The Five Keys to a Hot Panther Start

Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

I would usually do a '5 remaining or biggest questions going into the season' type of post at this point in the preseason but changed it up because I don't think the focus is on the season as a whole. Ron Rivera needs a hot start to keep his job and the tough early Panther schedule does him no favors.

I just went through the schedule and made my final predictions for the Panthers season (post on that coming Friday). I see a 5-3 start which I think will keep Rivera employed. Obviously that is a homeristic prediction but I think I have some solid logic behind it. If the Panthers can weather that start I see a nice run of W's down the stretch and a 6-2 finish that will propel the Panthers to the playoffs at 11-5.

For the Panthers to start 5-3 with their tough schedule I see the following five things as the keys, in no particular order:

1. The Offensive Line Needs to Bring Their 'A' Game

Since it doesn't look like we are going to get any more 'starter quality' help from outside the organization the best we can hope for at this point is for the poor performers finally break out their A game. Which by the way, is about a B- for most other teams, or at least that is what we have seen this preseason. The two weak links I have seen are RT Byron Bell and LG Amini Silatolu. I thought when we signed FA LG Travelle Wharton we might actually upgrade the position but then I heard this:

Silatolu, if healthy, will start at left guard Sunday for Carolina Panthers | CharlotteObserver.com

"I don’t feel that way anymore, especially after seeing him (Monday)," Rivera said. "A lot depends on if he comes back (Tuesday) and he’s tender and his lower back is sore, then you’ll know the hamstring is still bothering him." Silatolu, who started 15 games last season as a rookie, said he did only individual work Monday and did not participate in team drills. He was injured against Baltimore two weeks ago and missed last week’s exhibition finale against Pittsburgh. If Silatolu doesn’t play against the Seahawks, Rivera said it would be "left guard by committee," with recently acquired Travelle Wharton and Chris Scott sharing reps.

Geez, please tell me Wharton is simply still rusty because this guy has been a comedy of missed assignments this preseason. I think he needs to sit at least one game until he gets it back together. Bell on the other hand is here to stay and if has any notion of a big payday down the road he needs to step up now. For the Panther offense to click these two guys and their ability to execute their assignments will be a huge key to a hot start by the offense.

2. Big Play Defense vs. Bend But Don't Break

Last season the Panthers were a classic 'bend but don't break' defense early in the season but they tightened up down the stretch. Yet throughout the season they struggled making big plays, creating only 23 turnovers (11 INT, 12 FF). Consider the Falcons had 31 total, the Bucs and Saints 26 each. Increasing the rate of big plays is one of the quickest ways to generate momentum and create a hot start.

Normally hoping for big plays and turnovers is simply wishful thinking but this Panther defense has given us hope this preseason. Who says the preseason means nothing? Our #1 defense led the league this preseason in forced turnovers with 13, ten of which were INTs. Others have also taken notice:

NFL Preview Week: The Shutdown Corner pre-regular season power rankings - Yahoo! Sports
11. Carolina Panthers (LW: 11) Cam Newton always struggles in the preseason. The difference is, the Panthers' defense doesn't always look as dominant as it did this August.

Speaking of Cam, that leads us to the next key.

3. Cam Newton Needs to Protect the Ball

We saw him throw a pick 6 in the first preseason game and though it was his only one of the three games he played it was way too familiar. I may have this one listed at #3 but it is the most important. Last season Newton through 5 TD passes and 8 INTs in the first two months of the season. A couple of those INTs were real back breakers too, like the pick 6 against the Bears in a 2 point loss. The Panthers must avoid digging themselves holes early in games and turnovers do just that.

Which leads me to #4, the offensive game plan.

4. OC Mike Shula Must Reinvent Himself

Shula's prior offenses left little to the imagination as he was more methodical, less risk taking in his game plans. Up until the 4th preseason game, we saw pretty much the same thing from the Panthers first unit. I hope that it's all smokescreen and Shula instead will break out a more dynamic, downfield passing offense that matches Cam Newton's skill set. The kid has an arm and is an accurate downfield passer. He now has a WR in Ted Ginn who can get behind a defense in a skinny second. Forget the Panthers stated desire to run the ball more in 2013, it's not their strength and would be a huge mistake given the strong run defenses they face early. Shula needs to focus on play action to set up the deep pass and look to make the big plays if they want a hot start.

5. Ron Rivera Needs a Magic Touch

As we've discussed ad nausea over the offseason, Rivera made a number of in-game blunders that resulted in close losses instead of narrow victories. The decisions to punt on 4th and short in both of the losses to the Bears and Falcons come to mind first. I'm not going to list them all but just summarize to say he was brought here as a 'cerebral' coach, it's time to show it. I've always believed that you create your own luck and it's not by waving a magic wand or simply playing the odds.This team needs to learn how to win the close ones and Rivera needs to get a sense of a game and when to go for it on 4th down, when to kick the FG and when to punt. Last season those decisions seemed to doom the Panthers. Without a hot start and Rivera's hot seat is scorching. Early success will instead breed confidence and give the Panthers the momentum they need for a strong finish and the resulting playoff berth.

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