Carolina Panthers' Biggest Regular Season Concerns
Anthony Gruppuso-US PRESSWIRE
The NFL regular season is just a week away and the Carolina Panthers still find themselves searching for answers as the preseason winds down. While sporting a 2-1 record heading into their preseason finale, the Panthers have looked both impressive and terrible during the three-game span.
Some players have performed at expectations and others have underachieved. Each positional unit has been a mixed bag, while a couple have remained on par from last season. There is no doubt the coaching staff has a few concerns before the team's Week 1 meeting in Tampa Bay.
The following is a list of concerns for the Carolina Panthers as they open the regular season.
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We have seen how well this team has played with its starters and their is no doubt the Cam Newton-led offense can score on any possession. However, their most recent game against the New York Jets exposed a few concerns about the unit when it is missing key players.
Steve Smith was held out due to a foot infection giving Brandon LaFell the start in his place. LaFell had a decent game but without the speed of Smith in the lineup, the Panthers found themselves unable to stretch the field.
Louis Murphy and tight end Greg Olsen each had good games. While the Panthers were able to move the ball and score, they lacked the deep threat with Smith's absence.
Jonathan Stewart played in the game but exited prematurely after suffering an ankle sprain. While it does not seem to be too serious, he looks to miss some game time when the season opens. Fortunately, the Panthers still have DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert to make up for his loss.
The Panthers may have won last weekend, but the absence of both Smith and Stewart were evident. The Panthers will feel the void left by Smith as they will not have the playmaker who can burn opposing secondaries.
The Panthers running back depth gives them options and they should be able to effectively move the ball on the ground without Stewart in the game. However, he is still an important cog for this offense to be effective.
The bottom line here is simple; the Panthers can move the ball without one or two key players but they still need them available in order to be a constant threat while on the field.
Carolina showed how strong the offense is when healthy despite running one that was not as creative as previously seen. Not being at full strength takes away from perhaps the team's strongest element.
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Against the Jets, it seemed as though the line was non-existent at times. Kendrick Ellis was constantly in the backfield and getting pressure. Newton found himself unable to establish a pocket presence and look for receivers.
Byron Bell and rookie Amini Silatolu are the young guys on the line who need to do a better job at protecting Newton and helping to open up holes for the running game. That said, the veterans need to do their part in keeping the opposition at bay.
The offensive line has looked decent in the preseason but a blitz happy Jets team showed a few flaws in the unit. The Panthers need to fix this issue because if the line is ineffective in holding off pressures, the effectiveness of the entire offense will suffer.
It is common sense; if Newton cannot do utilize his abilities the Panthers will not be able to move the ball. Holding blocks and giving him time is paramount to their success.
Much like the presence of having key players to help get the offense moving, the line is the starting point. Without a strong line to protect or open holes, the offense is not as imposing.
The defense needs Charles Johnson (#95) to get better pressure on the quarterback
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This is probably the biggest area of concern for the Panthers heading into the new season, and rightfully so. The interior is bad and the ends have been inconsistent.
They looked bad one week, good the next and simply got owned a week later. Charles Johnson was ineffective and could not get any pressure on Mark Sanchez after being outplayed by Austin Howard. If Johnson can't beat a guy at a relatively weak position what does that say about more established tackles in the league?
Greg Hardy has disappointed tremendously this preseason. In fact, third string defensive end Thomas Keiser is making a bid for why he should be starting, as he recorded a sack in each game so far.
The interior has yet to show much improvement as they allowed a few big runs up the middle. Much like their teammates on the ends, they've failed to produce much of a pass rush.
Despite not getting the kind of pressure or performance from the line throughout much of the game, the Panthers defensive unit did keep the Jets out of the end zone. The seemed to lock it down better with their backs against the wall but there needs to be more consistency. A defensive stop is only good if points are kept off the board.
Jon Beason and Thomas Davis
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Jon Beason has yet to make an appearance in the preseason as the Panthers want to bring him along slowly and have him ready by the start of the regular season. The defense desperately needs him to return as he is the heart and soul of the unit.
While having Luke Kuechly available to make up for his absence is good, one thing that cannot be replaced is leadership. Though the young man from Boston College seems ready to assume the role.
Thomas Davis finally played in the preseason and he looked good. Everyone in the organization to the fan base wants to see Davis return this season and play in every game. He made a few good plays Sunday night but it is fair to say he will not be starting.
Both of these linebackers can make or break the defense. The unit as a whole suffered last season by not having them on the field. Davis' return is a good start but Beason playing in the middle will be a welcome sight to the team who needs a spark on that side of the ball.
If for some reason they cannot return to form, the Panthers have Kuechly, Jason Phillips and James Anderson ready to pick up the slack and carry the defense.
Ed Mulholland-US PRESSWIRE
Just like last season, this area is still one of concern for the Panthers. Chris Gamble is the top corner on the team but after him there is still a huge question mark.
The Panthers would have liked to have this area figured out by now but it still seems as though between Brandon Hogan, Josh Norman and Captain Munnerlyn, the second cornerback position is up for grabs.
Unless there is significant improvement from either Norman or Hogan, Munnerlyn may once again find himself starting across the field from Gamble instead of the nickle slot position where he seems to be more comfortable.
The safety spot is starting to become a lot more clear with Haruki Nakamura wrapping up the free safety spot. Reggie Smith looked out of the running for a starting spot but had a good game Sunday against the Jets, recording an interception.
The safety position will not be as big a concern as the cornerback position but having playmakers who can prevent the deep ball or be opportunistic on errant throws will greatly help a questionable defense.
Medlock won the kicker battle now he needs to capitalize on the opportunity
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While this may not be an area of concern, it was last year and until proven otherwise there will be questions about it.
The youth movement finally came full circle with the roster cuts of kicker Olindo Mare and punter Nick Harris. Both were replaced by younger competition who played hard in both camp and the preseason.
Justin Medlock has been lights out through three preseason games and has been just as impressive in camp. He will be counted on make those long kicks as well as the short ones which Mare seemed to miss too often last season.
Medlock is not a rookie. He played in one NFL game, going one-for-two. Since then, he has been playing in the Canadian Football League but looks ready to be a mainstay in the Carolina Panthers organization.
Nick Harris has a strong leg but the Panthers felt they needed to go with the younger Brad Nortman whom they spent a draft pick on last April. Nortman has a ridiculously strong leg and can help out the defense by giving their opponents poor field position.
So far, it seems as if both kickers are instant upgrades from last year. However, they are both still young and not as experienced. It will be difficult to say just how much of an impact these kicking specialists will have until they both have a year's worth of playing time under their belts.
Special Teams Coverage and Returning
Joe Adams can best help the Panthers on special teams by getting the offense great field position
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One thing that has yet to stand out (aside from Joe Adams' impressive return in the first preseason game) is any vast improvement on special teams. Both the coverage units for kickoffs and punts have given up chunks of yards and have had trouble making their way down field. The kickoff team has been notoriously bad at getting coverage.
The punt unit is not nearly as bad since they have the benefit of a strong-legged punter. However, they need to take advantage of the hang time Nortman gives them and get to the return man before he can make a big play. This is especially critical against returners like Devin Hester who the Panthers will see in Week 8.
The return aspect of the unit has not done too much on both kickoffs and punts. Joe Adams has shown flashes but no one else has made much of a difference. Kealoha Pilares has been unable to maintain his return average and is usually swarmed before he can do too much in the open field.
Field position starts with special teams. The offense and defense will either benefit or find themselves in a tight spot if the guys on special teams cannot execute.
Closing out Games
Newton and Co. need to reduce mistakes and play better in the final quarter if they want to win more games
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Carolina ranked fifth in scoring and seventh in total offense last year but only won six games. A four-game improvement was nothing to scoff at given the team was led by a rookie quarterback and first-year head coach. Not to mention the lockout which kept them from working out until well into the preseason.
However, the injuries on defense, mistakes on offense and missed opportunities on special teams prevented the Panthers from winning more games. Five of their 10 losses were by seven points or less.
If the Panthers can remedy this aspect of their game, they should be able to improve upon last year's record and perhaps be a dark horse playoff team.
Carolina has shown the ability to be in control going into the fourth quarter but they need to tighten up the defense and reduce their mistakes all around in the final period in order to be on top when the game ends.