Carolina Panthers' BIggest Preseason Disappointments so Far
The Carolina Panthers are heading into their final preseason game Thursday night in Pittsburgh, but what is truly the lame duck of preseason games will not tell us much more about the team we've been keeping a close eye on through the three games played so far.
It's never safe to make assumptions, whether negative or positive, about a team based on preseason performance, but it's fair to be excited in certain cases and disappointed in others.
We're going to discuss the latter to give some idea as to what the Panthers must focus on improving just 10 days from their regular-season kickoff in Tampa Bay on September 7.
The Return Game
The Panthers have been searching for a replacement for the departed Ted Ginn Jr. at both the punt and kick returner positions all offseason, but they haven't come up with a clearly deserving victor to assume the responsibilities.
While undrafted rookie receiver Philly Brown appears slated to get the start based on the team's listed depth chart, his performance on punt returns has been underwhelming throughout the preseason. He has had two punt returns for two yards.
While he has looked much better on kick returns, the Panthers typically see fewer opportunities to return kicks than punts, based on their defensive prowess and the frequency of touchbacks on kickoffs in the modern-day NFL.
Whether or not Brown pans out remains to be seen, but he doesn't seem like a long-term answer. The Panthers may be left wishing they addressed the position with a veteran when they inevitably come out on the wrong side of a close, low-scoring, field-position battle this season.
Offensive Line Depth
Based on the lack of experience behind the starters, it appeared a foregone conclusion that the offensive line would struggle early, but it hasn't just looked inexperienced; the O-line has looked terrible.
The two most experienced backups, tackle Garry Williams and guard Chris Scott, have actually looked just as bad or worse than any of the younger players—some of whom have seen no regular-season playing time in their careers.
If the Panthers suffer any number of injuries to starters on their offensive line, they'll have to pick up veteran free agents to replace them, regardless of the cost, because just one of these backups entering the starting lineup could prove disastrous.
The Run Game
The Panthers have consistently been one of the best teams in the NFL at running the ball over the past several years, and I don't expect that to change this season, but they certainly challenged my conviction with their performance this preseason.
There seem to be fewer holes opening up than usual. Perhaps that can be chalked up to a group of linemen who are largely in new positions and playing next to guys whom they haven't ever played next to before—among starters who are currently playing next to one another, only center Ryan Kalil and left guard Amini Silatolu have extended experience doing so.
The Panthers offense is built off the run game, so this group will have to get its act together soon. The franchise didn't invest a huge chunk of money into one of the league's highest-paid backfields to see the runners get stuffed behind the line of scrimmage with regularity.
Roman Harper's Absence from the Field
When Roman Harper was signed earlier this offseason, I was excited about the move. Harper plays with similar style to the departed Mike Mitchell as a traditional hard-hitting, blitz-capable box safety.
But Harper hasn't been able to show off his abilities at all during the preseason because of a lingering turf toe injury, which he only returned from on Tuesday.
Whether or not he plays against the Steelers on Thursday remains to be seen, but even if he does, it's going to be a struggle for him to get into proper football condition before the regular season starts.
The Panthers will need him on the field because the players behind him are worrying—both Robert Lester and Anderson Russell have shown positive signs, but they are not capable starters at this point in their budding careers.
Lack of Explosiveness
Just three years ago, the Panthers had one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL, leading the league in runs over 20 yards and finishing sixth in passes over 20 yards, per NFL.com.
The Panthers are unlikely to receive much of a boost in the big-play department from the return game this season, so the offense will have to get back to its explosive style of play this season.
However, through three games, no passing play has gone longer than 31 yards, and no run has gone longer than 19 yards. That isn't going to cut it, and perhaps it can be partially chalked up to Cam Newton's tendency to take it easy in the preseason. Nevertheless, there is no excuse for the ineptitude of the run game, which has always been a strength of the team.
Look for the Panthers to attempt to re-establish themselves as a threatening offense with plenty of vertical passing early in the season in order to open up underneath routes for the slew of possession receivers on the roster, including veterans Jason Avant and Jerricho Cotchery.
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