Carolina Panthers Preview
September 4, 2014
The NFL season starts this evening with a Thursday Night Football encounter between Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks hosting Green Bay. The remainder of the week one schedule takes place on Sunday and Monday. The Carolina Panthers will begin its season with a matchup against Tampa Bay.
Expectations for the 2014 Panthers are much higher than they were last year. Remember the start of the 2013 season. Head coach Ron Rivera was on the hot seat prior to the season and his job status looked bleak after a 22-6 loss at Arizona in Week 5. That’s when his team stepped up for him and emerged as a contender in the NFC. Included in the eight-game winning streak were big wins over San Francisco and New England.
The streak stopped in a 31-13 loss at New Orleans, but the Panthers never wavered with three subsequent wins to close the regular season and host a playoff game versus the 49ers. Quarterback Cam Newton threw two costly interceptions and a spotty defense cost the team a trip to the NFC title game as the 49ers got revenge with a playoff victory over Carolina. The strong finish led to a NFC South title and a 12-4 regular season record.
The Panthers are known for having a stout front line of defense and that will be the team’s calling card once again in 2014. You would think that Newton would be the strength of this team but he is being held back due to a lack of talent with the rest of the offense. This is not to say that Newton is not vital to whatever success Carolina has on the field. He will have to find a way to make players better. He will also have to work his way back into football shape after going through ankle surgery during the offseason. Newton, 24, threw for 3,379 yards, 24 touchdowns and 13 interceptions in 16 games last season. He also carried the ball 111 times for 585 yards and six scores.
Newton is expected to be at full strength for week one. What we do not know is how his chemistry will be with a new group of receivers. Gone is longtime Panther and fan favorite Steve Smith. Enter a new crop of receivers that include Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant and first-round draft choice Kelvin Benjamin.
Benjamin could be the surprise within the new receiving corps. He starred at Florida State and will use his 6-5, 240-pound frame to his advantage. Newton should love hooking up with Benjamin, especially near the end zone. Speaking of touchdown receptions, Cotchery, with his 10 touchdowns last season, was a scoring machine for Pittsburgh last season. Avant, a long-time Eagle, is known as a good blocker out of the slot.
While Newton will be throwing to new faces, he will be handing the ball off to very familiar faces. DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, and Mike Tolbert are all back. The Panthers were 11th in the league last season running the ball with the same trio. Williams led the way with 843 yards while Tolbert, the short-yardage back, tallied five touchdowns to go with his 361 yards. Stewart played in only six games last season and has appeared in a total of 15 games the past two seasons.
Tight end Greg Olsen returns and will likely again be Newton’s favorite receiver. He led the Panthers with a career-high 73 receptions last season and has played in every game the past six seasons. Olsen is Newton’s safety valve and also an excellent run blocker.
Even with the new faces at the receiver position, the biggest question mark on this year’s team will be the offensive line. Not only is the health of Newton important, but keeping the offense balanced in the run game is vital to the success of this team. Travelle Wharton and Jordan Gross both retired in the offseason, tackle Nate Chandler had his contract extended and the Panthers drafted guard Trai Turner out of LSU.
Turner could crack the starting lineup come Week 1. The Panthers hope starting guard Amini Silatolu can stay healthy to play alongside center Ryan Kalil, who was named to his fourth Pro Bowl last season. Tackle Byron Bell played in all 16 games with 14 starts at right tackle in 2013 and will shift to the left side this year.
A trademark of Carolina’s defense over the past decade has been its defensive front. The Panthers should be strong there again with Greg Hardy leading the way. Hardy tied a franchise record last season with 15 sacks. Charles Johnson, who had 11 sacks of his own, is the team’s other defensive end. Returning defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short return to the middle of the line.
Leading the defense, however, is all-pro middle linebacker Luke Kuechly. He is widely thought of as the top middle backer in the game. Kuechly recorded 156 tackles last season and has played in all 16 games his first two seasons in the league. The former Boston College star was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Also returning at linebacker is Thomas Davis. He finished with 123 tackles and started every game last season which is a surprise after undergoing multiple ACL surgeries in his career.
The Panthers were sixth in pass defense last year and bolstered the secondary with the addition of safeties Thomas DeCoud and Roman Harper. DeCoud and Harper are very familiar with the Panthers having played for Atlanta and New Orleans, respectively.
Special teams should be average in 2014. Kicker Graham Gano connected on 24-of-27 field goal attempts last season and made all six of his 50-plus yard tries. He nailed all 42 of his extra points. Gano led the NFL with a 77.8 touchback percentage, the highest touchback percentage in the NFL since 1994. Brad Nortman will handle punting duties again and averaged 47.8 yards per try, sending 25 inside the 20-yard line. Carolina has improved each year under Rivera and Newton, who both joined the team in 2011 - Rivera as John Fox’s replacement and Newton as the No. 1 draft pick. The two will try for even more success in 2014. The Panthers have won 16 of their last 20 regular-season games dating back to a four-game winning streak to end the 2012 season, and a lot of the credit goes to defensive coordinator Sean McDermott.
Still, the Panthers won’t have it easy in the NFC South with New Orleans and Atlanta, and new-look Tampa Bay. Newton will once again have to lead the offense and try to stay on track after a successful end to the 2013 campaign. I do not see Carolina cranking out another 12-win season primarily because of a tough schedule that includes matchups with Detroit, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Green Bay, Seattle and Philadelphia. Questions will surround the receivers, but certainly not the defense. I see anywhere between eight and 10 wins and a possible wild card berth for the Panthers.