The playoffs gone, Ryan Kalil's ad better serving as fish-wrap, than collectible -- this season has been disappointing. Fans find themselves in a similar position to 2010; accepting that the season is lost, but remaining excited about the future. In order to justify this excitement the Panthers don't necessarily need wins, but they need improvement. Here are three things to watch for tonight, and hope we see progression.
Cam Newton's mechanics
Last year we saw hiccups from the Panthers quarterback, but these punctuated gulps have become the norm in 2012. The effect of his struggling offensive line cannot be understated, but tonight he faces a team who have just 16 sacks in ten games. The Eagles are not a gifted pass rushing team, and this should allow Newton to have some semblance of comfort in the pocket. Inside of the issue of mechanics, look specifically for three things: Footwork, progression, and confidence. These are the three aspects that Cam has lacked this season.
His movement around the pocket has been all or nothing; either he's standing tall, or deciding to take off -- there is no in between. Elite QBs make small movements inside the pocket that don't commit to either standing, or taking off, but rather to put themselves in a more advantageous position, and buy themselves some time. This leads into the second area, his progression.
Newton has been slow on his reads this season, and without a double-TE set to bail him out, has caused forced passes and interceptions. What we want to see is more decisive play from the QB position, showing faith in Steve Smith, but not staring him down. If Smitty is covered early, and doesn't have a step, then move on. Furthermore, Newton needs to have the freedom to go to hot reads, provided he has that option.
Finally it's his confidence. In recent weeks we've seen Newton slowly lose confidence in himself over the course of a game. Early he'll come out and sling the ball around, but as incompletions pile up, and interceptions happen, he shrinks as the game goes on. The passes travel further through the air, he trusts receivers less, and doesn't seem willing to challenge defenses anymore. Look what happens to his pass attempts:
The more Newton throws, the worst he gets. He gets most 'gun-slingy' when he has 21-30 attempts, but there are a lot of mistakes that come with them.
Amini Silatolu needs to improve, quickly
It's too early to fear about any rookie, but tonight when he's charged with facing a good rookie in Fletcher Cox, it would be nice to see Silatolu take strides, especially in the pass game.
We've seen flashes of the dominance the Panthers drafted him for, as the mobile left guard works very well in space, and as a pulling guard. In line, the story hasn't been so good. Amini is slow out of his stance, and doesn't get good pad level on pass rushers. Cox will be challenging him tonight, and he's had success this year, especially on third down. This year has been a case of 'good Amini/ bad Amini', and it will really help to get some wind under out collective sails to see him dominate a good player, and show he can be a long term answer at guard.
Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson, please prove it wasn't a fluke
The Panthers' defensive ends have 15.5 sacks, and that is fantastic. However, 8.5 of these game in two of Carolina's ten games. Failing to make an impact against Denver (which is expected) and Tampa Bay (less expected), we should hope to see the DEs make strides against an Eagles team with a shaky quarterback.
Philadelphia has allowed 33.0 sacks on the season, and are terrible at stonewalling pass rushers. If Vick was playing then a lot would be forgiven, but with Nick Foles under center, the Panthers should be mauling him. Hardy is as talented as any defensive player on the team, but his tendency to play with a manic streak is both an asset, and a detriment.
Charles Johnson is reliable, and always gets pressure-- but he needs to finish his sacks more often. Tonight there is no excuse, and both DEs should have a good night.