Carolina Panthers: Top 5 Early-Season Storylines
Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers (1-1) have already experienced the highs and the lows of a typical NFL season in their first two games against NFC South divisional foes, with a disappointing road loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-1) and an expectations-raising home win against the New Orleans Saints (0-2).
With the 2012 NFL regular season barely two weeks old, Newton has avoided the dreaded sophomore slump, the Panthers' running game has been dominated and dominant, and Thomas Davis has become an inspiration to weekend warriors everywhere.
The Panthers are sitting at .500 halfway through the most important four-game stretch of the season, with three divisional games and a Thursday night showdown this week against the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants, and no one knows for sure which team is going to show up the rest of the season.
Their 16-10 road loss to the Bucs was flat and uninspired while their 35-27 victory over the Saints has fans thinking that Ryan Kalil may not have totally lost his marbles when he predicted the Panthers would win the Super Bowl this season.
Carolina will get a chance to show the world what they are made of this week in their showcase game against the Giants, and they will likely dominate the nation's sports radio airwaves on Friday, for better or for worse.
Here is a look at the Panthers' top five early-season headlines through the first two weeks of the season.
No. 1: A Tale of Two Teams
It has been a tale of two seasons for the Carolina Panthers (1-1), and the season is only two games old.
Panthers fans may get a better idea of which team is going to show up each week as the season progresses, but Carolina's early body of work has been a case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Week 1: Unlucky 13
In Carolina's opening game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-1), the Panthers' normally potent running attack gained a franchise-tying record low 10 yards on only 13 carries.
Carolina's all-time leading rusher, DeAngelo Williams, tied his own mark for futility by losing one yard on six carries.
The Panthers' defense surrendered a pair of 13-play scoring drives in the first half in which Tampa Bay dominated time of possession by seven and a half minutes, including the Bucs' 80-yard touchdown drive to start the game.
Carolina trailed 13-0 at the half and they staged a minor comeback attempt in the second half, outscoring Tampa Bay 10-3, but their fate was sealed when a fourth-quarter miscue in punt protection led to a blocked punt and Connor Barth's third field goal of the game.
Tampa Bay won the game 16-10.
Week 2: Good Luck Saints
The Panthers bounced back in front of their home crowd the following week, though, defeating the New Orleans Saints (0-2) for the first time in five tries.
Carolina got its running game back on track, too, with Williams gaining 53 yards on 11 carries and Cam Newton adding a career-high 71 rushing yards on 13 attempts.
In all, the Panthers gained 219 yards on the ground and got rushing touchdowns from Newton, Williams and Mike Tolbert.
Carolina also scored twice through the air against New Orleans; first via Charles Godfrey's nine-yard interception return and later on a 17-yard pass from Newton to Jonathan Stewart.
Though the Saints gained 163 yards on the ground and another 325 yards through the air, Carolina took control of the game early, leading 21-13 at the half, and they never let New Orleans closer than eight points the rest of the game.
Carolina beat the Saints 35-27.
No. 2: Panthers’ Bend Don’t Break Defense
The Carolina Panthers’ defense was among the worst in the NFL in 2011 and they have not exactly been world beaters so far in 2012.
Sean McDermott's squad stands a respectable 11th in points allowed (21.5 per game) and 13th against the pass (225.5 yards per game), though both of those numbers are likely to increase after they face Eli Manning and the New York Giants on Thursday night.
Carolina had a hard time stopping the run in their first two games, giving up 146.5 yards per game—28th in the league—and a pair of 90-plus yard rushing performances by Tampa Bay's Doug Martin (95 yards) and New Orleans' Pierre Thomas (110 yards).
Their numbers against the run should improve against the pass-happy G-Men, though their No. 20 ranking in total defense (372.0 yards per game) could dip a bit lower after Week 3.
Rough Starts and Resiliency
After giving up 80-yard touchdown drives and perfect performances by both opposing quarterbacks to start each game—Josh Freeman (7-for-7) and Drew Brees (6-for-6) each finished their opening drive with a touchdown pass—the opposing quarterbacks completed just 34 of 60 passes (56.7-percent) with zero touchdowns the rest of the way.
Brees finished the game with 325 yards passing, but it took him 49 throws to do it.
That averages out to just 6.6 yards per attempt by a quarterback who averaged 8.3 yards per attempt on his way to an NFL record 5,476 passing yards in 2011.
Carolina’s defensive improvement after the opening drive is a reflection of their coordinator McDermott’s ability to come up with effective adjustments throughout the game.
If you eliminate their opponents' opening drives, the Panthers have given up just two touchdowns and five field goals the rest of the way.
But their struggles on opening drives could be just as much of a reflection on the coaching staff's preparation.
Carolina's success this season will hinge on the defense’s ability to get off the field quicker and minimize possessions of more than five plays, giving the Panthers’ potent offense better field position and more scoring opportunities.
It is better to bend than to break, though it is better still to stiffen up against the opposition.
No. 3: LaFell Emerges as a Legitimate No. 2
The Carolina Panthers officially have found their No. 2 wide receiver, and perhaps their No. 1 wideout of the future, in Brandon LaFell.
''Ever since Moose (Muhsin Muhammad) retired and also with Ricky Proehl retiring, we've been looking for a guy to step in and step up,'' Smith said. ''I think Brandon has done that.''
LaFell had his best game as a Panther in Week 2 against the Saints when he caught a career-high six passes for 90 yards and ran for 25 yards on an end-around Statue of Liberty play.
Coach Rivera is pleased with LaFell's development this season, too, and believes that LaFell's improvement and understanding of the offense opens up more opportunities for Smith and the running backs, as well.
''I'll tell you that Brandon is really developing into a fine receiver,'' Rivera said. ''He is really a solid football player. He showed what he's capable of and those types of plays that he makes, the consistency by which he is making them is really helping us.''
Through the first two games, LaFell has 9 catches for 155 yards (17.2 yards per catch) and a touchdown, which extrapolates to 72 catches for 1,240 yards and eight touchdowns over the course of 16 games.
It will be interesting to see if LaFell can continue at his current pace with opposing defensive backfields focused on stopping Smith, though they have not been successful at that this season, either.
Smith is fifth in the NFL with 210 yards on 10 catches through the NFL season’s first two weeks and the Panthers have the third-best most productive receiving duo in the league behind the New York Giants (Nicks and Cruz) and Philadelphia Eagles (Celek and Jackson).
No. 4: Thomas Davis and Jon Beason Are Healthy
The Carolina Panthers were decimated by injuries in 2011, but no two injuries hurt the team worse than the ones that ended the seasons of linebackers Jon Beason (Achilles) and Thomas Davis (ACL).
Beason, who had Achilles issues heading into last year’s opener, felt an explosion in his lower leg as he was chasing his former teammate, Arizona Cardinals tight end Jeff King, down the field in Week 1 of the 2011 season.
A week later, Thomas Davis felt the ACL in his right knee pop and tear for the third time in his NFL career, and he was lost for the season, as well.
Through the first two weeks of the 2012 NFL season, Beason and Davis have arguably been the Panthers’ best defenders.
Beason is tied with safety Charles Godfrey for the team lead with 17 tackles and an interception after the pair bookended Drew Brees with picks on the Saints' second and final offensive series.
Davis, who is believed to be the first NFL player to ever return to action after three major ACL injuries to the same leg, has just six tackles in the first two games of the season, but he has come up big at key moments despite being limited to just 15-20 reps per game.
Davis has also been a key contributor on special teams and he has already delivered several of the Panthers' hardest hits, both on punt coverage and from his linebacker position.
If Carolina's defensive captains can make it through the entire season unscathed, the Panthers could finish the season with a top-15 unit and a legitimate shot at making the playoffs as a wild-card contender.
No. 5: Slow Start for the Rookies
After all the hype surrounding Panthers rookies Luke Kuechly (LB), Josh Norman (CB) and Joe Adams (WR/PR/KR) following the preseason, their regular-season performances have been underwhelming.
Kuechly, who averaged about 15 tackles per game at Boston College and was on pace to shatter the NCAA’s career tackles record if he’d stayed for his senior season, has just nine total stops in his first two NFL games.
Many analysts expected Kuechly to contend for the NFL’s defensive Rookie of the Year award following his preseason performance, and he still might once he settles down and adjusts to the speed of the regular season.
But early on, Kuechly has been prone to overrunning plays and finding himself out of position in an apparent attempt to make every tackle instead of being more patient and protecting his part of the field.
Josh Norman has played solidly in his first two games, but his 12 tackles and zero passes defensed are also the result of the rookie cornerback being caught out of position on several occasions so far this season.
Norman was expected to struggle early this season after jumping up from Division-I FCS (I-AA) competition at Coastal Carolina, but he is a big, strong and athletic player who will continue to improve throughout the season.
Return man Joe Adams—last season’s NCAA leader with four punt returns for touchdowns—has upgraded the Panthers’ punt return position since beating out Armanti Edwards for the job, and his 21-yard return against Tampa Bay was longer than any of Edwards’ returns in 2011.
However, he has averaged just 7.0 yards per return on his other three attempts (4 returns for 42 yards in the first two games) so far this season.
Carolina needs Adams, who has also taken over Kealoha Pilares’ kick-return duties, to be a field-position changer on special teams.
Through the first two Panthers games, he has not yet lived up to his hype.
On a side note, rookie defensive lineman Frank Alexander has already batted down three passes at the line of scrimmage in the first two games and Carolina’s rookie punter, Brad Nortman, has placed four of his first 10 punts inside the opponents’ 20-yard line.
Jimmy Grappone is a Featured Columnist covering the Carolina Panthers and the NFL on BleacherReport.com.
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