Well folks, today is Friday so we all know what that means. It's time to take a look at this week's Friday Five.
On Sunday the Panthers will play host to our "twin brothers of the NFL", the Jacksonville Jaguars, and we will get our first look at Jaguars' rookie QB Blaine Gabbert, who will be making his first career start.
A lot of Panthers fans see this game as one of the "easy wins" on our schedule, and let's dispel that notion right now. There's no such thing as an "easy win" in the NFL...on any given Sunday any one team can beat any other, and this Sunday is no exception. With that being said, I do believe the Panthers will win this game, because with all due respect to the Jaguars and their fans, I don't think that Blaine Gabbert can beat the Panthers with his arm (maybe in a year or two, but not in his first career start), and I think the Panthers are going to focus on Jacksonville's stud running back Maurice Jones Drew (who will be referred to as MJD throughout the rest of this article) and take him out of the equation for Gabbert, forcing him to beat the Panthers through the air.
Anyway, let's take a look at the Friday Five, after the jump.
1. Carolina's Run Defense vs. MJD
There's no mistake about it, MJD is one of the premier backs in the league. He's consistently a top-10 fantasy football draft pick (which means that he puts up a lot of rushing yards and scores a lot of touchdowns), and he's always picked in fantasy football for good reason. The guy can flat-out run the football. The Jaguars are going to try and use MJD as a way to put points on the board while running time off the game clock in the process. In order for the Panthers to have a chance at winning this game, the defense simply cannot allow this to happen.
MJD rushed for 88 yards on 18 carries (4.9 avg) last week against the Jets, who are known for having one of the better defenses in the league (they currently have the 5th best rush defense in the league). Carolina has seen Beanie Wells and James Starks gain huge chunks of yardage in single carries during the first two weeks of the season, and they absolutely cannot allow MJD to have the same big gains when he carries the football.
The one difference between this game against Jacksonville and the previous two games is this will be the first week that Carolina will be without both Jon Beason and Thomas Davis. The LB corps will be thin this week, and will be without two of the three captains of the defense, which could wind up being a huge deal. As they sit right now, the Panthers have the 19th best rush defense in the league, and if they want to stop MJD they're going to have to play better than they have thus far this season, otherwise they could be in for a long day.
2. Carolina's Red Zone Offense
Of course, the best way to keep MJD from running up and down the field at will is to ensure that he stays on the sideline for most of the afternoon. If the Panthers can get out to an early lead and force the Jaguars to play from behind for most of the game, then MJD will be neutralized because the Jags will have to rely on the arm of Blaine Gabbert more than the legs of MJD (which would be the best case scenario for the Panthers).
Whether you want to blame the coaches for calling the wrong plays, Cam Newton for throwing bad passes, Legadu Naanee for not running complete routes, the offensive line for not blocking properly, or the running backs for not hitting the right holes, the fact remains the same -- the Carolina Panthers are horrible in the red zone so far this season. They're doing great between the 20's, but as we all know that doesn't help win football games. If the Panthers want to beat the Jags this Sunday they will have to score touchdowns when they get inside the 20 instead of settling for field goals.
Carolina has the #2 offense in the NFL in yards per game, but in scoring offense the Panthers drop all the way down to tied for 18th in the league at 22 points per game.* When playing a team like Jacksonville that has a running back like MJD, 22 points isn't going to get the job done. To steal a line from our former head coach, when the Panthers get into the red zone on Sunday, "The players have gotta play better, and the coaches have gotta coach better."
* - Fun fact: Denver is also tied for 18th in the league in scoring, averaging 22 points per game. You can't make this stuff up.
3. Jordan Pugh
Jordan Pugh will most likely get the starting nod at FS since Charles Godfrey has been sidelined in practice this week with a concussion. (He got the concussion when he laid his body on the line to prevent Packers' FB John Kuhn from scoring a touchdown...can't help but respect him for that.) Before you decide to jump off the ledge, allow me to ease your mind a bit: Jordan Pugh has only been terrible this year when playing the nickel back position. During the preseason when he was in the game at FS he was actually pretty good, so he should have a good day on Sunday.
I haven't seen any formal announcement, but I would imagine that Darius Butler will take over responsibility for the nickel back spot, which means that Pugh won't look like a deer in the headlights when the defense is in the nickel package (thank goodness).
Pugh's task is simple: play solid defense, make sound tackles, and don't screw up. If he can do these three things, the defense shouldn't be too bad off without Godfrey in the lineup.
4. Blaine Gabbert
Blaine Gabbert is making his first career start on Sunday, and it's almost a guarantee that the Panthers are going to give him the same treatment that the Cardinals and Packers gave Cam Newton over the last two weeks: they're going to sell out on the run and force Gabbert to beat them through the air.
I'm not going to turn this into a Gabbert vs. Newton discussion, but I urge you all not to sell Gabbert short this week just because he's making his first start. The Cardinals did that to Newton, and look what happened to them. Now, I don't think that Gabbert is going to torch us for 400 yards, but I also don't think he's going to be the second coming of Ryan Leaf either. I think he'll have a decent game, and will probably pass for around 250 yards, but will also make a few mistakes that hopefully the Panthers can capitalize on and pull out a victory.
One thing that will be a factor in how effective Gabbert can be on Sunday is the health of the Jags' TE Marcedes Lewis. As of right now he's not listed as inactive, but he has been dealing with an injury as of late, and if he's not in the game it will make Gabbert's job that much more difficult on Sunday. (My plea to Lewis: think about the long-term here, and sit this one out.)
5. Cam Newton
Yeah...it's Cam Newton again. (Hint: he's going to be on this list a lot.)
Can he break history and throw for 400+ yards for the third week in a row? Can he lead the offense up and down the field on touchdown scoring drives? Can he be effective in the red zone? Can he limit his mistakes and take advantages in any weaknesses he finds in the Jags' defense?
These are all questions that we must ask, and if the answers to these questions are yes, then the Panthers have a very good chance at walking out of this game with their first win of the season. I think the answers will be yes, and I think Cam will lead this team to their first victory of the young 2011 season.
My official score prediciton: Carolina 31 Jacksonville 20
What do you think Panthers fans? Sound off in the comments section!