It's here... it's finally here. Somewhere back in February as we debated draft picks, and later sat through an uneventful free agency period, it felt like the season was so far away. Since then we've seen familiar faces fall by the wayside, fan favorites get re-signed, rookies start to break out, and full page ads rile up the area in a way we haven't seen before. Football is finally back for the Carolina Panthers, and for the first time in the several years there's a feeling that this team as built are ready for a deep run.
This organization's first test is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a game that looks easily winnable on paper, but if you think there's an easy victory in the NFC South you haven't been watching the division enough. Oftentimes these are games that hang on a single weakness, and if either team can exploit it they'll walk away with the win.
X-Factor: Josh Freeman
Who is Josh Freeman? Is he the next great QB in waiting, or a flash in the pan who exploited team's weaknesses for one season? Personally, I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle. The player we saw carve up defenses and protect the football during the 2010 season is a flash of his potential, and showed ability that will carry over. Last year was yet another lesson in lame duck coaching, as Freeman tried to squeeze blood from a stone to no avail. That being said, he's not perfect, and tends to miss obvious reads and sometimes forces the football.
Now he has an improved offensive line, better weapons on offense, and a head coach who isn't going to ask him to do too much. Greg Schiano, much like John Fox, will branch his passing attack off a strong North-South run game, which can be difficult to stop. That being said, installing this system takes time for a young team, and early reports are that Freeman is behind the curve in learning the system. Will this preclude the Buccaneers from having success in Schiano's first season? Absolutely not, but in this game it's unlikely he'll have early success in 2012.
From the Panthers side they must generate a pass rush. New system or not, if they give Freeman time to sit in a clean pocket he has the arm, and weapons to pick them apart. At this stage Charles Johnson is a known quantity– he commands a double-team every down, and if he's single blocked then he gets the better of him man on most occasions. The rest of the defensive line is a wild card; there's no predicting what (if anything) you'll get from Greg Hardy week to week, Thomas Keiser is an effective 3rd down rusher, but doesn't have a place on 1st and 2nd, and outside of that we're just not sure. Dwan Edwards is able to get some much needed push up the middle, but ultimately we have a situation where Josh Freeman is an unknown, and the Panthers' pass rush is an unknown.
Tampa Bay Run Offense Vs. Carolina Run Defense
On draft night I thought one of the most savvy moves in the first round was the Buccaneers' decision to trade up and select Boise State RB Doug Martin in the back-end of the evening. Tampa Bay needed a complementary back to LeGarrette Blount, and got (in my mind) the best power back in the draft. For all intents and purposes Martin is Jonathan Stewart 2.0. Obviously J-Stew was more polished entering the league, but Martin is almost a carbon copy of the Panthers' power back. He's stout, tenacious, and fights hard for yardage after contact; couple that with an ability to catch out of the backfield, andyou have a player the Panthers will need to content with for years to come.
This preseason was a mixed bag for Carolina's run defense. On one hand they allowed 4.0 yards per carry, tied for 18th in the NFL, but they did become better in the red zone, and showed an effective goal linestand, something we didn't see in 2011. Team Edwards should help prevent the Buccaneers' rushers from sparkling (dear god, a Twilight reference, kill me now!), but it will take time for Kuechly, Beason, Davis, and Anderson to gel as a unit. Add everything together and I think this is a hard fought battle in the trenches, but in the end everything cancels each other out.
Tampa Bay Pass Offense Vs. Carolina Pass Defense
There is perhaps no team in the NFL who knows Vincent Jackson better than the Carolina Panthers. Ron Rivera organized defenses to counter him in practice, Rob Chudzinkski helped draw up plays to utilize his skills on offense, and it's a situation where the Panthers might know more about his ability than Tampa Bay do yet.
Jackson is a walking mis-match. A tight-end sized receiver, he causes the same headaches that Greg Olsen does when the Panthers split him outside. As good as Chris Gamble is, he's still giving up a huge height and weight advantage to Jackson, and when this is coupled with how Jackson fights for the ball, you have a situation when Gamble is in for a busy day.
As big an issue as V-Jax will be, the bigger concern is across from him. Mike Williams is one of the better young receivers in the NFL, and will likely be too much for Captain Munnerlyn to handle. We should see Josh Norman get some of the snaps working against him, but you still have a scenario where the Buccaneers' #1 receiver from a year ago is now working against the Panthers 2nd cornerback, and by virtue of that alone it will cause issues.
Originally it was thought that the move to part ways with Kellen Winslow in favor of Dallas Clark was a foolish one, but after Winslow's failed physical it looks like it was the right move. At this stage in his career Clark better resembles Monty Python's black knight, than an effective NFL weapon; he's battered, bruised, reportedly can't close his hand the whole way, but darn it if Clark isn't a tough SOB. He's a wild card in this game for sure, and if he can add anything on offense it will be a plus.
This game has all the tropes of a trap game for the Panthers, and it's bizarre to see a game like this as the first of the year. On paper there's no reason why Tampa Bay should beat the Panthers. Carolina have one of the league's most potent offenses, with a phenom at QB who dominanted the Buccaneers last year, but this is a new season. There's new found discipline in Tampa, and a more talented 53 for Greg Schiano to utilize.
Like all 1st year coaches it's going to take time for the Buccaneers to find their footing, but when they do we're poised to see a team (along with Carolina) who represent the upswing, and youth in the division. There was a sense surrounding the Panthers last year of 'Get 'em while you can', and I feel the same way about the 2012 Buccaneers; the Panthers need to get this win quickly and get out of dodge.