Carolina Panthers Monday Morning Optimist– 8/13/12

Luke Kuechly was everywhere last night, affirming what we saw in training camp, and while he was at Boston College. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-US PRESSWIRE

Preseason game one is in the books, and already we have some fans resorting to sweeping generalities. The run defense is still terrible; except Jon Beason wasn't in the lineup, and we ostensibly played the same unit as last season. The pass defensive is still terrible; except they sat in a vanilla, soft zone all night. Justin Medlock shanked one kickoff, so obviously he doesn't have a leg for them; except he has been drilling touch-backs for two weeks in Spartanburg.

For the majority of fans this was their first time to see the 2012 Panthers, and they were disappointing, there's not really a better way to say it. I understand the plan during preseason is to play as simple an offense and defense as you can, and not reveal any of the playbook. However, there is an undercurrent where I can't help but feel like the first team needed to open it up a little more, and step on the Texans' necks. They could have if they played more than thirteen minutes, and were allowed to use some plays they'll use on Sunday. It would have worked wonders for instilling confidence in the fan base (who are now slightly deflated), but perhaps we'll see that next week against Miami.

If you're looking to take something away from Saturday's game let it be that the players who will be leaned on this fall, when the games matter, all looked really good. Jaxon has said it on more than one occasion, and I'll echo it– this truly could be one of the best drafts of the Marty Hurney era, and on Saturday we saw four players in starting roles, all take care of business very well.

More after the jump

There was one player Saturday who was asked to do more than he has for most of his career, and contend with two outstanding pass rushers in Connor Barwin and Whitney Mercilus; on both occasions he swallowed them whole. Over the past few weeks Bruce Campbell has gone from depth chart curiosity, to backup left tackle, and now he's one of the best offensive tackles the Carolina Panthers have. It's rare you see a player trade work for both sides, but in the case of the swap that sent Mike Goodson to Oakland for Campbell it's already clear that both teams are over the moon at the players they added to their football teams.

What makes Campbell unique is his athleticism and size, rarely seen in offensive tackles. When the trade first occurred there were stories of Campbell not having the mental acuity needed to play offensive tackle in the NFL, and when I praised him last night via Twitter I had an interesting back-and-forth with a Raiders fan who claimed Campbell was solid, but you couldn't ask him to do anything complex. Last night I saw him stonewall a 1st round rookie pass rusher, and a guy who had 11.5 sacks last year; both of which from the 3-4 OLB position. Campbell needed to identify at the snap what the 5-technique linemen were doing, keep his position, identify where the linebackers were coming from, and slide over to pick them up. This is one of the most complex things for an offensive tackle to do when seeing a pass rush, and he handled it brilliantly.

It might be a touch early to project him as a long-term starter (after all, he still only has a year left on his contract), but as it stands the trade that brought Bruce Campbell to Carolina was the perfect change of scenery for both players, and he leaped off the screen last night with his ability.

Optimistic

Luke Kuechly, Extremely Optimistic

It was difficult to put into words what I saw in Spartanburg from Luke Kuechly other than "He doesn't look like a rookie", a simple phrase, but utterly appropriate. It took just one quarter for this same feeling to be conveyed to the rest of the fan base. Keek finished with four tackles and a forced fumble before heading to the sideline following his first NFL action. However, it was more than those four tackles and FF that showed why the Panthers invested a top-ten pick in the linebacker.

Kuechly was involved in every single play in some way when he was on the field. Furthermore, he was vital in the Jason Phillips interception. On that play Chris Gamble had taken away Matt Schaub's primary read, so he went to his secondary in TE Owen Daniels. Kuechly had Daniels covered like a blanket to the point where he looked for his third, just as Charles Johnson got to the QB. He threw a duck into the middle of the field, and Phillips capitalized. It was an easy play for Phillips, but really it was Kuechly covering the TE so well that allowed the play to develop.

The final aspect to his amazing night was how comfortable he was playing leader in his first NFL action. He was unphased in barking out orders, adjusting the defense, and diagnosing plays. When the ball was snapped we saw the same Luke Kuechly as in Boston College– always in the right place, always able to make a play. Panthers fans: Get excited. We got ourselves a good one.

Brad Nortman, Extremely Optimistic

Preseason is a time where even the punter gets love; especially when you just invested a draft pick in one. When Nortman's selection came through we were all left scratching our heads a little, but it looks like the Panthers evaluation was right on the money. He still has a less the desirable windup, but boy when he gets that leg going it's a thing of beauty. He finished the game with a 42 yard average, and a 57 yard long. What makes it more impressive was that these were 57 hard yards– the punt didn't dribble down the field for an extra 15 as we so often see with the 'long punt' number.

Louis Murphy, Extremely Optimistic

If David Gettis can't get healthy soon this competition is over before it ever began. Finishing with 2 catches for 42 yards, Murphy may not be the most consistent receiver in the world– but what deep threat is? We should see him get more reps with the 1st team next week, and in a 3WR offense it should be fun to watch.

Joe Adams, Extremely Optimistic

This is a case of relief, as much as optimism. Will his circus antics work in every NFL game? No, but do they need to? Saturday proved that his unique brand of running all over the field like it's Tecmo Bowl does have a place in the league, and until it actually costs the Panthers something I'm thrilled to be excited every time he's back to receive a punt, because he has a chance to make something big happen.

Thomas Keiser and Antwan Applewhite, Extremely Optimistic

Lumping them together due to similar impact, but both depth DE's did a good job. Lets hope they keep it up, because nobody else seems interested in rushing the passer.

Amini Silatolu, Somewhat Optimistic

This is a case of an offensive guard who is a work in progress, but progress is being made. Amini completely botched Brooks Reeds' sack on Cam Newton, but so did Jordan Gross who was woefully out of position. Silatolu needs a lot of time as a pass blocker, but on Cam's 16 yard scamper he blocked one player out of the play, then shifted his vision to a pass rusher to his left, slid over and blocked him– this was the play that allowed Newton to have a hole up the middle. For that reason alone we see why the Panthers liked him, and his motor is endless. We just need to be patient on the pass protection.

Kenny Onatolu, Somewhat Optimistic

At his secondary job of playing linebacker depth Onatolu was great. In his primary role of ST gunner he was quite average. He's a keeper either way, but if he proved to be as effective on special teams as we know he can be, then Onatolu would have gotten another bump here.

Pessimistic

If you haven't read these articles before, or are new to CSR please remember these are one-week ratings only, based solely on a single game's play. These can (and often will) swing wildly from week to week, so please don't be upset if a fan favorite makes the list.

Special Teams Coverage, Extremely Pessimistic

Haruki Nakamura, Kenny Onatolu, Reggie Smith, and Mike Tolbert. All were brought in to help bolster the ST coverage, and we were left with a unit that looked almost identical to 2011's mediocrity. Take away the Holiday TD for a second, because that was an outlier largely caused by Medlock's shanked kickoff. This unit still allowed 34.5 yards per kickoff, and 30.7 yards per punt. That is absolutely atrocious, and I'm sure they got an earful from Ron Rivera.

Mike Tolbert, Extremely Pessimistic

Big Mike can, and will do better... but on Saturday he was bad. A dropped pass, one carry for two yards, and mediocre run blocking. Tolbert was supposed to be the lead blocker we needed, the veteran who could pick up hard yards, and stifle bltizers heading for Cam– ultimately he did none of these things. Hopefully it was just rust, and we'll see the player we know he is next week.

Defensive Tackles, Extremely Pessimistic

Ron Edwards will not be the answer to all our prayers, sadly. This unit was blown away by the Texans all night long. Terrell McClain had one nice play where he crushed Justin Forcett, and everyone's favorite DT scapegoat Sione Fua had a nice series on the goal-line where he was vital in Luke Kuechly making his big stop of Ben Tate in the backfield. However, two plays does not a DL make, and if they hope to stop anyone this year, they need to step up quickly.

Greg Hardy, Extremely Pessimistic

Across from Charles Johnson might as well have been a ghost. Last night the Kraken was not released. Stonewalled on almost every down, he failed to get any push, or make any impact. The pass rush right now is absolutely atrocious, and Hardy is the one who has the opportunity, and ability to help step it up.

Frank Alexander, Somewhat Pessimistic

Alexander did a good job sealing the edge in the run game, but was a complete non-factor as a pass rusher on Saturday night. The Panthers traded up for Alexander, and showed a lot of faith in him. Someone with his size and length should have been able to make a bigger impact.

Overall Outlook

It's preseason, and yes they played boring, vanilla defense, but there's still reason to be concerned. The pass rush is terrible, the defensive tackles are still lacking, and the secondary is a sieve. Darin Gantt equated the current Panthers to the Bill Polian led Indianapolis Colts, and he's 100% right; all offense, pray for defense. I wish I could say Jon Beason will cure all ills, but this is still a woefully lacking defensive unit, and the Panthers will need to win games by shootout. Last night Carolina allowed 375 yards, and that is absolutely abysmal. I know Ron Rivera will give these guys an earful, but he can't magically transform this defense into an elite one with his words– the personnel still isn't there, not yet.

100% optimistic heading into the Miami game, because, well, it's still preseason.

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