Four Quarters: A Look at the Carolina Panthers' 2009 Schedule, Pt. 2

Ben EllingtonCorrespondent IJune 28, 2009

CHARLOTTE, NC - DECEMBER 08:  Jeff Garcia #7 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers fumbles the ball on a hit by Julius Peppers #90 of the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium on December 8, 2008 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

In our first article in this series, we explored the first "quarter" of the upcoming football season. The concept, as explained there, is that John Fox likes to look at the season in terms of quarters, with a goal of going 3-1 or 4-0 in each one.

This series takes that concept and runs with it, looking at each group of four games from a July perspective. Sure it's a long-range, somewhat homer-istic speculation, but what else are you going to do in July?

Should you take any of this to Vegas and run with it? Well, if you believe everyone will stay healthy and no one will disappoint. This is all guesswork, and should be taken as such.

In the first four games, the Panthers project to a 2-2 record. There's a decent shot at 3-1 or 1-3, but it's more likely to see them break even.

This column is the second in this series, so today we're going to cover the games five through eight.

Games Five through Eight

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The second quarter of the 2009 season is a lot nicer to the Panthers than the first was. The Panthers' combined record against this group is 33-25, and 17-9 in the venues in which these games take place.

The bad news is that John Fox is just 15-14 in October, and 13-14 in November (by far his worst month). Traditionally, this is not the time of year that the Panthers play their best football.

That's not to say all is lost, the Panthers October and November records are marred by a few winless streaks brought on by injuries. If Carolina stays healthy, or develops depth to cover injuries, then they'll be in pretty good shape.

In 2008 they went 6-2 during this time, and given the opponents this quarter, that's a good sign.

Hopefully, at this point of the season the Panthers will be established as one of the better running teams in the league, and their defense will be working well under Meeks' system.

You can expect rookie Everett Brown and Julius Peppers to be putting up good numbers by now, and if the interior of the line stays healthy the Panther defense may be starting to get a little respect.

The numbers may not reflect that, given the offensive machines the Panthers played in the first quarter of the season, but signs will be there that the Panthers don't lay down for anyone.

That's going to be critical during this slate of games. Let's take a look.

Week Six, at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers

2008 Record: 9-7
2008 Offensive Rank: 14th (11th in Passing, 15th in Rushing)
2008 Defensive Rank: ninth (fourth in Passing, 19th against the run)

Tampa Bay looked like a contender to win the division at this time in 2008. They were only 3-2, but in this same week last year they put a 27-3 shellacking on the Panthers in Raymond James stadium that carried them to a 9-3 record before their late season collapse. Times have changed.

The Bucs have opted for a total rebuild in 2009, entering the season without such storied names as Derrick Brooks, Jeff Garcia, Warrick Dunn, Kevin Carter, Phillip Buchanon, Joey Galloway, Cato June, Jovan Haye, Ike Hillard, and of course, John Gruden.

They did add an excellent tight end in Kellin Winslow, a pretty good running back in Derrick Ward, and a possible quarterback of the future in rookie Josh Freeman.

But they start the year with games at the Bills, Redskins, and Eagles, and play two decent road teams in Dallas and the New York Giants. It's a distinct possibility that they're 0-5 when the Panthers come to town.

If that's the case, watch out for a trap here.

The Panthers seemingly have the Bucs' number when Jake Delhomme is the QB, going 8-2 against them with only one loss at Raymond James stadium. Unfortunately, that loss came last year, so the spell may have been broken.

In recent years Tampa Bay has had a young and aggressive defense that has consistently ranked among the tops in the league. Long time defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin has left for Tennessee though, and they return only six starters from the 2008 unit.

On the line, chronic disappointment Gaines Adams will be joined by Chris Hovan, Ryan Sims, and a player to be named later.

Behind them there's a giant hole where Derrick Brooks used to be. The Linebackers have talent, but will miss Brooks' leadership.

The secondary is once again the strength of the defense. Ronde Barber returns, and although he's old he can still be effective and brings a veteran presence to the field. Aquib Talib is a great cornerback, and Tanard Jackson is a hard hitting free safety.

They may move strong safety Jermaine Phillips to linebacker, but even if they do third year man Sabby Piscatelli is more than capable of filling his shoes.

So while there are unknowns on the defense, there's still some good talent. But whether that talent can play at a high level in a new system is a different question entirely.

On offense, expect to see Josh Freeman by this point. If the Bucs are 0-5 or 1-4, the season will be viewed as a rebuilding year anyway, and it will be time to see what the future franchise quarterback can do.

He'll be passing the ball to Winslow and receivers Antonio Bryant and Michael Clayton. There are questions about his accuracy, but you can expect the offensive coordinator to make things easy on the rookie, and give him a lot of throws underneath until his mechanics can be improved.

What will make his life a lot easier is the running game. Even before adding Ward, Tampa Bay already had two talented backs in Cadillac Williams and Earnest Graham.

Their problems back there have been Williams' knees, and if he can stay healthy the addition of Ward will make their offense a lot better than most people expect.

The offensive line is young and talented, and should make Freeman look good and the running game go. What's worse for Panther fans, the oldest starter is center Jeff Faine, and he's just 28.

If the line stays healthy and Tampa Bay gets good play out of the quarterback position, the offense could surprise a lot of people. But for now, expectations are low.

After all, the Bucs are missing a ton of starters, they're young, have a new coach, a good free agent running back, and will probably start a rookie under center. How can they be expected to win? Only an Atlanta fan can know for sure...

So don't be hasty about writing them off. This is a division game, and the Panthers are the team that started the Bucs' big slide in 2008. There's a big revenge factor here, and if the Bucs are already having a bad year this game is going to be their own personal Super Bowl.

This is a winnable game, and the Panthers will probably be favored, but they better bring their best efforts or they'll be in for a nasty surprise.

Carolina leads this series 10-7

Week Seven, the Buffalo Bills

2008 Record: 7-9
2008 Offensive Rank: 25th (22nd in passing, 14th in rushing)
2008 Defensive Rank: 14th (13th in Passing, 22nd against the run)

Buffalo started the 2008 season on fire, going 5-1, but it got ugly after that as they went 2-8 the rest of the way en route to a 7-9 finish. The Bills became the fifth team in the last 31 years to start 5-1 and not make the playoffs.

Drastic measures have been taken, as the Bills went out and signed Terrell Owens in the offseason. TO is usually good for one productive season before he starts to destroy team chemistry, and since this is probably Dick Jauron's last year if Buffalo doesn't win, it's probably a risk worth taking.

If Owens behaves and the line questions work themselves out, this could be one of the more improved offenses in the league this year. In addition to Owens, the Bills signed running back Dominick Rhodes, and drafted a pass catching tight end in Shawn Nelson.

Put those newcomers together with Trent Edwards, Lee Evans, and Marshawn Lynch and you have a multidimensional attack that has fans in Buffalo excited this year.

A lot of that depends on line play though. The Bills let Jason Peter go in Free Agency, and are hoping that Langston Walker can make a smooth transition to left tackle like Jordan Gross did for the Panthers in 2008.

They also have a talented newcomer at center in former Panther Geoff Hangartner, and brought in some good depth via the draft.

Basically, if the line comes together like it has potential to, and if T.O. keeps his mouth shut and plays ball, then the Bills offense should have some real teeth.

On the other side of the ball, there are still a lot of question marks. Last year the Bills were 28th in total sacks, and they need to find a way to get pressure on the quarterback or it will be another long year.

To address that, they drafted Aaron Maybin to line up across from a hopefully healthy Aarom Schobel, who missed 11 games in 2008. Their interior of the line is set, but after that they have big issues.

At linebacker, they're set at the weak side with Kawika Mitchell, but Paul Posluszny has been a disappointment in the middle and the strong side still isn't set.

Their secondary, however, is solid on the edges with cornerbacks Leodis McKelvin and veteran Terrence McGee, and they have a very good strong safety and leader in Donte Whitner.

Whitner teamed with Ko Simpson as the NFL' first ever rookie safety tandem in 2006, but Simpson has since lost his starting job and they're still not set at the Free Safety position.

The Bills open the season at New England (and Tom Brady will be back), then they get a potential breather in Tampa Bay before playing the Saints. Then it's off to the Dolphins, home against the Browns (who swept them in 2008), and on the road at the Jets before they roll into Charlotte.

After looking at that slate of games though, "roll into Charlotte" may be the wrong expression. The Bills will probably be limping into town with a hint of desperation in their play.

Don't expect them to shut down the run, and if a visiting team can't shut down the run they could be in for a long day. Unless the Bills' offense is excellent, this looks like a probable win.

The Bills have a lifetime record of 3-1 versus the Panthers

Week Eight, at the Arizona Cardinals

2008 Record: 9-7
2008 Offensive Rank: 4th (second in passing, 32nd in rushing)
2008 Defensive Rank: 19th (22nd in Passing, 16th against the run)

Payback time.

For any Panther fan, that's about all that needs to be said here, but let's look at the Cards anyway.

The Cardinals of 2009 will look a lot like the team that finished 2008, but only on the surface. Both offensive coordinator Todd Haley and defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast are now in Kansas City, and they also had to replace running back Edgerrin James and defensive end Antonio Smith.

The biggest problem they face this year though, is history. In this decade, the Super Bowl runner-up has made the playoffs just once, and that was because they were in the worst division in football. Well, given that the Cardinals also play there they may still have some hope.

But Arizona has two big question marks. The first is their defense; will it play at the level it maintained in the 2008 playoffs? The second is their quarterback, Kurt Warner.

No one will dispute that he's a good quarterback when he has time. But Warner will be 38 when the season starts. He also just signed a 2-year contract, so he's not playing for a payday. And even though he spent 2008 in good shape, he has an injury history.

If he stays healthy, he should put up MVP-like numbers.  At receiver the Cardinals return Anquan Boldin, Steve Breaston, and the all-world Larry Fitzgerald, who may be the best player at his position in the NFL.

Arizona didn't have much of a running game in 2008, and brought in help this year in the form of first round pick Beanie Wells.

The only question marks for the Arizona offense are on the line. They allowed 28 sacks in 2008. The linemen are all coming back, so there may be some bonus for continuity there, but none of them are particularly good and they can't run-block.

Still, any fair appraisal of the Cardinal offense will end with the question of just how you stop them. They were great in 2008, and they're going to be great in 2009.

If Arizona's defense plays like they did in the playoffs, this team bucks history and gets back to the big game. But that's a huge if, particularly with Smith's departure.

Arizona has no pass rush. They're going to try and address that this year by alternating between a 4-3 and 3-4 alignment, and increasing the pressure from the outside.

Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell should both work well at the end positions regardless of the alignment, but inside there could be a problem, as their nose tackle is coming off his second knee surgery in as many years.

In the 3-4, Chike Okeafor and Bertrand Berry will line up in the outside linebacker spots.

That's not ideal, as Okeafor got just 4.5 sacks in 2008 and will be 33 this season. Bertrand Berry led the team with five sacks last season. But he turns 34 in August, and he's missed 23 games the past four years.

At inside linebacker the Cardinals have one of the best in the league in Karlos Dansby, and they also have a great secondary anchored by cornerbacks Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and the newly acquired Bryant McFadden.

So it looks pretty good on the surface. But again the problem of no pressure persists. Even the best corners in the league can't keep a receiver blanketed for the entire play--give any quarterback enough time and he'll find an open man.

And given that the Cardinals are mediocre against the run, that almost writes the script on how to beat them. Run the ball, eat up clock, and make Warner and Fitzgerald try and beat you from the bench.

The Panthers are just the sort of team that can pull a plan like that off. And there are a couple of guarantees for this game. First, the Panthers won't run it down the field in the first drive and then rely on Jake and Jake alone the rest of the game.

Second, there will be someone on Larry Fitzgerald at all times. Count on it.

And count on one of the best efforts from a Panthers team in years. This is a great candidate for a victory on the road.

Carolina leads the series 6-3

Week Nine, at the New Orleans Saints

2008 Record: 8-8
2008 Offensive Rank: First (1st in passing, 28th in rushing)
2008 Defensive Rank: 23rd (23rd in Passing, 17th against the run)

After Arizona, this is going to feel like an "out of the frying pan, into the fire" game for the Carolina defense. And for the second straight week, the offense will be having fun out there.

The 2008 edition of the New Orleans Saints was marked by an ability to seemingly move the ball at will. But as effective as they were on offense, they were bad on defense. To address this, they added two critical pieces to their team.

The first is attitude. The Saints brought in defensive coordinator Greg Williams to add toughness, but as he showed in Jacksonville there's only so much you can do when you don't have strong personnel.

Williams' scheme is fast, attacking, and oriented towards forcing turnovers. The secondary is required to blitz, cover, and tackle. Without talent though, there's not a lot that can be done.

So the Saints went out and signed Jabari Greer from Buffalo to play at one cornerback position and at the other will probably go with Tracy Porter, who looked good in the 10 games he played last year.

Roman Harper will likely line up at strong safety while the second critical piece of their defensive rebuild will take the free safety spot, former Ohio State star Malcolm Jenkins.

Jenkins is just a rookie, but he should immediately become the most talented player in the New Orleans secondary.

The linebackers boast the presence of Jonathan Vilma, but they also return Scott Fujita and Scott Schanle. Both topped 100 tackles a year ago, but when the tackles are coming five yards off the line of scrimmage that's not a lot to brag about.

On the line, Sedrick Ellis had a decent rookie year, but had to deal with nagging injury issues. He could use some help inside but didn't really get much. The Saints signed Rod Colman from Atlanta, but he's 33 and not known for his ability to stuff the run.

At the ends, the Saints have two chronic underachievers in Charles Grant and Will Smith. Both of them will miss the first four games in 2009 for violating in the League's drug policy.

On offense the Saints return Drew Brees, who's possibly the best .500 NFL quarterback in history.

In ways he personifies the Saints.  No one gets better stats, but his lifetime record as a starter is just 55-51.

Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas will return in the backfield, Marques Colston and Jeremy Shockey will be healthy, and the line will be good again. There's no reason to think the Saints won't score as much as they did in 2009. This is the best offense in the NFL.

But last year the best offense in the NFL did nothing more than break even. The Saints were terrible on the road in 2008, and couldn't win the close games.

Look for the Saints to stumble out of the gate again, largely due to a complete inability to pressure the opposing quarterback.

They probably won't get hit by injuries again like they did in 2008, but regardless of the reason, missed games are missed games. Losing both ends for the first four games hurts, particularly for a coach who's not known for fast starts.

By this time though, they'll be turning their season around. They'll be fresh off a home game against Atlanta, a team they've owned in recent years, and they'll be at home and fired up.

But at the same time, Jake Delhomme has an 8-2 record against the Saints, and is undefeated in the Superdome.

New Orleans won't stop Carolina, and Carolina probably won't stop the Saints. Between these two teams there's never a guarantee, and the winner of this one will probably be whoever wins the turnovers battle.

Carolina leads the series 16-12


After the first four games, this quarter almost looks like a breather. There are at least two very winnable games here in Tampa Bay and Buffalo, and even though they're playing on the road the Panthers have won a lot in both Arizona and New Orleans.

Don't be surprised at a 3-1 quarter here. If the injuries have been manageable and the defense has responded to Meeks' system, don't be surprised at 4-0 either.

As in 2008, when the Panthers can run at will they're probable winners. And none of these four teams has what it takes to shut them down.

Barring a total collapse, the Panthers will be at least 4-4 at the end of this quarter. There's a very good chance at 5-3, and 6-2 isn't out of the question. That's good news heading into the third quarter.

The Panthers have not been great in November under John Fox, but this year they'll get three of four games at home and all four look like good candidates for W's.

More on that next week though, when we explore the third quarter of 2009.

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