FanPost

5 Pressing Questions for the Carolina Panthers

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It's been a disappointing start to the season for many Panthers fans

via media.charlotteobserver.com

We all know that the Carolina Panthers played terribly on Thursday Night Football against the New York Giants. Their uninspiring and ugly performance brought back many memories from the abysmal 2010 season for many Panthers fans, including myself. In a game where the Panthers needed to show up and make a statement in front of the world on prime time television, they miserably failed by playing some of the worst football in the Cam Newton era in Carolina.

The loss was especially disappointing because it seemed like any progress the team made in the first two weeks of the regular season disappeared overnight. Defensively, the run defense had vastly improved with the addition of Ron and Dwan Edwards. The linebacking core was looking solid again with the return of Jon Beason and Thomas Davis, along with the addition of rookie Luke Keuchly. Even the oft-criticized secondary had stepped up; Charles Godfrey was playing the best football of his career and fifth round rookie Josh Norman was doing an admirable job as the teams #2 cornerback. Offensively, the run game was looking strong again and Cam looked like he made some significant progress from his rookie year.

Unfortunately, all of that progress went down the drain against the Giants. The run defense gave up over 100 yards to a journeyman backup running back. It seemed like our defensive tackles and linebackers forgot how to tackle. Our secondary was torched by Eli Manning who completed almost 80 percent of his passes despite not having his top target in Hakeem Nicks. The front four got zero pressure on Manning, giving him all day to throw to his receivers (sound familiar?). The worst was the secondary play – simply put, it was just atrocious. The cornerbacks were playing a soft zone defense, often giving the Giants receivers 10 yard cushions to work with. The safeties looked lost the entire night, missing tackles and getting exposed in coverage. On offense, the Panthers struggled to move the ball, as Newton was pressured the entire night, which resulted in him making several poor decisions. Overall, it was a deflating performance for the team and its fanbase.

Heading into the game against the Atlanta Falcons, there are several pressing questions which will need to be answered about this team and the overall direction in which they are headed as the season continues. I’ll begin with the most important one of all – the big question mark that is our quarterback, Cam Newton.

1. Can Cam Newton bounce back from his terrible performance?

No doubt, last week’s performance was ugly. Cam was pressured all night against the Giants defense, and made some very poor decisions with the football. His passes were off, and he threw into coverage too many times, which resulted in some interceptions. It wasn’t just on the field though, it was also on the sidelines. Late in the game, he wore the towel and was shown by the camera sulking on the bench.

If the Panthers want to have any shot at winning the game against the Falcons, they’ll need Cam Newton to play at his best. He needs to forget about the Giants game and focus on the Falcons defense. If he can, the Panthers stand a chance. If he can’t, it’ll be another long game and another long season.

2. Will the offensive line hold up?

The offensive line remains a puzzle three weeks into the regular season. Although their performance in week one against the Bucs was awful, they drastically improved in week two against the Saints. Unfortunately, against the Giants they faltered again, as they were annihilated by the Giants talented defensive line. What’s sad is that their best offensive lineman thus far has been former UDFA Byron Bell, who was injured in the Saints game and did not play against the Giants. His replacement, Garry Williams was slow and out of position, and he was destroyed by Jason Pierre-Paul. I’ve been surprised with the poor play of Jordan Gross this season. Yes, I know he’s not getting any younger, but he’s been a disappointment so far this season. Same goes with Geoff Hangartner, who, although a reliable veteran, has played awfully all season. Unfortunately, the Panthers don’t have any depth behind him so he’ll be starting for the foreseeable future. Amini Silatolu is… well, he’s just a rookie and he’ll have good games and bad games. Considering he’s making a jump from Division 2 to the NFL, I’m guessing that there will be more gad games than good games in this rookie year.

If the Panthers hope to move the football against the Falcons, they’ll need their offensive line to contain the Falcons defensive ends so they can protect Cam, while at the same time creating some holes for the running backs to run through. If the offensive line plays like they did week one or three, the offense is going to be in trouble again.

3. Is Rob Chudzinski going to listen to Steve Smith’s suggestion?

One thing that has really been irritating me this entire season is Chud’s play calling. Yes, I know that the read-option plays out of the shotgun formation can be effective if used occasionally under the right circumstances. I also am fully aware that it helped ease Cam into the NFL last season and made our offense one of the deadliest in the league. Unfortunately this season, it’s become the staple of our offense, as we now live and die by the option. The fact is, the read option offense has been tried many times in the NFL and it has failed. Defenses are figuring it out again and will only get better at stopping our offense, unless Chud changes it up. I would advise him to listen to Steve Smith’s suggestion of burning those plays and never bringing them up again.

If the Panthers want to be successful again, they need to play traditional smash-mouth football. I’m talking about the Power-I formation, with Tolbert and Williams (hopefully Stewart too, if he can get healthy) in the backfield. Effectively pounding the ball will help Newton ease into the game and get his confidence level up. A return to the power run game will also force teams to put more bodies in the box; consequently, this will help get favorable matchups down the field for Smith, LaFell and Murphy. I’m not advocating for Chud to abandon the pass and go run heavy, but we have to play to the team’s strengths. We have three very good backs who we are paying big money for, so we might as well use them. Please, Chud – I beg you. Forget about the read option offense and get back to playing traditional football – they way it’s supposed to be played. It’ll pay huge dividends for us, I promise you.

4. Where is the pass rush going to come from?

I noticed something very embarrassing during the Giants game – the Panthers defensive line was getting next to zero pressure with their front four. Eli Manning had a clean pocket for almost the entire game, and he did what any good quarterback will do when you give him time to throw it – pick your secondary apart. What’s sad is that even though the front four was clearly not getting the job done, defensive coordinator Sean McDermott refused to bring additional bodies to rush the passer. I can’t recall us using our linebackers to blitz the quarterback at all, and it was frustrating to see them give Eli that much time to throw the football without even considering the blitz. The Jimmy Johnson 43 defense is one which is famous for bringing pressure from all corners of the field on every down, with exotic blitz packages with the linebackers and safeties blitzing almost every down. With a weak front four, you would expect that the coaches would at least consider blitzing, but unfortunately they didn’t as the Panthers defense played scared all night. In the end, there was nothing they could do to stop the Giants offense from steamrolling us.

I’ve been saying it all offseason and I’m going to continue to say it as long as it remains a problem – for the defense to improve, the defensive linemen need to play better in the trenches. The pass rush so far this season has been underwhelming. Charles Johnson has zero sacks in three games despite being one of the highest paid defensive ends in the league. Greg Hardy has made some plays, but still doesn’t look like long term starter material in the NFL. Rookie Frank Alexander has made the best of his limited opportunities on the field, but he’s still developing his game and technique and will need more time to develop before he can start. Other than that, there really isn’t much. Applewhite and Keiser are strictly third down options who have had some success, but overall they can’t be relied on to get the bulk of our pressure. The truth is, if the Panthers defense wants to get better, they’ll need their defensive ends to play better and get consistent pressure against the opposing quarterbacks.

In addition, the Panthers will need to blitz more frequently with their linebackers. What I don’t understand is why McDermott is holding back. We have arguably the best 4-3 linebacking corps in the entire NFL with Beason and Davis finally healthy and on the field. Then, we have reliable linebacker James Anderson and phenomenal rookie Luke Keuchly. No doubt, we’re stacked at linebacker. Please Mr. McDermott – play to your defenses strengths and blitz with your linebackers! If the front four can’t get the job done, at least the linebackers blitzing should help get a little more pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

5. Will the veteran leaders step up and guide this young team?

The Panthers have one of the youngest rosters in the league. That being said, there are several veteran leaders on both sides of the ball. Offensively, Jordan Gross and Steve Smith need to guide and motivate the younger players who are going through a rough phase in their playing careers. They need to continue to play at a high level and set an example for the younger guys on the roster. The same goes for the defense. Jon Beason is the heart and soul of that defense and Thomas Davis is a natural leader as well. These two need to talk to and motivate the younger players who are struggling and lead them to the right path.

Football is not only about assembling a team loaded with talent – it’s also about making sure that there’s chemistry in the locker room and a good atmosphere for the players which contribute to overall team spirit. Hopefully our long time veteran players can motivate the younger players on the team to get focused and prepared to play in the long, difficult games up ahead. I’m going to put my confidence in these veterans though – they’re the best in the league at their positions and have been huge leaders in the locker room. Hopefully they’ll take the reins and help this young team find its identity.

Final Remarks

At the end of the day, this team still has many questions which need to be answered soon, because the clock is ticking on the organization. Chances are by the end of the season, some questions will be answered, and some questions will be left unanswered. However, it’s important for us fans to have patience in the team and stick with them through the good times and the bad times. Although games like the one against the Giants are sad and embarrassing, it’s important to continue to support the team and believe in them. The players need all our support, and I hope that we can continue to do that here at CSR for the remainder of the 2012-2013 NFL Season.

Thanks for reading and remember to never lose hope and keep pounding.

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