Is it true? Could it be? Has the week of the first pre-season game finally arrived? Yes, Panthers faithful, it has! All that patience will be rewarded as the Panthers take on the Texans this coming Saturday. So let's check out some of the key match ups between the two.
The last time the Panthers and Texans met, Matt Schaub had been lost for the season, ironically by Albert Haynseworth's only contribution all year long. This time, we'll see Schaub, who is back, but only for a short time. Our offense was able to move the ball effectively against the Texans, who struggled to maintain drives and gave up a few key turnovers (2 INTs and a fumble). While winning is great, the main focus of this game will be two fold: getting enough snaps to shake off the rust and yet get out of the game without injury for the starters, and making the most of the limited pre-season playing time for the back ups hoping to make the 53 man squad.
X-Factor: First Game of the Pre-Season
As exciting as it is to see our boys in black and blue again, live bullets aren't exactly going to be firing this matchup. The first game of the pre-season is much like a demo to any video game. You get a taste of what's to come, a quick glimpse just enough to get you hungry for more, but not a lot to really tell us the whole story. As we all remember, last year our team looked completely different in the pre-season from what we saw in the regular season. That's pretty typical. Starters for the first game will only be playing a single quarter, if that. It's enough to shake off the rust, hopefully put together a solid drive or two, and then let the second string take over. That is where we should really be focusing our attention. Who looks sharp in the second and third strings and who is making an impact. The outcome of the game itself is less important than seeing development in our younger players and getting off the field without any injuries.
Edge: The Monday Morning Optimist Column
Carolina QBs and WRs vs. Houston Secondary: Passing Attack
Again, unlike most games where we really would focus heavily on the starters, let's take a moment to dig a bit deeper and check out some of the key battles here. It's looking like 3rd year player David Gettis will be missing the game dune to injury, giving room for recently acquired Louis Murphy to step into that #3 WR spot. Since being acquired via a trade from the Raiders, Murphy seems to have settled in nicely among the Panthers WR corps. Also in the mix will be Seyi "Alphabet Soup" Ajirotutu, Armanti Edwards, rookie Joe Adams, and fanatic-favorite Jared Green. I expect to see a healthy mix of all these WRs, but I wouldn't be surprised if Murphy ended up with the lions share of passing downs. Steve Smith and Brandon LaFell seem to have cemented their spots as the #1 and #2 WRs and will probably have a relatively quiet night. As far as QBs go, we know how this will look. Cam is starting, and that's not going to change. Derek Anderson is back as the likely #2 guy and Jimmy Clausen might just see some time in the end to wrap things up.
The Texan's secondary was one of the better units last season largely due to Jonathan Joseph. They lost one of their two starting CBs and have two young guys looking to 2nd year players to step up: 2nd round pick Brandon Harris and 4th round pick Roc Carmichael. Outside of Houston, you probably won't here a lot about either of these guys because neither played much last season. It'll be interesting to see who they have starting on opening game day. There's also a chance that Brice McCain could find some more time as he turned out to be an ace as their slot corner, who improved dramatically from the year before. The starting safeties (Quintin Demps and Danieal Manning) for the Texans are both very solid, but behind them I don't have any really information.
Edge: BW's Beer Vendor
Carolina RBs vs. Houston LBs: The Run Game
What's most exciting to me about this is that while we probably won't see our starters too much, we have three guys who could be considered starters at RB and we'll probably see a good bit of them throughout the game. There is no person I want to see in the backfield for my own eyes though more than Tolbert. This refrigerator on wheels is going to add a whole new dimension to not only our ground game, but also our passing attack as he has soft hands and will be catching a lot out of the backfield. We may have the most talented backfield in all of the NFL now between Williams, Stewart, and Tolbert. After those, though it's a little harder to say. Tauren Poole (no relation to bipedal cows gone swimming) and Josh Vaughn round off the the back up RBs in Carolina after we shipped Goodson to the Raiders. It'll be interesting to see what Poole does with his time, but let's not kid ourselves here... Neither of these guys will be see any significant time during the regular season without someone getting injured.
From the Texans' perspective, there's a lot less excitement. They've been hit with a bit of an injury bug as Darryl Sharpton suffered a setback last week on a hip injury. He was supposed to compete with Bradie James for snaps, but with the injury it's likely he'll miss most (if not all) of the pre-season. However, the Texans defense was one of the best in the league last year, and a lot of that was due to having quality guys step up when needed, so don't count this unit out just yet. Brian Cushing is still one of the best 3-4 LBs in the game and we'll see him for at least part of the first quarter. Connor Barwin is also back this year, entering the final year of his rookie contract. And a rookie to watch out for who may be familiar to the Panthers fans, Whitney Mercilus is also in the mix. He was drafted as a potential replacement for Barwin, depending on if he leaves after this season or not.
Edge: My Saturday Life (since I don't have one...)
Carolina's O-Line vs. Houston's D-Line: Trench Warfare
For the first time in I honestly can't remember how long... Travelle Wharton will not be apart of the starting lineup for the Panthers. In his place, we have rookie Amini Silatolu and this will be our first chance to see if the young player is as good as advertised. Likewise, we have a key matchup brewing at the RT spot as former UDFA Byron Bell competes against Bruce Campbell. Bell came into the preseason as the starter and with Jeff Otah being about as useless as always many thought it would stay that way. However, do not sleep on Bruce Campbell. The former workout warrior of the combine, Campbell has been turning heads since arriving in Carolina. He has taken some reps with the first team at RT and has had a lot of work at LT with the second team. As James said after training camp, Campbell really could end up being the real deal in time.
For the Texans... It's more of the same. Injuries have hit their line as well with J.J. Watt suffering from a separated elbow. He will be out for the entire pre-season. In his place, Jared Crick (who many of you might remember from several draft previews) will be getting a lot more reps.
Edge: Jaxon's Babysitter's Sunday Hours
Carolina Offensive Coordinator vs. Houston Defensive Coordinator: The Chess Match
Talk about a showdown! Rob Chudzinski splashed onto the seen as an offensive coordinator last season by turning the seemingly raw rookie quarterback Cam Newton into a sensational, electrifying player. He oversaw the largest improvement of offenses ever in one season (according to Football Outsiders) and really changed the entire philosophy of Carolina's offense overnight. For Houston, we have veteran defensive coach Wade Phillips, who likewise brought the Texans from being a perennially mediocre defense that was largely responsible for the teams subpar finishes up to one of the best in the league. What I'm most excited to see though is what new creative wrinkles Chudzinski throws at opponetns. We saw some of the most innovative plays last year, like the Annexation of Puerto Rico with Brockel and many other really creative looks that kept opponents off balanced.
Okay, here's the bad news... It's the pre-season. So we'll probably get the watered down vanilla version of the Panthers, much like what we saw last season. I don't expect to see many trick plays this game. It's a demo, after all.
Edge: CSR's Community
All in all, this game could go either way and will largely depend on who gets a successful early drive and how long each string ends up playing. Usually, the 2nd string ends up taking over around the 2nd quarter, and the string somewhere by the 4th. The real victory will be coming out without injury and learning a little more about who will be starting and who is making the most out of their opportunities. Cuts will be coming soon, so every second of playing time is crucial for these bubble players.