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Saturday, September 20, 2008

v/s MIN matchups

Carolina comes into this game hot, on the road where it does better, and against an 0-2 team. But that 0-2 team's dangerous, comes off a last-second loss, and just changed quarterbacks to become a completely different offense.



One immediate key against the Vikings playing in their now-hostile home: get up early and control the game. A home-field advantage in a dome is a key asset, but against a booing home crowd like last week and that team could implode - if Frerotte doesn't have some success, what are their options? If you see John David Booty on Sunday, something has gone horribly wrong.



Offense



Carolina offense v/s Minnesota defense is the critical matchup. Mistakes fly off the page when thinking about how long it took the Carolina offense to get started, and it can't afford to have the mental lapses against another good defense (or the false starts against the dome crowd). This is an offense that would've been much better if it could've stayed out of 2nd and 15, so it can't get back to those mistakes. Having Steve Smith back should help make 1st down and 3rd down easier, but it won't matter if it comes down to long conversions.


Minnesota's defense is a roided-up version of the Chicago defense it faced last weekend - both teams use cover-2 principles and neither stick them as strictly as Indianapolis or Tampa Bay. Compared to last week's opponent, the Vikings are much stronger up front, and more specialized on the second level. The Vikings finished first against the run last year, and 32nd against the pass, which is why they spent so much to get character problem Jared Allen on the team.

The Vikings only have two sacks on the year so far, but do bring a lot of pressure from its front four. Anemic rushing came somewhat from a lack of inside pressure - tackle combo Kevin and Pat Williams only combined for five sacks in 2007. Ben Leber had 5 sacks last year, and EJ Henderson had 4.5; Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier brought over a lot of blitz packages from his time with the Eagles, but hasn't shown anything exotic over 18 games as coordinator as much as well-timed calls.


Behind them, Cedric Griffin and Antoine Winfield are a solid combo at corner, and Darren Sharper is an experienced ballhawk safety. But the quartet sits in deep zones and don't contest that many balls - Griffin had 10 passes defensed in 2007, and only 2 INT in his career (0 last year). Winfield had 9 PD and one INT. Sharper had 4 INT, and doesn't have much weakness against the pass, but isn't an elite threat. Free agent pickup Madieu Williams is hurt, so rookie 2nd rounder Tyrell Johnson is the other safety. Johnson's been protected in these two games, and his Sun Belt/Arkansas State pedigree doesn't give a lot of background for high level competition. Both Johnson and Sharper play deep, so there's not much worry of stacking the line if the Panthers run effectively.

Winfield probably matches up against Smith, pitting the smaller (5'9 versus 5'9), more physical matchup together where Muhammad would draw Griffin, an athletic, physical but less nuanced player than Winfield. Muhammad will find that Griffin won't often get the better position when the ball's in the air, and Smith should see that Winfield can be beaten deep and Delhomme should notice single coverage where zone wouldn't reach. Playing the shorter game, Griffin's a player you throw at, where you throw to Winfield's man when more open.

Notes on how to abuse this defense come, once again, by following the lead of the Colts, who once again played our current opponent a week earlier. Reggie Wayne also had a lot of success after the Vikings had pushed the D to Wayne's side, by putting Wayne in the slot and there not being an adjustment. When Wayne was a split end, Anthony Gonzalez was found to be a reliable target, giving credence to the idea of giving Muhsin Muhammad a lot of targets as the Vikings roll coverage toward Steve Smith. It's not that likely that Smith ends up in the slot, however. DJ Hackett could pick up production from the slot, where he was featured in Seattle, and would face up against reliable but undertalented Charles Gordon at the nickel.

Notice of the back four should really include EJ Henderson, where the big man patrols deep as any Cover-2 ILB. As is common in the defense, Henderson will often key on the ideal of OL in their pass blocking stances off the snap to drop straight back, a methodology that Green Bay abused late last year. Unlike the Green Bay game, however, the Vikings won't line Henderson as deep - he traditionally lines up around 3-4 yards off the ball, shallower than average, and that game he was lined up 7-8 yards, deeper than average. Henderson and active (if not solid) WLB Chad Greenway aren't likely going to let crossing routes get behind them, and play generous zones on pass plays. Running quarterbacks would abuse this, but Delhomme's not as likely to pull the ball down. Well-executed draws, however, might have a chance, which essentially leaves the back in the open hole with an unblocked linebacker that was dropping to react to the pass. This puts a little less hope on crossing routes, outlets to the TE (Rosario, if healthy enough, on sideline passes would work), but could open up passes for the backs.

In nickel situations, the team tends to pull either Pat Williams (their best run stopper) or Ben Leber (their best blitzer), leading for various obvious mismatches. Spreading them out and running on non-3rd downs is a good matchup. Minnesota is allowing 40% third down conversions right now, solid for their pass D rating, but still something Carolina must exploit. So far, the Vikings' pass defense has gone from dead last in the NFL to 23rd this year, but this is still a matchup that Carolina wins.

Indianapolis struggled a bit in the first half running, but had more success in the 2nd half by going to pitches instead of sweeps, feeling that they could get to the edge faster against Vikings linebackers that tend to set up toward the line. The Colts were rumored to have liked the stretch play (which for us would have a cutback option) but can't run it with Peyton Manning's knee limiting him, so the stretch play may be worthwhile as well. These plays tend to feature Deangelo Williams' ability to get to the corner over Jonathan Stewart's power inside.

Inside, Williams and Williams will be tough to block against the run - a pair of 315 lb penetrators, they outweigh the Panthers' interior front. Keydrick Vincent may be physical enough to stand up to Pat Williams, but it's to be seen whether Ryan Kalil or Geoff Hangartner can. Outside, Jeff Otah can handle Ray Edwards or sub Bryan Robison. Edwards has a good first step, and Otah can't let him get upfield too quickly, but otherwise it should be a better matchup than last week for the rookie. Former Panther Otis Grigsby isn't a threat as a backup. The key on the line will be facing Jared Allen, a very good rusher who doesn't give up anything in size, speed, or strength. If Jordan Gross needs help, it will be a long day on the line as Carolina adjusts.

Defense

You can change quarterbacks all day, but it's all Adrian Peterson, all day. Carolina has stopped a back of this caliber already, and with a better offense around him; containing the playmaking Peterson is just as hard a task without a good O to compliment him. 28th in passing yards last year, and their money spent this year doesn't seem to have aided them much - 25th in the league this year.

One place the Frerotte change helps Carolina is in turnovers - the Vikings were safe with the ball last year (11th in INT) and Frerotte tends to throw INTs. He also had a fumble per game started in every action since his time in Denver. Frerotte, overall, is a game managing quarterback that should help them be more consistent. They'll look more for drives to be long and get Peterson more attempts as a result. Third down has to be key

Carolina matches up oddly statistically - 20th in run defense (albeit facing good backs) and 9th in pass defense, against a team that's 3rd in run offense and 20th in pass D. Getting the Vikings into 3rd and long is key, obviously, and getting a lead to force them to abandon the run would be even better. Carolina's third downs are average this year - 37% allowed despite a top pass defense, so third down is a huge situation this week.

Playing into that will be Frerotte and the health of the young receivers. Bernard Berrian is banged up but will probably start - Sidney Rice and Aundrae Allison probably won't suit. This probably starts Bobby Wade (formerly wth Bears/Titans), who had 50 receptions/3 TD last year, and puts Robert Ferguson (long since removed from success with the Packers) in the 3rd spot. So, looking for change, the Vikings' key players are second stringers.

Another key backup is Artis Hicks, starting at left tackle against Julius Peppers. Hicks is large (6'4, 335) and not especially nimble, so one-on-one Peppers should win every time. But don't expect that matchup. Jim Kleinsasser has been the help that Hicks has needed, and that's an effective way to stop Peppers anyway. By keeping Peppers in front of him, Hicks can control him without having to worryabout the edge. Peppers may be moving around more to counter this, andprobably should be. People who criticize peppers dropping into coverage have a point, but if you can blitz 5 or 6 and now suddenly you have two people blocking Damione Lewis instead of spreading to pickup the blitz, it's good theory. I'm not an advocate of dropping him to cover, but there's reasonable philosophy. The team just needs to execute its blitzes better, and finish strong with plays. The team isn't putting Peppers out there to cover - it's putting him out there to confuse the quarterback.

The middle of the Vikes' line is, as you'd expect, a potent run blocking combo. Steve Hutchinson and Matt Birk are Pro Bowlers, and have a total of 21 years experience between them. Both gave up more sacks last year than you'd expect (total of 7), but are generally solid and savvy in pass blocking as well. Ma'ake Kemoeatu needs to take up a lot of space this week, since Birk is generally a devastating blocker on the second level, right into the heart of Carolina's strengths. Damione Lewis faces Anthony Herrera, a squatty run blocker on the right side that gave up 4 sacks in somewhat limited time last year; Ryan Cook is another widebody (6'3, 340) that gave up seven sacks last year but will probably give Tyler Brayton and Charles Johnson trouble holding contain.

Adrian Peterson is, of course, as complete a runner as they come. He leads the league in yards, he runs well inside or out, and he hits the hole before you've located him. But an odd anomaly came out this past week - Peterson had 160 yards last week, but only 42 on 15 carries in the second half, which cost them the game. He got the necessary carries, but the Colts found a way to adjust to him and keep things close enough to win the game. I couldn't find the adjustment, but it's another statement of the Vikings not being able to adjust to the Colts' success and being unable to push the issue in other ways.

As well, the Vikings have an odd substitution pattern for Peterson. The Vikings tend to put backup Chester Taylor in on odd situations where you'd want your carries to count - giving Taylor the ball on 3rd down, after Peterson is doing well in the drive. Taylor tends not to get inserted on average first or second down runs.

One key factor will be the health of Chris Harris - who would most likely be in the box for at least half of the defensive snaps. Harris is questionable for the game this week (so is Peterson, but there's no doubt in my mind Peterson will play), and it's really not possible for Nate Salley, a player who probably shouldn't have made the team, to make the plays all around the field that Harris does.



Special Teams - Ryan Longwell is a solid kicker. Carolina coverage units get a break this week - with Allison hurt, Chester Taylor is the kick returner. Taylor is solid, but won't break runs on you, and backup punt returner Charles Gordon isn't a threat. If the Panthers wanted to sit Rhys Lloyd for a matchup player elsewhere, it'd be comletely understandable.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

v/s Chicago

After a celebratory week, the Panthers face a tough Bears team in our home opener. Chicago pounded the Colts last weekend in prime time, but it'll be left to be seen whether exploiting an undersized Colts D and getting lucky enough to catch Peyton Manning rusty in a rare bad day was the cause.

Defense

Because of the physical nature of play for this week's matchups, I'm starting with the defense. Chicago's offense is built on the ground and their QB problems the past few years have been well documented. Kyle Orton looked like the better player and game manager the last few games, and gets the nod again. Carolina really must load up on the run, and blitz Orton. It's not that Orton isn't smart enough to dump the ball off, it's that Orton does nothing else. It's not that Matt Forte is an unstoppable force, it's that he's going to get a lot of carries. This Chicago team is built on drives, and keeping the defense fresh - last year it wasn't fresh and plummeted down the rankings.

One key reason that Carolina would be able to do so is corner play. Vincent Jackson was held to 3 catches by Chris Gamble; the potent Chris Chambers had one catch (a 44 yard TD) when the Panthers were in a disguised coverage off a blitz and Chambers was one on one against rookie Charles Godfrey.

Playing the blitz is, to a young quarterback, about getting to the QB before he finds the open man, but using man style coverage as the base ideal and blitz as a luxury off that ideal is a good way to take the reaction of Orton out of the equation. Playing man ideals (generally with a free safety floating) keeps, in theory, from there being an open man deeper than 5 yards. Chris Harris is in the box, where he'd also be a run asset. It slows the thought process for Orton (find the guy who's covered the least as opposed to who is open in zone) and puts him in ball-holding mode instead of getting the quick pass out.

One thing Chicago does to counter this tactic is two TE sets - including using Greg Olsen as a split end to counter a defense using base personnel. Olsen can get up the field, so he's a mismatch in either size or speed against almost anyone. Carolina's corners are able to handle him physically, and both have good size, so it'll be something Carolina will prepare for. It will, of course, be something that would keep them from running an 8 man front and/or blitzing, putting Olsen and starter Desmond Clark on linebackers.

Chicago's running game is a feature from the past week, but it finished 32nd in yards per attempt last year. Dead last. Forte changes that, and has had an immediate impact, but despite getting the 3rd most carries in the league last week, they only finished 12th in averages against a traditionally bad rush defense team.

Chicago's OL last year listed as 30th in the footballoutsiders.com rankings, but return all 5 starters. An attempt at improving the line was in the non-physical Chris Williams, taken five spots before Jeff Otah - Williams has now been found to have back problems, and won't play. So, John Tait (moved to RT for Williams) faces our left end tandem of Chrles Johnson and Tyler Brayton; John St. Clair steps in at LT to face Julius Peppers (with help).

Tait is a physical run blocker, but earned his move to the right side with 8.5 sacks given up and 5 penalties. St.Clair is a reserve player who received some starts last year, but before that hadn't played since tough days in Miami and St. Louis. He gave up a sack last week. Inside, their trio is Roberto Garza, Olin Kreutz, and Terrance Metcalf, from right to left. Metcalf was a groomed star on the line when drafted six years ago, but rode the bench for the past few years; he gave up 3.5 sacks in 5 games started. Kreutz is a steady and powerful veteran, and a good run blocker. Garza gives up inside pressure and can get fooled by stunts.

Chicago ran 30% to right tackle or outside last year, and run under 50% inside the tackles.

Offense

Carolina will attempt to establish a running game and control over the line of scrimmage; the Bears are solid against the run in theory but dove to 24th last year. Indianapolis barely ran on the Bears at all - the team finished with the fewest rushing attempts on defense in the league last week, but finished 9th in yards per attempt against a smallish OL. Carolina must force the issue and stick to the run.

Along the line, Carolina can force the issue running by sizing up against the smallish Bears' DL in their one-gap Tampa 2 scheme. Carolina puts Jordan Gross on the quick Alex Brown (2 sacks, 1 INT last week), and will face another excellent rusher in Mark Anderson at times. But neither are large, and both can be run on. Carolina may use 2 TEs in passing situations, allowing the TE to block the right end one on one and letting Gross get upfield on linebackers on weakside plays. On the other side, Adewale Ogunleye isn't a slouch run defender; he's active, and holds the point of attack well, and doesn't get fooled inside on counter plays (a staple of the Panthers in preseason). He does, however, give up 90 lbs to Jeff Otah, and there's no doubt Otah will influence where Ogunleye meets the football. On power plays, if Carolina is pulling linemen, Otah should be able to handle taking on creating a pile behind those pullers to negate pursuit.

Inside, Tommie Harris will be a focus of blocking schemes, and Keydrick Vincent may get a lot of help when possible. As the under tackle, Harris shoots gaps and attempts to get penetration. He has a lot of power behind his drive, and won't be overpowered by the larger Vincent.
Nosetackle Anthony Adams is a solid runstopper, but not exceptional - Ryan Kalil and Geoff Hangartner will take on Adams at times, neither of which is an exceptional matchup. A good alignment to block the NT, generally lined up in the A gap between the two players, will be exploited by Carolina's angle blocking scheme, however.

Stretching the Bears out for the run is an effective tactic at times, but the team only pulls Hunter Hillenmeyer, who isn't an asset, at SLB. Bunching this team up with 2 TE is effective, putting balance on the quick edges and forcing Lance Briggs to play the run unprotected.

It's uncertain whether the team will attempt another Deangelo Williams direct snap, but if the team can do it without Delhomme on the field, it's more blockers on the field, which is never a bad thing against Chicago. Their safeties are just average in run support, so stacking the line against 2 TE, against Jumbo 3 TE sets, against ten men on the line and Williams under center, won't help them.

Passing Game

Muhsin Muhammad was targeted 15 times last week, 2nd most in the NFL, and only came down with 6. Muhammad was targeted short to deep, all over the field, but got the most attention (for what it's worth, he didn't have any drops, despite criticism of him dropping passes, per STATS, inc). He and Hackett had the lions' share of the targets, and then Dante Rosario was 3rd on the team. The backs were hardly targeted at all, so the team intended to have the running game take the load and the passing game was a way of attacking.

However, the Chargers lacked pass rush, and without the focus on the outside rush, the inside blitz wasn't effective. The Bears were 5th in the league last year in sacks, and 11 of those 46 were from blitzes, but the bulk of the pressure is from the front four. Harris had 8 sacks last year, and pushes the pocket; Ogunleye (9), Anderson (5), and Brown (4.5) took advantage and each do well with outside moves. Blitzing, the Bears bring anyone and everyone, but Brian Urlacher was the most productive with 5 sacks.

So, Carolina's probably more likely to dump the ball off this week, and will probably take advantage of screens to take advantage of the Bears' rush. Chicago was 31st covering the RB last year, and struggled to cover the non-1st WR (2nd v/s #1; 21st covering #2, 16 against other receivers and 15 against the TE). The Bears are also susceptible up top against the safety when other teams have time, if you can look away the floating Urlacher on deep drops. This isn't a team you run a lot of WCO type crossing routes and middle screens on, however, and that linebacking corps is solid.

Muhammad faces old practice foe Charles Tillman, the team's best corner; Nathan Vasher will take on DJ Hackett. Muhammad will probably get some defensive focus, and the team knows him well, another reason to drop the ball to secondary targets. However, despite some struggles offensively, the Colts still had success completing passes with Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison (10 catches, 8 catches respectively); Carolina likes combo routes, and got a good deep play on Hackett on a slant underneath Muhammad last week; Indianapolis ran a combo of using Wayne running an out, with Harrison crossing behind for a slant, many times on third down last week.

Carolina will also do well to spread the Bears out to 4 and 5 wide, shotgun type looks. Chicago isn't as big a mismatch outside with linebackers in space as most teams, but it eliminates blitz looks. Backup CBs Trumaine McBride (a contributor last year as a rookie) and Corey Graham (2nd year, didn't play in 2007) are green, and the team lacks the depth it did in 2007. McBride is 5'9, and will face 6'4 Dwayne Jarrett in the slot in 3 WR sets, and getting a TE against 6'1 Briggs is a good matchup if the TE can get position.

Special Teams

Chicago has the best special teams group in the league. Carolina did well against San Diego's powerful unit last week, but will face a tougher challenge this week. Rhys Lloyd will be looking forward to booting deep against Devin Hester - and with Lloyd's leg strength being as it is, may also look to directionally kick away from Hester if he does try to bring it out of the endzone. Lloyd's kick through the uprights on a would-be return was a thing of beauty.

Jason Baker may have a tougher time - Hester is a better punt returner than kick returner, and Baker can't line drive at any point this week. Directional punting isn't his forte, but it may work well to push some high balls toward one side of the field to allow pursuit.

Liberated Bears
Muhammad isn't the only Panther that can give insight into this Bears team - Harris was with the team through training camp 2007 before being traded, and Darwin Walker was with the team last year as well. Dante Wesley was a Bear through 2006.

Overall, Carolina looks to have the more physical team, if it can force the one-gap Bears into running situations and pound the football. Their fast defense can't pursue if it's picking itself off the ground, and the Chicago offense isn't a big play offense so sticking with the run won't cost Carolina ground on the scoreboard. This isn't a team that you make mistakes on, however, and it needs to be a conservative game.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Carolina Pulls Off Big One

The Panthers went into San Diego and pulled off a feat not many teams inthe NFC had - beating the Chargers at home. The Chargers had been 7-1in the last two years against the NFC, and were 9 point favorites,besides being considered a playoff lock and a Super Bowl possibility.So, leaving San Diego 1-0, without Steve Smith, was a huge win.

Since it's already Thursday, and everyone's already put out analysis, let's hit the highlights.

The winning play: Dante Rosario, on what became a flag pattern out of a5-wide, all-go shotgun play. Rosario got behind the MLB in the back ofthe endzone and just went up higher than anyone else. NFL.com has agreat feature in their video section analyzed by Steve Mariucci.

The Drive: Carolina made it happen mostly with in routes to thereceivers and out routes to the TE and backs. Time management wasn'tthe greatest, and Delhomme was in danger of losing the game twice onshort plays that came down at :06 and :02 respectively, that could'velet the clock run. However, the team went 68 yards in 2:27 to setup the TD.
Delhomme was 8 of 11 for 68 yards on the drive, for a 118.75 rating.

Rosario's coming out party: Rosario has definitely become one of thePanthers' favorite targets, leading the team with 96 receiving yards andmaking Sportscenter's Top Ten twice, for the TD and for a leap over achargers defender in the open field. Notably, Jeff King hasn't receiveda target since Rosario returned to the field.

Second Half Adjustment: Carolina had success running the ball early, and received criticism for going away from it, despite controlling the line of scrimamge. But the deeper story was not controlling the clock - a scoring drive of 7 plays, 16 yards on the ground and a FG was a bright spot despite its lack of length, but the team fumbled a first down away on the next drive and failed on two other third downs in the half before the final, winning drive. That drive was ten pass plays in a row, and before that the team had run 10, and passed 7, in the half.

Jake's first game back: Delhomme was slightly erratic to start, and hada couple deep balls that looked to lack velocity. But he comes togetherin clutch situations, still had tons of zip on the passes to thesideline (as hard a pass as any to throw) and finished with the gamewinning TD - and could've had a 2nd if the ball hadn't been dropped atthe goal line by Brad Hoover. Delhomme was (23 of 41) for 247 yards for the day, for a 82.1 rating.

The Busted Play - Carolina set for 4th and goal from the 1, and wentinto playaction. The playaction worked, and the Chargers were caughtina run blitz; Delhomme had enough time, but had odd options - Jeff Kingwas streaking right but wasn't looking; Geoff Hangartner was eligible tothe left but double covered. Brad Hoover was option 3, and whilecovered, had a shot at catching the ball and didn't. Meanhwhile, thetwo best receivers on the field weren't out for patterns: Rosario waslined up at FB and faked inside to block, and Williams was the RB thatwas faked to.

The Rookies: Jeff Otah was overpowering in the run game and locked ontothe smallish pass rushers of the Chargers. Jonathan Stewart waseffective as a backup but lacked power in the short yardage game.Charles Godfrey got burned for a TD on a busted coverage- welcome to theNFL, rook. No other rookie played.

The Stand-ins: Hangartner was good in relief of Wharton for the rest ofthe game, Jeremy Bridges was solid at RT for Otah until he returned.The receivers bumped up a spot each, because of Smith's suspension, andeach had solid games.

The Injuries: Otah, Wharton had undisclosed but minor knee injuries.Leading tackler Na'il Diggs and leading receiver Dante Rosario both hadminor foot injuries. It's not certain whether Rosario hurt his footsingle-handedly stomping the Chargers.

Grades:

QB - B+. Delhomme was great considering his maladies, average overall.His completions were sparse for a while, and he missed on a deep route to Muhammad, but was efficient and made the bigtime throw at the end.

RB - A. Both RBs were dynamic against a bigtime defense. Neither Williams nor Stewart broke long runs but were well above productive,finishing at 4.5 and 5.3 yards/attempt respectively. Brad Hoover picked up a 1st down and got three yards to spare on a short conversion. The backs took hardly any of the load in the passing game, however.

WR - B+. Muhammad was effective on short routes. DJ Hackett fumbled, and that was costly, but broke a slant for a 37 yard gain. Dwayne Jarrett was effective in 3 receiver sets.

TE - A+. Jeff King blocked well in run and pass protection. Dante Rosario caught the gamewinning TD and led the team in receptions andyards.

OL - B+. The line had good success running and Delhomme was hit threetimes, sacked once. Ryan Kalil had a few high snaps in shotgun.

DL - Phillip Rivers had some escapability, forcing the DL to miss on 2sacks, and the one scored was on a blitz. The running game starts upfront, and the DL was able to hold its own against the big Chargersline, especially Maake Kemoeatu aligned as a NT.

LB - B. Tomlinson was held to 33 yards in the first half. Na'il Diggs was the star of the group this week, finishing 2nd in tackles with 8, a sack, and a QB hurry, but was burned on a long play to Antonio Gates. Davis defensed Gates well, finishing with a defensed pass.

DB - B-. Chris Harris had 9 tackles and a key forced fumble. Chris Gamble scored on that fumble recovery, held Vincent Jackson to 3 catches, and Ken Lucas held Chris Chambers without a catch - the only catch was on rookie Charles Godfrey, a 44 yard TD.

ST - C. Kicking specialists were good - Kasay kept us in the game withpoints, Lloyd kept the ball out of Darren Sproles' hands, and Baker wassolid. Stewart was average as a return man, and Lewis was awful.Coverage units were solid.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

v/s Chicago

Carolina continues to prove its drive and mettle, coming back from a17-3 deficit for its second come-from-behind win in a row. The first half was an epic failure for the team, netting only 46 offensive yards and suffering from numerous penalties. The second half was a new team -rededicated to the run per John Fox's decree, confident, and able tomake things happen. Chicago couldn't match the intensity, blew the lead, and watched Carolina able to run with the game on the line whenthe Bears couldn't. 2-0 Carolina now sits alone at the top of the division after two weeks,and they've certainly earned it.

Game Balls: Chris Harris, Chris Gamble, Jonathan Stewart.

Harris' Hits: Chris Harris is playing as good as any safety in the NFL.Yet another forced fumble, a huge hit in the endzone, and even a huge hit on a guard - on a pulling play, the right guard went to sealcontain, and Harris loaded up for the hit, knocking Roberto Garza off his feet so Jon Beason could make the tackle at the line of scrimmage.

Gamble making a case for re-signing: Gamble's second fumble recovery ofthe year was key, but his two passes defended and 8 tackles were vitalas well. Gamble's hitting hard, he's making his plays, and as a freeagent next year, he may be someone to hold onto. The team has tried tolock down nickelback Richard Marshall unsuccessfully, and Gamble is currently Carolina's best corner; Marshall and Lucas are signed through2009, Gamble through this year.

Thomas Davis was active in pass defense, and make a key play on making Olson fumble as well, picked up by Jon Beason. Davis was 2nd in tackles, and had the game-ending tackle for loss on 4th and 1. It wasalso a strong day for Beason, leading the team with 11 tackles, a defended pass, and the recovery.

Jake's rough day: Delhomme was only moderately accurate, and not especially efficient, this week. His stats would've looked a lot betterwith a deep pass to Hackett, a TD to Muhammad, or having more convertible 3rd-and-longs. But 128 yards isn't a lot, and the team could've had more success attacking deep. 15% third down conversions won't be enough this year.

Stewart's coming out party: with 2 TD, Jonathan Stewart accounted formost of the points of the day and had some electrifying runs.

Muhammad's 10K - Moose advanced his 10,000th yard receiving on hissecond pass, and is the 7th active receiver in the league over thatmark. He's the 29th player in league history to go over that milestone.

Remember back when we rushed the passer? Damione Lewis had the lonesack, a tackle for loss, and a QB hurry, Julius Peppers had a tackle forloss, and the DL had no other noteworthy stats.

Grades

QB: C. Delhomme didn't have any mistakes (the INT was completely onKing), but didn't make any plays that made the stats. He was robbed ofa 32 yard touchdown by a holding penalty, and a DJ Hackett deep pass wasbrought back as well.

RB: A-. Deangelo Williams struggled to get 3 yards/carry,but Stewartexploded with 5.5/carry and the two scores, as well as a highlight stylerun bulling over Kevin Payne. Stewart did also give up a sack on ablitz pickup. Brad Hoover picked up a key 3rd down and had tworeceptions, one a nice 12 yard run finished with a juke move.

TE: C. Jeff King caught a 23yarder that should've been a TD. He also couldn't secure a pass that became an INT and led to a Chicago score. Dante Rosario, still banged up from post-celebration trampling of his foot, wasn't much of a factor.

WR: C. Muhsin Muhammad led receivers again, and got his 10k. Hackett and Jarrett took up space.

OL: C. Great running lanes, but Jeff Otah had two mistakes in the passing game and there were tons of false starts and procedure penalties.

DL: B. Mostly for stopping the run. The pass rush was terrible.

LB: A. Never can ask for more from this trio. Also, when Diggs went out, it showed that Landon Johnson just isn't as good a player.

DB: B. It'd be great to give them an A, just for Harris and Gamble. But Ken Lucas would've given up a TD to the elderly Marty Booker if the ball hadn't been overthrown (Orton overthrowing you doesn't happen often) and Charles Godfrey was barely involved.

Special Teams: C. Nice work here on what could've been a disaster, and nice run back by Mark Jones on punts was timely. But Nick Goings brings this from an ace to an adequate.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

It's A Good Time To Face San Diego; Matchups

Since the season schedule was announced, this was as dreaded a game as on the schedule. Facing a playoff team, on the road, to open the season. Then, Steve Smith lost his mental capacity and found himself suspended for the first two games, making this even more tough than it seemed.

So why is it such a great time to play the Chargers?

First off, injuries. Antonio Gates is just returning from injury, and fellow offensive star Ladainian Tomlinson didn't play at all in preseason. Starting center Nick Hardwick is out for this game; so is starting left tackle Marcus McNeill. RT LJ Shelton, never successful on the left side, has to move over to defend red-hot Panthers end Julius Peppers. Star defender Shawne Merriman will play

Meanwhile, only Smith and fellow WR Ryne Robinson are out for the Chargers game; only DJ Hackett and Chris Harris are playing that didn't make it into preseason.

Second, change. The Chargers are relatively intact, injuries aside. The Panthers start linemen in new spots for 5 spots. They start two receivers different from last year; the third WR is an untested, but still new, player who hardly saw the field last year; 6 of the 7 spots of the front 7 are in new spots or new players. It's a lot to gameplan against, when you're talking individual matchups, to re-scout half of the opponents' starters that haven't played in a regular season game in that alignment.

This one could go either way. The Chargers could easily unravel all the Panthers' progress, or Carolina could physically dominate. This is a highly variable game that could come down to attitude and execution. So, onto matchups.

Offense

Schematically, the Carolina offense attacking the 3-4 of San Diego gets a bit of a break - the team gameplanned for the Pittsburgh 3-4 all week but never had to show its first team looks against it. It's a great time for Carolina to play a 3-4 - directly after playing another one. The injuries to Merriman and DT Jamal Williams will possibly add a wrinkle or two, but both should play.

A downside? As is traditional, the league is set up to block the 4-3. So this week, our big guards go up against air, where the center and tackles, traditionally finesse players, face up against heft. Jeff Otah won't struggle blocking Igor Olshansky, where he does still have a tremendous size advantage; it's harder to see Jordan Gross taking on Luis Castillo, a solid run defender, and getting exceptional push. That'll be more of a stalemate. Ryan Kalil faces Williams at NT, the largest player on the front at 6'2, 324, but with a bad knee; Kalil should get some help on combo blocks, but does come to the table 30 lbs shorter than Williams and should make sure to not get overpowered on run plays.

Now's when the athleticism of LG Travelle Wharton should show up, as he'll get to the second level well. It's harder to see Keydrick Vincent doing as well, but the veteran has looked good as a drive blocker overall and should be a help on short yardage doubles, blocking backside on movement plays, and getting out to the DE on playside plays. Secondary blockers can make good headway against the 3-4; sealing outside or chipping inside is easier than in a 4-3. As well, the front 7 of the defense is simply smaller in a 3-4; Carolina's resurgent running game could benefit from simply having to play smaller contain men and having only 3 bigger defenders.

So - success running the ball? The Chargers play the 3-4 as a one-gap defense, so they're going to try to shoot gaps rather than take up space; influencing a one-gap 3-4 with misdirection. As well, a team that can leverage the NT one way, and the end another, lends itself very well to an ILB isolation block. Doubling the NT and letting Otah clear the DE allows for I formation isolation on MLB Stephen Cooper; as long as the TE gets some contact on the playside OLB, there's little chance of a loss and a good chance of a 5 yard gain. Inside, the Chargers funnel plays to the ILBs, and give up less than outside, but struggle more v/s bigger lines.

Running outside against a one-gap 3-4 is more effective with the toss sweep than the power sweep; it's even more effective with a crack block by the flanker, Muhsin Muhammad, since it means he can clean up the pursuit and the playside guard can try to take on the playside ILB. Backside, running at Merriman will probably bear fruit - playing dirty against the injured Pro Bowler isn't really a good thing, but running the ball down his throat isn't a bad idea to wear him down. Going gap-down with Gross taking on Merriman and Wharton taking on Castillo should give Carolina backs the option of cutting off-guard or cutting outside, where both Jonathan Stewart and Deangelo Williams have shown the ability to turn the corner. San Diego gave up 5.6 yards/carry outside Merriman, and 6 off left tackle running at Merriman and Castillo, versus 3.8 each off right end/tackle apiece.

The skill players line up with Muhammad on the more physical corner Quentin Jammer, and wth DJ Hackett facing the more athletic Antonio Cromartie (who started only 8 of 16 games, but had 10 INT). It's a good matchup for San Diego, so Carolina can't have mis-steps in the passing game. Muhammad should out-muscle Jammer, but it won't be easy; the team doesn't have timing with Hackett, who didn't play in preseason, and a cocky corner like Cromartie shouldn't give Hackett much room.

Secondary receivers should have a good game; the Chargers covered the #1 and #2 WRs 11th and 1st best in the league last year, and had a good pass D overall, but were down to 28th against the 3rd WR, and 19th against TE. They can be challenged deep, and they can be challenged across the middle. Situationally, Dante Rosario should be a good player to drop behind the ILBs, and Jeff King is a physical matchup against either player. Second year FS Eric Weddle didn't have great numbers last year and can be tested deep; Clinton Hart at SS is a veteran but lacks experience from scrimmage, having started just one year.

In expected pass situations, the Chargers do the traditional swap for the nickel defense - they go with a 4 man line, 2 linebackers, and 5 DBs. Their nickel, like most 3-4s, takes them out of their element for blitzing, and doesn't give them great 4-man line personnel either. I'd be surprised if Merriman plays many snaps in the nickel, though the team could pull him out of base snaps instead. The Chargers like Ryan Bingham (6'3, 300) as a change-up for the passing game, as well as hybrid end/OLB Jyles Tucker (6'2 258), a second year who will probably rush the edge on nickel and play in relief of Merriman at times on running downs. The Chargers don't disguise blitzes out of nickel nearly as well as out of base, and just have less options there.

They bring on backup S Paul Oliver (5'10, 190) as a nickelback, instead of rookie Antoine Cason or 2nd year Cletis Gordon; Oliver is a solid technician that plays back on his slot receivers and isn't a great man-cover player. This puts Dwayne Jarrett at a physical advantage, not just for height/weight, but also because most players challenge Jarrett at the line and keep him from getting separation. Jarrett will take some nickel snaps, unless the team moves Hackett inside on 3 WR sets, which may make more sense.

However, a 2 TE approach may be more potent given the Panthers' health at WR, and could bolster the run game. Motion against a 3-4 can cause balance problems in the team's favor, and more ably contains blitzes. Spreading them into a nickel look from base will help them as well - forcing an ILB out into space and covering a secondary receiver at the line is a good way to create mismatches. It also gives 6-on-6 blocking up front, if the team can get the Chargers into such an alignment for running downs. The team would do well to push the Chargers into a spread look by bringing base personnel into a 5WR look as well, giving good short-yardage mismatches with backs on safeties and linebackers on TEs. Playing base offense v/s base defense probably won't be a win for Carolina, so being more creative should be a boost.

Overall, the team wants to beat San Diego blitzes with short passes, and pound the ball when possible at the corners. Wearing the San Diego defense down gives the defense life and keeps Tomlinson off the field, and controls both the tempo and toughness of the game. Shaun Phillips will be the defensive star to watch now, probably moving around based on Merriman's availability, so more focus should be placed on his presence, being the only top notch rusher left on the squad.

San Diego was top in the league last year for turnovers, so any planned big plays should be metered carefully against risk. Their offense doesn't take a lot of risks, so getting in the hole against this defense and hoping that their O will bail you out isn't really in the cards.

Defense

Carolina's more polished unit, its defense, faces San Diego's stars in Tomlinson and Gates. Carolina's first teamers were stellar in preseason, giving up few points, and can't afford much different against the Chargers.

The passing game matchups show Chris Chambers facing Ken Lucas and the more physical Vincent Jackson facing Chris Gamble. Gamble may get out-muscled but won't get beaten; Chambers is a good second-level receiver that will challenge Lucas but won't be more than he can handle.

The team must take account for Tomlinson, and certainly must watch for Sproles in the passing game as well. Gates' health will be a concern; if he's healthy, he could hurt Carolina, which was 22nd in covering the TE last year. Gates is a concern in playaction as well, and Chris Harris has never been considered under-aggressive. Chambers and Jackson combined for 76 receptions, whereas Antonio Gates had 75 himself and Tomlinson had 60. So, playing close against the run has the added advantage of containing the short pass, and the Carolina linebackers must be on top of their game to play the underneath pass.

The Chargers like to go 2 TE for running downs, and 2nd TE Brandon Manumaleuna is a load at 6'2, 285. Tomlinson doesn't run on lead plays blocked by Lorenzo Neal anymore; the Chargers cover lanes and let Tomlinson pick what's open. This counters Carolina's speed and forces them to maintain gap integrity instead of cheating playside. Manumaleuna only caught 10 balls last year, and isn't a threat outside of the redzone, where they have better options already in the tall Jackson and Gates.

Up front, missing McNeill means starting LJ Shelton, another big OT, but lacking in the athleticism of McNeill and therefore a weakness in pass protection and reaching blockers in the running game. Julius Peppers can be overpowered head up against guys with huge wingspans, but is stronger this year and could still get push. Outside rushes will be dangerous. On the other side, Jeromey Clary has only six games' experience in the NFL. A solid run blocker, Chary gave up 2 sacks and 5 penalties in those six games. Carolina will throw the under-powered tandem of Tyler Brayton and Charles Johnson at Clary.

Inside, pivot Nick Hardwick forces them to lose toughness and puts in aging vet Jeremy Newberry in the lineup. A finesse player, Newberry lacks inline strength, but won't make many mistakes. He'll also struggle getting to the second level before Carolina's quick linebackers are gone. Kris Dielman is an incumbent Pro Bowler, a nasty and somewhat dirty left guard to face Ma'ake Kemoeatu. Kemoeatu must keep leverage and not get turned, hoping to force stalemates at the line of scrimamge. Mike Goff is a solid, reliable veteran, and the unit's leader. An 11 year veteran, Goff is still a solid inline blocker and hasn't given up a sack in the last two years, and faces Damione Lewis/Darwin Walker. The pair can push Goff around a bit, but can't afford mistakes against the crafty vet.

The Chargers' offense works on options and choices. Blitzing them doesn't often help, and run-based blitzes are ineffective. They're not unbeatable, though - they were a middle-of-the-road offense despite having an elite RB. Finishing in the top 10 in rushing and attempts, they finished 2nd in rush TDs and 5th in points scored. But they were 20th in total yards and 26th in passing yards. You definitely stop the run first, and Carolina is setup as just such a team. It's a game in which you probably don't get cute - the DE-as-DT experiment, the blitzing 7 philosophy, and other tricks in preseason won't work today. Save your backups for rotation, and play tough and smart.

Special Teams

Darren Sproles is an effective and potent PR/KR - his 27.2 yards/return with kicks is top notch and he's as elusive as almost any returner in the league (short of Devin Hester, who Carolina faces next week). You don't kick line drives to Sproles, and while Jason Baker gets good hangtime, he does kick deep a lot. Without Steve Smith on board, the team will probably keep an extra special teamer active, but they can't afford to sleep on Sproles.

Mike Neugent is a very solid kicker, and punter Mike Scifres gained 6 yards on his net last year with no change in attempts. Scifres had 36 of 80 punts downed inside the 20, best in the league. Their kick coverage is very good, starred by standout Kassim Osgood and backed by Carlos Polk, Brandon Siler, and Tim Dobbins.

Overall

Carolina faces well in the passing game matchups, despite not having an advantage on the lines. The running game will be where it passes or fails against San Diego, and must make up for a deficiency in special teams. This could be a battle of field position and conservative play, in which Carolina could win, or it could very well be a blowout loss and a letdown for Carolina starting the season.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Cuts; Moore OK; Matt Jones Signed

Matt Moore's tests came back negative for structural damage, meaning no major surgery needed and no long term concerns.

Cuts:
QB Brett Basanez; RBs LaBrandon Toefield, Decori Birmingham, Troy Fleming;WRs Samie Parker, Travis Taylor, Chris Hannon, William Buchanon; TE Chad Upshaw; OL Milford Brown, Toniu Fonoti, Geoff Schwartz, Evan Mathis, Rueben Riley; DL Stanley McClover, Stephen Williams, Nick Hayden; LBs Tim Shaw, Shaun Smith; DBs Ricardo Colclough, Joe Fields, Darren Toney Terrance Holt.

Of those cuts, Birmingham, Schwartz, Hayden, Buchanon, and Fields were kept aboard on the practice squad.

Notable concepts from the cuts and keeps:
  • Free agent class of 2008 goes right up there with 2004's for disappointment. Tyler Brayton starts, tenuously. Landon Johnson doesn't, but he made the team, which is more than can be said for Holt. Toefield, Holt, and some of the big guards didn't make it. The signing of Muhsin Muhammad and the re-signing of Chris Harris, Damione Lewis, and others are the only thing keeping the free agent session from being fairly disastrous.
  • Toniu Fonoti and Milford Brown were part of the theoretical resurgence of the line; they were both sizeable guards with some starting history. But when they lost the RG job to Keydrick Vincent, the first lineman they signed this year, they apparently worked themselves off the roster for lighter and already vested Geoff Hangartner and Jeremy Bridges, both of which are more versatile. At first it didn't make sense to drop both Fonoti and Brown, good depth to have around, but Hangartner and Bridges already make plenty for backups and it fiscally doesn't make sense to keep that much money on the bench. Mackenzy Bernardeau made the 53 by playing savvy center after being a college guard, which allowed some flexibility both monetarily and situationally.
  • Holt and Toefield were victims of good drafting, it seems, respectively losing out to Charles Godfrey and Jonathan Stewart. Holt seemed good enough, and could play either S spot and contribute on special teams, but was more expensive than Nate Salley; Toefield could've been the 3rd back but failed at competing for the spot.
  • Salley continually earns the apple of the staff's eye, despite poor play on the field. No Panther, in my opinion, deserves a jersey less than Salley.
  • Rhys Lloyd made the squad as somewhat expected, giving the team its first fulltime kickoff specialist. Donte Curry made the squad as a special teamer, where he was an ace for the team late in 2007 and for the Lions for years. Curry will probably be active over Dan Connor. Dante Wesley will be active for ST duty as well; Goings is a mainstay there, as is Seward. Despite specialization, the team did well squeezing special teamers into the roster.
  • Curry, Adam Seward, Connor, James Anderson, and Johnson were all LB backups, leaving the team with 8 again. The team didn't need Anderson, given the versatility of Connor and Johnson, and Anderson hasn't shown a lot in three years. The team may cut from here if it needs a spot for suspended WR Steve Smith.


After cuts to 53 were made, the team released Dominique Thompson and signed RS Matt Jones, formerly of Tampa Bay and most recently in camp with San Diego.

Monday, September 1, 2008

McCown Traded To Carolina

Josh McCown was traded to Carolina this weekend. The 6th year veteran with 31 starts comes from Miami by what is being reported as a 7th round pick. The team apparently felt that Matt Moore's injury and disappointing play this week was worth pushing for a veteran, and had felt that McCown was intresting prospect for a while now.

McCown is and always has been an intriguing physical prospect, with 4.57 40 speed and a good deep arm, but hasn't been as efficient or mistake-free (36 to 40 TD:INT ratio, 36 fumbles in 44 appearances) as teams have hoped.

After a few years with the Cardinals, including a 400 yards 2 TD game against Carolina (a game Carolina won), McCown went to the Lions to backup Jon Kitna (and was used as a flanker in a handful of games, catching 2 passes). McCown was traded to the Raiders that next year, starting all 9 games he was healthy in. After signing with Miami this year, he was entrenched in a battle for the starting QB job until Chad Pennington became available; McCown was traded to Carolina not long after.

I personally don't understand the urgency to trade for a QB that may have been available; if not, there were other options out there that aren't as mistake prone or expensive (McCown is on the front end of a 2 year, $6 million deal). But we needed a veteran, and McCown is a gamer.