Carolina Panthers: Breaking Down Their Blueprint for Winning the NFC South
The first week of the 2012 NFL season is finally upon us and that means a clean slate for everyone. The new season begins by highlighting the flaws and identifying the changes each team must make in order to contend not only within its respective division, but in it's conference as well.
The Carolina Panthers have done their share of roster moves and adjustments in an effort to correct last year's shortcomings. Through the draft they added intelligent and talented linebacker, Luke Kuechly who seems to have a nose for the ball. They also drafted Arkansas' Joe Adams who may bring another level of excitement to the return game.
Carolina sought improvement through free agency too. They signed former Baltimore Ravens backup safety Haruki Nakamura to start, hopefully giving Chris Gamble much needed assistance in the secondary.
The need for improvement resulted in the cuts of kicker Olindo Mare and Terrell McClain, both of whom spent one season in a Panthers uniform.
Of course, personnel moves are just one piece of the puzzle. There is a lot more involved in order to earn a playoff berth and even more work needs to be put in to win a division title.
This slideshow will target specific areas that the Panthers need to overcome if they are to finish the regular season as NFC South champions.
Combat the Injury Bug
Both Thomas Davis and Jon Beason will be vital cogs to the Panthers success in 2012
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While every team deals with injuries on a yearly basis, the Panthers were affected by it to a degree it bordered on the ridiculous. The injuries sustained on the defense alone crippled the entire unit and made it easy pickings for opposing offenses.
The good news for Carolina is they were able to escape training camp and the first preseason games without any significant losses. Steve Smith, Jon Beason and Jonathan Stewart all battled injuries which limited their playing time or in Beason's case kept him out altogether. This seems to have been more of a precautionary measure as Coach Ron Rivera has stated that the players held out during the preseason would have started in the regular season.
One player of note who will be monitored closely will be linebacker Thomas Davis. When healthy, he has shown the talent to be one of the best defenders in the league. However, he has been battling injuries since the middle of the 2009 season and many have to wonder if his knee will hold up this year. He won't be starting but even as a situational player he will be very effective...if he stays healthy.
Stewart should not miss too much if any playing time and even if he does, the Panthers have a deep and talented stable of running backs. Beason and Davis will be interesting to watch as their presence on the field could determine how strong or weak the defense is as a whole.
With any luck, there will not be any significant loss of key players and the road to a division crown will start out on a good note.
Beat Up the Division
The Falcons are just one of the teams in the way of the Panthers quest for postseason glory
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The next step after staying healthy is to win those games against the division rivals. After all, teams in the same division play each other twice in a season. For some, this is small stepping stone but for a team like Carolina in a very strong and competitive division, it can be a daunting task.
For starters, let's review the Panthers all-time divisional record against their current rivals. They are 43-48 against the NFC South with a winning record against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (14-9). The team the Panthers seem to struggle against is Atlanta who has owned them with a 22-12 record. As for the New Orleans Saints, the Panthers have split 34 meetings at 17 apiece.
Carolina gets an early test and if successful against their division opponents can assert themselves in the driver's seat en route to post season glory.
The Panthers will open the season against the Bucs whom the Panthers dominated both times last year. The following week has them back home against a Saints team that will be hindered in the aftermath of the Bounty Gate scandal and should be weakened defensively. Two weeks later, the Panthers and Falcons collide in the Georgia Dome where the Panthers have not had the best of luck and where Matt Ryan seems to thrive. While a sweep of the first matchups would be an outstanding start, a 2-1 mark will get them off in the right direction as they will see their division rivals scattered between Weeks 11-17.
Both the Falcons and the Saints present a multitude of problems for the Panthers and it will be to their advantage to strike fast and hard. These teams know each other better than anyone else in the league and if Carolina is to win a division crown, they need beat those who are competing for the same prize.
Cam Newton Continues to Be Cam Newton
Newton will be counted on to help win a division crown for the Panthers
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If there was ever a bigger competitor on the offensive side of the ball not named Steve Smith, it is Cam Newton. Winning two collegiate titles at two different schools has instilled a winning attitude and his mission is still as strong today as it was the night he was drafted: win ball games.
Newton will be coming off an Offensive Rookie of the Year campaign that saw him destroy multiple records and rewrite the history books. His style of play has and should continue to revolutionize the way the quarterback position is played.
He has proven to be capable of running a pro style offense and while considered a running quarterback, he will try to make the play with his arm before resorting to his feet. He has a great work ethic. Many times he has been known to stay late or arrive early to watch game film. This was a practice he was doing during the offseason. Newton has a strong desire to better himself and with that attitude plus the talent surrounding him on offense should prevent him from regressing in his second season.
That is not to say he can simply repeat his performance from last year. Yes, Newton accounted for 34 touchdowns and threw for over 4,000 yards, but he still had 17 interceptions. A couple of those turned out to be the deciding factor in close games.
Carolina will only be as successful as their quarterback will allow them to be. He has the ability to keep them in games but he needs to make better decisions on the field, not turn the ball over and keep the offense on the field long enough to rest the defense and score enough points making their job all that much easier.
Make Life Difficult for Opposing Quarterbacks
There needs to be a lot more pressure by the line in 2012
The one thing that drove fans crazy both last year and during the preseason was the lack of pressure on the opposing quarterback. It was especially frustrating seeing New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez get all the time in the world to throw since the New York line is not considered to be that good.
Charles Johnson will be depended upon to bring the pressure from the edge but the questions are abundant for both the interior and the other side occupied by Greg Hardy. Just this past week Carolina cut DT Terrell McClain and signed Dwan Edwards to help anchor and shore up an abysmal line. Hardy has looked less than spectacular if less than decent during the preseason raising questions about his ability to be a starter on the line.
The interior needs to do more this year and by that they need to control the line of scrimmage and shut down any running lanes. By doing this, they make the job of the linebacker unit that much easier forcing the opposition to become predictable in their play calling. The defensive ends need to their part in forcing the quarterback into making poor throws and causing chaos in the backfield.
The success of the defense starts at the line. If the guys up front cannot get it done then it forces the rest of the defense to compensate for their inabilities and could possibly result in the defense being taken apart on many series. If that happens, Carolina could find themselves playing from behind in many games.
Rookies Need to Step Up
Kuechly is a welcome addition to a vulnerable defense
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The Panthers drafted a good group of young men who can fill a need that can help the team be successful down the road. Luke Kuechly was brought in amidst the uncertainty of Jon Beason and Thomas Davis. Joe Adams could provide a spark on special teams and give Carolina excellent field position on punt returns. Josh Norman has the potential to be a good complement to Chris Gamble on the other side of the field.
Carolina may be in a youth movement but that is no excuse for these guys to play like rookies or not be leaders on the field. Beason stepped up as a rookie in 2007 when Dan Morgan was lost to injury, so a lot will be expected of this draft class.
Kuechly has proven himself during the preseason and is usually involved in every play. His motor alone makes it very interesting to see what he can do with Beason and James Anderson on the field helping him out.
Norman has received praise from his teammates and has drawn comparisons to Steve Smith for his fire and competitive spirit. Those are two valuable tools that will benefit him in being a good cornerback but he needs to show opposing offenses they cannot pick on him without paying for it. If the kid develops the way he is expected to, the secondary will have improved tremendously.
Joe Adams will not only be a spark on special teams but should be able to offer his talents to a very versatile, creative and multiple look offense. Not only should he help improve the Panthers' starting field position on each series, he could very well be a headache for defenses lining up with Smith and Brandon LaFell.
The entire rookie class and not just the ones mentioned here all need to step up in their first season. They are the future of the team and their successes and mistakes could mean the difference in winning or losing.
Put the Conference on Notice
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Carolina not only has a full plate with the games against their division rivals but their non-division schedule is not much better. The Panthers have several games against teams this year that will be considered playoff contenders or favorites to reach the Super Bowl. Two of those non-divisional games will be on national television and what better way to make a statement than on the national stage?
The Panthers get their first test in Week 3 against the defending champion New York Giants. Fortunately, they will be able to play this game in the friendly confines of Bank of America Stadium. A win against the G-Men will go a long way in both sending a message to the league and establishing themselves as serious contenders within the division.
Games against the Cowboys, Bears and Broncos will follow and all three of them look to be in contention for their own division title or a playoff berth.
Dallas has had their way with the Panthers having won eight of nine against them. However, the Cowboys know that in the postseason the story is very different. Carolina needs a win here especially if they lose to the Giants in Week 3.
The Chicago Bears made the Panthers look silly on special teams last year and unless Devin Hester is injured, Carolina better find a way to improve that coverage team. This game will be especially tough because it will be played at Soldier Field. This game could potentially be a defensive chess match if both units keep the offenses in check.
Week 10 marks a homecoming of sorts when the Denver Broncos come to town. Former head coach John Fox and former defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio return to Carolina in a game that initially would have featured Tim Tebow versus Cam Newton. Instead, it will be Peyton Manning vs Newton. This game should be interesting to say the least, especially since many fans blame Fox for torpedoing the team in 2010.
The Eagles will take on the Panthers on Monday Night and could very well have playoff implications on the line. This game could serve as a playoff preview, too. Additionally, it could generate a lot of viewers as fans across the nation could be in for a shootout between Newton and Michael Vick. Besides the last game of the season against the Saints, this could be the most important game down the stretch.
The following week the Panthers take on the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium. That game will feature two up and coming teams as both are young and if the Chiefs can stay healthy, could be a dominant force in both their division and conference. Much like the Eagles game, this one could be a shootout as well. This game should be a good measurement for how the Panthers respond from a meaningful prime time game in a short week.
Carolina needs to take advantage of its non-conference schedule because it will give them an advantage in overall record and even if they lose out on the division, they can still put themselves in a position for a wild card berth.
The Offense Maintains It Top 10 Billing
DeAngelo Williams will help make the Panthers running game one of the best
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Cam Newton and company did more than most people would have expected from them last year. This year it is the complete opposite as experts and analysts alike are predicting another strong showing by the offense.
The Panthers gained a valuable weapon in Mike Tolbert who should more than make up for Jeremy Shockey's production. Joe Adams looks to be a threat in the slot and Kealoha Pilares has proven himself as a fourth or fifth receiver. Steve Smith looks to repeat last year's Pro Bowl numbers and across the field Brandon LaFell looks to take the next step to become one of the league's most reliable receivers. Greg Olsen should provide an outstanding check down option if needed and has the ability to turn a short reception into a long gain.
Then there is Double Trouble. The duo of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart will make life unbearable for opposing defenses and the best part is neither one of them should be exhausted while on the field.
The players, the playbook and the coaches are all in place to make this offense one of the league's best for a second year in a row. Carolina will be in good shape if that happens; now if only the defense can fix it's issues.
Correct Last Year's Mistakes and Limit New Ones
Nothing can stall or kill a drive like a penalty can
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This one should go without saying but in the case of the Carolina Panthers it was mistakes that became their undoing in 2011. That of course encompasses penalties, bad reads or missed assignments. The Panthers can help themselves tremendously if they can limit the mental errors and ensure each member is doing their part on the field.
Sounds simple, but everyone knows mistakes will be made.
The key here is to limit those mistakes. Every coach from all levels of football preaches the value of fundamentals and sound game play. Each and every player in the league, including the Panthers, have heard the team with the fewest mistakes wins games. While that is somewhat true it helps to execute each play correctly regardless of what side of the ball they are on.
Carolina is a young team and the mistakes they will make will most likely frustrate their coaches and the fan base alike. However, this is a group of young men who have the benefit of solid leadership amongst the team veterans.
Score, Score and Score Some More
TD receptions like this will help Carolina win games this year
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The Panthers may have one of the best offenses in the league and if they can get their defense on the same page, they should be able to give the Saints and Falcons a run for their money. Last year, Carolina was fifth in points scored and seventh in overall offense. During the preseason the starters looked very good for the most part and even more so during the last two games.
When this team is in sync and firing on all cylinders, they will be tough to stop. The Panthers are so talented offensively that by the time they cross midfield the chances of points being put on the board increases dramatically.
However, what they need to do in order to stay in games and put themselves in a position to win is to capitalize on each opportunity to score. Newton needs to make the throws in the end zone, the receivers need to be reliable targets and every field goal attempted needs to be executed flawlessly.
Games cannot be won without points and the Panthers are very good at lighting up the scoreboard. If Steve Smith's optimism about doubling the amount of points from last year comes to fruition, Carolina will be well on it's way to contention.
Lead at Halftime, Close It out in the Final Quarter
Being on the right side of the scoreboard when the game is over makes Newton a happy guy
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Carolina has shown a knack for getting on the board early and it was not surprising to see them leading at the half last season. The problem was closing the games out. This can be attributed to mistakes or deviating from the game plan but the bottom line is simple; they need to keep doing the things that worked that left them leading halfway through the game.
Their opponents will make adjustments and so will the Panthers. Rob Chudzinski is a smart coordinator that he can be creative enough not to tip his entire hand in one half of football.
What worked for the first half may work again in the second half but if not, they should have a Plan B already in place. Once again, this team is a talented bunch on offense and should be be able to keep opposing defenses off balance.
If the Panthers can control the clock and the tempo entering the third quarter, they should find themselves in the right column after the game ends.
The math is very simple: Carolina leads at the half + controlling the clock/tempo + adding points to the scoreboard = Panthers victory.
That formula alone is the foundation to winning a division championship.