Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Double Trouble: Carolina Panthers Season Preview

2008 Record: 12-4

Was there a bigger disappointment in the 2008 playoffs than the Carolina Panthers? They came in with DeAngelo Williams running strong, and Jake Delhomme playing as if it was 2003. They hadn't lost a home game all year. Arizona hadn't won a game in the Eastern time zone all year. Five interceptions and a fumble later, Carolina was making tee times and Arizona was heading back home for the NFC Championship Game and an eventual date with Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl.

Carolina spent most of the offseason wrapped up in the Julius Peppers fiasco, which resulted in them slapping the franchise tag on the Pro Bowler who racked up 14.5 sacks last season. The Panthers had a pretty tight salary cap situation, and weren't able to retain or bring in many people via free agency. However, the did their best and were lucky enough not to have any major players (besides Peppers) up for Free Agency. They lost some backups and role players, but the core is mostly still intact from the team that went 12-4 last season.

Most "experts" are looking for Deangelo Williams to have another stellar season this year, as he enters his 4th year in the league. However, while he was healthy, Jonathan Stewart showed that he might actually be the better of the two backs. If teams are smart, they will do what Arizona did in the playoffs: double-team Steve Smith and make Jake Delhomme beat you with his arm.

Let's be honest here. Smith is the only real threat in this passing game, at least at this juncture in time. Mushin Muhammad has put up some good numbers, but he's starting to slow down and will be 36 this season. Dwayne Jarrett was supposed to be the next big thing at wide receiver for the Panthers, but he has yet to do much, totalling 16 catches for 192 yds and 0 TDs in 16 games across two injury-hampered seasons. While the catches and the yardage will come, one has to be a bit curious why the 6'4" Jarrett hasn't been able to find the end zone yet in the NFL.
One reason could be that Carolina racked up 30 rushing touchdowns last season, a league high, meaning that once they got to the red zone, the ball wasn't in Delhomme's hands. This trait also manifested itself in the incredibly low number of turnovers committed by the Panthers offense (6th in the league with 19 turnovers). Last year's first round pick Jeff Otah (T-Pitt) returns to a solid offensive line that should continue to plow the way for the "double trouble" of Williams and Stewart.

On defense, Peppers and MLB Jon Beason are the anchors. Carolina's biggest subtraction in the offseason was the loss of corner Ken Lucas to Seattle via Free Agency. The Panthers return 10 of 11 starters on defense, though that number is in question after DT Maake Kemoeatu tore an Achilles in camp. Kemoeatu may be out for the season, but the core of the defense is still in tact. Last season, the Panthers were 20th in Run Defense, 16th in Pass Defense, and 18th in Total Defense. Those don't normally seem like numbers a playoff team puts up, but remember they play in a division with a run-heavy team (Atlanta) and a pass-heavy team (New Orleans). Carolina was 21st in the league in interceptions, with returning corner Chris Gamble and linebacker Jon Beason leading the team with 3 apiece.

On the whole, Carolina should largely be a similar team to the one they put on the field last year. If Dwayne Jarrett steps up and becomes a viable receiving option, then look out, this team may be dangerous. Until then, the key to stopping them is being able to score on their defense (which isn't very hard) and shut down the running game. Once Carolina falls behind in games, they have a tendency (as they did in the NFC Playoffs) to forget about the running game and try to force things. And then they turn the ball over. And turn the ball over. And turn the ball over.

Carolina was 9-1 last season when, as a team, they outrushed their opponents. If you didn't figure it out already, this goes to show you just how important the run game is to their success. To support this, Carolina was 4-3 when they outpassed their opponents. What might be a more startling fact is that Carolina was outpassed by Minnesota, Oakland, and Detroit last season.

Ian's Prediction: 8-8

When looking at Carolina's history as a franchise, they usually follow up good seasons (1996, 2003, 2005) with mediocre seasons (7-9 in '97, 7-9 in '04, 8-8 in '06). I don't really see this trend changing this time around either. Carolina should have enough offense (with two good running backs and a good wide receiver) to challenge for a playoff spot in the NFC. I think they're a better team than Atlanta and Tampa Bay, and the division might come down to their Week 17 date with New Orleans. Carolina's hardest stretches are at the beginning and end of the season where they start with Phi, @Atl @Dal and end with @NE, Min, @NYG, NO. Carolina has some difficult games on the schedule, and it will be interesting to see if they are able to battle through adversity (particularly if they start to falter down the stretch). One thing in their favor is their stellar record at home last season where they went 8-0. They do have back-to-back road games at Arizona and New Orleans at the beginning of November as well, which could propel their loss total to 9 or 10 games if they aren't able to defend their home turf as well as last season. The type of game Carolina is looking to play is very similar to the New York Giants (ball control, hammer with the run, eat up clock, keep the other team off the field) will serve them well, particularly in difficult stretches of the season. They have to stick with the run to be successful and shouldn't try to get cute and go for the jugular through the air. If they stick to their game and are able to wear teams down, they are good enough to make the playoffs again.

John's Prediction:

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