The next move for the Carolina Panthers will be to break out of the NFC South division and secure a playoff birth, but that doesn't mean we don't need to be looking further also. When you look at the New York Giants and the Carolina Panthers in 2011 there aren't too many differences. Both had excellent quarterbacks, good running games, mediocre secondaries and stout offensive lines, but there were a few key areas that allowed the Giants to make a run from 6-6 to Superbowl champs, while the Panthers watched from home at 6-10. Today I'm looking at those key areas and we'll see what Marty Hurney and Ron Rivera need to do if the Panthers want to become NFL champions sooner, rather than later.
Phase One- Improve the pass rush
ESPN and co. have sold football fans on a cult of skill players. They're the players who get all the limelight, feature time and focus. It's gotten to the point where to many football is little more than quarterbacks and wide receivers, and with the NFL's soft dealings with offense it's easy to see why. However, next to having a good QB of your own rushing the passer is the highest priority a team can have, and it's something the Carolina Panthers did terribly in 2011.
The Panthers were ranked 25th in the NFL in team sacks with just 31 last season. This is coupled with just 19 from the team's top four defensive ends; the Giants' totaled 34 from their DEs. There are times a good pass rush transcends throwing off a QB's rhythm and can take over a game, we saw this numerous times last season. If Carolina can find a way to have Cam take over on offense, and a pass rush take over on defense then we will be deep into the playoffs.
More after the jump
Phase Two- Get receivers who demand attention
We have Steve Smith, they have Victor Cruz... but it's about the players around them that define how a passing game can be successful. Quietly the New York Giants have arguably the best receiving corps in the NFL due to all three players being legitimate threats, and all three are reliable. We saw this in the Superbowl when the Giants' passing game was varied and complex- New England elected to double team Victor Cruz, so Eli was able to get the ball to Nicks, then the Pats blanketed both Cruz and Nicks, that's when Manningham was able to get his catches.
As it stands the receiving corps of the Carolina Panthers are lacking, regardless how much faith the fan base has. Towards the end of the season we saw teams blanket Steve Smith and effectively take him out of games at times, and while Brandon LaFell had flashes, he wasn't consistent enough for the entire passing offense to be able to lean on him while Smith was hung out to dry. This was a skill we saw from Hakeem Nicks on Sunday, and I'm not sure LaFell has it. We also have David Gettis returning from injury, but he's a wildcard at this point until we really get to see him run routes again.
Whether it comes through the draft, or from within, the Panthers will need to find a way to have three reliable WRs in 2012. It's all well and good to bunch the TEs in this, but I think they need to remain a wildcard here instead of being lumped in with the WRs.
Phase three- Improve special teams
This is the hardest phase to improve because there are so many needs. Lets just go down the list, shall we?
- Punting: Baker averaged 42.7 yards per punt, Weatherford averaged 45.7. Baker had just 19 inside 20 yards, Weatherford had 25.
- Kick return coverage: New York allowed 22.9 yards per return, Carolina allowed 27.0... those yards add up.
These were the two greatest deficits, but we still trailed the Giants in punt returning and kick returning also. Thankfully some issues will be solved with more guys moving back to special teams who were injected into starting lineups, but overall the Panthers need to improve. Olindo Mare has rightfully become a whipping boy, but Jason Baker was actually worse at his position- finishing 30th in average yards and 25th in punts inside the 20. More disturbing was Baker being 37th in average net punt yards, which shows the Panthers were bad at stopping punt returns, but also that Baker's directional punting left a lot to be desired.
The road to becoming a team like the Giants will be a long one, but they showed this season that the Superbowl was attainable without a stellar secondary or great linebackers. Their pass rush, receivers and special teams were enough to keep them in games, while Eli Manning was enough to close these games out- we need to get to the same spot.