This Saturday night the Panthers play their first game of the year at Bank of America stadium. They'll be playing yet another high pressure defense, and yet another 2008 AFC playoff team—the Baltimore Ravens.
Last year was supposed to be a rebuilding effort for the Ravens, and not much more. After a 5-11 season that saw Coach Brian Billick fired, most outside observers predicted mediocrity at best for the club. After all, with a rookie quarterback and a rookie head coach, it was clear the club was in transition. Needless to say, their 11-5 record surprised a lot of people.
It didn't surprise the Ravens. Boasting one of the best defenses in football tends to help a team's chances at the playoffs, and the Ravens were third overall against the run, second against the pass, and third in points allowed. Numbers like that give new faces at key positions quite a safety net, and Joe Flacco and head coach John Harbaugh took advantage.
With 13 wins, the Ravens set a record for wins by a team with newcomers at both positions.
Baltimore didn't rely on Flacco's arm much, preferring a power running game behind Willis McGahee, Ray Rice and Le'Ron McClain. The Ravens were so dedicated to their ground attack that they earned recognition for the fourth best running game in the NFL in 2008.
But as good as they were on the ground, they suffered in the air. One number that Joe Flacco would love to improve on in 2009 is Baltimore's 28th ranked passing game.
Flacco's rookie year was a solid effort, one in which he showed a high level of maturity and leadership for a rookie. Flacco threw for 14 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, and his rookie mistakes were few and far between.
Flacco had ten games where he didn't turn the ball over at all. He didn't have a 300-yard game, but managed 2,971 yards for the season. He also set a record for most playoff wins by a rookie quarterback with two.
Against the Panthers, Flacco will probably play the first three quarters and then be spelled by former Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith, a mobile quarterback who's known more for his legs than his arm. It's possible that the Panthers see the wildcat for the second week in a row.
Last week against the Jets Flacco went 8-18 and Smith went 4-9. Flacco didn't look particularly sharp, but he did hit six different receivers, which is a good sign for the Baltimore passing game.
Like Miami last week, the Ravens also threw in some trickery on offense when Flacco pulled out the old Statue of Liberty play to Ray Rice for a three yard touchdown.
Rice, of course, is part of the three headed monster at running back. In 2008, McGahee was supposed to take the feature back role, but injuries slowed him and at times it looked like Rice would be the guy. Then McClain exploded on the scene, finishing with 902 yards.
McClain is a load to bring down at 260 lbs., and will be used more at fullback now that Lorenzo Neal has moved on. If McClain works out at fullback, and early returns are promising, the Ravens will have both the power and finesse options out of their base set. Once again, the running game should be very good in Baltimore.
The tight ends and receivers, on the other hand, have probably already seen their best days. Certainly Derick Mason has. He caught 80 balls last year for over a thousand yards, but the 35-year-old is coming off shoulder surgery and contemplated retirement in the offseason. Former first round pick Mark Clayton has showed flashes of assuming the No. 1 role, but flashes don't always translate to results.
They also have a deep threat in Demetrius Williams, but he's largely unknown. Panthers fans can compare him to Drew Carter, he's a pre-season tease who hasn't yet got it done when it counts.
The only other receiving threat is former pro bowl tight end Todd Heap. His production had such a sharp drop last year that the Ravens signed L. J. Smith from the Eagles as a potential replacement. Smith will likely be out of Saturday's game after pulling a hamstring against the Jets Monday night.
The Ravens offensive line has gotten better in 2009, with the addition of six-time Pro Bowl selection and former Viking Matt Birk at center. They've also added first round selection Michael Oher from Ole Miss to the right side, where he can line up at either guard or tackle.
The Panthers are concerned abour their run defense this year, particularly up the middle. This Ravens team would be a difficult test even for the Carolina defensive lines of 2003-2006; the home team has their work cut out for them Saturday.
You would expect the Raven run defense to be every bit as good as their running offense. Baltimore boasts some of the most talented defenders in the NFL, with Haloi Ngata, Ray Lewis, and Ed Reed making plays at every level.
On the line, Kelly Gregg returns from microfracture surgery after an outstanding 111 tackle 2007 season. He'll be flanked by four-time Pro Bowler Trevor Pryce and Ngata, who so far this preseason looks like he's heading for the pro bowl.
On paper this group looks good enough to carry a defense by itself, but so far in the preseason it hasn't lived up to it's potential.
Ray Lewis is 34, but still has enough leadership and energy to elevate the players around him. Lining up next to him in the middle will be Terrel Suggs, and on the outside the Ravens will use second year man Tavares Gooden and Jarret Johnson.
And then there's the secondary, where Ed Reed regularly demonstrates why he's one of the best free safeties in the league. His running mate will once again be Dawan Landry, who was lost most of last season with a spinal cord injury. The cornerbacks are Domonique Foxworth (remember him from the Falcons last year?) and Fabian Washington, who defended a team best 19 passes last year.
The Ravens were outstanding in 2008, and with the talent they have they could be even better in 2009. But from the 2008 unit they've lost linebacker Bart Scott, strong safety Jim Leonhard, cornerback Chris McAlister, and defensive coordinator Rex Ryan.
The talent is still there, but so far they've had trouble with missed assignments and gap control. The defense bit on the draw particularly hard against the Jets, and Leon Washington ran through their normally stout line for 48 yards on only eight carries. That's not something you expect to see against a Raven defense.
When the Panthers have the ball they'll be handing it off to DeAngelo Williams. If he can get the same kind of lanes as Washington, look for a very entertaining game if you're a Carolina fan. The Panthers will want to open up a little against the Ravens, and really see what their offensive line can do.
That means a little more variety in the running game, and probably a more open offense. When Goodson subs in, you can count on him finally being used as a receiver out of the backfield. This is the team we want to test any new plays against.
Delhomme will need to look as sharp as he did against Miami, and be ready for yet another pressure defense. That seems to be a theme this offseason, and the receivers need to step up.
If Smith doesn't play, look for Gary Barnidge to get a lot of opportunities. He's already looking like a new favorite outlet for Delhomme, and the Panthers will probably try and use him and Rosario to keep the Ravens linebackers in coverage as much as possible.
Wide receiver Kenny Moore looks to have locked up the fourth receiver spot, and could move to third if he has a big game this week. He's had a good camp and is making plays in games, so if Smith doesn't play he'll get the starting nod.
Panther fans will particularly welcome a good game from Dwayne Jarrett. The USC product is in his third year, and word out of camp is that he's really improved. That hasn't been evident in his play though, as he's only caught one pass for three yards. If this is indeed going to be his year, playing at home against a pressure defense is a good time to show why.
On defense the Ravens will run hard at the soft Panther middle. Dan Connor will be playing in place of the injured Jon Beason, and needs to be very good at shedding blocks if the Panthers are going to have any chance at stopping the Ravens' running backs at the line.
Look for Defensive Coordinator Ron Meeks to introduce a few wrinkles to generate pressure and stuff the middle. James Anderson and Na'ill Diggs will get a lot of opportunities to make plays as the defenders will attempt to force the runs to the outside.
The Panther secondary shouldn't have too many problems containing the Ravens' receivers, but Flacco's good enough to make them pay if they stack the box. Although the Panthers haven't shown it yet, they may provide his biggest test this preseason.
The fourth quarter will be interesting to Panther fans as well. Whoever lines up under center for the Panthers will be the number two quarterback on the depth chart this year, no matter how much Fox avoids the question.
Both teams should be able to move the ball. The Panthers have a great offense, with enough balance to take advantage of what Baltimore gives them. The Ravens are solid on offense where the Panthers are weak on defense. Unless Baltimore rediscovers what makes them special on defense this game will be marked by several sustained drives.
Last year the Panthers really stepped up their game when they played at home. If that trend continues this season, this will be a convincing win for the Panthers and a big glass of reassurance for their fans.
But if Baltimore shuts down the Panther running game, and is able to exploit Carolina's weak defensive line, then Ed Reed will have a field day as Delhomme tries to play catch up. That could result in a very ugly day for Panther faithful, and a slew of chicken-little articles come Sunday morning.
Home means something though. And as much as the Panthers downplay their 0-2 preseason record so far, the players are competitive and want to win.
So expect Peppers to finally bring his A game, look for Brown to get fans excited, expect Harris to finally start bringing the wood on defense, and be pleasantly surprised by how sharp Delhomme and Dwayne Jarrett look. The Panthers win this one, 27-20.
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