Preview: Kansas City Chiefs @ Carolina Panthers (Week 5, Regular Season)

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Preview: Kansas City Chiefs @ Carolina Panthers (Week 5, Regular Season)

You need to score points to win games.  Points will be an area in which the Chiefs will sorely lack this season.  Third-year quarterback Brodie Croyle will be the starter this season for the first time in his career, yet he is utterly unproven. 

 In his best season he only threw for 1,227 yards, 224 completions, and six touchdowns in nine games. 

Croyle only has two legit receivers to throw to—No.1 option Dwayne Bowe and tight end Tony Gonzalez. 

Bowe, a first round pick out of LSU in the 2007 NFL Draft, accumulated 70 receptions for 995 yards and 5 touchdowns last year as a rookie.  While I didn't even know he existed until a few weeks ago, he's been going fairly high in fantasy drafts, so he must be primed for a great year in 2008.

All the rest of the Chiefs' receivers are scrubs.  Their next-best receiver is Devard Darling, a four-year pro who has only started one game in his career.     

In all likelihood, if any Chief surpasses 100 yards receiving, it will be tight end Tony Gonzalez.  The Panthers have always had trouble defending receiving tight ends in particular, and Gonzalez has been a highly dangerous receiving threat in the NFL since 1999. 

In 2007 Gonzalez compiled over 1,000 yards receiving for the third time in his career.  

Also Gonzalez's possession receiver play style could help the Chiefs play a ball control offense, allowing them to keep their offense on the field longer and minimizing the amount of time during which the Panthers can score.

A ball control offensive game plan could also be helped by running back Larry Johnson.  Johnson, who only started half the year in 2007 due to a foot injury suffered in the Chiefs' Week Nine game against the Packers, is only one year removed from two straight 1700-yard seasons.  If he can stay healthy, he could be a real force for other NFL teams to keep their eyes on.

But, as I always say, the offensive line will the most crucial component to an efficient offense for the Chiefs in this game.  With that said, their offense will stall.

The Chiefs offensive line returns four starters from last year's group that gave up an NFL-worst 55 sacks (an average of about three sacks per game). 

The only lineman that isn't a returning starter is rookie left tackle Branden Albert, who was taken in the first round (15th overall) and could turn into a dominant lineman.  The Chiefs averaged only 78 rushing yards per game running behind the same pathetic offensive line.  

The Panthers defensive line has looked surprisingly strong in the preseason, certainly much stronger than anyone expected. 

I can't say I didn't see the possibility of a much-improved defensive line coming, though, as I said in another article.  Julius Peppers has come back in full force, and the rest of the defensive line has really stepped up, too. 

This unit could be the best surprise defensive line in the NFL this year.  Simply put, the Carolina defensive line will overwhelm the Chiefs' rump offensive line (get the historical reference?).  This alone will really hinder the Chiefs' already relatively limited offensive firepower.

The Panthers, on the other hand, have a plethora of offensive options that already have them averaging the most points in the NFL this year (27).  

Starting quarterback Jake Delhomme may be coming off of Tommy John surgery to rectify a problem with his elbow that had persisted for several years, but the surgery seems to have helped with both his statistical performance and his leadership ability. 

In the Panthers' third preseason game against the Redskins last Saturday, Delhomme took advantage of the most playing time he's gotten in one game all preseason and threw for 11 of 19 completions with 159 yards and two touchdowns. 

While his completions-to-attempts ratio may not seem so great, from the 9:57 mark of the second quarter to the 9:47 mark of the third quarter, Delhomme completed eight of nine passes for 129 yards and two touchdowns.    

In addition, it's apparent that Delhomme's fresh start after his elbow surgery has really bolstered his confidence, which, in turn, boosted his leadership ability.  For the first time ever, I saw Delhomme pull a Peyton Manning—read the defense, call an audible accordingly, and then execute a big play. 

The one audible Delhomme called resulted in a 24-yard touchdown pass to tight end Dante Rosario late in the second quarter.

Last season the Panthers' biggest offensive weakness from the start was the lack of quality depth at wide receiver.  In the off-season Carolina signed free agent receivers DJ Hackett, who spent the first four seasons of his career with the Seahawks, and Muhsin Muhammad, who played for the Bears for the last three seasons after being a Panther for the first nine years of his career. 

Although Hackett has been injured for the whole preseason, he is expected back soon—definitely before the regular season—and concerns have surfaced about Muhammad's age (he turned 35 in May).

Hackett has great potential if he can stay healthy, and Muhammad and Delhomme have a long history together; their chemistry can make up for some of the ability Muhammad has lost due to age.

Not to mention second-year receiver Dwayne Jarrett has improved significantly from his mediocre rookie year, in which he caught six passes for 73 yards in seven games.  In '08 preseason action, Jarrett has already posted about the same numbers he accumulated all last season. 

The reason why Jarrett didn't even start after being picked in the second round of the 2007 NFL Draft has only just recently been indirectly accredited—he didn't work hard enough to learn what was necessary to succeed in the NFL. 

But with highly-seasoned veteran Muhammad back with the team, Jarrett now has an experienced mentor who will help him stay on track.

But while a prolific passing attack is somehow sexy, that's not what coach John Fox wants to concentrate on—he wants the bread-and-butter of his offense to be the running game. 

For this reason the Panthers selected bruising running back Jonathan Stewart out of Oregon 13th overall in April's NFL Draft.  Stewart, in his first and only game insofar playing with the first-team offense, racked up 100 yards on 10 carries.  Fifty of those yards came on one electrifying touchdown run on which he displayed nearly all of the abilities the Panthers drafted him for.

Carolina also released RB DeShaun Foster soon into the off-season and made DeAngelo Williams the feature back.  Williams has impressed as much as Stewart in the preseason, rushing for 188 yards and three touchdowns on 26 carries in limited playing time. 

In his best game, last Saturday against Washington, Williams ran for 101 yards on nine carries and a touchdown.  Williams also scored touchdowns on the first-team's two drives in the first preseason game against the Colts.

Unlike the Chiefs, I expect the Panthers offensive line to dominate.  Defensive end Jared Allen is now in a Vikings uniform, and the next-best defensive lineman Kansas City has is left end Tamba Hali, who notched 58 tackles and 7.5 sacks last year.  However, I expect gigantic rookie left tackle Jeff Otah, who is 6'7" and 330 pounds to Hali's 6'3" and 275 pounds, to keep Hali at bay fairly easily. 

After Hali, the Chiefs defensive line that accumulated 37 sacks last year (9th in the league) is awful.  Remember that Allen and Hali had all but 14 of those sacks...  

All in all, the Panthers should not have much trouble winning this game.  All they have to do is make sure LJ, Gonzalez, and Bowe don't beat them.  Wait, no—all they have to do is pay attention to LJ—Croyle won't be able to get the ball to Gonzalez and Bowe much.

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