Carolina Panthers: 5 Biggest Takeaways from Third Preseason Game
The Carolina Panthers out-defensed Rex Ryan’s vaunted New York Jets defense, and they scored when it mattered to earn a hard-fought road victory, 17-12, in the almost important third preseason game for both teams at MetLife Stadium on Sunday night.
However, the biggest takeaway from the Panthers’ perspective was not Cam Newton’s 6-of-15 passing performance, nor was it that Carolina’s defense kept New York’s offense out of the end zone all game.
The key to watching preseason football intelligently is to look for small successes, miscues and trends that can foretell events as they may play out during the regular season.
Here is a look at the five biggest takeaways from the Carolina Panthers’ final meaningful warm-up game before the season opener in Tampa on September 9, 2012.
Thomas Davis Can Be Effective in Spurts
Carolina linebacker Thomas Davis is attempting to become the first known NFL player to successfully return from three ACL tears to the same knee.
He looked to be well on his way to doing just that in limited action against the Jets, playing his first game since injuring his knee and being lost for the season in Week 2 against the New Orleans Saints last year.
Davis elicited the cheers of Panthers Nation when he pounded Mark Sanchez to the ground on a delayed blitz sack in his first series on the field, and he made a beautiful pass breakup in the end zone on a pass intended for Jets fullback/tight end Josh Baker.
Ironically, Baker tore his ACL and had his season ended when cornerback Josh Norman dove into his leg as Davis made a play on the ball.
If Davis can remain healthy and play in spurts this season, he will provide a much-needed spark off the bench for the Panthersdefense.
Panthers' Pass Rush by Committee
Panthers fans are clamoring for a double-digit sack season out of defensive end Charles “Big Money” Johnson—the NFL’s highest paid player in 2011, according to ESPN The Magazine—and additional pressure on the quarterback from the other defensive end position.
Carolina may not get double-digit sacks from multiple Panthers in 2012, but they may have found another sack artist in second-year player Thomas Keiser, who had 1.5 sacks against the Jets to boost his NFL-leading total to 3.5 sacks so far in the preseason.
The Panthers have three defensive ends who should work their way into the rotation opposite Johnson this season in Keiser, rookie Frank Alexander and starter Greg Hardy.
Keiser should see significant time on the field this season, especially with the number of top-shelf quarterbacks the Panthers will face this season, including Drew Brees (twice), Matt Ryan (twice), Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Michael Vick and rookies Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin, III.
If Carolina can get 12-plus sacks out of Johnson and at least as many from Keiser, Hardy and Alexander combined this season, they will be able to help out a Panthers secondary that needs the front seven to pressure opposing quarterbacks all season long.
Panthers Secondary Is a Work in Progress
The Panthers’ weakest link this season could once again be its secondary with either Josh Norman (R) or Captain Munnerlyn starting at cornerback opposite Chris Gamble and with Charles Godfrey and newcomer Haruki Nakamura starting at the safety positions.
The normally reliable Gamble was routinely burned by rookie Jets receiver Stephen Hill, and Norman looked out of sorts on a completed pass to Santonio Holmes which, fortunately, only went for eight yards.
Despite coming up with an interception on a pass that bounced 20 feet into the air off of Hill’s chest, Munnerlyn is incapable of locking down opposing receivers in man coverage, but he is Carolina’s first option over Darius Butler in the nickel package.
Nakamura is effective against the run, but he is still learning to defend against the pass in Sean McDermott’s defense, and Godfrey was among the NFL’s worst tackling safeties in 2011, according to Pro Football Focus.
Norman has the biggest upside, and he could prove to be a solid cover corner as the season progresses, but he is not yet a shutdown cornerback.
Carolina's defense will be better than they were last season, but they could be involved in at least a handful of shootouts this season if they are unable to at least slow down the likes of Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and the Manning brothers.
Smitty Was Sorely Missed
Carolina's top wideout of all time proved that he is the team's most dangerous offensive weapon by not even taking the field against the Jets.
No. 2 wideout Brandon LaFell, and tight ends Greg Olsen and Gary Barnidge, had a couple of catches each, but Panthers receivers Louis Murphy, Seyi Ajirotutu and Kealoha Pilares struggled to get open and make plays throughout the game.
Even when he is not being targeted, Smith draws attention away from Newton’s other options in the passing game.
Granted, the Jets have two of the NFL’s top cover corners in Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, but Carolina needs its top receiver to make big plays for the offense and draw attention away from LaFell and Co. this season.
It appears that Jeremy Shockey will not be missed too much in the Panthers’ passing game in 2012.
The bald eagle and American flag-emblazoned tight end, who caught 37 passes for 455 yards and four touchdowns last season, has been among the NFL’s top receiving tight ends for a solid decade, but Olsen and Barnidge appear to be ready to pick up his slack this season.
Olsen has Pro Bowl potential, and Barnidge and fullback Mike Tolbert will more than replace Shockey’s production in 2012.
Barnidge had a breakout game with two catches for 44 yards and a touchdown against the Jets, and Olsen has a chance to put up numbers that are more in line with a top-flight wide receiver this season than a tight end (see Gronkowski, Rob and Graham, Jimmy).
Shockey could still end up on an NFL roster this season despite not being in anyone’s camp, but Rob “Chud” Chudzinski’s prolific offense will not miss a beat without him.
Jimmy Grappone is a growing presence on Twitter (@jimmygrappone) and a Featured Columnist covering the Carolina Panthers and the NFL since 2008.
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