Forecasting the Season: How the Panthers Will Succeed or Fail in 2012
The Carolina Panthers have shown us what has worked so far in the preseason and what needs to be addressed. Unfortunately, there are still many issues that need to be resolved prior to the season opener.
Here's what the Panthers need to do to climb the ladder within their division.
The running backs need to make life difficult for opposing defenses.
Carolina features arguably the best backfield in the league and any one of the trio of DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert is capable of making a big play. All three backs favor team success over individual accolades, so there is no concern about any of the three becoming upset about a lack of carries.
Williams and Stewart should have better production after getting acclimated to Rob Chudzinski's offense. If the big guys up front can open holes for them, any of these talented backs will be able to score at will.
Speaking of the offensive line...it needs to play at a high level. Ryan Kalil and Jordan Gross are two of the best at what they do and their veteran leadership will prove beneficial in mentoring the young guys like Byron Bell and rookie Amini Silatolu.
If the youngsters step up, they can help the offense run up and down the field. The success of the skill players rests with the effectiveness of the line.
Of course, the line that most fans are concerned about is on the other side of the ball.
The defensive tackles need to help generate a pass rush and clog those running lanes. So far, the defensive line's play has been reminiscent of last season when virtually everyone ran on them.
Defensive tackle Ron Edwards was brought in to do a job. He needs to make sure he stops opposing running backs dead in their tracks. While young, Sione Fua and Terrell McClain need to step up their game and help shore up the interior. If those linemen can stop the big run, they will greatly help out their brethren on both ends.
Defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy are capable of getting pressure. However, they need to do more in 2012. Johnson had a decent showing in the first preseason game against the Houston Texans, but his presence needs to be felt more by opposing quarterbacks. Hardy may have bulked up, but he has yet to show signs of overtaking his opposition across the line.
These two will be key factors in whether the defense can keep points off the boards and force turnovers.
If the defensive line generates a great pass rush and forces bad throws, the secondary should be able to pick off errant throws. As was witnessed in last week's game, a good pass rush can lead to a bad throw that produces an interception. The linebackers and defensive backs need to take advantage of those opportunities.
On offense, if there is a regression by Cam Newton, this team could be in trouble. Derek Anderson is a capable backup, but he lacks the skill set possessed by Newton.
The Panthers know that if their young signal-caller can reduce his mistakes and the number of interceptions, they have a chance at winning any game. However, Newton can't afford to repeat the errors of his rookie season.
If he does, expect the critics to come from all angles with an "I told you so" attitude. Toward the end of last season, Newton showed confidence in throwing to receivers not named Steve Smith.
Everyone knows what Smith can do. Everyone knows that Carolina has yet to establish any major receiving threats behind him. This could be a big year for Brandon LaFell. It could be a big year for tight end Greg Olsen. Joe Adams and Louis Murphy should make significant contributions.
However, if these guys underachieve, the offense may be in trouble. Simply put, you need an offense to score points. Having receivers you can depend on will go a long way toward reaching that goal.
If the offense continues to click like it did last season, the concern should lay with the defense and its ability to keep its opponent out of the end zone. While the defensive line was discussed earlier, the biggest factor in whether the unit fails or not will be the health and play of its linebackers.
Jon Beason will be returning from injury, and it's difficult to say how much we will see of him before Week 1 begins. Thomas Davis is another injured linebacker who is one of the best when healthy, but he has not carried that label in three years.
Luke Kuechly could be called upon to lead this unit if necessary. While there are no doubts about his ability, he is still a rookie. Having the veteran presence of Beason or Davis will help in Kuechly's professional development.
Finally, if the Panthers are to do well this season, their special teams needs to improve dramatically. This is especially true on kickoff coverage and field-goal opportunities. Too many easy attempts were missed due to Olindo Mare failing to execute properly.
His battle with Justin Medlock should motivate him to do better. As for the coverage on kickoffs, there needs to be better awareness. Guys like Tolbert and Haruki Nakamura were brought in to help improve this part of the special teams, but so far nothing looks different.
Football is a battle of field position and the kickoff coverage team is the first line of defense.
The Panthers have their work cut out for them this season. Let's hope they are able to improve their weak areas and strengthen their strong ones.
Granted, this by no means guarantees success or victories. But it is definitely a step in the right direction. Games against rivals Atlanta and New Orleans will be tough, as will matchups with Dallas and Philadelphia.
On paper, this team looks really good. But it is what it is able to accomplish on the field that will ultimately decide its fate.
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