This Sunday marks the return of former head coach John Fox to Charlotte as the Denver Broncos (5-3) go against the Carolina Panthers (2-6). With the exception of a few veteran players, the team Fox left behind will have an entirely differently look not only in personnel, but in their play calling as well.
Carolina is coming off a huge victory against the Washington Redskins and looks to build upon its recent success on both sides of the ball to earn its first winning streak of the year. However, the task in front of it will not be easy, as the Broncos are led by future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning.
Denver has had more success this season, but Carolina has showed vast signs of improvement by changing different aspects of its gameplan, and the results have been mostly positive. The Panthers have proven they can hang with football heavyweights like Chicago and Atlanta, so the Broncos should not take these guys lightly.
In order for the Panthers to emerge victorious this weekend, they will need to exploit the Broncos' weaknesses and establish the tempo early to gain the edge. Here are this week's keys to the game.
The Achilles heel that afflicted the Panthers early in the season and caused their offense to lack potency was its persistent use of the read option. Too many times was this play called, and too many times, it was neutralized, resulting in Carolina looking foolish, turning the ball over or both.
A couple of weeks ago, offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski finally received the memo and changed his strategy. Since the game against Dallas, Carolina has went with a more pro style, traditional offense. As a result, the Panthers are moving the ball better and are scoring with more consistency. Their performance last week was probably the best so far this season, but this offense is capable of so much more.
Steve Smith scored his first touchdown of the season last week, and Cam Newton has been given time to throw because the offensive line is improving each week. Factor in the recent emergence of the running backs Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams and the threats posed by Greg Olsen and Brandon LaFell, and this team will give the Denver defense headaches all game long.
There is no denying how talented Peyton Manning is in football. His legacy is firmly entrenched in the annals of gridiron lore having won a Super Bowl and establishing rivalries with such greats like Tom Brady. He has further solidified his reputation after returning from four neck surgeries. Look no further than what he did against the San Diego Chargers.
However, this man is not invincible.
The Panthers have have only met in three games with Manning at the helm and won two of them. Yes, you read that right...they won two of those meetings.
The positive for Carolina is the recent success of the defensive play. The line and the linebackers have played exceptionally well, while the secondary is doing an admirable job in its own right but needs to keep improving.
Unfortunately, this is the elder Manning they are facing and the second one they have seen this year. The Panthers do not want a repeat of when they were blown out by the New York Giants in Week 3.
Manning is not the same quarterback he once was, but he knows how to win games. Since he has a tendency to throw a lot of short-yardage passes coming off his surgery, expect the linebackers to be heavily involved in this game.
You can't fault the young man for wanting to win. His attitude and disposition leaves a lot to be desired following a loss, but Cam Newton is being genuine about how much he wants to succeed in this league and how he wants to pull his team from the depths of mediocrity.
When he isn't called upon to make things happen on every other play, the Panthers look really good. When the running game is doing what it should and the line is giving Newton time to throw, he can become the quarterback everyone knows he can be.
That being said, he doesn't need to throw for over 300 yards or run all over the place to achieve victory. Newton's best success has come when he can play a balanced game and rely on the support of teammates to help move the ball.
Don't be fooled. This offense needs Newton on every play, but with a balanced, typical offensive scheme working well, it allows the Panthers to employ either the read option or some other kind of trick play that will generate positive results.
The one play that helped propel the Panthers to victory over the Redskins was the 82-yard reception Armanti Edwards had coming off the bench late in the game. It was unexpected and yet, like everything else involving Carolina backups this year, he was able to make his time on the field count.
While not a backup in the traditional sense, rookie Luke Kuechy was the backup to Jon Beason, and when the Beast went down, Kuechly not only stepped in, he produced. The same can be said for Captain Munnerlyn, who has been filling in for Chris Gamble. While not having the same kind of presence on the field Kuechly has shown, he has keep receivers in check.
This week will feature the return of David Gettis to the wide receiver corps who will fill in (at WR anyway) for Kealoha Pilares. Gettis missed all of last season because of an injury, but showed promise in his rookie season despite having three different quarterbacks throwing to him.
If he can improve upon those numbers with Newton throwing to him, then his presence will be a welcome addition to an offense in need of new weapons in which to burn opposing defenses.
It's not easy being a rookie in the NFL. It's definitely not easy when you are called upon to counter an offense which is being led by the master of the audible.
Unfortunately, that will be the job placed on Luke Kuechly's shoulders on Sunday. He will need to not only work with defensive coordinator Sean McDermott with implementing every play on the field, but make adjustments accordingly based on Manning's penchant for changing the play at the line.
This is no doubt Denver's strong suit offensively, and halfway through the season, it has become accustomed to Manning's style in the huddle and at the line of scrimmage. If Carolina cannot find a solution to stopping the Broncos, especially when Manning is changing the play, it could be a long day defensively.
Kuechly will need to show maturity and gut instinct if he is to get his teammates in position to offset Manning and the Denver offense. Hopefully, this young man from Boston College has been spending this week watching hours of game film of Manning in action.
This applies to both sides of the ball. The Carolina defense showed a lot of aggressiveness and physicality against Washington last week, and more of the same should be expected this week. Players like Thomas Davis, James Anderson and Haruki Nakamura have delivered some hard hits in recent games this year, and it shouldn't surprise anyone if either one of them delivers such a hit on a Broncos receiver/running back early in the game.
Likewise on offense, the Panthers need to go for the proverbial jugular on every series. Even if they have to settle for a field goal on a couple of them, they need to ensure they put points on the board. The last thing they need to do is allow the Broncos to get an early lead or allow them to chip away at the lead they established. Once again, refer to the San Diego game.
Denver is probably one of the better teams Carolina has played this year, with its defense ranked 10th in passing yards allowed and 12th in rushing yards allowed.
When Denver scores 30 points in a game, it wins. They have done that in five games this season and have five wins to show for it. In their three losses, the Broncos failed to score over 25 points, so it's a testament to how strong their offense can be.
Carolina has only allowed its opponents to score 30 points twice this season, both resulting in losses. The good news is, it hasn't allowed that many points to be scored on it since a heartbreaking Week 4 loss to the Atlanta Falcons.
The Panthers have played good defense lately, and despite injuries to key players on the unit, they have kept their team in each game since using the replacements following the first game missed by Beason and Gamble.
On the flip side, the Panthers can score 30, but they will need to have the offense firing on all cylinders in order for that to happen. They have only done it once, and that was in Week 2 against a weakened New Orleans team.
While it's alright to give rookies a break and not be too hard on them in their first season, it has become inexcusable in the case of punter Brad Nortman. The young man from Wisconsin has shown a tremendous leg this season, but in games against Chicago and Washington, he has had punts that would have rivaled Cam Newton's shortest completions.
In a game where field position is key, Nortman needs to work out the kinks and pin the opposition deep in their own territory. Having a team line up within 10 yards of where the Carolina offense played its most recent down is not going to get it done.
Last season, Ron Rivera brought in competition to motivate former kicker Olindo Mare. If Nortman keeps punting short, he may find himself with some competition of his own before the season is done.
If Carolina is to hang on to any playoff hopes it may have left, it will need to treat each game from here on out as if it is its last. It will need to play its hearts out for four quarters and leave everything out on the field. Then, repeat that performance over the next seven weeks.
Is it possible? Unlikely.
However, on any given Sunday, anything can happen. Teams can start out hot and then fall apart. Just ask rival Tampa Bay. They can have an average season and then get hot when it matters most. Ask the Giants.
Nothing is ever guaranteed in sports, and until the Panthers are mathematically eliminated, they need to play as if they still have a chance at reaching the postseason.
Last week, DeAngelo Williams was fired up at how the Washington Redskins had labeled the Panthers as the “homecoming” team and used that as motivation to fire up his teammates in the locker room during his pregame speech. He later scored a touchdown in the game that put Carolina out in front.
The Panthers don't really have any beef with Denver, but then again, they should be mad at everyone to include themselves. Carolina needs to find that motivation in different places to get fired up and come at the Broncos with everything it has.
Some veterans may find absolution in the fact that John Fox left the team in disarray and is coaching Denver, while others may use the underachiever label to fire themselves up. If it works, start a rumor that has Peyton Manning badmouthing the team.
Bottom line: Carolina needs to use the same kind of energy from last week to beat the Broncos. Williams brought his team together and it united together. Its play on the field reflected that.
No team has respected the Panthers for a very long time, and that should be motivation enough to fire up this franchise.