As training camp begins, there's a buzz in the air. Fans are eagerly waiting for their favorite players to take the field, looking forward to meeting the new faces, and speculating on their ability to contribute right away.
But for the Panthers, the biggest question marks are on the sidelines. They return 21 of 22 starters overall, so the starting lineup is more or less a known quantity.
But how they play may not be, at least on one side of the ball.
That's the burning question for the Panthers. How will the defense play under Ron Meeks?
Before you can answer that, you need to look past him to the man who determines what that defense will be, John Fox.
Fox has always run the whole show during his tenure in Carolina, whether the coordinator has been Dan Henning, Jack Del Rio, Mike Trgovac, or Jeff Davidson.
On offense, he wants the backs to pound, pound, pound. When they need to throw, he wants a vertical passing game out of his quarterback. He doesn't want to take risks and he isn't interested in a high percentage, short passing game.
Dan Henning and Jeff Davidson understood this. When the Panthers have been at their most successful they've run more than they've passed. This year will be more of the same, given the talent the Panthers have in DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, and the offensive line.
On defense, Fox has always favored an aggressive 4-3 scheme that brings blitzes from a variety of areas. Fox's players constantly shift around at the line, disguising the coverage and hiding the blitz.
Sound familiar? Sound like something you remember from 2006? Maybe 2003? Or maybe your memory goes further back than that, to the 2000 Giants team that dismantled Minnesota in the playoffs, 41-0?
When Fox inherited the 14th ranked defense from Jim Nolan in New York, he replaced Nolan's "read and react" philosophy that was 28th in sacks in 1996 with one of his own. He implemented an aggressive defensive scheme that brought everyone at different times, and it only took the Giants 10 games to match their entire season's sack production from the year before.
But Fox's defense has always been more than just attacking. They play a lot of zone behind the blitz, and have tasked some surprising players with area responsibilities before.
For example, who can forget NT Ma'ake Kemoeatu dropping back in coverage while the linebackers sprinted towards the quarterback?
You might think that those defensive plays were the sole design of departed Defensive Coordinator Mike Trgovac, but they were happening in New York from 1997-2000, and on the Panthers when Del Rio was calling the shots from the sideline.
Trgovac was tasked with implementing the Fox defense, and did so through a wide variety of heavily scripted plays. His defensive playbook was one of the thickest in the NFL, and relied heavily on zone assignments and gap control.
On any given play you would have five or six defensive players in coverage, usually playing some sort of zone, while pressure came from the line and possibly a blitz from somewhere in the secondary.
Linemen would drop back into coverage, hopefully pulling offensive linemen with them while linebackers shot the gaps in an attempt to collapse the pocket or otherwise create havoc.
In general though, the defense relies on the front four to provide most of the pressure, while the back seven work to prevent big plays and keep the offense out of the end zone.
Which brings us to Ron Meeks.
Meeks coached a Cover 2 defense in Indianapolis, one that surrendered a lot of yards but not a lot of points. Critics of Meeks point out that this was really Tony Dungy's defense. They may be right, but Meeks still made it effective.
Instead of gap control, Meeks and Dungy employed more of a gap attack style that had the line exploding off the ball while the secondary settled into their zones to prevent the big play. They lined up their ends wide off the edge, allowing them to get upfield quickly to cause as much disruption as possible.
When it worked, you got a sack, a hurry, or a broken play. Even on running plays the backs were generally forced back into the middle, or pushed far outside to the pursuit.
They were one of the least blitzing teams in the NFL, but at the same time had one of the most aggressive defenses.
In Carolina, he'll be tasked with making Fox's zone blitzing scheme more effective that it was in 2008. Details on the new scheme have not been forthcoming, but there have been some hints dropped.
For starters, expect the base set to look a lot like the one that Fox has used for years, dating back to his days with Oakland.
Expect fewer blitzes. Before you get too upset, keep in mind that an ineffective blitz leaves your defense playing 10 on 11, and Carolina's had a lot of ineffective blitzes in the past couple of years.
This could be a fundamental departure from Fox's signature style, but if it's effective, it's not likely that he'll care much.
Expect the "bend but don't break" philosophy to live on, as Meeks will instruct his players to keep the action in front of them and prevent the big play.
Expect to see more pressure and less coverage from the defensive line, as Meeks has basically said he's going to turn them loose every play.
And expect to see more defenders flying around the field, abandoning their initial zone assignments in pursuit of the ball.
Meeks preaches swarming to the ball, and although he talks about "read and react," his defenses really do more "read on the run" as they bring pressure to the ball rather than waiting for it to come to them.
The front four will still be relied on to provide most of the pressure, but Trgovac's gap control system will likely be replaced with the gap attack that Dungy and Meeks employed in Indianapolis.
And that may make all the difference.
In 2008, Carolina was a top 10 defense most of the season, until their starting DTs started getting dinged up. In the last two games of the season the entire unit surrendered so many yards that their overall ranking went from 10th in the NFL to 18th.
Trgovac's defenses needed a big run-stuffing tackle, and they also needed good penetration from the position. His defenses never really recovered from Kris Jenkins' departure.
Meeks' defenses need quick, penetrating tackles, but it's a safe bet that he'll be plenty happy with Kemo's ability to occupy blockers.
Still, if Kemo or Damione Lewis goes down, Meeks should be able to adapt much better in his scheme than Trgovac could have. Charles Johnson and Tyler Brayton can both be effective at defensive tackle in a gap attack scheme, where they might get overpowered easily while attempting gap control.
Carolina has top ten talent on the defensive side of the ball. Every unit is solid, and outside of the defensive tackle position the depth is outstanding.
But given what happened late in 2008, you can count on opponents attempting to ram the ball up the gut all year. Eventually Kemo and Lewis are bound to wear down. That lack of depth will be revealed, and the Panthers may have to rely on rookies or defensive ends playing out of position.
If Meeks can overcome that, it's going to be another very good year in Carolina.