Carolina goes up to open the new Meadowlands, just as they helped close the last one. Unceremoniously dropping the Giants 41-9, Carolina has to go back up there again (they seem to be required at least one trip there yearly, somehow, and were treated with two trips to the Jersey swamp/landfill/wasteland last year).
So what went so amazingly right for Carolina last year, and so terribly wrong for NY? It seems as if both teams have fixed that - Carolina gutting its passing attack, having gone without a TD in preseason after scoring tons of points to close out 2009, and the Giants bringing in new defensive coordinator Perry Fewell (and LB Keith Bullock) to mend their defense.
Giants Defense v/s Panthers Offense
Giants finished 32nd in preseason defense (meanwhile Carolina finished first), going without numerous players for injury. That won't change this week, being without CB Aaron Ross. Watch for Carolina to spread the weakened Giants secondary for quick completions.
The Giants' DL, once its strength, looks to be in flux. After spending big on Chris Canty, they only got a half year out of him. NT Fred Robbins is gone, weakening the interior run defense. OsiUmenyiora's now just a rush specialist, having given way to former LB experiment Matthias Kiwanuka. The Giants dropped to 18th in sacks last year, with 32.Kiwanuka had 3 sacks, Umenyiora 7, Justin Tuck 6, and the Giants didn't really look to improve on that, having not added anything. The Giants don't blitz a lot, and they will have to pick and choose where they use Keith Bullock - the aging newcomer is still somewhat agile, but they'll need him in space.
Watch for Jordan Gross' attack of Umenyiora and Kiwanuka, as the NFL's new referee alignment will undoubtedly cause more holding calls (while we're at it, Carolina false starts a lot early in the season, for some reason). Right tackles haven't faced the same scrutiny, so Geoff Schwartz may get by with more against Tuck, which is a good physical match between the two. If Schwartz can keep Tuck in front of him, he can anchor and keep penetration away. Tuck generally only uses moves when he's leveraged a side of a lineman.
Carolina's got its line back together - or what's left of it. Jeff Otah will miss the week, and probably next, recovering from a knee injury. He and Keydrick Vincent, now a Buccaneer, are supplanted by the former 7th rounders Schwartz and Mackenzie Bernadeau, each of which started all preseason. The pair helped with Jonathan Stewart's record breaing day last year, though for this game, Stewart will be seeing his first real action of the year. He'd missed all preseason with residual pain from his achilles procedure in the offseason. Steve Smith follows that same storyline, having broken his arm in this game last year (and then again, famously, in a flag football match). He, along with about 3 lbs of metal holding the arm together, will step back to the field for the first time since.
What will Matt Moore need to do to succeed? The team's his now, and it's not time for his usual December outburst. So, look for some easy completions sprinkled in with the runs. It's not that Moore is a rookie, of course, but passing success hasn't existed this preseason. Watch for plenty of playaction and possibly screens, watching for the smallish Giants line trying to get to the young QB. With the new attention put on the passing game, it might be easiest to spread on passing downs and get easy completions against a banged-up Giants secondary.
For all the attention Steve Smith attempted to get drawn away from him by lobbying for receivers (and the inevitable influx of guys that came in), Smith still has a bulls-eye on him. Corey Webster will be on him all day, as will FS Kenny Phillips. Carolina will have to find ways to get him open, but if Smith is in vintage form, he'll be ready to abuse anyone he can, including SS Michael Johnson.
Brandon Lafell looks to be the starter opposite Smith, drawing former USC CB Terrell Thomas. Lafell has a height advantage, but the physical Thomas is still 6'. Lafell will have to use veteran wiles as a rookie to box out Thomas. Inside, Bruce Johnson will probably be the nickel, the 5'11 sophomore going against the hapless 6'4 Dwayne Jarrett.
There should be room upfield for the tight ends, where Jeff King works crossing or Dante Rosario upfield. There's usually space for the backs at the perimeter, and middle screens work well as well.
Giants offense v/s Carolina defense
Eli Manning has missed the last few weeks, rehabbing a nasty head injury that was caused by miscues on the field. The whole offense had problems in the preseason, and Carolina brings a lot of pressure that may exascerbate that.
(The Giants') Steve Smith will be all over the field, likely being drawn by Chris Gamble. But the Giants move him around - the experienced Gamble will be fine against the more physical Hakeem Nicks if he comes to that side, where a more physical Richard Marshall shouldn't struggle with either receiver unless it's a double route. The problem will be with Captain Munnerlyn, a solid nickel corner that doesn't seem to challenge the ball enough. Watch for Marcus Hudson in the box in some nickel sets, if the Giants get down. Last year, Manningham led the team with 6 for 87, Smith had 7/10 with a TD, and Nicks had 6 for 44 underneath.
Carolina's cover 2 scheme isn't going to be a radically hard scheme to figure out for Manning, but the man-technique played against his receivers will keep short completions from coming open, and the zone will allow those guys to get help. Manning will have to work the middle of the field, where his receivers should be solid, but aren't gamebreaking inside. Ahmad Bradshaw isn't a dangerous receiver, nor is FB Madison Hedgecock.
The Giants have gone with a more finesse approach running, having benched the less consistent and efficient Brandon Jacobs for Bradshaw. But will Bradshaw, a slighter back, find his 4.8 ypc number stay as a feature? Jacobs, for his part, has pouted about the demotion and may not make the most of his backup opportunities. Carolina is a light front, but fast, so they're less susceptible to more Bradshaw carries (something he hasn't shown he can hold up against).
Up front, the Giants return the same line that gave up four sacks last year (Beason, Johnson, Peppers, Brayton). Diehl is a solid LT, McKenzie a slightly below average RT with some run blocking ability. Diehl will face Brayton, with a very liberal dose of Everette Brown against the pass. Carolina has 19 sacks in preseason, leading the league (along with overall defense). Inside, it looks to be a rotation of Louis Leonard, Ed Johnson, and Derek Landri facing the solid run blockers of Chris Snee, Shaun O'Hara, and Rich Seubert. But Carolina's guys will be fresh; the Giants trio is aging, and hasn't shown as much pop. Beason, now at WLB, should have no problem pursuing; it'll be up to the rest of the back 7 to make sure not to overpursue, not to get caught in playaction, and to not get caught rushing hard against the screen. Otherwise, this is a fine defensive unit that should have no problem containing the Giants under 20 points.
What happened last year only creates a trap game for both teams. Carolina could get the best the Giants offer, or the Giants could be over-emoted and play sloppy and overaggressive. Both teams have looked rusty. It's impossible to really know what will happen in a charged game full of possibility, but if Carolina continues to impose its will in the run game and on defense, there should be no problem having a shot at the end.