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Friday, January 30, 2009

Board, Edwards Unavailable; Haluchak Still Possible

Dwaine Board, my top choice for the DL coach job (and arguably the biggest role on that defensive staff given that DC Ron Meeks is a DBs coach at heart and the linebackers are the most stable position on the roster), signed with the Raiders. They're also talking to Mike Haluchak, the former Giants staffer under Fox, and former Panthers, 49ers, and Seahawk coordinator John Marshall about the same position with Oakland, but haven't signed Haluchak or Marshall. Either could be potential assistants here, though Marshall's showing as defensive coordinator here probably left a bad taste in both his and the franchise's mouths.

Also, Herm Edwards decided to coach the television in lieu of doing real work, becoming the fifty billionth former NFL player/coach currently on staff with ESPN.

(Pessimistic outlook? Herm is the candidate we won't want to hire when Fox is fired in 2010; fans bellyache. Optimistic outlook? After at least one Super Bowl win in the next two years, Fox hires his old teammate in 2011 as heir apparent, fans still bellyache)

Still remaining? Top DL coach Tim Krumrie, along perennial "interim" coach and LBs coach candidate Rick Venturi, and former Giants DBs coach Johnny Lynn (who coached under Fox and then replaced him) are out there still. Venturi actually serves as a wild-card - he's coached both LBs and DBs (not unlike the guy that succeeds him, new Rams DC and former Panthers LBs coach Ken Flajole), so he could fit at either; Marshall, if he were a position coach candidate should he not get the Raiders' job, has coached DL or LB. Venturi has also been an assistant head coach in many stops, and succeeded two head coaches with an interim title. He was, after all, the guy who coached the Saints after Jim Mora abandoned them following a Panthers' whipping in 2006.

Venturi's former head coach (Saints and Rams), Jim Haslett, is desperate to work in the league, since he has no former head coach's salary to work on unlike the non-interim guys fired, and was LBs coach under Fox, but it's been since 1995 since he's been a position coach. Haslett is a strong voice, but the attraction for him to get another head coaching job may be a distraction not unlike the one that's held Jim Fassel back.

Brett Maxie, former Saint and Panther safety, is available as a DBs coach, and the move could give Mike Gilhammer a little more power (Gilhammer, as a third-tier type assistant, works on third down packages and coaches safeties, but has survived two coaches with stronger titles than his own, and will be working on his third). Maxie has never held the position completely by himself. Keith Millard, a former Pro Bowler and DL coach, is a passable alternative at DL coach, but maybe too strong a personality and not enough of the technician for a team that was coordinated by a DL coach in Mike Trgovac and had another strong personality position coaching in Sal Sunseri.

Krumrie, of course, is the "workout guy". At combine, he's the guy working out prospects. At pro days, he's probably the guy working out defensive linemen and tweeners. He's the ultimate technician - not only is he testing you, he's in the trenches facing you. Krumrie, a former nosetackle, goes man to man with a hundred scouts and coaches watching, and in his fifties, looks like he could still play. He paces guys who'll get handed millions before they touch a pro field, at three times their age, and never backs down.

Bad news?
Is it bad news we haven't signed assistant coaches yet? The staff will undoubtedly have to come together at some point, and high quality coaches are still around.

Good news?
The coaches simply have to be present. Unlike about 1/3rd of other staffs, the coaches don't have to be integral to a major rebuilding effort. This team was 12-4 - we know what parts we want to keep, and what parts we must unfortunately replace.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Meeks: What To Expect

A lot of the Ron Meeks press coverage in the last few days has surrounded two things.

What will the new Carolina defense look like, and how much will John Fox meddle?

Fox stepping in at two different points of Mike Trgovac's worst run of defense over the last two years, in a career that was generally pretty beneficial for both, has gained a lot of attention. Most know that then-rookie Jon Beason's elevation to starting MLB after gaining some work on the weakside early in the year brought John Fox into defensive meetings; the results were great. Beason came up to speed fast and never has let up since.

But the second time, around the bye week of 2008, when the defense really started to struggle, has brought a lot of "chicken or the egg" arguments. Did the defense falter and John Fox saw it coming and tried to save it? Or did Fox step in and the meddling became both a distraction and a tug of war that caused dissonance among the ranks?

We'll never really know, but the media's taken sides on the issue. It seems, if you're connected to Carolina but stay on the beat, you're cautious about blaming Fox, but if you're out of earshot, you're more likely to bash the coach who tends not to be friendly to media. There remains doubt how much of the defense will be Meeks' design and how much will be Fox's.

But remaining the defensive scheme of the last seven years doesn't change the amount of latitude that Meeks will have with his defense. Some believe he's a Tampa-2 defense puppet - a guy who did nothing but run Tony Dungy's defense. Others believe him to have an aggressive defensive personality that had to be conservative to meet Dungy's needs. The end result is that the Panthers will likely stay with a zone-based 4-3 one gap defense, and that the calls will vary. Some Cover-2 concepts will be involved, and some of the traditional cover-3 will stay.

On the up side, Meeks' style of coaching is being talked up by important people in the football world. Citing flexibility toward talent and a tireless work ethic, Meeks is being lauded as a positive force instead of a heavy handed yeller; he's being given a lot of press for being from the Dungy School of Mutual Respect. Regardless of whether John Fox gets involved, meddles, oversees, micromanages, macromanages, or gets fired and Jim Skipper is elevated, Ron Meeks will do his job to the best of his ability and his units will be well-prepared, will have good technique, and will have a young unit ready to bust heads and flow to the ball.

Monday, January 26, 2009

New Defensive Coordinator: Ron Meeks

Carolina kept their search quiet, and then quietly emerged with their choice, former Colts defensive coordinator Ron Meeks. Meeks, 56, spent seven years as defensive coordinator there under Tony Dungy, then resigned amidst speculation he was going to be fired under new head coach Jim Caldwell.

Meeks is the first African-American coordinator in any of the three phases for the Panthers (Jim Skipper, RBs coach, is as close as it's gotten, having been the assistant head coach for a few years now) and the team has never employed a black head coach.

It's telling that the one coach interviewed under the Rooney Rule (which requires the interview of minority candidates) was Tony Dungy, who essentially did the Panthers a favor by interviewing even though he intended to take the Colts job. Dungy, heavily admired by the Richardson family, may or may not have had an impact on the decision, but there's no doubt that Dungy felt as strongly toward Meeks as Caldwell had felt against him.

A Tampa-2 disciple, Meeks hadn't coached in the system until coming to Tampa, so the ties aren't necessarily as strong as you might expect. Before coming to Indianapolis, Meeks hadn't been a coordinator at the NFL level; he'd been a Dallas third-tier assistant (1991), then coached defensive backs with Cincinnati (1992-96), Atlanta (97-99), Washington (2000), and St. Louis (2001) before elevating his game. In 2002, he took a Colts team in disarray and molded it into a top ten defense.

Meeks, whose Colts defenses finished top seven in scoring five times over seven years, takes over a Carolina defense in shambles - its top defensive player, Julius Peppers, threatening to leave; its secondary in need of a shakeup; and its core rocked by giving up 30+ points in six of the last seven and then collapsing against Arizona.

A defensive backfield specialist, Meeks' style of play fits well with a secondary needing both a talent infusion and realignment. His style of defense fits well with stopping the passing game, and does well flowing to the ball. It has struggled to stop the run, however, and at times dipped near the bottom of the league. The Tampa 2 defense is much smaller than the Carolina style cover 3 zone, and it's unlikely the team uses the smaller linemen. It will take advantage of fast linebackers, which we have, and may use smaller linemen on pass downs, but probably isn't likely to get as small as the Colts on base downs. The Tampa version evolved into having a big nosetackle and a penetrating under-tackle, which the team already has players to use.

Nonetheless, each of the fundaments of defense need work - run defense, pass rush, and pass coverage. There won't be a fancy scheme, and deep down everyone knew there wouldn't be. There's no gimmick to hide behind. It's on the players, a man taking on a man and coming out ahead, a unit working together toward a common goal.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Scherer Speaks; No Other News

After the Mike Trgovac statements, not much has happened. No rumors of interviews so far, though the team has tended to stay quiet in that regard (and it's especially easy in Mobile, where coaches, GMs, and sometimes owners are seen mingling amongst fans.

With Herm Edwards still a fresh fire, he probably won't be ready to talk to teams for a day or two. He has said, as a quick update, that he won't coach anywhere as a coordinator; he won't seek any head coaching jobs (i.e., he's not going to Oakland, though I don't know if there was a concern there anyway), and he'd either go be a DBs coach or go to TV. To me, TV is overcrowded with guys from the NFL already, and Edwards' style of public speaking doesn't fit. As a DBs coach and assistant head coach, he could help mold a young team and rebuild the equity he's put in his career.


Rip Scherer gave his first interviews (which may be about as good as we get - Jeff Davidson interviewed somewhat rarely and most coaches don't talk to press much at all). He talked of a past facing Jake Delhomme, underlying the passion and fight in him. They've worked on forming a kinship, and it should be good for the pair.

They also talked about fundamentals - something that would be sorely lacking when your QBs coach has experience with one team and is three years older than your starting quarterback (yeah, as a matter of fact, while Vinny Testaverde was older, he had a lot more to offer; you can honor his feelings for family but lament that he couldn't stay longer or that he couldn't spend time with a healthy Delhomme). McCoy lacked the working knowledge of the game that Scherer has, which is why I believe we upgraded.

Scherer spoke of Delhomme's initial meeting, which seems to show a want to take advantage of the new start with a more knowledgeable coach.

“I know a lot of guys don't adhere to that in the NFL,” said Scherer. “But Jake wants that. He wants to get back to focusing on fundamentals and technique, and on the mental part of the game, the emotional part of playing the position, the leadership, handling the pressure, things like that. I don't think you can neglect any of those.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Trgovac to Packers; Herm Edwards Available

Mike Trgovac spent the morning becoming the new DL coach of the Green Bay Packers, and the afternoon explaining why.

"There was no one determining factor," he told The Observer of his decision to turn down the team's offer to remain as defensive corodinator. "I had been there seven years. In coaching, that's a lifetime. I just thought it was best that I did it at this time. I just wanted a fresh start. When I put all my thoughts together and all the situation together, it came down to that."

Trgovac squashed rumors that it was regarding payscale, late contracts, or unhappiness with John Fox.


Herm Edwards, a college teammate of Fox's, is now available. The Chiefs have fired the coach they traded for, giving him three years and seeing this year's collapse as a sign of worsening trends. The Chiefs are expected to hire former Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan.

Edwards, a defensive specialist, was an assistant head coach/defensive backs coach with Tampa Bay before becoming a head coach in New York in 2001. Teaming with Fox at San Diego State, the pair were starting safeties, and some rumors have taken him to wanting a defensive assitant position in the NFL. The Chiefs would still honor his contract, so he'd come cheaply; he's never been a coordinator so he may want that position or he may want to stay an assistant and help administrate more. He's been linked to the Panthers and Colts, both of which have the defensive coordinator position open; the Panthers have the defensive backs coach position open as well.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Housecleaning: Trgovac, Lewis Choose To Leave

Mike Trgovac has turned down an opportunity to stay as the defensive coordinator of the Carolina Panthers, possibly stemming from disagreements over how to re-shape the defensive staff and players. Tim Lewis has also left, choosing to take the defensive backs position in Seattle.

Up to this point, all defensive coaches and QBs coach Mike McCoy had been given permission to look at other jobs, though to this point each of them had taken on other roles (McCoy and LBs coach Ken Flajole being promoted to coordinators, Sal Sunseri as assistant head coach/LBs coach). Lewis is making a lateral move (he was a finalist for the defensive coordinator job with Green Bay), and Trgovac simply chose not to stay (after two days of stating he was to sign a new contract).

This leaves only DBs/Safeties coach Mike Gilhammer, who was with John Fox from 1997-2000 in New York, and Sam Mills III, a third tier quality control assistant (and, obviously, the son of Sam Mills), left from the staff last year on defense (and only two coaches, Jim Skipper and Richard Williamson, as coaches from the 2002 staff - Williamson is the only coach left from 1995).

This afternoon, it was rumored by that Trgovac would become the defensive coordinator in Tampa. This was filled by Jim Bates, former Miami/Green Bay coordinator, who would've become a candidate here. The team hasn't and likely won't state who their candidates are, but a later post will suggest some alternatives.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Sunseri, Flajole Both Leaving

Two more coaches are leaving the Carolina Panthers, with speculation that the team may be done and will start to hire new assistants very soon.

DL coach Sal Sunseri and LBs coach Ken Flajole have both accepted other offers; Sunseri is now the LBs coach at the University of Alabama, and Flajole is now the defensive coordinator with the Rams.

The two coaches came into prominent roles as part of the 2003 coaching staff - Sunseri, as the team's third tier "defensive assistant" in 2002, was promoted to position coach in 2003 as Mike Trgovac was promoted to coordinator; Flajole, having been fired as Seahawks' DBs coach, was hired to replace the departing Alvin Reynolds, who was the assistant DBs coach. Of course, as Sam Mills' cancer became an issue, Flajole became his intermediary and eventually succeeded Mills in position. By the end of the year, they were the defensive front coaches for the Panthers in their Super Bowl run.

Replacing Them?

For the open DL coach position:

Dwayne Board, Seahawks DL coach - the former Seahawk and 49er assistant was replaced by incoming coach Jim Mora Jr. The former NC A&T three-time All-American was a big part of a 49er defense that consistently put up good numbers under George Seifert and Steve Mariucci (1990-2002) after having been with the team as a player (1979-1988), then left to be with Mike Holmgren's Seattle squad (2003-2008).
Board has sent ten players to Pro Bowls, and also includes a Defensive Player of the Year (1997's Dana Stubblefield). He was a member of four of the five 49ers' Championship teams.

Keith Millard, Raiders DL coach - a former nosetackle in thie league, Millard may unfortunately be best known for being arrested for disorderly conduct in Minnesota, during which he told cops to "shoot because my arms are stronger than your guns." An All-Pro, all-USFL, and first round pick, Millard leads defensive tackles all-time in sacks in a single season (18), which earned him Player Of The Year honors. As a coach, Millard spent a few years with high schools before being the Broncos (2000-04) and Raiders (2004-2008) DL coach. His units have placed consistently high in sack numbers and overall defense.

For the LBs coach position:

Mike Haluchak, Browns LB coach. His tie to John Fox is clear (he was LBs coach under Fox as DC of the Giants in 1997-99), but has jumped around in scheme and locale since - coaching the Browns (2005-08), was on the initial Jack Del Rio coaching staff in Jacksonville (2003-04), was with the Rams (2000-02) under Mike Martz. He coached in San Diego (1986-1991) around when Marty Hurney was coordinator of football operations (1990-1997). His 25 years of pro coaching experience has all been coaching linebackers, and he himself was a linebacker for USC in the late 70s on some of the program's best teams.

Rick Venturi, former Rams LB coach. The former Northwestern University QB/DB has stability, and that generally ends up in him being with a team a decade, then becoming an interim head coach in the middle of the term (a combined 2-17, he succeeded Ron Meyer in Indianapolis in 1991 and took over the 1996 Saints from Jim Mora following his quitting immediately after the Saints-Panthers game). He's also been head coach of Northwestern (79-80), and defensive coordinator of the Saints (2002-05) and Rams (08, interim). Venturi's units are prepared and tough, and his philosophies are very similar to Fox's.

Wild Card

Herman Edwards - the former NY Jets and KC Chiefs head coach probably won't get a head coaching job again for a few years, but he's a good coach. A teammate of John Fox' at San Diego State, they paired as safeties. It's been rumored by internet sites that if Edwards becomes available, Fox would consider doing anything to get Edwards on staff.

Two problems show, though - Edwards has only coached defensive backs, and the Colts need a defensive coordinator. That would also likely pay more, though the Chiefs do still owe Edwards' contract remainder.

Trgovac "not under contract"

As it appears more likely than not that the team will keep defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac, they had no requirement to do so. His contract was about to expire, meaning they had no obligation to him in 2009.

Whispers suggest the team isn't done and that other coaches are, in fact, looking for a potential move.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Mike McCoy Gone; Rip Scherer Likely In?

Mike McCoy has left the Panthers to become the offensive coordinator of the Denver Broncos under new head coach Josh McDaniels. The former QBs coach/"Passing Game Coordinator" was granted permission to seek new employment by the Panthers, something they could've disallowed by rule. He'll join McDaniels, outgoing Broncos OC Rick Dennison as the new line coach, and Mike Nolan as DC. McCoy, a Panthers coach since 2000, would have the coordinator title but would not have play-calling duties with the team.

This leaves Carolina with a hole at the quarterbacks coaching job, and they have a few ways of filling it. The in-house option is current Panthers TEs coach Geep Chryst, a former QBs coach and coordinator in the league. Chryst would move over from TEs to QBs, more directly assisting coordinator Jeff Davidson as well as tutoring the quarterbacks. The potential move from there would include, most likely, the hiring of either Indianapolis offensive assistant and former Bills/Panthers TE Pete Metzelaars or hiring a recently deposed TEs coach like the Chiefs' Jon Embree.

Chryst is already familiar with the offense and staff, as well as the players. However, there are potentially more qualified candidates out there, and the Panthers have already interviewed one - Rip Scherer. The former Cleveland Browns assistant head coach/quarterbacks coach had interviewed with the 49ers mid-week (the 49ers have yet to decide on an offensive coordinator) and came to town to interview with Carolina on Saturday. He has a past with Jeff Davidson, having been on staff together as assistants with the Browns. Davidson, as interim coordinator late in 2006, was said to have relied on Scherer's support in putting together drives.

Scherer, before coming to the Browns four years ago, had spent his career as a college coach, mostly as a coordinator (most recently, Southern Mississippi and Kansas) but spending the 90s as a head coach (James Madison, Memphis from 91-2000). He's given a lot of credit for being a good QB technician and being personable to his staff and players; there are numerous reports of his integrity and hard work shining through where his recruiting fell short in the college arena.

The next part is simply waiting - possibly until the coaching employment fair that some scouts call the Senior Bowl, or possibly depending on whether the 49ers hire Rob Chudzinski as their coordinator. They've already been told no by Scott Linehan, and Chudzinski is vying against Clyde Christensen of the Colts for the job. That hire may not impact the Panthers' wishes, if Scherer does choose to come here instead, of course.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Peppers Wants Out

Julius Peppers has issued statements through his agent suggesting he doesn't want to be a Panther anymore. Citing a want to explore the free agent market, Peppers also apparently believes that the team has been holding him back.

The team doesn't have many options, and has already offered Peppers a huge contract he didn't sign. Now that the season's over, he's free to discuss options, and apparently Carolina isn't his preference. The team could still franchise tag Peppers, which would cost $17 million, and either trade him or attempt to make him play another year. This is a heavy amount of cap space (around 14% of the cap) to spend on a player that doesn't want to stay, and the risk of tagging Peppers while trying to hold him ransom for trade is weighty. So many things could go wrong in that situation, including a holdout, or Peppers signing the deal and playng for one year knowing Carolina can't continue to see the price raised.

I have no reason to believe that Peppers is being "held back". That's a dubious statement, given his success, and that the 4-3 defense is traditionally used as the best place one player can rush the passer every down. I doubt his fascination with the 3-4 will continue when it means he's dropping back on third downs to cover someone else's blitz (though this did happen, unfortunately, with Peppers here already).

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Tim Lewis and other coaches possibly out?

It's been tough dealing with the aftermath of the Arizona game. As of yet, no season review, no AZ game analysis. I think we all get that Jake Delhomme had a huge problem after that first fumble and proceeded to try too hard to make things happen. We all get that the defensive secondary failed, too. There's not a lot to see positive out of it. But while I recover from the season, the offseason starts. And thefirst bit of news comes out of Tim Lewis' corner, where he's been given permission to seek the defensive coordinator job with the Packers:

It's a departure from past suggestions that the Panthers wouldn't allow Lewis to interview (with Marvin Lewis/the Bengals last year). It also suggests that Lewis may be free to pursue other jobs, with the articlestating that Lewis may make a lateral move to the Packers as DB coach. If Lewis does go, it's possible that the Panthers 'promote' safeties coach Mike Gilhamer to the position, keep him coaching the safeties primarily, but give him more responsibility. It's also possible they hire a different defensive backfield coach and keep things as-is (Gilhamer has survived other staff changes, including the change thatbrought Lewis aboard). The statement that the Panthers have allowed some of their coaches topursue other jobs may be limited to coordinator level positions - theteam does still have the right to refuse lateral moves. But it does suggest that once coaches come back from their week-long vacation, thatsome changes may occur within the coaching staff, contrary to statements made by John Fox in the last week. So who else may be in danger? It's not likely that the coordinator positions face major change - if there was, longtime defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac may be out, but Jeff Davidson wouldn't. Davidson is both new and leads a unit that was very effective this year; Trgovac has had six years and has shown some decline as the team has gotten younger. Trgovac's schemes don't differ much from what John Fox would want, but recent ideals from 2006-07 (getting bigger, two gap type DTs) and more blitzing (07-08) don't fit as well. The team's still got some overhauling to complete, and there's the offhand chance that they do so with another coach.

In other assistants, there's buzz that Mike McCoy is looking around, and the team may make a change on special teams. For the most part, there's not a lot that will be done, but these are potential spots of interest.

In other news, former Panthers OL coach Mike Maser was fired after oneyear with the Miami Dolphins. Carolina fired Maser after the 2006season.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Divisional Playoffs, v/s Cardinals, 1.10.2009

Carolina hosts the Arizona Cardinals for the second time at home, this time in less favorable weather but with hopefully the same result. Carolina leads the matchup, has a 10 point spread, and has the better matchup at home. It's an eerily lopsided matchup for Carolina, despite a top passing offense for the Cardinals.

Last time

Carolina played Arizona at home, with AZ coming off a bye week and
Carolina preparing for one. The Panthers were without starting linemen
Jeff Otah and Ryan Kalil, while the Cardinals were getting WR Anquan
Boldin back. The Panthers fell behind by 14 points but came back to take the lead late with a strong running game and two quick Steve Smith scores; Carolina held off a late charge by the Cardinals by picking off Kurt Warner - Jon Beason bringing the interception back to midfield and Carolina killing the clock from there.

Since Then: Arizona went 5-4 since visiting Carolina, so 5-5 after their
bye and with a 2-4 finish. They won the NFC West, receiving their first
home playoff game since 1947 and beat the Falcons for their first
playoff win since 1998. They lost Anquan Boldin for more time;
Edgerrin James was benched, then started again; he's since said he wants
out of Arizona (which Boldin, in a contract dispute, has also stated).
James has picked up his game in the past few weeks.

To give you how big a deal it was that they had a home playoff game last week, the Cardinals were two moves and three name changes ago since their last home game in Chicago, twelve years before they moved to St. Louis. They never had a playoff game there, and never even played in the playoffs as the Phoenix Cardinals before becoming state-based.

Carolina Defense v/s Arizona Offense

Oddly enough, Carolina faces Arizona's passing attack the week after facing New Orleans, just as it did mid-schedule 2008. Facing a top ranked passing team tends to help for stopping a top ranked passing team, and it helped Carolina last time.

There's no getting around the potential of the Arizona offense. The league's 4th ranked offense sports a passing trio of Pro Bowlers in Fitzgerald, Boldin, and Warner, each of which were named starters in the all-star game. The pass-based Cardinals are direct opposites of the
Panthers offensively and show a direct change in balance - they're 32nd in run attempts (32nd in yards, 31st in yards per carry) and 2nd in pass attempts (2nd in yards, 7th in yards/attempt).

The Cards pass at a 7.7 yard per attempt average. They get a first down 36.7% of passing
attempts, equal with Carolina for 5th in the league. They're third in the league for 40+ yard passing plays. They convert 42% third down, good for 11th in the league. Fumbled 27, for 10th worst in the league; they've lost 15. 11 of them are Warner's.

The Cards allowed 28 sacks, very good for their number of attempts. Still, Warner's downfield, in the pocket mentality and his feet staying set in the pocket will show Warner getting hit a lot - he got pressured 9 times and sacked twice in the previous Carolina game despite
Carolina's pass rush underperforming over that stretch before the bye. Warner is completing passes at 70%, and is as accurate as ever. He has an accurate deep ball, enough on his deep outs to keep them from hanging, and the experience to make the right throws. His detriment so far have been fumbles, and at times, lack of mobility. Warner does wear down with hits and pressures, so effective pressure can matter even if it doesn't register a sack. It may even be worth, especially within goal-to-go situations a la Green Bay, to take the roughing penalty to hit Warner to prove the point. Unlike Carolina reacting to the hit on Jake Delhomme in the Chicago Bears game in week 2, there's not enough talent outside the passing game to be livened up by such an action.

Larry Fitzgerald is the key to stopping their passing game; Anquan Boldin is still injured, and may or may not play. Fitzgerald is an All-Pro, and a complete player; there's nothing he can't do well. It's hard to say whether the team will put Chris Gamble on Fitzgerald all game; it's possible, and it's something Carolina has had success in 2005 and 2007 with. Typically, Carolina doesn't roll coverage toward a player or put one CB on a receiver, however. Boldin is the dominant physical receiver when healthy, but isn't likely healthy - without a healthy hamstring, he probably won't be able to get off the jam fast, and probably would face man coverage if he plays. Still, he's the type to be able to outman a player in short space, enough to get a first down on 3rd and 4 or less with just one good leg due to his body control and ability to box out defenders.

If Boldin doesn't play, it's still not great news - Steve Breaston, rookie out of Michigan, had 9 catches against Carolina and had 1000 yards in 2008. Compared to Fitzgerald's 12 and Boldin's 11, Breaston only has 3 TDs on the year, but he's still dangerous and has more yards per catch than Boldin. 4th WR Jerheme Urban would get more snaps as the 3rd WR with Boldin out; the 6'3, 210 lb receiver was the 4th best receiver despite being buried on the depth chart, above the top backs, TEs. Warner and the Arizona offense has been determined to throw the ball and speficically to the WR position;

Ben Patrick leads tight ends with receptions at 15 - none of them are a threat. He, the 6'8 Leonard Pope, and Steven Spach rotate, and while none of them are individual threats, Carolina is typically open to the TE attack when playing deep coverage against two good receivers.

LT Mike Gandy is a solid pass blocker, but gave up 6 of the Cardinals' 26 sacks this year and faces Julius Peppers, though Peppers has moved around more in the past few weeks . RT Levi Brown, the Cardinals' 2007 top five overall draft pick, gave up 11 of those sacks, including one to Charles Johnson in the last matchup. The backs and tight ends gave up six of those sacks on confusion, which continues to be a concern for a team that passes so much; a fair amount of pressure has come from blitzers, but Warner generally releases the ball fast enough to mask those problems.

Cardinals Running Game

Despite coming in with the league's worst running game to supplement what can only be described as the easiest passing game to use to setup the run, the Cardinals have run well from base formations in the last two weeks. Without using the draw that much, either. Look for the shotgun-spread draw to be a big part of the Cardinals' gameplan, however, due to the Giants' overuse of the ideal.

4 wideouts are the perfect way to spread out any strong front, and Carolina is no exception - but the question remains. Will the Arizona OL be good enough to block the Carolina front? Spreading the formation means man on man blocking, and Arizona isn't strong enough inside. In the run game, Gandy is passive; Levi Brown at RT is stronger and more physical, but has underwhelmed all career. He could team with Deuce Lutui to create a strong right side, but they don't get enough yards there - Arizona runs off left tackle more than right tackle by over 15%. Vet LG Reggie Wells is an able pass blocker, but doesn't have a lot of heft behind his run drive. S econd year Lyle Sendlein is a replacement center after losing Al Johnson for the year - a solid player in a pinch but athletically limited.

Tim Hightower came into the last Carolina game on fire, and finished with 10 TD but had poorer results when starting. Edgerrin James responded to being benched mid-season with numerous solid performances late in the seasondespite complaining of wanting out of Arizona, but still finished at 3.9 yards per carry and only 3 scores.

Chris Harris probably won't spend much time toward the line, as the Cards' run offense isn't a threat, and the TEs don't get a lot of throws. Carolina would be smart to play pass first every down, and only look for the Giant-copy play of running the inside draw out of shotgun. The Cardinals will not line up and pound the ball, and never have had the ability.

Having DTs Maake Kemoeatu and Damione Lewis healthy will be a plus, but will need more rush than run stopping. Expect Hilee Taylor active instead of a 4th DT.

Special plays/trick plays

Warner's actually one of five to throw the football for the Cardinals -
Matt Leinart started the year out and played in four games (15/29, 264
yd, 1 td 1 int); JJ Arrington, punter Dirk Johnson (cut in December),
and backup WR Jerheme Urban have all attempted passes. To add to their
trick play arsenal, Anquan Boldin has only 12 games played but has
attempted 9 rushes, and Steve Breaston has attempted 2 in his place.
They have used Boldin in a Wildcat style formation, what they call
Pahokee - and Boldin's the only WR to use the formation this year.
Boldin had a background as a quarterback before turning to the receiver
position at FSU, and can throw or run the option efficiently. The team
traditionally sends Larry Fitzgerald split out in this formation, and
use backup RB Tim Hightower in the backfield.

Carolina Offense v/s Cardinals Defense

The Cardinals show up with a number of looks on defense - 4-3, 3-4, and they blitz from both. DC Clancy Pendergast does a solid job of keeping the two sets from being telegraphed by personnel, and his defenses don't very a lot in how he administers them from one scheme to the next. It's not that he goes to the 3-4 to blitz, or the 4-3 because it's a running down. They don't have an effective nosetackle, and that hurts them. They're a completely one-gap styled team regardless of personnel or scheme, and their DL is aggressive and somewhat undisciplined. DTs Darnell Dockett and Gabe Watson don't stay at home as much as they could, but do make plays consistent with the ones that show the Panthers giving up around 3-5 stuffed run plays on offense. The team uses Calais Campbell, a rookie, there as well, and if the Cardinals need to stop the run badly enough, they could go to a 5-man DL look.

Ends Bertrand Berry and Antonio Smith are solid, with Smith being primarily a run stopper - Travis LaBoy gets a lot of the pass snaps. Last year, Smith and Dockett had the two AZ sacks.

Karlos Dansby (119 tackles leads the team; has four sacks) is their all-around best LB, excelling at both run and pass; Chike Okeafor balances between 4-3 OLB and 3-4 OLB. He excels at the outside rush, but doesn't do much against the run and can give up contain if he's lined up on the line. Gerald Hayes, the MLB, is second on the team in tackles and is primarily a run-stopper. In some 3-4 sets, he's teamed with former Steelers LB Clark Haggans. We can drop TEs behind the linebackers, with the Cards being ranked 27th against the TE; they're 22nd against RBs as well. Actually, footballoutsiders doesn't have them listed well against any receiver - 26th against the primary WR, 19th against the 2nd, and 15th against the 3rd. Jeff King had 3 receptions against the Carinals last time.

The Cards can be spread against the pass or run, which limits their coverage and blitz options; they can be hurried to the line to keep substitution from being valid. Get them into nickel and they'll be stuck with LaBoy playing the run the next down. If you can play hurry-up in 3-4, and then spread, you could get Haggans against a RB in space in the slot. The Cards' multiple-front defense is still able to be manipulated, and their intentions become much clearer at that point.
Counter plays will probably work well with the eager AZ defense, and misdirection won't be easily figured out, but the team will probably have enough success running without it as well. The Cards come in ranked 8th against the run - up a few spots from last week, but have had very few carries (2nd in the league) and clock in at a more pedestrian 16th yards per carry. They were gashed by the Redskins for almost 200 yards with Clinton Portis, mostly up the middle.

Left corner Rod Hood goes up against Steve Smith - the physical 5'11 corner had 5 picks for almost 200 yards and 2 TDs (and 21 defensed passes) as an incoming free agent last year, but has been quiet this year. He'll have help from FS Antrel Rolle, a converted CB that struggled in transition. Rookie Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was drafted as a new centerpiece the AZ backfield and has developed, but still can't handle Smith one on one, and doesn't have the experience to handle the tricks that Muhsin Muhammad brings. Nickel Eric Green has solid man-cover technique, but loves to jump routes and gets abused on double moves.

Adrian Wilson (6'3, 230), a physical specimen at the position, is the backfield's best player and a beast when brought into the box. He covers TEs well and stops the run as well as any LB on their roster. The High Point native will probably be a good indicator of the Cardinals' intentions - it's going to be a basic judgement call for Pendergast - stop Steve Smith or stop the run. Certainly, that tips off whether playaction will be successful as well. Last year, the Panthers put Vinny Testaverde into a lot of shotgun situations, it being something he was comfortable with after having not played in the months prior. While this isn't a necessity against the Cards, it would still be comfortable - and this is still ripe for the picking, assuming Carolina is close in score and not ahead.

Carolina had more passing success than rushing success last matchup, with Delhomme throwing for 250 yards and two scores. Muhammad carried the team for first downs, but Steve Smith's 2 TD and playmaking ruled the day. The Cardinals don't have a match for Smith without leaving the running game exposed, and the last 8 games since the Cardinals matchup in late October have shown teams tending toward defending the run first.

Special Teams

K Neil Rackers continues to be one of the better kickers in the league,
hitting 25 of 28 including 1 of 2 from . P Dirk Johnson was cut in
December; Ben Graham punts a quarter of a yard better at 42.0. They
allow 4.2 yards per return. Rackers has 15 touchbacks and averages 63.3 yards per kick (tied for 26th), for an average kick spot of the opposing 1.7 yard line. The Cardinals allow
25.0 per return, tied for 5th worst.

The Cardinals did bobble a snap on an extra point and failed to kick. Carolina has blocked one field goal.
Other than one broken JJ Arrington return (93 yd TD), the Cards average
25.6 yards/return, which isn't great - with the broken return, they
average 24, which still isn't that good. Breaston, the primary kick and
punt returner, averages 7.2 ypr on punts, and 20.2 on kicks.
Backup WR Sean Morey was voted he NFC Pro Bowl special teamer
(technically giving them three receivers in the Pro Bowl) and backup SS
Aaron Francisco shares the ST captain role with him. The Cards blocked a
punt to win the Dallas game, and Carolina has a total of 3 blocked punts
against them.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Bye Week Dangerous?

Carolina took it easy this week, and are only now starting to practive full speed again. The injury report still isn't out, so no one knows who might play or sit. Have they been through this before?

The team was hot going into their last bye, after the last Cardinals game; they came back healthier than ever, and flatter than ever. So what will the difference be?

Coming in first off - the stakes are much higher. Home playoff game, playoff game by itself. There can't be a letdown, because there are no bigger stages. “If guys can’t get refocused on this and fired up about this, then they’re in the wrong profession,” safety Chris Harris said. “This opportunity doesn’t come all the time. I’ve been blessed to play in the playoffs three seasons, this is my fourth season, and there are guys around here who have been in the league seven, eight years and have never seen a winning season yet, let alone the playoffs.

Second - the bye week midseason was followed by a west coast run. Who plays well going across the country anymore? It's as if we're back in the 40s and it's all train travel again. But it's a simple truth, you play better at home than away and you struggle far from home.

Finally, Carolina is altering things. Instead of a seven day layoff before practice, the team only took three days off. The team practiced three times and met three for meetings, spending time working on fundamentals and lifting. They start full work again this week, gameplanning for Arizona.

Carolina must hope, however, that whatever demons led to their late start coming off the bye doesn't come back. A key to this would be making sure Jake Delhomme still gets consistent work all week - his Oakland and Detroit games following the bye showed rust, inconsistency, and some of his least inspiring play in years. Whether caused by fatigue, changes in the arm due to rest, changes due to not working the arm for the first time since rehab, or mentally being off, Delhomme wasn't himself those two weeks following the bye. Since, he's turned it on, and so have the Panthers - they've scored 28 points or more in each game following Oakland.

Monday, January 5, 2009

So, It's Arizona

Carolina hosts Arizona at 8pm Saturday, January 10 in the second round of the playoffs. Thanks to Minnesota losing to Philadelphia, and Arizona polishing off Atlanta, Carolina has a rematch against an opponent they've beaten at home, instead of a team they've lost to.

Arizona caught a number of lucky breaks - notably a fumbled snap that bounced right to a defensive back - but played their way past the Falcons for their first home playoff win since the Truman presidency.