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Saturday, November 29, 2008

v/s Green Bay, 11.30.08

The first thing that comes to mind with an at Green Bay football game is the weather. Make no mistake, the late November Lambeau field matchup will not resemble the climate-controlled, sunless and soulless Georgia Dome from last week. A storied and historic stadium, Green Bay Municipal will be at around 38 degrees at kickoff, and there's a 50% chance of snow. And, if the Carolina Panthers that should show up do show up, they're better suited to that weather than Green Bay is, in an odd twist.

Both teams are coming off somewhat embarassing losses, Carolina losing to Atlanta 45-28, and Green Bay taking it on the chin to New Orleans 51-29. Teams have bounced back after losses in games preceding a Panther matchup, but Carolina itself is bouncing back. Mike McCarthy is 43-26 as a Packer head coach, but the Packers come in 5-6.

A defense slightly cripped and underpowered, and a young Aaron Rodgers being the new guy at QB, these Packers aren't the Playoff-running Packers of last year, but are still potent. They're also not the Packers that rolled Carolina 31-17 at Green Bay last year, nor are these the Panthers that came into Green Bay at 4-5. With no Jake Delhomme, no Steve Smith, and a pooch-punt returned for touchdown, this wasn't a good one for Carolina fans last year.

Defense

Notable in the transition to young QB Aaron Rodgers includes less passing attempts, (1st in 06, 6th in 07, the current version passes a middling 14th), with a requisite drop in passing proficiency. They do sit 14th in passing yards, and their yards/attempt is a 2006 Favre-like 15th. They can still pass the ball, and can't be discounted because of the third-year Rodgers.
The Packers are rushing the ball a lot more, but despite going from 28th in attempts to 15th, they still sit 21st in yards (right where they finished in 2007).


Brett Favre had 3 TD against Carolina last matchup, that hit TE Donald Lee for 2 TD, Greg Jennings for one, and Donald Driver for a team-leading 83 yards. Favre, of course, is gone, but the three receivers are still around - Jennings leads the team with 56 receptions, 966 yards, and 6 TD, and Driver still does a lot of heavy lifting with 49 rec, 615 yd, 3 TD. Jennings already has eclipsed last year's totals (excepting the 12 TD), while taking from Driver, who has half his 2007. A constant - Jennings still outgains Driver by 5 yards, and still gets the long balls. Lee is being used on more short balls, and therefore his yardage totals have fallen to 7/carry.

Driver will face Lucas; Jennings will face Gamble. The taller, older Driver faces the more technical Lucas, which is a good matchup for Carolina if they watch double moves; Jennings' speed matches up well with Gamble's athleticism and physicality. The team must find a way to tighten up in front of Lee and behind Jennings to not face the same problems as last year.

The Packers throw to backup RB Brandon Jackson the most outside of their starting WR-WR-TE combo, and that's not often (11% of completions). Starting RB Ryan Grant has 216 rushes to 8 catches, and backs accounted for one reception for 2 yards in the game last year. That pair has performed on the ground, however, and combine for over 1000 yards so far. Most of it's Grant's (837 yards, 3 TD), but he's running at a 3.9 yard/carry clip, paltry compared to his 5.1 yard per carry 2007. The Packers can't rely on the pass setting up the run anymore, and have to force more carries.

They do setup a lot of looks with Grant, and tend to script specific runs for Jackson's 3 carries a game. They don't run exclusively from I or setup the run in spread situations, they don't have a staple play that they use for running the football. Their methodology changes from game to game and they can attack anywhere on the field, but have only had modest success doing so.

Rodgers himself has pitched in 4 TD and 150 yards to the rushing game. Watch for rollouts to counter Carolina's rush, and the Panthers have only been sporadic covering contain on rollouts and bootlegs. The Packers have gone to a more base-personnel approach since Favre left, with the third WR catching only 8 balls this year to last year's 47. More base personnel means more variance in base formation and more motion, but less matchup problems.

Julius Peppers had a sack and FF on Mark Tauscher last year. Tauscher is questionable for this game, but Peppers would face Chad Clifton. Clifton has given up a career-worst 5.5 sacks so far. The 6'5, 320 lb LT does have strength, and long enough arms that he can neutralize Peppers with a little drive when engaged, but can still be powered on inside moves and with the right first step, blown by. Tauscher's hamstring injury determines whether Charles Johnson and Tyler Brayton face him or 3rd year backup Tony Moll, who has started a total of 6 games after being drafted out of Nevada in the 5th in 2006. The Packers' OL has given up 23 sacks so far this year after giving up 19 in the entire 2007 season.

Offense

Carolina faced GB last year with Testaverde at QB and Steve Smith in shorts...or, rather, a jacket, given the weather. Drew Carter showed rare ability as a #1 receiver, with 5 catches for 131 yards and a score. Hapless Keary Colbert started and caught 6 balls for 33 yards, with a long of 7. It was also Dwayne Jarrett's shining moment, catching 3 balls for 39 yards. Christian Fauria chipped in a 2 yard score. The only person mentioned above, Smith, didn't play then and will suit up this week. The Delhomme/Smith/Muhammad/Williams quartet is a completely new look comparatively.

Carolina runs the ball well on average, and in a cold, snowy game, expect a lot of carries. The Packers' rushing defense has dropped to 22nd, 28th in yards/attempt. To further push that point, 2007 leading tackler Nick Barnett is out, and backup MLB Desmond Bishop is struggling to tackle well. AJ Hawk, the team's current tackle leader, is a contain style WLB who hasn't racked up the heavy numbers or the big plays expected.

Packers' passing defense is 5th ranked, headed by Charles Woodson's matchup skill against the #1 receiver. Woodson's battle with Steve Smith will probably be the battle of the week, and Carolina might be smart to not force the ball to Smith. Woodson isn't a lockdown corner anymore, but he is still an athletic, physical matchup. Al Harris takes on Muhsin Muhammad, with Harris not losing anything in height but certainly in size, and second year nickelback Tramon Williams will face DJ Hackett.

Rangy FS Nick Collins has 5 INT on the year, 3 for scores. Aaron Rouse and Atari Bigby, both banged up for this game, have struggled, however. There should be space to work between Bigby and Brady Poppinga on the strong side, and clearout routes should open the tight ends up to the sideline.

Leading rusher Aaron Kampmann (7 this year, 12 last year) is their top pass rusher at left end; situational right end Kabeer Gbaja Biamila was cut earlier in the year. Cullen Jenkins is next highest at 2.5 sacks situationally between end and tackle; DT Ryan Pickett has 1 sack, as does right end Mike Montgomery; Right DT Johnny Jolly is sackless as a starter.
Defensive coordinator Bob Sanders does occasionally but rarely bring additional pressure; Hawk and Woodson each have two sacks, but the team total is only 18.

Special Teams

Mason Crosby is only hitting field goals at an 82.6 rate; Lambeau winds are part of the culprit, but Crosby has had some control issues as well. Derrick Frost is averaging 42.4 per punt.

Will Blackmon is their primary returner; he's averaging a pedestrian 21.5 on kick returns, but 16.4 on punt returns and can be dangerous there.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Chris Gamble Signs Long-Term Extension; Ramifications

Chris Gamble became the team's highest paid player ever the day after we all gave thanks, signing a $54 million deal that spans 6 years and comes with $16 million up front with the expectation of a total of $22 million guaranteed.

Gamble had become the Panthers' best corner, in my estimation, over the course of the last year. Always good at playing the ball, Gamble had become the player the Panthers saw targeted less; he had, previously, been the slightly mistake prone player who could take on any receiver but couldn't tackle. He has become a complete football player, with heavy hits, interceptions, and the ability to play almost any player in man coverage.

Gamble's value, at $9 million per year, is an astonishing rate for old-school Panther fans who remember how shockingly expensive the Ken Lucas deal was for Carolina in 2005 at $6 million per year. Deals by Assante Samuel and Nate Clements have really brought the price up for cornerbacks, and the free agent market overall exploded last year. While Carolina stayed away from high priced free agents last year, and high market deals overall, the team feels the effect of such deals when taking its tack of re-signing key players.

The move comes as a bit of a surprise - the Panthers rarely make big contract moves mid-season and the team is in the middle of an assumed playoff run. Besides becoming (for now) the highest paid player in team history, Gamble also becomes the first John Fox and Marty Hurney first round draft pick to span his rookie contract and re-sign.

The team has pending free agents in Julius Peppers and Jordan Gross, the two first round picks before Gamble, to deal with in 2009. Gross can't sign, as a Franchise player, until after the year is over; Peppers has the ability, since his contract hadn't been renegotiated, but the team has been unable to come up with a deal so far.

Ramifications

Most people think of the Peppers and Gross situations first when thinking ahead; Gamble's was just as big to get done, and while their two other franchise-level upcoming free agents do matter, Gamble's impact starts at the cornerback slot. For one, all four starting DBs are under contract through 2010 now. The downside is that it appears that Richard Marshall, the team's nickelback, is deemed not a long-term part of the team's future due to rapidly escalating demands as a pending free agent (RFA 2009, UFA 2010). Marshall, a top notch football player and cover corner who just happens to rank as third best at each on the Panthers, didn't have interest in signing a deal that would rank shy of Gamble's, when approached in the offseason. The team didn't want to pay Marshall that money, and apparently will Gamble. This likely means the team will move forward on Gamble and Lucas, and will do their best to keep Marshall in RFA but let him walk after.

Second, it shows the team is still preparing for its future. John Fox and Marty Hurney don't make this move if they aren't assured some long-term tenure.

Gross' status as a free agent should be worth monitoring. Gross states he wants to stay, and the team feels he's a leader; Gross states he simply ran out of time to get a deal done and was franchised for it. So, getting a deal done shouldn't be critical, but it shouldn't have impact on Gamble's contract. In the end, it should come down to a risk-reward deal of whether the team can afford to have Travelle Wharton return to LT or pay Gross a top-market deal in the level of $7.5-8.5 million per year or more.

It doesn't impact Julius Peppers' contract because Peppers was going to get more than this anyway. The team already offered a deal that would make him the highest paid defensive end - which means a deal in excess of the $12 million per year deal that Dwight Freeney received (now almost two years ago). The team loves having Peppers as a player, and he's a homegrown star. The team isn't going to let him go, so they're willing to franchise him for $17 million rather than let him walk; Peppers knows this and probably isn't going to settle for a deal that isn't amazing. So, if this deal stings, you have no idea what the impending Peppers deal will do to you.

New Practice Routine

Carolina, after having had defensive problems with the no-huddle, with getting up to the line defensively before the ball is snapped, and with a team that starts slowly anyway, made some adjustments to practice.

No pads, faster in and out of drills, and working on things like getting out of the huddle fast, quick adjustments, and just increasing the pace of work. In doing so, the team feels it will find a way to erase some of the problems of the Atlanta game quickly, which is both good and necessary; hopefully, it doesn't take too much focus from another critical away game in Green Bay.

I'm hopeful that they can take this and apply it both offensively and defensively: defensively, I don't want to see teams using no-huddle because it's an advantage. I want to see it because they're desperately behind and this is the best they can do. Offensively, I'd like to think we can use the urgency as a part of the message, not unlike the drafting of Stewart and Otah. We're doing things purposefully, with the ideal that no matter what, they can't be stopped.

Come to the line fast after a stoppage in play, to show purpose. You know what we're going to do, we do too. And we both know you won't stop it. Come to the line fast with the clock running to unnerve and force anticipation. We don't care if the clock is running - let it run. We'll get another first down and you can stare at the clock if you want, we'll be walking upfield.

The offense needs that swagger to survive. It's what's been missing in these slow starts.

Monday, November 24, 2008

v/s Falcons - Outplayed, Outsmarted

Atlanta found a way to out-everything Carolina this week. A 17-0 start and a late Carolina collapse doomed the Panthers to a miserable loss on the road in an important NFC South matchup. Instead of putting Atlanta away for good for the year, Atlanta's now a game back and Tampa Bay is ahead due to tie breakers.

Carolina failed in all phases at different points, with the defense starting things off and the offense generating nothing in the first quarter; the special teams and defense failed late. The team looked to take an edge on in the second quarter, coming back and looking respectable, and in the third the Falcons looked worn down; one good drive and the Falcons had momentum again and were scoring at will.

An upside is that Jake Delhomme was able to answer the bell, so to speak. After a terrible game and a statistically good one that wasn't productive, Delhomme was able to drive the team back and was able to pass on the Falcons at will once he was rolling. The team will need more of this if they insist on being behind from the start of the game. Another saw Deangelo Williams score for the fourth week in a row, a remarkable feat that places him rightfully as high as any Panther ever.

The downside, of course, is that the inconsistencies of the year were in full force and only got worse over time; the team starts slow, it sometimes finishes too quickly. This is a team that, at 8-3, is still sitting pretty if it plays its cards right, but that's not how they're playing them now.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

v/s Atlanta, 11/22/08

Carolina took Atlanta (then 2-1) handily early in the year, 24-9, at Carolina earlier in the year. Atlanta gave up 400 yards of Carolina offense and didn't find the endzone.

The rematch is a slight favorite toward Atlanta (-1) at the Georgia Dome, a fact that has Carolina (especially their defense) very unhappy. 6-4 coming into this week, the Falcons are coming off a four point loss to Denver.

Defense

Atlanta's still dominated offensively by its run game, a key for Mike Mularkey in moving the chains and managing rookie QB Matt Ryan's throws. They rank 2nd rushing the football, with Michael Turner almost at 1000 yards already (4.6 avg, 9 TDs). Last matchup saw Ryan with 150 yards passing, his second lowest total of the season. Since then, he's averaged 242 yards per game. He's finding Roddy White with regularity - White is on pace to eclipse his 83 rec/1200 yd 2007 performance.

Turner gets the bulk of the carries, and Mularkey tries to get his backs 35 touches a game. Turner rarely gets the ball against the pass, since if he's in for passes he's the playaction decoy; more likely pass attempts give you Jerious Norwood (7 rush/3 catch per game), the speedy change of pace. Don't expect to see much of Norwood rushing, as the Falcons will attempt to push the larger Turner on the small Carolina defense.

Turner gains most off left tackle - where Todd Weiner has replaced an ailing Sam Baker. Weiner himself is questionable with knee concerns, leaving midseason retread Wayne Gandy possibly starting. Turner gains 5.2 yards/carry off left tackle, and the Falcons give their highest amount of carries (18%) off left tackle. They use TE Ben Hartsock (6'4, 265) on that side often, and will use him a lot this week to help on Julius Peppers. Hartsock isn't a receiving threat at all, but is an able blocker.

Carolina comes in ranked 17th against the run, having had some recent gap control issues, but have held numerous high-ranked runners to low yardage totals. Turner had 56 yards against Carolina on 18 carries, a mediocre 3.1 yards per carry average. Turner's third in the league in rush yards, but most of his yards have come on bad teams - Tampa, Chicago, Carolina, and Philadelphia have stuffed Turner, whereas he's rolled against Detroit, KC, Green Bay, and Oakland.

Turner's an opportunistic runner moreso than an explosive one, in that he rarely bounces outside and it rarely works. Teams let him get a lane inside and he makes it happen there, but he doesn't create. Staying in your gaps, staying at home, and playing contain, should let you take on Turner well. Norwood ripped off one long run to get the Falcons over 100 yards rushing, but there was holding on the play that wasn't called on an outside defender.

In the previous matchup, Atlanta was able to successfully use the hurry-up offense to success, but only had a few plays scripted. On the 2nd series, the Falcons put together their longest drive this way - a 12 play drive that ended in a FG, that the Falcons ran no-huddle out of 9 times. Once the game was over ten points, most of Ryan's snaps were in shotgun. Look for more this week - Carolina has struggled with no-huddle, though it's uncertain why. The Panthers aren't heavy up front, they don't rely intensely on substitution, and there's not a lot of age on the defense. They're not unaware, either. In the end, Ryan's no-huddle plays from last game were scripted plays, and they will probably not put this much on a rookie QB right now. They also won't abandon the run for it if possible.

Ryan essentially finds White twice as much as any other receiver. White had 7 receptions for 90 yards, the longest a 23 yarder that Charles Godfrey wasn't in position to defend. Ken Lucas had 2 PD in this matchup, and generally held a very good receiver in check.

Facing Chris Gamble, 2nd receiver Michael Jenkins has 29 receptions, 3 TD, and 450 yards, almost exactly half of each of White's stats. Unlike White, Jenkins is more situational deep, using the 6'4 receiver to shield the ball and excel in jump ball situations they're not going to repeat often. He does have some short skill, but lacks the route running and polished nature to make this happen often. Last game, Jenkins had 3 rec/32 yards. Next receiver after that is Norwood at 24 rec, with 3rd receiver Brian Finneran's 13 receptions barely edging out FB Harry Douglas' 12. Finneran is another big receiver, but not explosive, and the Falcons tend to keep things in base Pro formations to keep the run game in play. The base defense should be the primary concern - and Atlanta only converted 15% of 3rd downs last game.

Carolina's defense held last game - they're owed a TD from that opening series play brought back - they had 7 tackles for loss, two sacks, and batted 7 balls. They made plays last time and kept composure from start to finish, and will need this and more this week. Because of the deep nature of their pass game and the play-action game, the Panthers' safeties need to stay deep and alert; the DL needs to stay in gaps and not try to twist around to make plays.

Offense

The trend on Atlanta's defense isn't faring as well as its offense - aside from the 77 yard impressive performance against the Raiders, they've given up 408, 361, 432 yards in the games before; it gave up 520 yards against New Orleans two weeks ago and 330 in the loss to Denver. Atlanta's given up over 350 yards passing in half of their games this year. They come into this week raned 23rd on defense, 22nd on both pass and run individually. Carolina's offense, of course, has struggled as well, relying on a few big plays but posting only 150 yards across the two games against Oakland and Detroit. This underscores how the other side of the ball - Atlanta Offense v/s Carolina Defense - is the key matchup, but the Carolina Offense v/s Atlanta Defense is probably where the game is won for either side.

Atlanta's run defense is small, and to add to their 22nd rating versus the pass, they're 28th in yards/attempt. Carolina had 57 yards from Deangelo Williams and 52 (with a TD) from Jonathan Stewart in what would be considered a prototype performance from their running game in a 15 point win. Carolina had success running inside and out, and should have success running on the strong side off end and off tackle. Sealing inside and kicking out left end Jamaal Anderson shouldn't be difficult, and the Falcons' LBs aren't great in pursuit right now. Williams should be able to turn the corner as necessary, and both backs should have success breaking tackles on the outside as they did last game. Look for a few more pitchouts, and expect to see more ATL blitzing inside on run downs.


Muhsin Muhammad had his best game of the year here beating up on Brent Grimes, who's since been replaced in the lineup, for 8 receptions, 142 yards, and a score. Steve Smith had 6/96 and a score on Chris Houston, who he'll face this week. Dominique Foxworth is now the other starter, and isn't more physically imposing than Grimes but doesn't make as many mistakes. Slightly more physical, Foxworth won't make plays on the ball worth shielding the ball from him, so Delhomme should be able to force the ball in when needed.

Carolina did go to secondary receivers despite their success throwing downfield - DJ Hackett, Dante Rosario, and Williams each got 2 receptions from an offense that has so far featured just the starting WR. Rookie LB Curtis Lofton has been a bright spot, but at 6', 248 isn't a coverage threat. Aging Keith Brooking and veteran Michael Boley are on the outside, and each have been underwhelming the past few weeks. This trio can be exposed, though SS Lawyer Milloy does come up into the box often as well. It depends on what they feel like they want to cover, and with any awareness, Delhomme should be able to distribute the ball well.

The Falcons had 5 tackles for loss last game; they registered no sacks. Carolina was able to neutralize the Falcons' smallish DL and influence the one large member (Grady Jackson, at RDT) most of the time. Travelle Wharton does draw another heavy assignment in Jackson, and can't let him slip by as he did on the one tackle for loss. Likewise, Jordan Gross earns his money today against John Abraham. Carolina's OL has only 13 sacks on the year, remarkable given that five were against Minnesota. 8.5 of those sacks are attributable to linemen, and none have more than two (Gross, Otah, and backup C Hangartner).

But expect more blitzing this week. Foxworth's presence, while not as imposing as you might figure from the team's reaction to how they're using him, has left the Falcons blitzing and playing man coverage behind it more often. Abraham does have 11 sacks, and you'll probably see him stunting inside or moving around more to keep from being doubled. Still, Abraham and 2nd year Jamaal Anderson combined for just two tackles last game. Abraham did block the bobbled-snap punt, however.


Special Teams

Ageless kicker Jason Elam is the team's top scorer, having hit 21 of 23 so far including 1 of 2 from 50+. Michael Koenen is punting at a 38.9 average, with a mediocre 36.8 net.

Norwood is the kick returner, at a solid 26.4 per kick average, averaging 18 last game v/s Carolina; Adam Jennings averaged 12 yards on two punts. Rhys Lloyd had three touchbacks last game.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

V/S Oakland

Oakland may be one of the worst teams in the league; this is beyond a trap game. What may have otherwise proven difficult, mainly because of a 4pm game in Northern California, has been negated by both a bye week to allow the team to be well rested for travel, and by Oakland's own implosion.

The team fired Lane Kiffin in a move some expected last year, midseason this year; Tom Cable, the team's line coach and former UCLA coordinator, is the new steward of the offense and in theory the team as a whole; however, Kiffin never really had autonomy over the defense and some say that Rob Ryan himself only has so much control. Cable was chosen over a number of other somewhat hand-picked Al Davis assistants - Greg Knapp, former SF and ATL coordinator, who received playcalling duties back after Kiffin was fired; James Lofton, a potential future head coach who was hired on without Kiffin's approval , and Ryan himself, who Kiffin wanted to fire and Davis forced to stay. Cable is 1-3 as head coach, just as Kiffin was before being fired.

There will be some matchup info following, but the critical thing for an emerging Carolina team this week should be fundamentals. Do your job right, beat the guy across from you, and then go find someone else to beat. Matchups won't win this game, better talent and coaching will; putting a lot into this game schematically will be wasted effort and drilling fundamentals this week will help both this game and future games. Overlooking the Raiders isn't what I'm suggesting, but there aren't any secrets here on how to beat them or what they try to do.


Offense

Oakland's defense, ranked 28th in yards/23rd in points, is ripe for the picking this week. Already down, the defense seems to be demoralized over the release of troubled DB Deangelo Hall. The Raiders defense has given up over 375 yards each over the last four games, and six of eight overall; they look on the verge of collapse and have had numerous personnel changes trying to fix the bleeding.

They were, in theory, built from the front back - the team that finished 3rd in total defense in 2006, though, looks nothing like this one. Tommy Kelly, some suggest, would be a top notch DT on a more well built team, and is an asset when healthy (a problem last year). The 6'6, 300 lb tackle is always a concern for batted passes and inside pressure. Gerard Warren, whose #1 overall selection was a failure in Cleveland and his punishment is apparently floating from one awful AFC West team to another, does have three sacks and puts up good pressure numbers, but seems to loaf and doesn't play the run well. They bring in their expensive backup Terdell Sands (6'7, 335) to replace the 325 lb Warren against the run.

At end, they play Jay Richardson (6'6, 280, 2nd year out of Ohio State/5th round pick) at left end on run downs and liberally substitute Kalimba Edwards, the former Gamecock and Lion, in passing situations. Edwards has started the last few weeks for the injured Derrick Burgess, who's doubtful for this game, which puts Edwards on Jordan Gross and the Raiders low in depth.

The Raiders have a very underrated pair of contain/coverage linebackers in Kirk Morrison and Thomas Howard. Morrison finished over 110 tackles in each of his four years, and finished with 10 defensed passes/4 INT. Howard had 95 tackles as a 2nd year in 2007 and had 6 INT, including 2 TD. Remarkably unimpressive Ricky Brown is a runstopper at the other spot, another third year. The middle will be tested with any TE or back pass, dangerous territory if the Panthers try to pass short.

Their secondary is a point of concern - spending huge on Gibril Wilson and franchising Nnamadi Asomugha dropped them from 8th in pass defense in 2007 to 16th in 2008 so far. Hall being cut leaves the Raiders throwing a mess of Stanford Routt, Chris Johnson, and converted S Michael Huff to the task of playing the other corner. Asomugha will play Steve Smith, and the other spots are contested at this point, but none of them as good as Muhsin Muhammad by a longshot. The Raiders generally play Asomugha in man coverage, and don't give him any help, but also don't believe in blitzing, so the Panthers will see a mix of doubling Muhammad and just generic zone on the other side. One effective tool may be to put a slot WR inside Smith, to force the safety over, and use that to setup things on the other side with Muhammad.

Defense

It's not realistic to expect to hold the Raiders' offense to the 10 yards passing or 77 yards total offense from last week, but it is realistic to expect the Carolina defense, ranked 6th in the league, to be a good matchup against the 30th ranked Oakland offense. Oakland's scoring average since their bye week is under five points per game, a mark that includes last week's shutout and a 3 point performance coming off the bye.

The overly deliberate version of the WCO that has been run under, and after, Kiffin has featured a lot of TE dumpoffs (Zach Miller leads the team with 22 receptions) and RBs (backs account for 36% of completions), while battling WR injuries and turmoil.

Despite the nature of the offense and the method, it's not working - to the tune of a 48% completion percentage. The deliberate calls for deep passes don't work in their favor, and relatively easy to both judge and expect from Chad Schillens and Ashley Lelie. Schillens, at 6'4, 225, is a hefty receiver; Lelie's 6'3 makes him a theoretical matchup issue for most teams. Not for Carolina, and in reality not for most teams anyway. Javon Walker is their primary intermediate receiving target, and takes a lot of the shorter attention from DBs, but has only as many receptions as their backup RB, Michael Bush.

Setting aside the deliberate deep pass comes toward the overly deliberate run play - the wildcat formation. Oakland generally puts Darren McFadden in the shotgun on this play, with Bush in alongside. To this point, McFadden doesn't have the latitude with the play that Ronnie Brown has - McFadden hasn't handed off, hasn't run an option play, hasn't attempted a pass. Tape study shows that the entire formation series so far has been one call - a straight-ahead blocked zone read that allows McFadden the opportunity to pick and choose his hole. It's curious to not give the veteran of this scheme more looks, given that Arkansas used this with McFadden last year, but there may be thought that the rookie doesn't need too much added to his plate. Regardless, while this adds another thing for the defense to practice against (actually, that could be considered "one thing", not "another"), the defense's job to defend Wildcat is simply to play a less attacking front and flow to the football.

There's no trick to defend, there's no other concern. The Raiders don't even unbalance the line like other teams tend to do with this formation. Waiting for McFadden to start chucking a sideline lateral to Russell, who would then be able to pass deep off the playaction and flow to the ball, is very very unlikely at this point and it's doubtful the Raiders could pull it off right now. McFadden may not play (toe injury), so this may be a moot point anyway.

Past that, the Raiders run the ball well (10th in the league; 8th in yards/attempt) but rarely get the chance thanks to its 32nd pass offense. They've given up 22 sacks on the year, and blitzing them works well despite the dumpoffs.

Russell missed some practices this week, giving the Raiders the option of putting Andrew Walter out there instead. Walter's last significant action was 2006, when he had a 55.8 rating and completed passes at 53.3%. Like Russell, Walter was touted coming out of school as a big armed QB, that has a lot of pocket presence and size. Both have had problems in the pros setting up in the pocket fast enough, having good footwork, and getting good fundamentals into throws. Walter is not the accurate passer you'd expect from a tall drop back passer, and he's not the veteran that would be able to aid Russell. 3rd QB is Marques Tuiasosopo, the career Raider project, is a runner first and a passer second - he's been in three games in the last four years and has thrown 39 passes in that time.

On the OL, the Robert Gallery - Jake Grove combination is starting to finally come to fruition - instead of it being the LT-LG or LT-C franchise combination it was touted as, it's now an underwhelming guard-center tandem. Gallery at LG is finally working, and Grove is a steady center. Kwame Harris, another former first rounder, is at LT going up against Julius Peppers; Harris has given up 5 sacks so far this year and has committed 8 penalties. 6'6. 315 lb Cornell Green is the RT, and has given up 6 sacks already this year. RG Cooper Carlisle is a more steady vet than Green, underpowered but not holding the team back with mistakes.

Special Teams

Shane Lechler and Sebastian Janikowski are solid specialists; Lechler's nearly 49 yards per punt is excellent. Janikowski's averages aren't great, but part of that's trying unrealistic field goals. Johnnie Lee Higgins is their primary returner, at 9.1 yards per punt and 24.0 per return. Their coverage units, as well, give up 24.1 yards per return.

Overall
There's a chance these words will come back to haunt me - this should be a fantastic blowout, paced more by how conservative the Panthers will be when up than by the Raiders. The chance that Oakland wins this game is about as likely as the chance that Carolina wins this by enough that Al Davis throws something from his booth at booing Raider fans. If Carolina can't win this ballgame, they don't deserve postseason.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Bye week - Midterm analysis

Carolina has built a 6-2 record and has been led by a tough defense and an opportunistic offense. Ten weeks ago, the prognosis on Carolina rested on the health of Jake Delhomme's arm and the concerns of the Carolina pass defense.

Delhomme is on pace for his second highest yardage total of his career, despite the team being 26th in pass attempts and 7th in rush attempts. His 7.7 yards per pass is 2nd best to his Pro Bowl year of 2005. His TD totals aren't going to eclipse any personal bests at this rate, partially due to a potential team record of rushing TD (currently on pace to finish very close to 2005's anomalic Stephen Davis TD season). He's on pace for 10 INT (and to this point, not many of them have been his fault - from the Jeff King INT where the ball was wrestled away to the numerous Tampa INTs coming off balls that should've been caught), which would be a career best for a full season for him, and better than 2006's 13 game season (11 INT).

Deangelo Williams is on pace for 1000 yards as the starter and 8 total TD; Jonathan Stewart would project to around 800 yards and 10 TD, second all-time for a Panthers individual season and would put Stewart tied for 4th team all-time within one year.

The OL has given up only 11 sacks so far this year, despite having to rotate in backups due to injury. It's doing well in power rushing situations, but the major flaw has been allowing run pressure to stuff the RBs. Carolina has allowed a number of defenders to slip through and get free shots at RBs that barely have the ball.

Carolina's defense looks to be able to put up as stingy a point total as ever, currently ranking 3rd in the league in points scored against; despite facing five of the league's highest rated rushers, the run defense is 13th, and the pass defense ranks a hefty 7th in the league.

The pass rush has been adequate, scoring 13 sacks; most of that's come from the ends (Julius Peppers has 4; Charles Johnson has 3.5; Tyler Brayton has 1.5 and Hilee Taylor has 1) with 3 coming from non-DE positions (only 1 from DT, Damione Lewis).

Best Surprise - the team came together in ways that last year's team couldn't dream of. Despite the Smith-Lucas fight, the team has found ways to mend hostility between the offense and defense; each unit is better because of it. New leaders have sprung up to replace the old leaders last in the last few years.


Biggest Mistakes - the most glaring concerns so far has been ball security. Against Tampa, the Carolina receivers dropped a ton of passes, including three INT that were deflected off the Panthers' hands; Panthers' DBs and LBs were dropping sure-fire INTs. Steve Smith had 6 drops in 6 games; Muhsin Muhammad's one drop was a sure TD that ended up going through his numbers to the ground and Carolina had to kick a FG. Jake Delhomme has fumbled four times, and has lost 3 of them (one was returned for a TD, another led directly to a TD inside the ten).
Next largest is penalty - the Panthers were averaging around 10 per game early to lead the league, but luckily have pared that down a bit to around 4.5 for the last four games. After that, it's general inconsistency - the team has struggled in one half and played well in another; it's had a few letdowns in games. It's not as bad as last year, where the team got blown out multiple times, but it's still something to watch as the team can be streaky.

At 6-2 during the bye week, Carolina looks to sit pretty so far, showing up in the standings as one of the elite in the NFC (which is, for once, stronger than the AFC). Looking ahead to the next two weeks, Oakland and Detroit are two of the worst teams in the league. Five of the final six, however, are very tough football games, and the two divisional games (at Atlanta, at home on MNF against Tampa Bay).