Watching the Panthers this year is like watching any of the great teams in the past with a sense of destiny. When I look at how the Panthers are playing I think a lot about how closely they resemble the 2013 Auburn Tigers...on paper they should get beat every week but some how they hang on and overcome.
We know what is about to happen next week, we know the implications and the consequences. If the Panthers win they will ride a glorious wave of momentum into the playoffs (quite possibly with a first week bye), if the Panthers lose it will take a chunk right out of our charisma and lose some of that "relevancy" that Riverboat Ron has been talking about.
The Panthers had a little bit of luck or fate on their side Sunday when they triumphed over the Jets because moments later the Rams triumphed in a dominant game over the Saints. This week coming into Charlotte there is an opportunity to be had; both teams with a record of 10-4 and the NFC South title on the line. This game will be closer than the match up two weeks ago in New Orleans and there is anticipation of this game being treated as a playoff game and the biggest game of the year for both sides. With the stage set lets look at some of the keys to a Panthers win.
Key #1. Cam in the pocket.
Cam Newton has been sensational this year with consideration to the lack of talent on the O-line and Receiving Corps but there are still improvements needed in his game if he wants to beat the Saints. Typically in the Panthers loss to the Saints two weeks ago the Offensive Tackles were going into a zone-blocking scheme. The tackles would stand at the line of scrimmage and allow the defensive ends to come to them. This blocking scheme allows for more of a pocket to be set for Cam to step up into. The unfortunate flaw in this scheme is Cam rarely steps into the pocket created by his line, instead he tends to run laterally (sometimes even into the pass-rush). Now there may be the argument that the O-line isn't the best in the world and I would agree, but with the Saints bringing so many guys blitzing around the ends that leaves space right in the middle in the gap between the center and the guard to run on either side. If we are going to beat this Saints defense (which I anticipate Rob Ryan running the same scheme again with little variety because it worked) Cam has to step up into his throws in the pocket and if he is going to run it has to be through the front of the already established line blocks rather than improvising on the side with no blocks.
Key #2. Red Zone Execution
The past two weeks the panthers offense has driven down the field into the red zone on their first two possessions of each respective game and they have ended up with field goals each time. Execution in the red zone is critical. I understand why the Panthers have issues executing in the red zone: there is a lack of a tall receiver, the O-line is average at best, and we are extremely predictable with Cam and Tolbert runs in the red zone. We have to come up with red zone play creativity and we must execute; big drives cannot end in 3 points if we want to get anywhere in the playoffs. Also, Riverboat Ron, be bold! You've seen this for two weeks straight now; if we are within 5 yards of the goal line and it is the first possession of game trust our defense and go for it! We cannot settle for field goals, that is how we lost to the Saints and that is why the Jets game was way closer than it needed to be. Realize if our fist two drives in the Saints game had of been TD's the score would have been 21-31 Saints at the end and I think we would have been closer than that. Touchdowns=wins it is as simple as that, if we are going to win on Sunday we must get Touchdowns early and often. We are capable, we have to execute.
Key #3. The Secondary
Just a thought, everyone has ragged on the Panthers' secondary but who has preformed better the Safeties or the Corners? Clearly the Safety group has played well and possibly better than our Corners this year. Honestly if it was the preseason again it would have been a good idea to implement a 3-3-5 scheme for certain passing situations due to the versatility of our D-line and the number of capable Safeties we have versus the number of capable Corners we have. Playing the Saints this coming week the Panthers' secondary must learn from their mistakes and step up their game versus the Saints. I think McDermott and Rivera must think outside of the box on this one. Seeing Captain Munnerlyn's play against the Jets and knowing Mike Mitchell's skills as a run support and man coverage guy we should give the Saints a taste of their own medicine and blitz Brees constantly from the secondary. The Saints are expecting the pass rush from our tackles and ends, but they are not expecting it from our secondary. This move would catch them off-guard and at least put pressure on Brees a good bit. Rivera and McDermott can't be afraid to play with "next man up" mentality. If Mikell or Mitchell are getting burnt again take them out and put in Lester. If Munnerlyn or White is not covering well move Munnerlyn to the nickel and put Norman in. We have to be creative and aggressive with our secondary alignments and assignments if we want to win.
These are the keys to the game and if we execute we will be the sole owners of the NFC South with a win over Atlanta.
Stay strong Panthers faithful and KEEP POUNDING!!!