For the first time in a long time, its not the Carolina Panthers' offense that needs fine tuning in the offseason. The Panthers "O" was good for 25.9 points per game last season, seventh best in the league. They also averaged 152.3 yards per game on the ground, good enough for third in the league.
In the past, Panthers teams have been known for their tenacious defense and sub-par offense. Outside of Steve Smith they have never been blessed with a superstar on that side of the ball, and the statistics have backed that up.
Now that DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart have burst onto the scene as arguably the best two-back tandem in the NFL, it's the other side of the ball that's having problems.
The Panthers defense allowed 28 points per game in the team's final seven regular season contests. Although the offense played well enough to win five of them, it was obvious that if and when the offensive unit had an off day, the team would suffer greatly.
That was no more evident than in Carolina's embarrassing 33-13 home loss to Arizona in the divisional round of the playoffs.
In that game, Larry Fitzgerald burned the Panthers for 166 yards and a 29-yard touchdown, while the Cardinals amassed 145 yards on the ground. Yes, Jake Delhomme had a terrible game, but it wasn't helped any by the fact that the Cardinals could do whatever they wanted to when they had the ball.
The defensive unit is lucky Jake petered out like he did, because that shifted much of the blame off of their shotty performance.
Enough about the past. This is all about the future. In 2009, the Carolina Panthers have a real shot at making the playoffs in succesive seasons for the first time in franchise history.
They have the majority of their starting cast back and have made some changes to the coaching staff that should play out nicely. Their road to the postseason, however, goes through many difficult and winding roads. Their schedule is theoretically the second-toughest behind the Dolphins', and nobody will take the Panthers lightly after their performance last season.
On offense, the goal is seemingly simple: keep on keepin' on. The Panthers offense relied heavily last year on the ground game, and figures to do the same in 2009. Williams and Stewart will continue to be called on to carve up opposing defenses and attempt to open the passing game for Delhomme and Steve Smith.
The entire starting offensive line is back and, barring injury, should be able to improve with the benefit of an entire offseason to work as a unit under their belt.
The only prospective change is rookie Duke Robinson beating out Keydrick Vincent for the starting right guard spot, something that will likely only happen if Vincent cannot fully recover from a groin injury that knocked him out late last season.
Williams and Stewart are obviously comfortable running behind these Gross and the gang, and should continue to charge through defenses.
The passing game will have much of the same look to it, with a couple of utility players potentially making a small splash. Rookie Mike Goodson from Texas A&M has already impressed Delhomme with his speed and agility, and could prove to be useful coming out of the slot in certain situations.
He played as a running back in college, so you could see him lining up in the split back formation on passing downs as well.
Dwayne Jarrett continues to puzzle his teammates and media pundits alike with his inability to grasp the concept of the NFL game. If he can somehow translate his illustrious college game to the Sunday gridiron, the Panthers will have a definite threat to line up opposite of Smith.
In the meantime, Muhsin Muhammad returns as the possession receiver and, as always, figures to be a steady asset for the team.
The only significant visible change we may see to the Panthers offense in 2009 could be more options on the short passing routes. Smith is no longer the only player with blazing speed, and it is widely thought that using Williams in the slot could create confusion in opposing defenses.
With the addition of the speedy Goodson and given the dollar amount that the Panthers spent to keep tight end Jeff King, a more active short passing game could be in the works for the team's offense.
The defensive side of the ball will have a new leader in Ron Meeks, the team's new defensive coordinator. Meeks replaces Mike Trgovac who came under massive scrutiny during the team's defensive collapse late last year. Abundance of talent is no problem for the Panthers, but finding a way to mesh that talent into a smooth operating unit will be the job that Meeks is charged with.
Every defensive starter returns except for Ken Lucas, who was cut by the team after vetoing a trade to Detroit. Julius Peppers has been a no-show for all of the Panthers voluntary offseason workouts to date, but the organization remains confident he will suit up in 2009.
Meeks has said he is creating a new scheme in Carolina, one that doesn't have cookie-cutter definitions but rather plays to the strengths of the players who will be running it. It will likely implore many of the basic principles of Tony Dungy's "Tampa-2" scheme that he has used for much of his career.
In the Tampa-2, the majority of the pressure on the quarterback comes from the front four of the defensive line, while the linebackers and secondary use zone coverages to thwart downfield threats.
It is likely that he will use more linebacker blitzes than the traditional Tampa-2, given that he has threats such as Jon Beason and Thomas Davis in his linebacking corps. More zone coverages for the Panthers secondary will also help, as they at times seem undersized and overmatched when defending man-to-man.
The defensive scheme is still in the fledgling stages, with Meeks running the most basic of defenses at the team's OTA's to get a feel for his players' strengths and weaknesses. Don't expect the team to reveal much about the new defense until we see it in action on opening day, although training camp should give us a healthy glimpse.
The goals are simple for the 2009 Panthers: continue their new-found dominance in the ground game when they have the ball, and shore up the leaks that nearly sank the ship down the stretch on defense last year.
The artists and conductors are all in place, let's see what the music sounds like.
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