One of Goodson's biggest assets is his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield and move well in open space, so if the Panthers can get him one on one with the linebackers, he should have a decent afternoon.
Another wild card to be on the lookout for is WR Kealoha Pilares, who practiced fully on Wednesday and could be active for Sunday's game. He's deadly in open space, and if he can find his way on the field and get a few catches in the middle of the field, he could turn in some huge plays for the offense.
4. Dan Connor and the Panthers Defense
When the Panthers lost Jon Beason last week to a season-ending Achilles tear, they lost a valuable leader on the defense. Dan Connor is one of the best backup linebackers in the league, and he's going to have to earn that distinction this season as he's now placed into the starting MLB role with Beason being out for the year. Connor's biggest weakness is pre-snap reads and communication, so it's possible that Sean McDermott will combat this by using Thomas Davis or James Anderson to call out pre-snap assignments on defense.
To put it bluntly: Dan Connor has to step up on Sunday. He's not Jon Beason, but hopefully he can be a great replacement for Beast at middle linebacker, because the defensive line is going to need the support in stopping the run. We already know Connor is a tackling machine (heck, he came in for Beason and ended up leading the team in tackles against Arizona), but hopefully he can prove once and for all that he's the total package, because the Panthers are going to need all the help they can get to shut down Green Bay's offensive attack.
The Packers like to run out of 3 WR sets (they did it 60% of the time last season), and they like to run the ball on first down almost half the time (46% to be exact). If Connor can step up and help shut down the run, the Packers could become one dimensional, which would make it easier for the defense to contain them.
It's also going to be important that Chris Gamble is able to shut down the way he was able to shut down last week. Taking away the run and taking away one of Aaron Rodgers' weapons in the passing game will be a key to shutting them down on offense. Also, the Panthers are going to have to defend the tight end position, as is one of the best tight ends in the game today. (This one actually worries me more than anything, because we all know how the Panthers can struggle against opposing tight ends.)
5. Cam Newton
Yes, it's Cam Newton again. This is his first big test against an elite defense, and we're going to see how he handles the pressure of a sophisticated 3-4 defensive scheme with elite playmakers at just about every position.
I don't believe that Cam is going to have another 400 yard passing day like he did against the Cardinals, but I think he'll have moderate success against Green Bay because they are going to have to respect both his passing ability and his running ability. It's going to be hard to shut him down completely, so I do think he will throw for around 225 yards and will have a touchdown or two. Sure, he'll probably throw a few interceptions, but if he can limit his mistakes and prevent making them in critical situations the Panthers will have a chance to pull out the upset.
For the Panthers to win this game they are going to have to keep it close for the majority of the game. If the Packers are able to jump out to a 20 point lead early in the first half it will be extremely difficult for the Panthers to come back and win the game. I don't think the Panthers will pull this one out, but I would love to be wrong on this prediction.
My official score prediction: Green Bay 24, Carolina 20
What do you think Panthers fans? Sound off in the comments section!