It’s almost here. The start to the NFL regular season kicks off Thursday with the defending champions hosting Green Bay. I’m excited to see this year’s incarnation of the Carolina Panthers after months of speculation and predicting.
The Panthers start the season on the road against fellow NFC South team, Tampa Bay Buccaneers. With all the information available about both teams and their offseason moves, it may be a bit overwhelming as a fan to figure out what you’re in store for when the games stop being polite and start getting real. Fear not Panthers fans, here is a look at some of the matchups to look for when Carolina takes the field at 4:25 pm EST Sunday.
The Bucs recently made a splash when they traded with the Patriots for their starting guard, Logan Mankins. The Bucs gave up 47 sacks last year, placing them 27th in the league in that category. The Bucs obviously think the addition of Mankins will help, and it better. The Panthers were first in the League in sacks (60) a season ago. A new QB (Josh McCown) behind a shaky line doesn’t bode well for an offense going up against Carolina’s vaunted defensive front.
There is more to line play than pass protection. The Bucs need more production out of their running attack. They were 22nd in yards per game on the ground, and 31st in rushing TDs last season. Some of that was due to Doug Martin’s injury, but it’s also indicative of their lack of push from their bigs up front. Lovie Smith’s presence may mean an improvement (his Bears were top 10 in rushing yards per game his last two seasons in Chicago), but will his presence help that dramatically?
The Panthers have their own issues with offensive line play. The Left Guard and Tackle both retired in the offseason, and the man nominated for blind side protection (Byron Bell) has looked shaky in the preseason. This would all be bad enough even without Tampa Bay’s athletic and talented front seven. The Bucs have the best DT in the League in Gerald McCoy, and have surrounded him with first and second round talent. If even half of their picks pan out, then Lovie Smith will have the defense synonymous with his past success. One more tidbit? LB Lavonte David and McCoy may be this team’s new Derrick Brooks and Warren Sapp, they are that good. This defense will be fine moving forward.
While both the Bucs secondary and Panthers WR corps are largely unremarkable, watching how the Panthers DBs handle Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson will be important. The weakest link for Carolina’s dominating defense was at the corner and safety positions (not surprisingly only Charles Godfrey returns from last season’s starters). The Bucs have one of the most talented duos at the Wide Receiver position, and one of the largest. Considering the fact that Carolina will face a similarly-situated duo in Atlanta later in the year, keep an eye on how the Panthers DBs handle the large challenge. In the limited time they’ve played together on the field, the secondary seems like a great group of tacklers. While they don’t look any more adept at playing the ball in the air, limiting Yards after Catch will be crucial in limiting the big play that kills defenses in this pass-happy generation of the NFL.
As always QB play will help determine who wins and who loses, so it seems unfair to tell you to keep an eye out for the most important position in the game. With that said, Cam Newton is coming off an offseason surgery, a rib injury, and a brand new set of WRs. McCown is a career backup that earned a starting nod due to his fantastic play in mop-up duty in Chicago when Jay Cutler went down last season. I’m still not sure he’s the better option than last year’s starter Mike Glennon, so check to see if McCown is hesitant to make a big mistake or pressing to make a big play with a competent and capable backup leering on the sideline.
NFL games are usually just strategic matchups manipulated by Head Coaches. If the Panthers can win the majority of these, they’ll win their season opener.