Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Panthers-Eagles preps

Carolina Panthers fans are worried.


They are worried that their team, the one that went 12-4 last season, and return 20 of 22 starters from that team (it would have been 21 had DT Maake Kemoeatu not gone done on the first day of training camp).

Hate to say it, but there might be cause for concern.

The reasons are this: The Panthers defense didn't have the kind of bite it has had under John Fox down the stretch in 2008. They gave up lots of points, and loads of rushing yards. Those rush yard totals ballooned when Kemoeatu and DT Damione Lewis were slowed by injuries. Only half of that tandem returns to start 2009, and the guys playing alongside Lewis aren't the wide bodies that Kemo is. That is not to say anything of their ability--we've only seen those guys minimally in the pre-season, and even then, they were also under fire without LB Jon Beason on the field, and LB Thomas Davis was slowed by injury in the exhibitions as well. Getting those guys back (whether it be week 1, or beyond), will help the defense immensely. How well the DT's plug the gaps in the middle will go a long way in determining how good the defense can be. I am less concerned about the linebackers and secondary, than I am about the front 4. In this case, time will tell.

As for the offense, they, too, were shorthanded in the pre-season. WR Steve Smith only played sparingly, RB Jonathan Stewart has been on the shelf much of 2009 with the achilles injury. Having Smith back at full strength adds the Panthers kind of kick to the receiving corps. Muhsin Muhammad will continue to be a reliable pass-catcher, and an even better run blocker. Dwayne Jarrett needs to show more, but as it stands now, he's a number 3 receiver. I applauded Jarrett last season for making big catches on 3rd down--something many fans seem to forget--and he could become a touchdown catching receiver, but he has to earn the chance to be on the field. Kenny Moore has earned his spot on this roster, thanks to a very solid camp, and pre-season. How many chances he gets on game days (in the offense), remains to be seen. He capitalized on those chances in the exhibitions, though. Perhaps he'll get some tosses when the games count.

The special teams have just 1 x-factor, and that is newcomer J.J. Jansen as the long snapper. He replaces Jason Kyle, who signed as a free agent with New Orleans. If you didn't know who the Panthers long snapper was before, that's a good thing. It means Kyle did his job well, which he did for virtually his entire time with the Panthers. John Kasay will continue to be a solid placekicker, Rhys Lloyd will continue to boom kicks deep, and Jason Baker's arsenal of punts will continue to make him a threat. Kick coverage may need to improve as well, after giving up a punt return for TD against Pittsburgh. That first team coverage unit, I suspect, will be better, with all of its working parts on the field.

Summing up this quickie preview, the Panthers have players in place that they can be a contender to win their division. Other teams have improved, which makes the road tougher. Carolina's opener against a traditionally good Philly team will provide a nice test for this team.

One other factor about Sunday, which is a nice bonus for the coaching staff--they do not have to prepare for the Eagles with Michael Vick in uniform. Vick will miss the first 2 games of the season, as part of his reinstatement by Commissioner Roger Goodell. The intake of aspirin will be down for the coaches, thanks to that ruling, and it removes at least a Vick-run "wildcat" offense from Philly's game plan.

We'll talk to the Panthers on Wednesday, and have their take on the season opener for you on Sports Night at 10.

Mike Solarte

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