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Saturday, November 30, 2013

Versus Tampa, Sequel

Carolina and Tampa meet in Charlotte for the second half of the series - and since October, they're two teams that have been busy.  

You wouldn't have expected Carolina, next facing San Francisco and New England, to have not lost since then.  But Tampa?  They're suddenly 3-1 since.  The one loss was by 3 to Seattle, potentially the league's best team.   Tampa pulled itself solidly out of the cellar to what now appears to be a 3rd place finish in division playing a similar fashion of football they did all year.   They're still a team that wants to run the ball, stop the run, and set you up for third down.  They're just doing a better job of it.

Since these teams have met already, I'll lay off some of the schematic and matchup stuff, none of that has really changed.

Without Doug Martin, they've suddenly found better backs.  Martin was plodding along at 3.5 yards per carry before getting hurt before Carolina.  Mike James (4.5) and Bobby Rainey (4.9) have taken advantage of some poor rush defenses along the way, but are putting up solid numbers.  Vet fullback Brian Leonard appears to be getting starter snaps with James now hurt, but Rainey is the hot hand, and he was another high performer against Atlanta (30 carries 130 yards, 2 TD).

QB Mike Glennon's still a rookie, and he's still goofy looking. 114 QB rating, though, in his last 3 games, where he's turned the ball over once.  He's remaining efficient without doing anything stupid.  He can force the ball to WR Vincent Jackson (10 rec against Atlanta) but isn't desperate (Jackson, therefore, often goes underutilized).

The secondary remains an issue - I feel better, to a point, after Cam Newton did some necessary things against tough DBs the last few weeks. Since the last game, Darrelle Revis has hurt himself again, and I don't know if he's going to play.  Johnathan Banks is a big matchup guy, and he did well against the bigger Calvin Johnson, but he's not a guy who would be as ideal against Steve Smith.  Revis remains questionable.

 Dashon Goldson has been on a bad streak of illegal hits and big penalties, so the hope is you can get him a bit more conservative.  Mark Barron remains a short-space playmaker.

With or without Revis, you still want to spread Tampa, as much as you can while leaving a little help in blocking to keep Adrian Clayborn and Gerald McCoy off Cam Newton.   With potentially no Deangelo Williams, and unsure whether Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert will play, it's hard to know how they'll play the run game - Carolina has to have the playaction game, and they have to have respectable third downs.

They're not impossible to run on - they've seen their YPA drop to a median 14th.  But, they still put Barron in the box and force you to make plays, and if they have Revis at playing health, they'll play a lot of man and Cover 1 Robber behind it.  It looks like the league's best blocking TE comes back in Ben Hartsock; that can't hurt.  Carolina can be creative with its 2 TE looks, since Greg Olsen can split wide, but it's been missing the past couple of weeks; it didn't help the running game for him to be gone, either.  If Tolbert is somewhat limited, Richie Brockel's role will shift to FB a good deal more, where he was a solid fill-in blocker at TE (including some really solid blocks in the passing game).

I don't think this is a significantly different team from the one Carolina beat 31-13.  It just believes in itself now.   This isn't a 3-8 team, this is a 3-0 team.  Carolina's got its hands full with this one.

Cam Wake Fined; Wallace Catch Wasn't A Catch

Cameron Wake was fined $15750 for that opening-play hit against Cam Newton.  No flag was thrown, but Wake definitely hit Newton helmet to helmet.


In an officiating video distributed to the media, Blandino admitted that a 57-yard catch by Mike Wallace against the Panthers, which was ruled a catch on the field and stayed a catch even after the Panthers challenged, should have been ruled incomplete.
“The ball comes loose when he hits the ground,” Blandino said. “This is an incomplete pass. We didn’t rule it this way, and again, we’ve got to work and strive to be more consistent with our game officials to make sure they understand this.”

So while Carolina can't get that play back, don't guess it matters right now.  It didn't affect the game to the point of losing, and overall that was most of what Miami had - a couple of deep chucks to an ill-fiitted receiver (and a first half lead whose catalyst was an illegal hit). 

But, Carolina can't afford to pull off any more lazy halves.  That's not this team anyway. 

To that end, it looks like the safeties are "safe" - and Quintin Mikell remains the starter at SS but I continue to see liberal amounts of Robert Lester - but the corners might get a shake-up.   Melvin White had, up to the Pats' game, a very low QB Rating against him, but has struggled a bit in the last two weeks; Captain Munnerlyn was the goat on the Wallace play above.  

The other options include Josh Thomas, who was the starter at the beginning of the year and an excellent tackler, but who got benched with his own deep ball issues; and vet Drayton Florence, a preseason starter who came on again midseason after a cut at the end of camp.  Josh Norman isn't considered a candidate, considered still raw and still too likely to play outside the system.  

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

TD - NFC Defensive Player for November

Thomas Davis was named defensive player of the month for November.

Including a single game-high 17 tackles against New England, Davis had
35 tackles for the month, along with a sack, a pick, two defensed passes
and a forced fumble.

Davis, unlikely to make the Pro Bowl because of the odd league rules
(3-4 guys get it because of sacks, the game plays only a 4-3 and doesn't
allow blitzing - and most of those 3-4 OLB would end up playing end if
their teams used that system), is playing lights out right now, and it's
a shame he won't be properly recognized (I believe the only OLB Pro Bowl
bids Carolina has had were 3-4 guys, and Jon Beason being slotted there
after playing half a year at OLB).

With an eye to the upcoming game, to show how Tampa has bounced back
since week 9, Mike Glennon was named Offensive Rookie of the Month, and
Lavonte David was named NFC defensive player of the week. Tampa has won
4 straight.

Broncos signed Sione Fua, for what that's worth. Fua, whether you were
in his corner or not, wasn't going to be winning any of the above

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Stats, Some Useful - Some Meaningless

Steve Smith went over 12000 yards this week, becoming one of only
twenty two players in the league to do so historically.
That gives him a bit more Hall of Fame credability for one day in the
future, but WR candidates are very difficult to get in and Smith's TD
numbers aren't great (42nd - ten more gets him to 27 - Reggie Wayne is
at 23. Is Reggie Wayne a Hall of Famer?), but that's nothing any of us
can do anything about. Smith's knack for the deep ball (along with an
incredibly high amount of being down inside the 5, including what seems
like were half of Deangelo Williams' 20 TDs in 2008) hasn't turned into
scores as much as they could've been.

Nonetheless, the bar is set incredibly high for anyone who would ever
want to achieve what Smith has in this uniform for any receiver. I
remember 1999-2000, Muhsin Muhammad's numbers looked hard to break, but
I don't know if anyone will ever break Smith's career numbers here.
It'd be a gift to have another guy like that.

Carolina beating Miami finally gives the Panthers a win over the other
31 franchises. They were 0-4 in prior attempts. While looking at that
- their greatest # wins all time are against the Saints (19) along with
highest points scored (770), their highest winning percentage is against
Indy and San Diego (4-1). They're an awful 1-9 (+1 playoff win) against

Don't look now, but with a win against Tampa, Cam Newton and Ron Rivera
become .500 - 22/22. I haven't pulled any win/loss games for Panther QB
starters, but only John Fox has a winning record as head coach here,
.507 thanks in part to the 2-14 slide in his final year. Fox, along
with Dom Capers and George Seifert, all started out at least 7-9 in year
one, and Fox and Capers had playoff success in year two, so Rivera's
non-winning first two years looked like an early recipe for disaster,
but safe to say he's turned it around for the moment.

Miami Notes

Looked at various things over the last day including the gamebook, and
rewatched a bit of the game.

I was most surprised that Ted Ginn had so many targets (10) and didn't
do more with them. The opportunities were there for him to have a 100+
yard game against his drafted team. While I'm on Ginn, I like him as
the punt returner (obviously) but lately his decision making to bring
out kicks isn't always great. He's not necessarily getting much past
the 20.

Cam Newton's gotten a good rep lately for being efficient, and that
wasn't the case this week. Granted there were more deep shots this
week, but the disguised coverages this week confused Newton, something
that hasn't happened often this year. That's part of why Newton
struggled greater without blitzers than with, and I'm sure the coverages
get a bit easier with an extra rusher. But he also struggled the first
half, partly from the illegal hit. I do hope that teams don't see that
and decide it's worth it to take the 15 early, and pay the fine the next
Friday, to rattle Cam's cage.

Related to that, I underestimated Kevin Coyle schematically. Not that
there's much of anyone keeping score of my accuracy, and if anyone is,
consider better hobbies. Coyle didn't sit back in zone and just let
things happen - it's a base defense but he did some interesting things
with it. That said, the prevent he used late in the game, he's said he
wishes he had that back. I can't agree or disagree - it's not that hard
to have someone sit in a 15 yard zone instead of dropping everyone past
25 - but credit Mike Shula for getting LaFell out there to the sideline
with minimal time left, and credit to he and Greg Olsen for pulling it
off and creating points.

The Luke Kuechly penalty that was picked up in the endzone - since it's
becoming vogue to complain about how Kuechly goes about his business
despite, fair to say, is a lot of competency - was the right call.
Kuechly doesn't deliver the helmet, he doesn't touch the opponent's
helmet. Kuechly does have to be careful, as he does draw flags. While
I appreciate his very measured but intense and forceful approach, he has
to do a good job of staying on this side of the line. From this play to
the Pats' final play, all the way back to the Ravens game (where he was
in beast mode) and forced a turnover that was called back because of a
questionable hit, Kuechly has to be careful.

Rivera promises some changes in the secondary if things don't continue.
That's a hefty promise - and it's worked out before. But I don't know
what he expects to do. Captain Munnerlyn, largely the team's best
corner, gave up his first TD of the season there. Mike Mitchell isn't
currently a guy you can really bench, even though the team does have
enough next to him with the Quintin Mikell/Robert Lester duo. The team
has to watch how it handles its matchups, but that's on coaching.

Davis Was Right, And He's A Warrior

It was June, and Thomas Davis was being laughed at.

Sometimes, your resolve becomes enough to overcome anything. If
there's a sentence that describes Thomas Davis, I think that's the one -
the details about his journey are all footnotes.

When Davis said Carolina could be the league's best defense, fans
outside the Carolinas laughed. They pointed at the secondary, the lack
of stars, the lack of proof. Davis isn't laughing now - he probably
never looked back to see what anyone thought of just such a thing.

Carolina's #1 in points, #3 in yards after spending much of the season
#2 in both. Looking at how the Chiefs have been playing lately,
Carolina has a solid shot at both #1 slots soon.

Davis believed it, and it happened. It's not that easy - it takes luck
(Star Lotulelei falling, for instance, and Mike Mitchell somehow going
from middling SS in need of replacement, to high-level FS at just the
right time), and skill. You can't just 'want it more'.

But I'd be willing to say Davis does want it more. The first player to
come back from 3 ACL surgeries in consecutive years, Davis had to really
want to play. No one had ever done it.

Davis had to want it to dislocate his finger badly enough that bone
stuck out, and not miss a play. He didn't miss a single down. Only
Davis knows what he had to play through, and whether he had to suffer
through some plays before stitches.

Other guys have suffered through it - Davis' injury came early in the
first quarter, Greg Hardy's thumb tore open before the half, Mike
Mitchell played through a hamstring injury. The prior week, Charles
Johnson limped onto the field for the final series with a sprained MCL.

But Davis - He didn't miss a play. At the end of the game, with
teammates celebrating a win, Davis just rested. Spent.

And it's safe to say no one's laughing.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Flex Game Doesn't Help

It's nice to think that the Carolina-New Orleans game in two weeks is
important enough to 'flex' out to prime time. It's hard to complain
that your team is part of something successful enough it needs more

But I'm gonna complain anyway.

New Orleans comes off a Monday Night game against Seattle - where
they'll definitely get beaten up, whether they win or lose. It was a
decided advantage for Carolina to see them face a top team and then get
them on a short week, but that week just got a little longer. Is it
only 7 hours? Absolutely, but it's still a help to the Saints.

And since it's an away game, it definitely makes it more 'special' for
the Saints to have the prime time game, when they already have the home

It's a complaint that borders on the irrelevant at best, but you never
know. These wins or losses aren't getting less important. The
Superdome isn't exactly quiet most of the time, this was already a big
game. Now it's even bigger.

Dolphins Aftermath

Carolina pulled out a close one in Miami - another late drive with a
go-ahead score for Cam Newton, another last second defensive stand. It
didn't carry the drama that the Patriots game did, but it was the same

Newton drove the team down - including some solid 3rd down and even a
4th and 10 conversion - for the comeback score, the only second half
lead the team achieved, with a solid mix of rushing and passing,
including some strong late rushes by an injured Mike Tolbert. The
Panthers suckered Miami with 32 personnel - 3 TEs, one being utility
lineman Geoff Hangartner - and two backs, but released Greg Olsen on the
fake. Olsen looked outright lonely out there scoring, until his team
surrounded him.

Carolina then fended off all Miami could give for the win, including a
bomb to Mike Wallace that could've spoiled the whole thing, but 2nd year
Ryan Tannehill didn't have quite enough to land the knockout blow.

Ron Rivera noted the toughness and good play of the Miami team and
coach Joe Philbin to start his postgame, not a traditional thing for
Rivera to do. I think the Dolphins really surprised Carolina, starting
with the Cameron Wake hit to Newton on the first play. It should've
been called, and wasn't, but Wake should be writing a check on Friday to
cover it. Newton couldn't shake the cobwebs, and neither could the rest
of the team, so they squandered an opening drive INT with a
missed/blocked FG, and a second drive in great field position left only
a FG. When Miami broke Carolina's first quarter record of not allowing
a TD, on a rollout bomb to Wallace that left Captain Munnerlyn hanging
back helpless? You could tell Carolina wasn't up to it.

So they carried a 16-3 deficit to the end of the half, where they
somehow snuck in a FG with time expiring despite being on the wrong side
of the 50 with :16 left with a couple out routes and a nice up the
sideline move by Brandon LaFell against prevent. Up to then, they were
starting to lose the field position battle and had been outgained 4:1.

They built on the FG with a strong opening second half drive, capped by
a Newton TD, then the D kicked in. They pitched a 2nd half shutout, and
after conservative offensive play up to the last drive, Newton led them
home on their last shot.

It didn't hurt that, finally, the last defensive drive saw Carolina
providing consistent pressure, hitting Tannehill more often than not,
the type of pressure that was there with Charles Johnson and sorely
lacking without in the six quarters since.

So, that's 7 straight. 8-3. Slowly returning to their Cardiac Cats
style of a decade ago.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

v/s Miami, Pregame

The most average of teams, Miami is a year and a half into a rebuild that finally saw them use a top pick on a QB after Dan Marino - the average Ryan Tannehill - to pair with average Packers OC Joe Philbin as new head coach, and former Packers head coach/former Tannehill college coach Mike Sherman.  They pilot a generic WCO - not a downfield pushing one like Jon Gruden, or one that tried to rededicate to the running game like Steve Mariucci.  Just an average, wait for the dumpoff WCO.

 Add in Kevin Coyle as DC - a former Bengals staffer - and you get a generic, hand me down Tampa 2 variant.  An average team, at 5-5.   If you assume they have some talent, but not a lot, and not a ton of depth, you're right.  If you figure their league rankings are pretty average, you're catching on.  Football Outsiders weighs them at 15 defensively, 20 offensively.  Their yard/points ranks are 31/23 on O, 21/12 on D.

It's not that average is bad. It's competitive, and two of Carolina's three losses were early in the season when average was better than whatever Carolina was.  Carolina was never really average - they've been either brilliant or somewhat awful.  Average was enough to beat Carolina versus Buffalo and Arizona.  Miami has had some competitive games - they beat up on Cleveland to open, they're one of a few teams to beat the Colts; they pulled out a close one to Atlanta after.

They're 2-5 since their starting streak, doing a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde act since - they were stomped by the Saints and then lost close games to Baltimore and Buffalo.  They actually pulled it out against a pretty good Cincy team, and their last included fending off the Chargers by 4.   If you give them four points in each loss, they tie or win four more games.  Not unlike Carolina in the past, they're a flawed team that still plays close.

Young QB Ryan Tannehill isn't sophomore slumping (but, hey, Cam Newton didn't actually slump so your mileage may vary).  He's improving in most stats, already eclipsing for TDs from last year and 3% higher in completions.  They'll take it - on the downside, he's also thrown 11 interceptions for the year and he's taken 6 more sacks than all of last year.    So you can tell that the game isn't necessarily too big for him, but the ceiling doesn't seem high.  He doesn't seem to be the playmaker you might want out of a first round QB.  

And they haven't done an exceptional job getting guys around him.  Mike Wallace is a longball guy who did a good job working with a massive-armed QB, but he doesn't have that here, and he doesn't have an offense that demands it. In the event the ball does get forced downfield, Wallace has only come down with 3 of 15 past 20 yards. 

 Brian Haneline is a scrappy undertalented route runner who leads Wallace in all categories.  
TE Charles Clay leads the team in TDs over both; neither are special.  Rishard Matthews appears to have overtaken Brandon Gibson in the slot; Matthews had 11 rec for 120 yards and two scores last week.  Philbin does like some form of the spread, downfield Mike McCarthy version of the offense, but is more conservative in how it's done.  He keeps the packaged plays, for most a college concept until recently but something that's happened in Green Bay for a few years, to a minimum. 

There's a requisite playaction component, but Lamar Miller hasn't been special.  They're 14th in yards per attempt, some of which is a good draw game, but Miller has been losing ground to backup Daniel Thomas.  Thomas has a lower yards/attempt on the year but more scores, and his size has been something the team has enjoyed (235 versus the 210 Miller).  Miller also struggles in pass protection, and neither is a WCO style pass threat. 

Their OL, famously, is a bit of a mess right now.  The scandal with Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin makes for a right side OL that doesn't exist; Mike Pouncey might not play at C.   They picked up Bryant McKinnie to play LT mid-season because their various plans to replace Jake Long had failed, to middling results.   Former Falcon Tyson Clabo is playing RT, and he's actually had a solid past few weeks.  This is a unit that doesn't give up a ton of pressure, but 31% of their pressure becomes a sack, which is worst in the league. 

To face that, Carolina goes in without some of its heart and soul with Charles Johnson; they still have three good tackles and Greg Hardy, but they'll have to be creative to remain dominating.  Tannehill, at times, does well against the blitz because it provides easier reads, but if you confuse the back end, he can struggle more.  It leaves Carolina in a bit of a quandary defensively - not enough at end this game to provide consistent pressure, not enough in the back end to bring the house, and their most dangerous weapon to cover (Wallace) isn't any more likely to get the ball than their other random players. 

But, in this phase, Carolina seems destined to win out. This isn't as good an offense as the last couple of weeks, and Johnson or not, I don't think Miami can be more physical here than Carolina. 

On the other side, it's time to re-establish the rush.  Ron Rivera was harping on this, and it's a good week to do so.  27th against the run, Miami rarely brings a safety up anyway; their front isn't terrible and features a few good players on the DL, but Cameron Wake is their only higher level threat.  Inside him, Randy Starks and Paul Soliai have been decent, but RE Olivier Vernon does struggle a good bit with contain and staying at home; the Dolphins give up yards all over the line.   They're a unit built to stop the pass, so they give up a lot of run yards and keep the big play in front of them religiously.  3rd overall pick Dion Jordan emphasizes that - he rarely plays because he hasn't shown he can stop the run at all.  Jordan only has one sack, so it's not like he's playing the pass with a lot of ability right now either. 

They don't get a lot of backup - Phillip Wheeler is a contain style Tampa 2 ILB, and he's susceptible to the draw since he keys quickly to the run.   Reshad Jones makes plays in his half of the back of the field; SS Chris Clemons less so, but again he's expected to cover the deepest man and not  as much on the run.   To attack this duo and the usual coverage runs within Cam Newton's best throws, where he can exploit with corner routes and posts downfield at around 18 yards. 

 They also, since they key to the pass, lack some awareness on the screen; as usual, the later the better.  They're not a great team for the packaged plays since they tend toward pass most of the time, but it's easy enough to just run on them. 

It's week two of the Ted Ginn homecoming parade - after visiting San Francisco two weeks ago, he goes to his drafted team in Miami this week - and that might amp that matchup a bit.  Otherwise, attacking the 5-man underneath zone upfield looks like a matter of spreading out a bit and letting Newton find the open guy with combination route concepts.

Ginn also gets a break that Miami recently ranked last in's special teams rankings; that's where they picked to not be average.  Ginn should easily take advantage there.

This is a winnable game for Carolina.  It's an easier opponent than the last two.  But they'll have to deal without Johnson, keep the intensity up, and establish the run to really do their best work.  Still, in the event it becomes a close game or a battle of field position, I don't see any worries there, if they bring their A-game.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Injuries Provide Concerns, Opportunity

Outside of left and right guard, the early-season secondary, and the
Dwan Edwards injury holding him out for over a month, Carolina hasn't
had a significant need for a lot of depth so far.

Now, there's starting to be cause to push some of Dave Gettleman's
back-end roster.

Past the Charles Johnson issue, which it appears he won't be around
this week, Chase Blackburn won't be around and it doesn't appear that
Ben Hartsock will be either.

Hartsock has no better replacement than Johnson. The league's best
blocker per, his role is obviously different from
Greg Olsen's, but the team needs both. Richie Brockel did a lot of
moving around, and when they wanted Olsen in that role we saw Brandon
Williams at the TE spot a little, but they're just making do. The hope
would be that one or the other might be able to generate a look or two
that Hartsock can't, in the meantime, but they did rely somewhat heavily
on Brockel to pass block around the edge as well.

Blackburn's replacement is more obvious - they certainly like what
they've gotten out of rook AJ Klein enough that he might find himself
stealing time from Blackburn over time. But, they have also brought in
Jason Williams again to take a spot on special teams for the time being.

Guard Chris Scott doesn't seem to have much timetable to return. So
far it's been Nate Chandler over Geoff Hangartner, but I'd still feel
better about Hangartner in there right now. Chandler is probviding some
push, at least.

Ginn Homecoming Provides Opportunity

Ted Ginn's story is far from tragic.

Some might argue comic - plenty enjoyed the schadenfreude of Cam
Cameron drafting Ginn too early, and then defending it by talking about
getting "the whole Ginn family" to defend it in front of booing fans.
Which none of that had to do with Ted himself.

Bouncing around, Ginn had some decent years, good enough to say he was
a productive player, and an allright #2, #3 receiver and returner. But
when you're drafted #9 overall, when your team chooses not to draft a QB
for you, expectations are more Andre Johnson and less Devin Hester.

Carolina got Ginn at a song because they wanted him to be a receiver.
San Francisco, who famously had receiver issues and continued to
struggle there despite trading in two guys and out one over the last
year, chose not to have him be a receiver anymore.

He has ability. He has height, speed, a solid catching radius. I
don't know why he wasn't a star, but I didn't think he was a top 15
talent, either.

Still, Ginn has entered the upswing phase of his career - and honestly,
for a guy drafted in 2007, it's kinda late for that. But he's been a
good contributor offensively for Carolina. 3 receiving TDs, 17 yards
per catch on a team that's struggled a bit to make plays offensively.

And those things could combine to give Ginn a big day.

Ginn has no reason to be sore at Miami - assumedly, they treated him
well, and when they were done with him they didn't cut his big contract,
they traded him. Ginn should be set for life, though most of us would
also be set for life on the $750,000 he'll make this year.

Attack downfield a bit more, maybe throw a reverse his way (Carolina
only has three rushes from the receiver spot). Miami's 19th in pass
yards defensively so there's room to make a few things happen.

But I hope they play on Ginn's time in Miami and help feed into the
redemption story.

3-4 An Option?

So with Charles Johnson potentially out, or at the minimum limited by
his MCL injury, I have a creative solution to the problem. Skip past
the next couple paragraphs if you're not into reading how the sausage is

It was funny last year, with Ron Rivera and Sean McDermott playing to
the press a little, hearing that Carolina might use more 3-4.

Carolina's always used some 3-4 under Ron Rivera. Never much a 3-4 guy
until the coaching carousel passed Rivera by in Chicago, after Lovie
Smith chose to not renew the contract of a coach that had brought him
two consecutive top 5 defenses, Rivera found himself in San Diego.
Marty Schottenheimer found himself losing both coordinators after 14-2;
a power struggle saw him fired when there wasn't agreement on new
coordinators. So they went with a reasonable facsimile in Norv Turner,
who would install Ted Cottrell - who the league and SD ownership both
wanted to succeed Wade Phillips (Shottenheimer wanted his brother in the

Cottrell was awful, so Rivera got his shot. Rivera probably doesn't
get his 9th interview as successful in Carolina unless he had a good
idea of who he'd be able to bring; he doesn't have the contacts that
brings in Norv Turner guys on offense without being under Norv,
obviously. But in the transition of having to replace the guy who
replaced Wade (and Cottrell himself was a Wade guy), Rivera had to

He couldn't use the base 4-3, Cover 2 of Lovie Smith with that
personnel. He could borrow from the Jim Johnson Philly stuff for
nickel, and did, quietly running a lot of 4-man lines with nickel. But
he had to be right with the 3-4. The upside, as I've said so many
times on this blog already, is that since so many 3-4s are one-gap
anyway, it doesn't matter. It's just where you line up. You're just
rushing guys in a different gap sometimes.

Sorry for the history lesson - I think that the mechanations behind San
Diego's screwups being the catalyst for what might be a strong Carolina
resurgence is fascinating.

At any rate, you check in on any pro playbook and the 3-4 is likely in
there. Chances are, two-gap concepts are in there, too, both schemes.
They don't get drilled often, and you might see plays installed
mid-season as needed, but they're there.

But Carolina ran some 3-4 from the drop. Cardinals, 2011. They didn't
'decide' to start running some 3-4 in the middle of '12, and honestly
they didn't add much 3-4 after saying so. It was always there, a
change-up to the 4-man front. I'm sure somewhere there's a
profootballfocus stat on which front they use and I'd say it's about
10%, with the 4-3 being about 40% and nickel closer to 50.

But it makes for a nice changeup. It's not a foreign concept.

For those of you that wanted to get right to the point, here goes:

I think the new look would provide a coping mechanism for the loss of
Charles Johnson. With all three DTs healthy, it'd add more size to the
field overall; sure, you have to rotate, but you can get more out of
Colin Cole in this lineup anyway. Greg Hardy can take some snaps
inside. And there's no doubting the ability of Thomas Davis and Luke
Kuechly. The concepts of them playing inside in the 3-4 are no
different in one-gap - they have gaps, and they have pursuit. Nothing

There's no Chase Blackburn, and AJ Klein has done a fine job so it's
hard to criticize how that's gone. The 250 lb Klein physically could
play standing up on the outside - I don't have a great feel for how he
fights off linemen, and that becomes critical outside in the 3-4
obviously - but his draft profile suggests he's good at fighting blocks
and uses his hands well. So you never know. He's not Kevin Greene but
he's not shown to be a liability and he's quite versatile.

The remaining ends behind Johnson don't have his size. Mario Addison
holds his own, but you don't often see Wes Horton unless it's rush time.
Frank Alexander can go either way, and might do for a little change
given his struggles this year. In truth it's best tailored to give
Horton, a pretty good rusher in preseason, more opportunity; Addison and
Alexander can effectively play end, give or take.

But it might be a way of weathering the storm for a week or two, and
given the way the defense played without Johnson in the second half last
week, I'll take a little change.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Dirty Pats

I was thrown a bit by how scrappy the Pats were at first, before it
became outright nasty out there.

It's not just Aqib Talib's sideshow, either. It's not the one Marcus
Cannon whip that wasn't called - and it's not his fault, I guess, that
they didn't call it. Dan Connolly's dirtiness was called, and Talib's
was (some of the time).

Carolina's not that team, with some Steve Smith baiting aside. They're
protective - watch how quickly Travelle Wharton gets there to back Steve
Smith against Talib - but they're not dirty.

But the Pats are. Multiple times I saw the Pats being kinda despicable
- and it wasn't just me. Logan Mankins was spotted on News14 Carolina
film head-butting Luke Kuechly. Pretty sure you don't do that playing
by the rules. Mankins, Connolly, and Cannon were all in my
(frantically written) first-half game notes for that nonsense, along
with the obvious Talib issues.

And past that, I got exceptionally tired of Pats' offensive linemen
constantly pushing the pile. This is a pet peeve of mine - it's rule #1
in the rule book, I believe - seeing a couple defenders get on a ball
carrier that won't go down, and then here come some OL to push the pile
or come in late and get a knock on a defender. The play is over, in all
real respects, but here comes the beef to push the ball carrier ahead
2-3 yards. I see it consistently not called, so maybe I'm
misunderstanding the concept, but that doesn't seem like it's a good
thing for the sport to have a bunch of guys' legs extended trying to
hold ground at the end of a play, and here comes someone else who isn't
actually blocking, but is still throwing his weight around.

Honestly, while I get what Bill Belichick gets done, and I've always
respected Dante Scarnecchia's coaching as an assistant, this is just
uncharacteristic. That they get away with it is only making it worse.

I'll give Cannon some respect, to a point, for apologizing for the leg
whip. Bucs' DT Gerald McCoy, probably their best defensive player at
this point, called Cannon out this week after seeing it, and after the
apology, before retracting it. He's been there.

The truth is, holding happens all the time. And plenty of linemen are
dirty. I don't want to see every single play flagged, I don't want to
see a constantly stopping game. But they have to protect defenders,
too. They have to protect them all.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Defensive Rankings: Out The Window

Tenatively, Carolina appears to have dropped to third in yards
defensively, while moving up to 1st in points.

They moved up to 5th in passing yards, 3rd in TDs.

But, wins matter more, and Carolina's getting those.

With that said, the second half defense is concerning. With Charles
Johnson nursing what's reportedly a sprained MCL (pending an MRI) that
might keep him out a game or two, Carolina's gotta do some growing up on
the DL. The upcoming game against Miami has some somewhat famous OL
problems right now, so maybe more players will emerge.

But, even with that said, tackling wasn't good in the first half, and
atrocious in the second half. For every run stuff or two-yard creaming
of Danny Amendola was a set of missed tackles on the same type play,
defenders bouncing off guys who shouldn't be that elusive.

It's time to clean that up. It was a good win, but a rare moment when
the defense was starting let the offense down. Even Luke Kuechly (12
unofficial tackles) and Thomas Davis (a whopping 17) were in on the act.
They just didn't tackle well.

They weren't up to a top five rating. And they have too much at stake
to be run on by a team like the Pats. Time to tighten that up.

V/s Patriots - Aftermath

Nothing can make a victory more sweet than a home win including walking
off with Tom Brady whining to a ref.

I don't know what to make of the call. Honestly, in a bubble, I'd say
it's the best possible outcome that the flag was thrown but picked up -
a no-call is, in my mind, more controversial. They had an opportunity
to judge it, did, and chose not to call it.

That's not how a lot are judging it, however. And the lack of
explanation doesn't help. To me, I see two sides - Gronkowski was not
heading where that ball was going, he continued upfield no matter what
Luke Kuechly does. The ball is way underthrown. I heard the arguments
that the INT happens where the 'foul' supposedly starts, and that's
true. Is it relevant? Gronkowski at no point attempts to post up, he
doesn't stop. Kuechly's better play might've been to ride him out of
bounds, or who knows if that's what he attempted to do. But
Gronkowski's intent was never to catch the ball 4 yards in, where Robert
Lester cut inside. He would've had to come back for that ball anyway.

I don't know if that makes it uncatchable or not. If Kuechly does or
doesn't hold, he'd still have had position. And game on the line or
not, Brady would've needed a better throw and probably couldn't have
hurt to have hit a guy that wasn't double covered.

So unsurprisingly for a Carolina fan, I'm unimpressed by the outrage.
And it's not the same thing, but after Marcus Cannon whipped Charles
Johnson, which gave him a sprained MCL and rendered him (and for a
while, the Carolina defense) useless for the rest of the game, but they
didn't call it? Allright. I'll take that trade. The thing is, one
had to do with player safety. I don't know that the league really cares
about player safety; they don't protect RBs. They protect the head, and
fair enough, but it's for litigation purposes.

So, before there was a final play, a pretty good ballgame came about.
It was a low scoring half, one that Carolina tenatively controlled.
Carolina's defense didn't dominate early, but came up with some big
plays when it needed. The Pats appeared to be rolling, thanks to a lot
of early referee action, picking up third downs by officiating, when
Kawann Short picked up a forced fumble on Stevan Ridley. The Pats
mustered only a field goal before the half - they answered with a TD
coming out of halftime, however.

At that point, it started to become a shoot-out - as much as you can be
in ball control offenses. Carolina continued to work the run and
started to make upfield plays; Brady worked to get the quick pass out
and the Pats started running the ball surprisingly effectively (with no
small key being the dirty play I saw from each between Cannon, Logan
Mankins, and Dan Connolly). Brady and Cam Newton combined for 18
straight completions. It wasn't a quick shoot out, but Carolina
somehow matched. When the defense started to falter, the offense
picked up the slack.

Newton had no small part in that, either. 3 TD, zero interceptions.
And he led the team in rushing, and not on called runs (there were two,
I believe, and they didn't provide any real plays; there was minimal
yardage for Newton in the rare event he didn't hand off on the read
option). He made it happen on scrambles, which remain his deadliest
play. Having become a nearly deadly 3rd down passer, Newton (who picked
up 8 of 11 third downs) picked up 2 long 3rd downs with scrambles, one
evading 5 Patriots in one of the Panthers' plays of the

And that's the thing. Did the defense stay up with Tom Brady? Not
necessarily. 20 points is still allright - he put 55 on Pittsburgh.
Did Special Teams win the day? No. Ted Ginn made only modest things
happen, and Brad Nortman picked a bad time to have a bad punt in the 3rd
quarter - right after Carolina went 3 and out (I believe this was the
only time that happened in this game, but that's off memory). The short
field became the Pats' first lead, 20-17.

But the offense answered Brady when it had to. Really, since the Pats
had to kick a FG near the end, that was the difference. Carolina
answered score for score, but closed with the TD. It was the third long
scoring drive for Newton, who boasted drives of 80 and 90 earlier in the
game. They finished with the Ted Ginn score with a minute left, which
felt like too long to leave. But what do you do there - have Ginn
kneel? You take the score.

Newton had some off plays - he missed a short receiver or two, he threw
to LaFell in double coverage. But he made some plays downfield - a
pretty 42 yarder to Steve Smith that sparked an Aqib Talib meltdown, for
instance - and remained efficient. It's a good sign - when Newton can
make plays like this, but not turn the ball over. When he can play a
conservative game when needed, and go answer the bell when needed.

He's gonna really take Carolina to the cleaners when it's time to pull
off that contract.

Monday, November 18, 2013



Second Half Aneurism Festival

*Second half starts catastrophically, with two ten yard runs given up on defense and then Charles Johnson gets tripped by excessively fat RT Cannon.  No call but Johnson is hurt and carted off.

So, that's it for this.  I'm pissed.  Anything from here on's going to be too vulgar to print.

first half notes

Going to make notes to get rid of the nerves early, hopefully the game stays competitive and I can keep this up.

*good punt bails out Carolina's measly one yard on their first posession

*Pats looked to spread Carolina signifiantly in the first series to create room, but appear to be unsure about running so far.   Dan Connolly has his hands full early and looks to be trying to play dirty to work.

*Continued to spread on the screen and the dump to Vereen for the first down; can't run inside.

*Sean McDermott being too cute out there but bringing the blitz got Greg Hardy free to stop the drive.  Carolina has to get to Brady very fast - not an easy job - but both McDermott and Ron Rivera had a great set of games forcing Peyton Manning into turnovers with quick rushes in 2010 as DCs in Philly and San Diego, respectively.  I didn't expect this type of game but if Carolina's large rushers are up to the task of playing fast, they can hit Brady.

*Drive on the 11 isn't a great place to start.   Beautiful bomb to Steve Smith to get them to midfield, though.

*Mike Tolbert is running better than Deangelo Williams.  They'll need both, and Jonathan Stewart, to have big games, but Williams has to break one.

*Cam is on fire on this drive. 3-3, hitting Smith on the bomb and another first down, then Greg Olsen directly after.  Also a good sign?    Smith is furious, and Aqib Talib is biting.  Thanks for 15 yards, Aqib!   Smith is responsible for 62 yards in some form already.

*A freakin' laser to Brandon LaFell.  Awesome.  Touchdown. Also, Talib looks to be about ready to be walked to the locker room.  What a drive by Newton and Smith as well.   Steve Smith's legacy will be having other people get his touchdowns.

*Pats running the ball well here, to a little alarm.  Runs of 7 and 13.  Only thing there with the pass is Amendola against the LBs right now.

*Sack time!  Lotulelei and Mario Addison take on Brady when he attempts to go deeper.  Crazy thing is, that was Star and backups (Addison, Horton, Cole), you would figure they would put more effort against Star.

*Pats answer with a screen - you could feel it coming - to Amendola, who gets a lot of the yardage back and then some.  3rd and 5, they do a good job underneath and Mike Mitchell lays the hammer to keep from allowing the first down.

*4th and two and a tick-tack penalty on Melvin White is a gift to the Pats.  Amendola flopped like a Duke center.    More futility by the Pats offense, and more bailing out by the refs - Greg Hardy got a piece of the facemask.

*after a beautifully defensed off-tackle which got Thomas Davis a stuff, Kawann Short forces the fumble.  Carolina ball!    Carolina already had two sacks and a forced fumble, including one of each from the rook DTs.

*Solid first down on an Olsen catch in traffic and a shotgun draw by Jonathan Stewart.

*Panthers have a weird tell on that weird shotgun sweep right by Tolbert.  Both Wharton and Gross were lined up on the razor edge of illegal, way back from Ryan Kalil, and then both pulled right.  Weird play.

*Panthers are putting a lot on Richie Brockel blocking the edge in pass protection.  Hope that doesn't get exploited but he's holding his own.  A Steve Smith drop is negated by a Talib hold.  Talib definitely interfered but the ball was in Smith's hands.

*NE, for being thirtieth against the run, does well setting the edge.  Carolina keeps pushing the ball out, needlessly.   When the Stewart run fails, you can tell Carolina's gonna take shots at the endzone, and the 2nd down one to Olsen fails too.  Ginn is unable to come up with the comeback on 3rd down and the Panthers kick for the ten point lead.

*Brady loads up on playaction and hits Thompkins in the seam.   Blount gets in and gets nothing. Spreading with Vereen, and Mike Mitchell misses a tackle for a first down.  A couple of big Blount runs follow, and then on a shot to the EZ Logan Mankings gets a personal foul, showing Connolly isn't the only dirty one.  2 yards is Amendola's gain after, and he pays a price.

*3rd and a massive 22 from the CAR 38.  Gronkowski gets 14 for his first action, on the underneath; tense as the Pats go for it on 4th and 8, but it's a dupe to run clock.   I don't know if Carolina would've done much with 1:30 of clock and a ten point lead anyway.

*and then they don't.  An 8 yarder to LaFell, and he pays the price; then Cam takes the sack.  That's your half, 10-3.

I'm a little surprised that the Pats and Panthers are so similar in rushing, and that's with Newton the leading rusher for Carolina.  The Pats are 12 for 47, Carolina 11 for 49. The RBs haven't come uncorked and the Pats have been pushing pretty hard against the run, letting Newton beat them, but so far, he is.

Defensively Melvin White is struggling a little on the outside with a penalty and five targets.  The Panthers are tightening down on Amendola and have done a good job against Gronkowski.  They're protecting against the pass and using Davis (6-3 tackles) and Kueckly (7-1) all over the place.   Carolina keeps the first-half TD streak alive.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

V/s Patriots, Pregame

Carolina fights 7-2 New England at home Monday night in what will be another tough test for the 6-3 Panthers.

New England has some weaknesses, however, that might allow them to be a better matchup for Carolina than San Francisco.

Let's start with the defense, the former pride of the Bill Belichick regime but more recently sagging.  Now more of a 4-3, the Pats still provide a lot of double looks, but have scrapped some of the mixed one gap/two gap fronts with some catastrophic injuries in the middle.   Mainstay DL Vince Wilford and Ty Warren are both out; behind them, $10 million linebacker Jared Mayo is also out.   So what's left?

They've built the rest around Brandon Spikes at MLB, pushing massive OLB Donta Hightower to WLB to cover Mayo, and fellow 2012 rookie Chandler Jones (8.5 sacks) is in front of him at right defensive end.  Undersized Rob Ninkovich plays the other end; they've gotten surprise ability out of Bowling Green rookie DT Chris Jones, who has 5 sacks, 3.5 in the last three weeks. He and Joe Vellano, another rookie, start inside, but Vellano subs out for the pass.

Which, that's part of the thing with this defense, it doesn't matter as much what the base is.  The Pats sit in nickel 63% of the time anyway, sometimes pushing Hightower to end and Chandler Jones inside him.  They have Andre Carter, still in the league, as a sub-in guy, too.

It works well when ahead - powered by the tricky option-rush blitz schemes and CBs Aqib Talib/Alfonso Dennard and nickel veteran Kyle Arrington.  The Pats are 12th in passing yards, their best in years; they're 3rd in INTs, and 9th in net yards per attempt, and that's with getting Talib back this week after absence.  It can be hard to beat if you live by the pass.

Carolina doesn't.  That's where the injuries tend to hurt - and Carolina's solid rushing offense comes in to face New England's 30th ranked rush defense.   And they certainly don't get better at stopping the run in nickel, which should be a matter to notice for the 3 WR sets. As well, it might be an unseasonably good time to go 22 personnel - except Ben Hartsock appears to be hurt for this week, leaving it to possibly Richie Brockel - for both run and pass sets, where the Pats are thin inside and without good depth, but it pulls another DB off the field.   Carolina can still generate decent passing opportunities with the Cam Newton playaction game and have Steve Smith/Greg Olsen and a back in a pattern with max protect.

But, you can't be scared of these DBs, either; NE has a #1 rating by on the #1 receiver, but 32 against the 2, and 20 against the 3rd.  There's room to work.

On the other end, the Panthers get similar breaks with the Pats' offense.  OC Josh McDaniels has brought a stronger rushing attack to the Ehrhart Perkins attack than his first stint, and a few of the spread type elements have dwindled, but it's still the same type attack with more rushes.  The Pats come in as the 5th yardage rush offense (11th in yards/attempt), so in its ideal form, it's an offense that can run out the clock just as easily as it can hit you with 80 plays and 30 points.   But it's a matchup offense that might work in the Panthers' favor, with its stout defense.

Carolina penetrates the zone runs easily, and New England essentially uses an inside zone, an outside zone, and counters on those plays.   They should have some success against Carolina, but if things go as they have recently, Carolina should overpower the front and leave the Patriots one-dimensional.

Tom Brady's showing some age - chinks in the armor - or he's struggling with the changes, depending on your viewpoint.  But he's not up to his usual standards.   His yards per play are lowest since 2002, and he's already taken as many sacks as the entire 2012 season.   His 82.9 QB rating isn't bad, but it's his lowest total in a full season ever.  He still doesn't turn the ball over, but he's not quite what he was.   The last good defense he faced, in an OT loss to the Jets, he averaged 5 yards an attempt and a 47.8 percent completion percentage (which included having TE Rob Gronkowski).

He's been without  Gronkowski for most of the year (unfortunately for Carolina, he's back), has had to exchange Wes Welker for a less durable Danny Amendola, and hasn't had outlet Aaron Hernandez for obvious reasons as well.   Julian Edelman leads the team in receptions, though rook Aaron Dobson has shown the ability to make plays Edelman hasn't. Amendola is a solid slot receiver, but he's not Welker.  The powerhouse is Gronkowski, and 2nd TE Michael Hoomanawanui is just a big blocker.  The others, you have to show covered and contest the ball more - they're crafty - but Gronkowski is the guy you have to have accounted; in two of his three games back, he's caught 8 or more balls and over 110 yards.  He caught 10 or more TDs in every prior year, and he could make it this year with limited time if he stays healthy.

So, if you can stop the Pats' running game, that's what you get to face.  Gronkowski, a hard guy to stop on a good day.

Still, first you do have to set out to stop that running game.  Stevan Ridley looked to be losing his job to Shane Vereen - then Vereen almost immediately got hurt.  So, Ridley's been the motive power behind that 8th ranked rush defense.  Ridley is not a pass threat, but at a 4.4 yard average, he's getting it done and he leads the team in total touchdowns with 6.  LeGarrette Blount is listed at FB and gets the balance of the carries.   Not much on tricks, the Patriots have given three rushes to wide receivers.  

Where that run game really happens? The OL.  They have some pass weaknesses, namely Dan Connolly, but Nate Solder is playing like a top LT, and Logan Mankins isn't letting up to his right.   Massive RT Marcus Cannon (6'5, 345) takes over for the more fleet footed Sebastian Vollmer - this will be his third start of his career, but he gets push in the run game and makes for a wide body to get around. 

If New England gets one-dimensional, I don't know if that helps Carolina the way it would playing other teams.   But Carolina has proven to be OK against 3 WR, and it's been a while since that defense has shown major problems.  Bracketing Gronkowski and stopping the run seem like the obvious ways to go - and if it becomes a battle of field position, Carolina's playing that well.  They probably would struggle in a shoot-out, and it's been a few weeks since much magic happens in Carolina's passing game. 

But the matchups seem to go in Carolina's favor in this one. They would have to force the Pats to play their game, but it's doable, and if so, it's a win.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Mike McCormack Passes

Mike McCormack, one of two personalities enshrined by the Panthers and
one of the people most responsible for the team's existence, has passed
at 83.

McCormack started out as an offensive lineman, and it's not out of
bounds to call him one of the best. A Hall of Famer, McCormack was a
part of numerous NFL championship teams with the Paul Brown era Browns,
that also showcased center Otto Graham and halfback Jim Brown. Past the
Hall of Fame credentials, he was also a six time Pro Bowler, and a
member of the NFL's 75th Anniversary team. Paul Brown was on record as
stating that McCormack was the best lineman he'd ever coached.

An assistant with the Redskins in the late 60s, he was a head coach
'73-75 with the Eagles and '80-81 with the Colts. Moving to management
after, McCormack was an interim head coach with the Seahawks while being
GM. Being let go in 1989, McCormack eventually ended up consulting for
the ownership group led by Jerry Richardson that sought out a franchise.

McCormack helped Richardson achieve a franchise in 1993, almost exactly
twenty years ago. The team's first President, he guided the first few
teams, hired its first GM (Bill Polian) and coach (Dom Capers), and
retired in year 3 (1997). Carolina, not initially considered a favorite
compared to Memphis and Baltimore, essentially snagged a franchise with
massive help from McCormack. Some opinions suggest that it just
wouldn't have happened without him.

Consequently, he's enshrined in the Panthers ring of honor, as well as
a statue outisde the stadium, next to Sam Mills.

Thursday, November 14, 2013


I've been watching the chatter as the 49ers deal with the aftermath of
their loss to Carolina. As I mentioned in the pregame, there's a lot
about these 9ers, from Harbaugh and OC Greg Roman on down, that I like.
And that includes Colin Kaepernick.

The mob mentality right now is to judge Kaepernick as the wrong choice.
The Chiefs are playing lights out, so Alex Smith is successful.
Granted the 49ers are, too - but the bar's been set pretty high given
that they've been deep into the playoffs twice in a row. Smith had a
part in that, and so did Kaepernick.

I've seen this before with Kaepernick, and it was in Cam Newton's own
struggles. When you're the quarterback, if you do individually strong
things, and the team doesn't win, it's the QB's fault, even though he
handled his part. That's not a full summary of everything that Newton
or Kaepernick have dealt with, and in their greatest successes, they
were a part of a larger team success.

I don't think Kaepernick was the wrong choice. He's younger, he has a
higher ceiling than Smith, and at the time he showed to be able to throw
deep**, where Smith lacked as much arm strength (and his years under
worse versions of the same offense have given him far too conservative a
thought process). Smith is a very efficient, somewhat mobile QB who's
a legit starter in the league, and good for him. Not everyone gets his
chances, but he's found a great home in KC with Andy Reid, who has never
had as efficient a QB in his head coaching career - think about that.
And now that he has one, his offensive prowess isn't reliant on
improvisation or how to exploit a potential running threat. Reid, in a
league awash of running threats, has been liberated without one.

But that doesn't make Smith a great player. Is Kaepernick? I don't
know. 16 games into his starting career, it's still early to judge. I
don't see him making great reads, and down the stretch the 9ers have
somewhat limited his pistol and read option success with a more
straightforward rushing attack. It took until now, even though Newton's
reads were better by this point, to really see maturity in his game, and
that's 35-40 games in, more than double Kaepernick's.

I'm not saying that Kaepernick's one of the all-time greats. That's
foolish. But I think the 9ers made the right choice, and fans are
showing frustration. Given the choice between the two QBs head-up, I'd
probably have picked Kaepernick over Smith. Add in a 34 pick and '14's
3rd, and you'd be nuts to do otherwise. I'd choose Newton over
Kaepernick every time, but that's a different story.

**I wouldn't judge how he dealt with Carolina or Seattle as
representative versions of that.

Are Panthers Changing The Culture?

Things are good in Carolina right now.

Don't look now, but Cam Newton and Ron Rivera are slowly nearing .500
for their career. If stats are for losers (only the worst single phrase
in sports, honestly), that one's still relevant. Winning is good.

And it's been a while. Carolina hasn't had six wins in early November
since 2008. At the time, that felt like the start of something big, not
the end. That felt like something to build on - a team full of youth
with the right amount of stars. It was time to stop the cycle of
occasional relevance. Everyone was worried about the lack of back to
back winning seasons, and the underlying issue of whether John Fox could
produce them, along with the looming CBA, kept Carolina from worrying
about that back-to-back. They're still recovering.

Now, Carolina has a shot at returning the culture to a winning team.
When you're not used to winning, it's difficult to be nationally
recognized - if you're not the Pats, you may as well be the Jaguars.
The team has a shot at righting that, no matter what happens.

So let's take a look at '14, which is much more fun with

*If they can keep Cam Newton, and keep him playing at least at this
level, they have a shot. That 2003 team had longevity and a good QB.
That 2008 team, aside from the Fox politics and the CBA, also had a
completely different QB, a guy with a bum arm. It's always hilarious to
see people point at 2008 Jake Delhomme as some level of "proof" about
2003-2005 Jake Delhomme. Two different guys. At any rate, Newton's a
good QB, and good QBs trend you toward success in most cases. It's
teams that turn over QBs that struggle.

*They have some cap issues for '14, some of which have been dealt with,
but some that will require creativity. Jon Beason was dealt with, and
they get a boost from his being gone - per-game roster bonuses don't
count if you're not there obviously - and they've dealt with Deangelo
Williams' deal. But they'll likely be looking at extensions for the
2011 deals of Ryan Kalil and Greg Olsen, to spread those contracts out,
and they'll have some hard decisions on some other vets.

*and then they have to deal with the UFA class of Greg Hardy, Brandon
LaFell/Ted Ginn, and figure out what to do with the secondary, which has
a cuttable Charles Godfrey and every other guy with more than 3 years
experience is a free agent (you have to keep Captain Munnerlyn, for
instance, and have to pray a Mike Mitchell has realistic expectations).

*They're obviously better on the line with Jordan Gross and Travelle
Wharton than without, but Gross' deal voids and Wharton is a free agent.
I don't think they can afford to completely start over there. If Amini
Silatolu can slide to the right, great, they need him. Then you add a
young guy who can take over at LT, because that clock is ticking on
Gross even if he's here.

*You have a pretty good draft coming up, and while tons of things have
to happen for that to take place, you should be able to get a solid OL
or, historically, if you wanted, a good CB or WR would still be there.
I still don't love young WR, but seeing Ricky Proehl with some of these
young guys, notably seeing Keenan Allen take off in SD, makes you think
we could get it right if we needed.

*Luckily Carolina has its full complement of early picks for the first
time in years. Remember back when Hurney could wheel and deal down in
the draft to pick up Jon Beason and Ryan Kalil, then stash Charles
Johnson in behind Julius Peppers? Just think about how fantastic it
would've been if Dwayne Jarrett hadn't been complete trash.

So you have a good team, about a quarter of which is a free agent. The
upside is that, without a lot of context, has Carolina in
an average position for next year. They don't have a lot of contracts
they can reword, and if you re-up Newton and either LaFell or Hardy for
a lot, you're wiping out most of your reserves. Dave Gettleman has his
work cut out for him.

But, things are trending up. It must continue.

A few weird stats to throw in:

It depends on what stat you cherry pick, honestly. If you count it
from when Marty Hurney was fired, the team's been pretty good since.
Was that a catalyst? Maybe - you ask most vet players, they had a
fondness for Marty. Most of this team is still his architecture, for
better or worse. They brought on a similar, if not more conservative,
version in Dave Gettleman. But, they're 11-5 in the last 16. They had
not achieved on that level in years. Is there something to that?

You can also point at Armanti Edwards. The team idled at around 7-9,
with the occasional playoff run, before Edwards was drafted; they were
abysmal while he's on the roster. After he was cut this year,
Carolina's ripped off five straight. 16-36 while he was here, I believe.

Football doesn't work that way. There's no more an Armanti Edwards
curse than a black cat curse. Carolina's a middling team in a small but
beautiful market,

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Dan Connor Returns

Dropping a former third in DT/OT Sione Fua this week, Carolina finally
announced who they were adding to the team - another former third, Dan

The stand-in former MLB, Connor got the team through some injuries as a
starter, finishing strong in John Fox's last defense but never
completely fitting in at MLB under Ron Rivera when needed. Now, he's
back in another Rivera defense as a backup.

Connor, who thrived for a game at strongside LB in 2009 before doing an
excellent early-season 2010 job at MLB, had to reprise the role for Jon
Beason for 2011, with mixed results. The team didn't note anything
about returning Connor, but unless Chase Blackburn's injury becomes much
greater, it's expected he or rookie AJ Klein would be the 3rd starter
and the rest would play special teams.

Fua Finished

Carolina dropped Sione Fua again, this time a week after making him a

So, I imagine that didn't work out so well.

No corresponding move was made, and Fua as a two year starter is
clearly above the minimum playing time to be put on the practice squad.
The team theoretically has its full compliment of linemen, pending Chris
Scott's eventual return and assuming Geoff Hangartner is up to speed as
the replacement for Jeff Byers.

Fua, a 2011 3rd rounder, leaves Cam Newton as the one remaining draft
pick from the 2011 draft class, two years in. Carolina did get
undrafted OT Byron Bell, who has been a consistent starter at RT, out of
that class, at least.

Ball Bounced Both Ways v/s 49ers

After the initial shock and joy wore off from the 49ers win, some
natural worry came in.

I'd thought, they won a one point game against a big opponent, sure.
But they had tons of help. The two fumble recoveries at the end were
obviously killer. Those were bounces that easily could've gone the
other way, and the 49ers didn't have that luxury - they didn't have any
fumble recoveries, they had injuries, nothing went their way. They
didn't get their bounces.

But didn't they? I had to recorrect myself.

For one, they got points (in a one point loss) that they didn't deserve
- the Vernon Davis incompletion was clearly a catch and fumble.
Carolina should've had that ball. San Francisco certainly had no
problem accepting a number of non-called holds (it was a very
conservatively officiated game overall, and the only costly SF penalty I
can remember was an offensive pass interference on an obvious pick

As well, while the way that the ball physically bounces in a fumble
situation is completely random - I imagine that, on average, the defense
has a numbers advantage on upfield plays. It's not really that lucky a
bounce for Carolina to have picked up the center exchange fumble, it
happened behind the line with blockers in front. That's not luck -
it's Carolina actually messing up and having the luxury of being safe.

There's a similar corrolation with the Thomas Davis forced fumble.
Carolina was in the San Francisco backfield all day (best way to stop
the read option is to smother it from all sides, and oh man did Carolina
do that), so it's not inconceivable that they'd be in position when
Davis put in a textbook tackle on Kendall Hunter and popped the ball
out. Carolina's a swarming defense, it's going to have its numbers near
the ball. If the ball's out, they have a good shot at it.

I won't put Carolina's various drops (Captain Munnerlyn's dropped INT,
the three first down-killing offensive drops) into any form of luck or
opportunity. Good teams take their opportunities, that's outside the
scope of this win. Had it been a loss, that's a different story.

Carolina's both lucky and good. I'm not going to question it for now.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Team MVP So Far? Wilks

I've been on Steve Wilks since he came on board at the start of 2012 -
and the former Charger assistant has worked nothing but magic so far
this year.

You don't always get to see the guts on the chopping board - sometimes
you just see the sausage has been made. So when Sean McDermott landed
on Carolina's doorstep as defensive coordinator, there had been no word
about anyone's candidacy to that point. It appears that there had
already been a deal in place to bring Rob Chudzinski on board as
offensive playcaller - since Chud didn't have a contract he could do
what he wanted.

But at the time, no one knew that Rivera had tried in vain to bring
aboard Wilks as DC. McDermott, who wasn't supposed to be available,
luckily did, but the press quietly leaked that Wilks would've been the
choice had the Chargers let him out of his contract. Unable to get him,
the Chargers had put an assistant head coach title on him for the year,
which didn't keep Wilks from leaving when able by '12.

Carolina cleared out Ron Meeks - remember when he was a commodity? -
and put him in place, then quietly slipped a Passing Defense Coordinator
role behind it.

The dividends were harder to tell last year, with its troubles getting
something out of Haruki Nakamura and rookie Josh Norman. This year, you
would've been hard to expect greater, with former Raider Mike Mitchell
looking like a meathead, Drayton Florence looking old, and Norman once
again dominating preseason ahead of a number of other non-descript DBs.

Fast forward a bit, and Captain Munnerlyn has returned a pick-6; the
Bills game being a massive anomaly with its injuries, the team now has
Munnerlyn backed with a surprisingly able Mitchell now playing free
safety, and a mix down the stretch of mid-season pickup Quintin Mikell
and rookie Robert Lester; Florence has come alive as another mid-season
replacement, and another rookie has been strong - new starter Melvin

The 6'1 rook has allowed a 58.9 passer rating on the year, and has
started the last three games at CB. This out of a player no one wanted
to draft, on a defense that has, at best, one star (and one Star -
allright, sorry).

The turning point, getting past Buffalo's massive injuries (and
miscues) saw Lester, White, and the returning Florence making a bigtime
push for playing time. Suddenly, when Charles Godfrey had gone out,
you could've said Carolina had no safeties; in his absence they somehow
have three. Josh Thomas' benching, in some ways a shame because he was
a good run defender and football player, turned out for the better and
teams are having trouble pushing the deep pass now. The Thomas hiccup,
along with the massive falloff for Norman when he's asked to play zone,
have been hiccups, but ones that have passed.

What Wilks is pulling off with two UDFAs, two street pickups, and
Munnerlyn, is fantastic. I don't want to take away from McDermott,
Rivera, the front seven, or Dave Gettleman's pickups of these scrappy
players, but this isn't just a good front seven. This is a good

That's why, with a quarterback who can take over a game in two phases,
and so many defenders having career years, it's not lightly I call Wilks
the team's MVP through nine games. This is one of the best position
coaching jobs I've ever seen.

Defense: Historic

Carolina's defense was tremendous against San Francisco, but that's
nothing new. Here's, historically, the Panthers' scoring defense
against the best in modern NFL history:

1985 Bears: 124
1986 Bears: 117
2000 Ravens: 98
2002 Bucs: 109
2013 Chiefs: 111
2013 Panthers: 115

So, they're 2nd in scoring for the year, but nonetheless among the
all-time elite at this point in team history.

Even more chafing are that the two teams that Carolina gave up 20+
points to?

Buffalo (24th in scoring offense), Arizona (22nd scoring offense, 27th
in yards). Of course, both were losses, which is what really matters,
but it's also a spot in which the defense slipped up against teams that
don't play that good of offense. So, in some form, they could've been
better based on those two games.

They're going to need to be good again this week, there's no doubt of

Monday, November 11, 2013

49ers - Aftermath

..and time to eat a little crow.   This team isn't the team you fear can't get it done against real competition, to a point.  I feared it.  They pulled it off.

But it wasn't easy.  A 10-9 game - and only over in the last few seconds.  The team used to struggle and lose this type of game against mediocre teams - but they're now at the spot where they can win this type of close one against a good team.

The escapable Kaepernick, who had never been sacked more than four times in his career, was laid down six times in the game (Luke Kuechly, rook AJ Klein, Charles Johnson [plus sharing a half with Mike Mitchell],Greg Hardy, and Dwan Edwards all came home with sacks).  Kaepernick was under pressure for most of the remaining 22 attempts, of which he completed half for 91 yards - which became a net 45 yards passing.  The game-ending INT was forced on pressure right after Kaepernick had gone down for the sixth time.

The 49ers did have a hundred yards rushing, not an easy feat against Carolina, 82 of them being Frank Gore's and the bulk of the remainder being Kaepernick's - Kendall Hunter had a late carry that, being hit by Thomas Davis, became another Carolina turnover.

Carolina couldn't capitalize on their picks, but at minimum, was able to still use them for field position, and to deny San Francisco points; it was a dominating defensive performance that left just enough room for a few offensive plays.   They left some points on the field - Graham Gano's FG miss, a Steve Smith drop that would've extended a drive, another by Brandon LaFell, and near-misses with LaFell and Greg Olsen.

Other than the run game, where Deangelo Williams scored the one TD of the game, there weren't a lot of plays made in either phase.  Other than the 49er run game, where the 9ers had some success, Carolina found themselves shutting down an opportunistic San Francisco offense.   The 45 yards passing were the fewest in almost ten years, which itself was a record for the team for years.

So, is Carolina real?  I don't know - but it feels real so far.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

V/S San Francisco, Pre-Disaster

Carolina came through the second quarter of the year 4-0 - remarkable.  But I don't see quarter three being so easy.

I've said it before this year - even prior to 30 point wins - but I feel awful about this one.  I don't see a win.

I can't say anything more about the design of this team.  The 49ers are put together very well - and they're put together in a form that has a good shot at giving this Panthers team fits.  An accurate running QB and a stellar defense have both made Carolina struggle, but you get both here.

I don't think anyone who has read this blog for any length of time between the end of '09 and the middle of '11 has much doubt for whether I wanted to hire Jim Harbaugh here.  And though my opinion of Cam Newton has changed over time, at the onset of the '11 draft, Colin Kaepernick was my favorite QB in that lackluster quarterback draft (it's fair to say that Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder aren't worth it by this point).  I never could've seen Justin Smith's dominance at 3-4 DE but I wanted him as a free agent here.

The design, of course, is similar to what's going on here.  People commonly mis-appropriate Harbaugh as a WCO guy, and it's not at all true (though the version he ran to make something out of Alex Smith was definitely a conservative, short ball offense).  Harbaugh and star OC Greg Roman are all Coryell.   All the shifts and motions, and the power running, it's all the same stuff we use.  A difference - instead of getting in the Pistol based on consulting, they drafted its muse in Kaepernick.

They've got a weakness offensively - their WR group is lacking - but it always kinda has.  They have Anquan Boldin, who will get you fifteen yards when you need it. He won't have a lot short, he won't have a deep ball, but if you want the middle of the route tree or across the middle, he'll get you that.  The deep slant/post, the back shoulder fade, all of that's where Boldin makes it happen, and he's very efficient.
It doesn't hurt to have Vernon Davis, either. A similar guy to Boldin, honestly, except he can get up the seam more quickly. Davis is where Kaepernick has his best deep threat, and signifies the corner route as the most significant way it happens.

Those are their top two receivers - a second receiver doesn't show up until Kyle Williams at 4, and then Jon Baldwin at 7, both with minimal production.  Bruce Miller, the fullback, is third in receptions, but he gets his at a 12 yard/catch rate.  San Francisco runs about 30% 22 personnel - two backs, two TEs - and will occasionally turn that into a 3 TE look.  Backup TE Vance McDonald is a prototypical rookie backup blocking TE - massive, and essentially there for the blocking.  The bizarre thing about the fairly accurate Kaepernick has been that he hasn't pulled off as good of accuracy short, and that appears what Carolina will leave to him.

Consequently, due to their heavy sets and lack of decent WRs, they do more slot stuff out of unbalanced sets, two receivers to a side, and sometimes balancing that with two TE to the other side.  They shift a lot, so it's not a good week for Josh Norman-style miscommunication.  They don't use the more traditional 3WR sets often at all, so it's likely the team keeps a corner or two in street clothes.  Carolina gets a small boost there, doing a lot of cover 1/cover three and keeping a guy up.  It also doesn't hurt that they're essentially playing two SS on the back half, and that Mike Mitchell has somehow had discipline in play action.

So, defensively, it may be a choice of defending the deep pass, or the top ranked rushing offense (9th in yards/attempt, if that has value).  They definitely have a top OL, they load the 22 more than anyone, and you have to be ready for that with an extra lineman or LB.

On offense, you do get a break of sorts - their defense has fallen all the way to 6th (4th, points) from a traditional top two look in the past few years.  Aldon Smith comes back this week but his snaps will be somewhat limited.   Other than that, you can't pull rank or weakness on them - they have four good corners with the return of Eric Wright, so it's not like pulling a DL for a DB suddenly makes things better.  

The minor weaknesses on a massively talented defense? has their DL as 19th best, and a low percentage of stuffed (typical for a two gap 3-4 set).  Glenn Dorsey is playing acceptable NT as well.   They're low in yards against power, too.  They jump back up to 10th for 2nd level yards, not unlikely with Navarro Bowman and Patrick Willis back there.  11th against the run compared to Carolina's 8th ranked rush O, so there's some level of movement there, but that won't help you if you get behind early.

With the ball in the air, SF is adept at the top receiver; they struggle, in the 20s for rankings, for the 2nd and 3rd guys, and against the RB.  But they go way back up to 5th against the TE; so, Greg Olsen will have to spend a significant amount of time split out or used at TE and driven outward, away from Bowman and Willis.

The metrics sites throw SF short of their rankings. Carolina has minimal options if that's not true - you can't spread this team, you can't really pick on their rookie FS (Eric Reid).  You can run on them to a point, but it won't open up the pass, as the 9ers play both S deep a high amount and aren't going to give up the big play.

So, at best, on the road as far west as Carolina will play this year, they face their hardest test yet.  This could be a conservative, field position game with a pair of good defenses and a pair of strong running games.  Or it could be a battle of third year QBs; third year head coaches.  Either way it's not a game I see Carolina winning without some unexpected big plays.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Panthers Guard Fua's Future

Sorry for the puns.

You know why? Because I'm baffled. 5th DT Sione Fua is now a guard.

It's not a secret Carolina's had RG problems. It was my key concern in
training camp, and now Carolina has cycled through a total of 11 players
at the position, including former DL compatriot Nate Chandler. That 11
players is a full 20.7% of an active roster, if extrapolated out.

So, if Fua plays, he'll have been the second DL turned OL in the year
(which has to be a modern day NFL record of some sort) to go with two
free agent signings after the start of the season (Travelle Wharton and
Chris Scott, the somewhat-stable starting duo before Scott and Jeff
Byers got hurt almost at the same time.

Ron Rivera notes Fua's "good footwork". His combine numbers boast of
allright trap times without high end speed, which is typical, and 30
reps of 225 in the bench, which would be more than adequate for the new

The former 97th overall pick in the 2011 draft was cut at the end of
camp 2013 after being the 5th best DT; they brought him back a couple
weeks later and now he's not playing the same position. I don't know if
that's what the team had in mind when they used Julius Peppers'
compensatory pick on him; he looked to have a nice future as a starter
at NT, but a bad 2011 turned to a worse 2012 and Carolina started over
at DT.

That pushed Chandler over in camp; now Fua joins him. I didn't see
that one coming.

The Fall of Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler

I don't doubt that the Packers will carry on. The Bears, likewise,
will keep it moving.

But injuries to both teams' quarterbacks can't hurt Carolina.

They don't play either team, but they'll still compete against both -
it's way too early to worry about the playoffs, honestly, and I have
fears that more people will be wondering "what happened" after San
Francisco than they will be what the other potential 5-6 seeds will have

But, the NFC North has 3 different 5-3 teams, and two of them are the
above - teams without their starting QBs.

Carolina is 5-3 - suddenly a game back from New Orleans, which is
honestly looking like a better team than Carolina. Same for the top two
teams in the NFC West- both San Francisco and Seattle are likely to be
in the playoffs, which leaves the remaining wild card spot to go between
the two NFCN teams that don't win the division, and Carolina (as of
right now). I don't worry about whoever loses the East - I can't see
both the Cowboys and Eagles catching fire suddenly.

So, one or two of those NFCN teams dropping anchor wouldn't be the
worst in the world for Carolina. But there's so much football to be
played before that really matters.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Son of the Return Of Hangartner

Geoff Hangartner, still somehow the ranking starting guard of the Ron
Rivera era, returned to the team this week.

2011's last minute scrap heap pickup turned into a serviceable starting
guard for the year; he made it through 2012 struggling and in need of
replacement, eventually turning to center with Ryan Kalil out. Despite
not adequately replacing him, the team dropped him in camp 2013.

Since then, Garry Williams, rookie Ed Kugbila, Chris Scott, and Jeff
Byers have gotten hurt. Carolina turned to its 6th RG of the year in
former DT Nate Chandler, who spent camp as an OT. Their 7th guy now was
their first - Hangartner. A smart, strong lineman, Hangartner is a good
pickup now - being able to backup C as well as play guard.

Hangartner seems as good a bet to start this week as anyone. He knows
the system - this is what Carolina used for most of his tenure since
being a 2005 5th round pick, and emergency lineman/occasional TE, before
he spent 2009-2010 as a mediocre starter in Buffalo.

His potential return, pending a physical, might be just what they
needed to make it through the season.

Monday, November 4, 2013

V/S Atlanta, Aftermath

This one looked better at the end than it was.

I didn't feel like Carolina did what I was hoping to see them do - stop
the run, create pressure, make some plays offensively.

Did they win? Absolutely. Was it as much a blowout as the 34-10 score
said? In a lot of ways, no.

Carolina did well to win by that score, of course, and for a team that
doesn't make big plays offensively to continue to put up 30 points is
great. It also did a lot of little things well - running the ball was
really solid despite a lot of attention paid to the run by Atlanta - and
it did allright to overcome two interceptions by Cam Newton.

The defense struggled at times, letting Steven Jackson squirt for 43
yards, which would've been worse had Atlanta been in the game in the 4th
quarter. It did pull down 3 INT, including a pretty pick-six by the one
vet in the secondary, Drayton Florence; Thomas Davis gave up the body to
pull down a tipped ball, and Luke Kuechly setup the first score of the
day with a pretty pick on the bang-8 that they'd thrown up for Tony

Maybe my expectations are getting too high. I wouldn't have wanted
much different a score, but I saw some chinks in the armor that I didn't
love. So, here goes in handy bullet point form:

*Newton. Both INTs were deep throws, and to a point you expect some of
that to be a jump ball situation. But you don't throw the ball to Ted
Ginn in double coverage. Ron Rivera suggested that the other INT was an
issue of the WR (Steve Smith) stopping on the route, and maybe that
happened, but it wasn't a great read. Those INTs worked kinda like
punts - they weren't killers the way that Matt Ryan's were - but it
ended a nice run where Newton was smart with the ball.

Newton also didn't have the efficiency you'd started to expect from
him, where he missed a couple of guys and he'd thrown high. Credit for
yet another incredible goal line play to Greg Olsen. Newton remains
able to get off potential sacks, buy time, and make some things happen
in both phases of the offense, and definitely has matured. But they've
gotta find ways to get him to make plays without just chucking the ball
up there.

*pass rush - the DTs definitely did their job in the run game, but
neither the tackles nor ends got much pressure. Atlanta brought more
(see the line issue below) than Carolina did, and while they got a
couple hits on Ryan, not as much as last year; the first sack didn't
come until the game was essentially over.

*OL - weathering injuries to Chris Scott and Jeff Byers (yikes), Nate
Chandler became the sixth RG in the twelve weeks the team has been on
the field (if you count Ed Kugbila, who was with the first team for a
couple of minutes between injuries). Chandler's a former DT, and he
did an allright job considering...but the OL as a whole didn't do a good
job, getting bullied by a poor Atlanta front.

*back seven against the TE - the play with Luke Kuechly on Gonzalez was
the only time in the first half that they did anything to stop him; they
adjusted to him in the second half, just enough to give SF (Vernon
Davis) and NE (Rob Gronkowski) tape on how Carolina will react to them.

*luck - Carolina gets lucky lately, and despite the adage you do have
to be both lucky and good. But this is a game that could've really
turned on the Brandon LaFell fumble. Is there any correlation other
than luck on fumble recoveries? Not really, but that was a ball Atlanta
should've had in their hands. It would've been deflating, up by 7 with
13 mins to go, to not score there. That's why this game betrays its
final score - without a two-score deficit, Matt Ryan probably doesn't
throw up the pick-six, doesn't end another drive on a desperation
ball-holding sack (Charles Johnson the benefactor). Credit Carolina
for finishing the game with a massive drive at the end, sure. But up
by 7, or tied, would that drive have been as easy? Probably not.

Carolina has to be better than that. Yes, beating up on a 2-5 team is
nice. San Francisco is no 2-5 team; they don't care if you're playing
your 6th best RG, they don't care you're young in the secondary. They
aren't a team you can throw up 2 INT at; you can't warm up late in the
game, having somehow stayed up on them by 7 points because of turnovers,
expecting them to roll over. The 49ers don't play that type of game
under Jim Harbaugh.

Still, it's a 24 point win at home, and that never hurts. It was a
great team win - no one did anything spectacular excluding the INTs,
offensively or defensively no one really stood out enough. But you can
name 20 people who all did something dynamic enough to help earn the
win. So, I'll take it. But have to clean it up for the next two weeks.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Jonathan Stewart's Back

Stewart, who hasn't played since around this time last year, adds a fresh set of legs to a good rushing attack in Carolina.  They'll need it down the stretch, with the 49ers and Patriots behind this Falcons game.

Armond Smith was let go in his place.

V/S Atlanta

Atlanta has struggled through the season, dealing with injuries, lack
of depth, and lack of production from the remnants of the offense and
defense. Mike Smith has his work cut out for him longterm if this
continues past the year.

So while Atlanta still has a passably talented team, they lost a bit of
heart and soul when they dumped John Abraham and Michael Turner,
building more around Matt Ryan and then seeing some of those pieces
crumble mid-season. It's not that moving on from that pair specifically
hurt them, but it's hard to suggest that Osi Umenyiora or Steven Jackson
have been better or provided any spark.

OC Dirk Koetter's numbers-based system works somewhat similar to
Carolina's - apparently from the Joe Gibbs side since Koetter's only
notable Coryell time was as Dan Henning's OC at Boston College. He was
mostly a college coach until his time with Smith in Jacksonville. It's
worth noting that Mike Shula served 2007 with Smith, on his way out to
take this Falcons job, and 07-10 he QBs coach under Koetter until he
wisely jumped ship for Carolina. So there's some shared knowledge
offensively - Shula may be able to provide insight on Koetter, and vice
versa, but none of that is new knowledge by now.

Koetter has been tremendously pass-happy, though injuries at RB and
getting behind early haven't helped. Consequently, the Falcons lead in
pass attempts, and are last in run attempts (and yards). Ryan was their
leadng rusher, but for no reason other than abject failure in the
running game overall. Steven Jackson's return to the lineup netted a
long of 4 and a total of 6. They don't really establish the run, but
lately the quality isn't up to par and the game is over quicker than
you'd want.

That throws a heavy burden on Matt Ryan. Weighing that more heavily
includes Roddy White's bad ankle, and the absence of Julio Jones, and
you end up putting even more on Ryan. Without a run threat, it's tough
to use the hurry-up, and by the time they need it, they're down enough
and desperate enough that it's more of a scurry-up offense.

Ryan's completion percentage remains fine, his TD/INT/sack rates
roughly in line with years past, but he's doing a little more short,
playing small-ball in an effort to replace the run. The net result for
Ryan isn't a major change (the run/pass ratio isn't even much different)
but the yards are down slightly to 11 and points have dropped to a very
average 15th. Net yards passing go from 4th to 11th.

Statistically, again, not an incredible change. When you consider the
defense changing only slightly in yards, you wonder what Atlanta's
problem is - but then you see points going from 5th to 22nd; turnovers
going from 5th to 28th. Field position isn't there, the defense is on
the field more, and now a thin, under-talented defense starts showing
less depth.

But the defense will get theirs soon enough. Carolina's going to face
Jackson in a minimally effective rush game, one that gives way to
Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling for more catches than anything else.
There's a screen game there, necessary given the number of attempts.
The modestly effective White may return to WR (currently doubtful), but
Harry Douglas has gotten a lot of the remaining targets at the Z
receiver. Douglas burst in two weeks ago, but his yards per reception
dwindled last week while still getting a lot of attention.

Absent White, you get young and non-descript young receivers Kevin
Cone, Drew Davis, and 5th year Broan Robiskie. Davis has shown a little
longball ability but otherwise, who knows what you're getting from the
youth; Robiskie hasn't provided value on the field since 2010.

So, with White potentially out, you have to pay significant attention
to Douglas and Tony Gonzalez, and just keep the rest in front of you.
Ryan will be accurate, the pass offense will get first downs, but keep
them from making big plays and the rest stays manageable hopefully.
There's no doubt that the run defense is ready for this distinct lack of
challenge, and most matchups are to Carolina's favor in the trenches.
So it's Ryan against the secondary.

Falcons DC Mike Nolan used to have a reputation in the league - the
former head coach just hasn't connected here in Atlanta, however. The
hard-nosed coach has adapted to the 4-3 to a point but the bigger issue
is a lack of depth or dynamic talent. For years, even befoe Nolan, it
was mostly Abraham here; bigtime pushes to get guys like Gonzalez and
Jones onboard have left them, as I cautioned at the time of the
blockbuster Jones trade, talent-poor on defense. They've never been
good under Smith, but with a few key injuries, they stand to be worse
than normal this week.

Their rush defense hasn't moved much from last year - which is to say
they tend not to get a lot of rushes, but they're not doing a good job
of stopping it (21st, 27th in yards per attempt). Corey Peters is an
allright DT; Jonathan Babineaux and former first Peria Jerry combine for
a 3-man rotation of redundant mediocrity. They move Jerry around and
get him some rush opportunities, but he's not as productive as Peters.

2nd year Jonathan Massaquoi is opposite Umenyiora for what I'd
consider a perfect storm of being unadaptable to the run and losing
contain. This is a quicker front, so you have to hit the hole (attn:
Deangelo Williams). Not a large front, this might be a good
season-opening game for Jonathan Stewart, and Mike Tolbert has momentum.
This is a defensive front that, as a 4-3, doesn't instill fear; you
block it for what you want to do, you don't have to account for anyone

Behind that, it's a smaller second level with Akeem Dent in the middle,
who's been missing WLB Sean Witherspoon (injured). Undrafted,
undersized rookie Joplo Bartu is his replacement, oddly having 2.5 sacks
and putting up allright tackle numbers. Dent has 1.5 sacks, and the
front gets 35% of its sacks from the blitz (2 of which are from DBs).
They'll bring players, but it seems to ratchet up when Atlanta is down,
where DC Mike Nolan gets either more brazen or more desperate. Atlanta
does go to a man-1 look for most of those opportunities, where FS Thomas
Decoud is asked to handle more real estate.

Atlanta has thrown effort into cornerback, where Robert McClain and
Desmond Trufant filter around Asante Samuel for an allright trio. Yet
they are 22nd in pass yards - actually not bad given that they haven't
finished better than 20th in Smith's tenure, but definitely exploitable.

I would expect, for Carolina against a small front, more 2 TE sets and
a significant amount of running. Carolina will throw out some 3 WR
sets, sure, and it's not that that's a terrible matchup either. Their
nickel isn't much worse than base; their injury replacements aren't a
major weakness, they just aren't that good either. You simply go out
and play a fairly conservative offense to safely beat them, though they
don't pick up turnovers enough for it to matter.

Newton had a cumulative 4 TDs, 500 yards against Atlanta last year.
Charles Johnson had 3.5 sacks in the first Falcon game, which Carolina
definitely should've won. Both are Georgia guys who play big in these
games - and both should. Expect Atlanta to put up a fight, but I
believe Carolina's momentum and being the better team will prevail.