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Monday, October 5, 2015

Quick Thoughts On Depth

I had to get right with the idea of drafting Shaq Thompson.  I still haven’t seen their justification of the move in action, partially because of the injuries that made the move so brilliant.

I could’ve argued that AJ Klein was good enough to be the 3rd linebacker.  That he’s been a great fill-in at MLB, along with some coverage deficiencies that come up from him being used so often, seem to correctly justify what happened with Thompson versus a less talented, less able pick at linebacker.

Similarly, while Thompson himself was justified in the nickel-type conversation – and I could’ve argued that the nickel defense itself was just fine – the additional ability that Charles Tillman brought to the outside, and the feathering in of Bene Benwikere inside or outside, has been beneficial.  The team is doing good work again bringing last year’s nickel, Colin Jones, back into the mix with Davis banged up.   They’ve used Tre Boston effectively as a part-time safety as well.   No one would’ve blamed them for not pushing Boston and Roman Harper.

They could’ve held still with Jones, Boston. Klein as an OLB.  They didn’t, they kept improving themselves, where I’m fairly certain some fans would’ve drafted five wide receivers in a row.   

With injury, yeah, wide receiver has some challenges.  But in this team concept, I struggle to think where this team would be with a depleted back seven. 

Separately, it’s worth noting that Carolina heavily adjusted its defensive line early this season – dropping Colin Cole for Ryan Delaire, adding Jared Allen, dropping the run-situational Wes Horton – and that it doesn’t only do so in desperation moments.   The team benefitted from midseason cuts of vets, like Antoine Cason and Jason Avant, and while they were moves that worked, there was a feeling of legitimate desperation from them. 

But they make these type moves without that desperation, too.   Cutting Cole, part of a four man rotation at DT for three years, for Kyle Love’s resurgent role at NT has aided a defense in need of a boost.  That brought them Delaire, who made some fleet footed plays against Tampa’s lead-footed line that the more physical Allen wasn’t going to make.    Losing Horton wasn’t necessarily something they wanted to do, and it might not be permanent, but they have good run-stopping ends now that they have Allen and Kony Ealy on the edges.  That’s where Delaire and Mario Addison get to feather in, once you have a lead.

The Bye

Carolina's guaranteed to stay undefeated for 13 more days, minimum, before facing one of its toughest opponents, Seattle.

In the meantime, it'll be fighting health.

Luke Kuechly, who msised the last three games, should return.  Thomas Davis, who's been subbed out a lot more these last two games with a pec issue, can use the rest.  Star Lotulelei played a massive volume of snaps in these last two games after being out since camp, and can use some rest.

Jerricho Cotchery might get healthy by then - he's also missed a few.  Daryl Williams' health is going to matter a bit more, even though OT has been stable since he's been hurt.

Carolina's banged up starting backs, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert, could use a little health (it was nice to see Cameron Artis Payne get more carries, either way, this week).

Carolina's one of the older teams in the league, so it's not as if Charles Tillman (I believe the oldest CB in the league) or Jared Allen couldn't use some rest.   They'll need fresh legs for a stretch of important mid-season games and down the line toward what feels somewhat likely to be a playoff appearance (not to jinx - 538 has the team as an 83% chance to make the post-season).

Sunday, October 4, 2015

V/s Bucs - Aftermath


Sometimes it's not how you get there.  But, going into the bye with a convincing 37-23 win on the road feels a bit better than a few earlier, barely closing wins that required some late heroics.

I'm not fully happy with the team's performance - the passing game was somewhat stunted, there was an alarmingly high amount of points off turnovers that meant there were no consistent drives offensively, and while the defense brought an insane amount of turnovers, it let Tampa have 3 touchdowns and 411 net yards.  It let Tampa have 50% on third down.

The offense mustered only 244 net yards, 17 first downs.  It played short field position into points (which is plenty fine) but never had as much strength as luck.  Its longest drive was the fumble recovery - one official play, and the only one over 50 yards to score - and its longest duration was about four minutes - which ended in a punt from the Tampa 38.  You could argue that's meaningless - but there need to be some better things happening on third down (27%), and a team with a two score lead needs to have some long drives (Tampa led time of possession by about six minutes).  

Tampa also left points on the board - two field goals and an XP.  Carolina has to do more with 5 turnovers and an opponent missing a TD's worth of kicking points.

It is, nonetheless, a team that was prepared, that controlled the game, and made the plays.   Tampa turned the ball over five times, where Carolina did only once - a second half opening play fumble in the rain.   There might've been more (Lavonte David dropped a pick in the red zone, Jonathan Stewart fumbled the ball to Ed Dickson for a 57 yard TD), but the team was able to do enough to hold a lead and keep some pressure on the Bucs.

Individually - Jared Allen suited up for Carolina for the first time - a QB hit and two tackles.  But he got dwarfed statistically by his backup, new end Ryan Delaire, who had two sacks, a tackle for loss and was 4th in tackles.  Obviously the day defensively belonged to Thomas Davis (11 tackles and a pretty INT) and Josh Norman (2 int, one for TD, brings him to 4 INT and 5 total turnovers for the year).  

Give it up to Ted Ginn as well, with two scores.  He's had 8 TD with Carolina in 20 games, and six receiving TD anywhere else in the other 203 games (to be fair, he did have 7 total return TD elsewhere, and no return TDs here).  Brenton Bersin was a surrage Jerricho Cotchery to lead the team with 4 receptions for 43 yards.  Philly Brown was quiet again - and Devin Funchess couldn't haul in his first touchdown (or his other target).  Even Greg Olsen, who had a nice catch early, only got 2 catches on his six targets. Consequently, in the middle of Cam Newton gaining MVP credability, he had his second worst yardage total passing in his career (11/22, 124, but again the two scores to Ginn with no INT).

For Ron Rivera, a 4-0 start is his best ever (1-3, 1-3, 1-3, and 2-2 in his earlier first four games), and Carolina's second best start (5-0 in 2003, as you've been beaten over the head to know, that was a Super Bowl year).   That early start could be huge, improving his first quarter season performance to .45 (he was, obviously, .31 in the first four prior to the year; he's .536 across all games).  Since he's worth almost 10% in games 5+, being 4-0 is obviously a remarkable start.

It's his third straight win against Tampa and former boss Lovie Smith (fifth v/s Tampa in a row - 2012's double losses included an OT tie; Rivera was 0-2 against Smith head to head, when Smith was with Chicago).  

For now, a bye.  Then Seattle.


Friday, October 2, 2015

Roster Shuffling

DT Colin Cole's out for DE Ryan Delaire, with Kyle Love doing well at tackle and Star Lotulelei back.

The move for another end after trading for Jared Allen signifies how unhappy the team is with end play with Charles Johnson out for eight weeks.   Mario Addison remains the most productive end, and he's situational.  The team is obviously happy at end, and it might not be the only change made.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Johnson Inside - CJ to IR for 8 weeks

In a somewhat devastating blow, Charles Johnson is now on the short term injured reserve, putting him out for eight weeks.  He'll be eligible for return 11/24, in time for the Thanksgiving game.

It's a tough break for Johnson, who at minimum was to be out for 3-4 weeks.  But, while throwing Johnson to inactive while Daryl Williams and Jerricho Cotchery are already out an extended time would be a bit of a gamble for depth, having Johnson miss half a season is also a tough gamble - it's a hamstring.  Mike Tolbert's broken bone healed quickly enough to come back right on time.

Johnson will, at the least, be available down the last month of the season.  Hopefully Carolina's still in contention, and can use his fresh legs at that point.

Rivera Presser - Insight

Ron Rivera's morning press meeting was pre-Jared Allen - his Allen remarks came at Panther Talk.   But his earlier comments regarding this team were insightful toward what's going on with this team.

*Jonathan Stewart's not really hurt.  Late game worries about Cameron Artis-Payne taking his first NFL carries late in the game were because Stewart was being treated for a minor nick.  He eventually came back in, and should be OK this week.

*Thomas Davis was out late in the game, with a pectoral issue.  Rivera seems unfazed by the injury.   Watching Shaq Thompson and AJ Klein out there late, it wasn't perfect.  Thompson's getting there, and Klein is instinctive, but it's a tough thing to be without Davis and Luke Kuechly.   Carolina might have both Davis and Kuechly back this week.

*Charles Johnson's definitely out at least the bye, but maybe longer.  
This wasn't really addressed in the presser - but the other DEs had their issues. Kony Ealy was benched for what's being called an unspecified disciplinary reason, and then got extended playing time after Wes Horton messed up early. None of them produced anything of value all game, and with Johnson out, Rivera did speak of looking outside the team.  

It's worth a quick callback to the one potential spend that Dave Gettleman was rumored to consider - Titans rusher Derrick Morgan - before he backed out once a quarter of the league seemed to have interest. I don't know if Morgan was the every down RDE that Rivera's sought, but Ealy doesn't seem to be it - there's talk he's better as a run-downs end and 3 technique rush tackle.  Horton might or might not be a loser in all this too - Ealy loses a start but with two eventual starters at end who can play the run and pass, Horton's role is diminished. Ealy can still be a chess piece.

*Tre Boston got some time this week, which is good to see.  I think Carolina recognizes that Roman Harper has some coverage liabilities, and so if you're going to play cloud coverage, you probably need a good cover guy out there.  Kurt Coleman has raced forward from a slow start at the other safety, so Harper's seeing less time.

Bene Benwikere's gotten time the last two weeks in base, some of which had come with Shaq Thompson at nickel type responsibility (truthfully, in essentially any defense, if you face 3 WR with base personnel, you tend to put a LB in space, but still - it seems intentional in this case) to sub out Charles Tillman.  I have no beef with Tillman, but Benwikere is a good outside corner playing nickel, and I like him getting some outside time too.  He's fantastic at both, is what I'm struggling to say, so using him about as many snaps as Tillman seems smart.

So, good on the Panthers' defensive braintrust for actively thinking about their sub patterns and not just accepting traditional tropes about what a nickel should do.

Monday, September 28, 2015

V/s Saints - Aftermath

What a nutty game.

Carolina flipped the script a bit this week, with a tremendous offensive performance overall and a saggy defensive one.

Cam Newton was fairly electric, 20 for 31, 315 yards and 2 scores in the air, 7 rushes for 33 yards and a score on the ground as well.  Newton's efficiency was remarkable given that only one WR caught more than one pass (Ted Ginn's 4 for 93), by riding Greg Olsen (8/134, two scores), and riding secondary receivers (Mike Tolbert's 3/28, Ed Dickson's 2/19 for instance.  That Devin Funchess, Brenton Bersin, and Philly Brown combined for 2 catches, 27 yards (with Brown getting no catches or targets despite starting), shows that while Carolina wants more out of their WRs (Funchess, for instance, had 4 targets and had to work hard for the one catch), they can get by on auxiliary receivers.  The hard part will be, if and when teams clamp back down on Olsen, if they can be as efficient.  

On the other side, Carolina's defense kept the big play down, but gave up 31/38 for 310 yards to Saints backup Luke McCown.  They only forced one sack, though the defense did have two key turnovers - Thomas Davis' forced fumble of Benjamin Watson, and the late INT from Josh Norman was as pretty a turnover as you'll ever see.  

But the efficiency of McCown left Carolina behind on the time of possession game, and they struggled to win field position. Carolina's run defense may have been the difference, holding the Saints to 2.9 yards per carry, forcing them to the short passing game.  Carolina had a good gameplan in hand for that, but played the deep pass carefully and at times failed to tackle the short passing game as well.   Compounding things, with Luke Kuechly already out, Carolina finished the game with Shaq Thompson playing extended snaps for Thomas Davis, and AJ Klein taking extended coverage snaps as well; with Charles Johnson out, and the ball coming out fast, there was minimal rush.

They also struggled to put the game away.  They had the Saints down 27-16 at one point, but New Orleans had the ball again down by 5 for most of the last five minutes of the game.  A special teams gaffe by Teddy Williams on the bizarre rule about the gunner re-establishing in-bounds quickly enough, forced a rekick and the result was a return TD for New Orleans.

Nice to have the win, but tough to see them not put away a struggling divisional foe earlier.