Thursday night's game against the Baltimore Ravens could be the strangest in recent memory. It's hard to find a game where the winning team was doubled offensively, or managed to score 34 points without a single offensive touchdown -- but here we are. On the back of the defensive line, the arms of Luke Kuechly, and the legs of Ted Ginn the Panthers moved to 2-1 on the preseason with a win that solidified the evolution of Carolina's defense.
Getting two elite defensive tackles was the catalyst to turn the entire defense around. Kuechly was great in his own right (more on him later), but putting Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short in the middle allows the middle linebacker to roam, something he couldn't do in 2012. Getting a consistent push, and clogging those running lanes allows Kuechly read and react more. The end result might be a 2013 season that has less overall tackles (eaten up by the defensive tackles), but it gives the second-year linebacker more opportunities to be a playmaker.
That's what Kuechly did on Thursday, he made plays. He started more slowly, getting tackles on the edges and forcing Ray Rice up the middle -- then Kuechly broke loose. The two biggest defensive plays of the game all came because of him, and all happened from nothing. He blew up Bernard Piece in the backfield for a fumble, recovered by Thomas Davis for a touchdown, and followed it up with an interception where he perfectly read Joe Flacco's eyes.
Here's the skinny on the defense: Last night was fun, but you'll be let down if you think that kind of defensive performance was the norm. The 2012 Chicago Bears were the most dominant, and opportunistic defense in recent memory, and managed a +20 turnover differential in 16 games -- the Panthers were +3 tonight. While they wont keep up this breakneck pace, they shouldn't have to. Scoring one defensive touchdown should be enough, let alone three -- which brings us to the flip side of last night's win.
The offense from top to bottom is absolutely atrocious, and it's getting worse by the week as teams become more serious. A well run offense is a scale between raw ability and creative scheming. Have enough talent and you can afford to browbeat an opponent with power. This is what happened during the John Fox era. The Panthers had an immensely talented front, a solid fullback, and a great power running back -- this trio was near unstoppable. It's the same basic running plan the San Francisco 49ers are using now.
Creativity can be used to mitigate offensive line issues. If your quarterback is getting pressured there are ways to help counter that, if your runners are struggling up the middle, change it. Perhaps it's preseason, and maybe everything will change in two weeks -- but Mike Shula's scheme ensures everyone on the offense looks their absolute weakest.
Running DeAngelo Williams at a wall with no blocking fullback nets 2.4 yards per carry. Having Cam throw from under center without deep routes leads to 5.2 YPA. The blame can be placed on the offensive line, but it's also easy to overlook that this group is at least as talented as the unit who finished 2012, as they went on a late run. The bill of sale on Shula sold the idea of offensive continuity, but nothing resembles what Rob Chudzinski did on offense, and so far it's all for the worst.
Two offensive touchdowns in three games wont get it done, even if you want to apply 'preseason' as a get out of jail free card. The last time the Panthers struggled this badly in preseason offense was 2010, and we know how that went.
Luke Kuechly -- Extremely Optimistic
Thursday's game was one of those rare occasions that you can't aqequately put a performance into words. If you see '7 tackles, 1 FF, 1 INT' scroll across a ticker you'd think "That was a good game," but we were treated to a performance as dominating as a middle linebacker has had in the last 10 years. It's a position that doesn't lend itself to playmakers, and Kuechly took over the game.
Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short -- Extremely Optimistic
Kuechly isn't able to make plays without the push up front from the rookie defensive tackles. Lotulelei and Short were the catalyst for everything that happened defensively last night. Both players finished with a sack, but more important got consistent pressure up the middle. They need to be starting next to each other, and there's no good justification why any other lineup should be entertained.
Ted Ginn -- Extremely Optimistic
Ron Rivera was right about one claim of "we know what he can do," as Ted Ginn showed immediately that he can make the roster on the strength of one punt return alone. The ideal situation would be to have Ginn begin the season while the team continues to work with Joe Adams, who has potential. Ginn's touchdown meant more than the entire Panthers' offense on Thursday night.
Drayton Florence -- Somewhat Optimstic
Repeat after me Sean McDermott, "I will start Drayton Florence and Josh Norman". There were a few rough moments early, but Florence settled into a nice game. The interception was a bit of a gimme, but he made sure Joe Flacco paid for his errant passing.
Brad Nortman -- Somewhat Optimistic
It's worth mentioning Nortman on the strength of his first punt alone, a booming 64-yard monster that seemed to hang in the air forever. If he can become consistent enough to give one of those per game, the special teams will be helped immensely.
Offensive line -- Extremely Pessimistic
I can't keep talking about how bad the offensive line is every week. They're terrible, you know they're terrible, and we've known they're terrible for a month now. First cuts can't come soon enough as we look to take the scraps falling off other teams, encase them in gelatin, hoping to mold a tasty treat. I'd rather see a wall of souse meat block for Cam Newton right now.
Discipline -- Extremely Pessimistic
The Panthers lost 133 yards to penalties, and gained 173 -- that's a problem. A lack of self control has slowly crept into the organization, and now we're seeing players making dumb, bush league moves for no reason. Armond Smith deserves special credit.
Run away! Run away! Run away!— Armond Smith (@Djfoodstamps36) August 21, 2013
Yeah, or he'll stamp on you. I'm still in awe that he got ejected in a preseason game.
Defensive tackle depth -- Extremely Pessimistic
Dwan Edwards, Sione Fua, and Colin Cole all struggled in the ways Lotulelei and Short dominated. They were blown off the line, couldn't establish position, and routinely failed to make an impact. It's not supposed to be this way. The veterans are supposed to steady the ship while the rookies learn, but that's not happening.
Mike Shula -- Extremely Pessimistic
173 total yards, 3.1 yards per carry, 5.2 yards per pass attempt, 0 points.
"You're going to play your first bunch a little longer and you've had a little more time to put the rest of the installation in," Rivera said. "As we go forward, it's time to throw some of those things in and see how we do."
This isn't practice, this is offensive installation, and it's atrocious.
Thursday was supposed to be the test that told us who the Carolina Panthers are. We learned that Sean McDermott has the defense prepared for the regular season, while the offense is light years behind. I'm not convinced that everything can be fixed with offensive line upgrades, I think the problem is the man calling shallow crossing routes on 3rd and 15.
The Panthers will win games if they can become a ball-hawking, opportunistic defense. It's unlikely they can keep up the pace, but watching the defense should give us enough joy to overcome a lackluster offense.
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