With Jordan Gross listed as questionable due to an ankle injury, the cynical worst-case thoughts are spinning inside of me. What if our best offensive lineman isn’t good to go on Sunday against a formidable foe? Gross, is a tough guy and will most likely play, but the impact that the team- mainly Cam Newton- will feel if he does not play Sunday will be huge. If Gross doesn’t play, it looks like Lee Ziemba or some other unsavory tackle will take his place lining up against Antonio Smith. Yeah, you can see where that becomes a definite problem.
The Panthers have an average offensive line that would be one of the best in the league if Jeff Otah was healthy and able to usurp the horrible Byron Bell. I always cringe when I hear announcers wrongfully praise the unready right tackle who looks way out of his element in pass protection. According to the Pro Football Focus’s Pass Blocking Efficiency statistic, Bell is the 12th worst pass blocking tackle in the NFL. I wouldn’t disagree with that, and the Panthers terrific run blocking is marred by some huge problems in pass protection. Almost all of this comes at the hands of Bell, because Ryan Kalil is one of the best centers in the league and Travelle Wharton is a solid left guard. And Jordan Gross, well, he’s one of the five best tackles in the league.
The reason why Gross is so great isn’t because of his “only” solid pass blocking, but it’s mainly due to his power in the run game. The Panthers have more success rushing toward the left side than any other part of the line (5.2 YPC off to the left end). Whoever replaces him in the lineup tomorrow won’t be able to match that type of production.
Gross has been able to stabilize the most important part of the line, and this is especially important when examining Byron Bell’s very poor play on the opposite side of the line. Having two poor tackles will only create more pressure, and this in turn will negatively affect Cam Newton. That concept seems obvious enough, because all quarterbacks perform worse under pressure. However, Newton is facing an above-average secondary and is prone to making rash decisions under pressure. After all, he is a rookie who only played one season of legit college ball.
Texans right outside linebacker Connor Barwin is one of those players who struggles mightily against top offensive tackles, but he also feasts upon far weaker opponents. This is true for most young pass rushers, but Barwin really does go off against inferior opponents. Although sacks don’t tell the whole story, they tell a good part of it. The improved pass rusher who has flourished under Wade Phillips’s 3-4 has 10 sacks this season. He had four against an awful Jaguars line, and he also had 1.5 against an overrated Bucs duo of offensive tackles. The feast will begin against Ziemba- or whomever Barwin will match up against- when he could have been held down by one of the best offensive tackles in the NFL.
If Jordan Gross isn’t able to face off against the Houston Texans tomorrow, then the chances of the Panthers causing an upset will go from low to as slim as Blaine Gabbert’s window of accuracy (sorry, I had to throw that barb in there). Gabbert is one of my favorite players, but even I have to admit that the guy has been the polar opposite of Cam Newton as a rookie; he doesn’t even have much promise. Anyway, the Panthers will have a tough time holding off one of the best pass rushing defenses in the NFL without their best- and most important- offensive lineman. Although Cam won’t turn into Gabbert because of the added pressure, don’t expect Steve Smith to get too many chances against top corner (great free agent coup, by the way) Jonathan Joseph.
If Gross is able to play, even injured, Connor Barwin will most likely end up with only a couple of pressures that won’t impact Newton too much. I also don’t expect the pressure to come as quickly. A team’s running game is often times a function of the offensive line’s ability to get push, and Gross is certainly an expert at run blocking. I would rather have Gross at 60% than a JAG starting at left tackle any given Sunday.