Friday night the Panthers traveled to Foxboro to take on the New England Patriots in what typically is the “Dress Rehearsal” for most teams in the NFL Preseason. While most starters played into the third quarter Friday, it felt nothing like a typical third preseason game, even from the start. After just three series Luke Kuechly left the field, the Panthers opened the game with six straight passes (something that’s extremely atypical of the Carolina Offense), and the game (at least from the Panthers perspective) just seemed to lack planning all-together. Still, even with the far from normal Dress Rehearsal there are things to take away and a few things to like, and even more to dislike. So with that said, lets start with the players that flashed on Friday.
1. Thomas Davis
Davis is a great story. Athletic Linebacker who is playing sensational then suffers three ACL injuries on the same knee. You would expect the story to end with Davis hanging the cleats up and for many it would, but TD is a rare breed. Instead of taking the easy way out Davis clawed back and fought to return from the devastating injuries. Now two years later the injuries are an afterthought (though I doubt I’ll ever stop holding my breath when he makes a tackle), and Davis is playing arguably better than he ever has. Quick, instinctive, punishing, effort, heart, passion. Any of these words would be a great way to characterize an NFL player, but TD has them all. He’s the complete package at Linebacker, and perhaps the most vocal leader on the team. Friday night he flashed several times, including this reaction to a pass in the backfield. TD, never fooled for a minute, stops the play in its tracks.
On this second play we see how easily Davis flows to the ball carrier and punishes him.
2. Jonathan Stewart
Once thought to be an albatross by Panthers fans, Stewart has flashed for two consecutive weeks now. While the stat line is much stronger against the Chiefs, Friday Stewart had several plays that once again gave fans hope for a productive year. On the first, he makes a catch on the sideline. The catch itself isn’t exactly the prettiest catch you’re ever going to see by a Running Back, but the run after reminded us of the burst that Stewart has despite his size. Stewart does a good job to absorb the contact while maintaining balance along the sideline. He then hits the gas and gets a good amount of yards after the catch.
He also had a physical run later in the game where he absorbed contact and kept his legs moving to gain extra yards. It wont amount to much in the box score, but the effort shouldn’t go unnoticed. His ability to run through first contact makes him the ideal back for a system like the Panthers, and his effort could eventually mean a lions share of the workload IF he can stay healthy.
1. Star Lotulelei
The first of the three stars for week three is Star Lotulelei. Or as I like to call him, perhaps the luckiest moment in Panthers history. While Star didn’t have the flashy sack like he did against the Chiefs, he did make his presence felt in the trenches yet again. I want to mention Colin Cole too, because he ability to regularly occupy two blockers has allowed Star to play some 3-technique during the Preseason where he can exploit Guards with his combo of strength and quickness.
The play below is a good example of this.
Initially Cole playing the 1-technique is doubled off the snap by the Left Guard and Center. This leaves Star 1-1 with the Right Guard. Star almost instantly beats the Guard by ripping and shedding inside. The Center adjusts to try to help, but Star has already shot the gap and broken past the line. Without holding the Center has no shot to slow down Star. Star explodes into the backfield and pressures Brady into a poor throw. It doesn’t look like much, but this slight pressure forces Brady to throw the ball before he’s ready, and into the dirt. In the regular season, this could be the difference of getting the ball back to the offense with a chance to win the game late.
Another simple play, this time the Center bumps Star off the line in hopes to get him off balance. However Star keeps surging forward and into the Guard. With quick hands and power he’s able to get into the Guards pads where he can redirect him on the field. Star then simply overpowers him and is able to rip outside shoulder to shed the block. Star doesn’t finish the play, but his initial contact on the Running Back in the backfield is the act that allows Safety, Colin Jones to get down field and stop the Back for a loss.
This last play highlights Star’s recognition on a Screen. Star barrels ahead rushing Quarterback Ryan Mallet as usual. However, as soon as Ryan slides to the near side of the field to toss the ball to Running Back Shane Vereen Star recognizes that a screen is being set up. While Wes Horton and Kony Ealy continue to push the pocket Star instinctively bails out and pursues the Running Back. On this play Star shows he’s more than just a physical animal on the football field, he’s an intelligent one too.
2. Kelvin Benjamin
In what’s becoming less surprising by the week, the Panthers new number one Wide Receiver once again finds himself on the “star” list. Not only did Benjamin have his best outing from a statistical perspective Friday, he did it against the best opposition he’s faced thus far. In fact he even got the best of arguably the best Corner in the league with this beauty of a hands catch on third down. Not only did he move the chains, but Benjamin showed how much a luxury it can be to have an “area code” Wide Receiver.
More importantly then flashy extension catches like this though, was the chemistry Benjamin and Cam Newton showed on the field. The duo hooked up five times for a total of 47 yards, including back to back receptions on the first drive. After being sacked on his first drop back, Newton and the Panthers Offense found themselves looking at second and long. With ease, Benjamin found space in the Defense on a dig route, and Cam confidently fired the ball into his new BFF’s awaiting arms.
On the next play Newton did a good job standing in the pocket and waiting for Benjamin to get open on the comeback. Benjamin did just that getting down field past the sticks, and aggressively coming back to the ball before making a sure catch along the sideline.
3. Brenton Bersin
Another player made an impact Friday night and just in case you weren’t quite certain the former Terrier was making the roster (he is), he made it next to impossible to cut him with his two 21 yard catches late in the third quarter Friday night. The first was a sensational hands grab on third and very long, where Bersin plucked the ball out of the air in order to move the chains.
Another look shows us how Bersin was able to use his hands to shake the Defender on his release and give him the space to break inside. I especially liked Bersin’s awareness to signal the first down after finishing the play too.
The second was a simple seam route where Bersin gets down field, then sits down in front of the Defender to make an easy grab. Simple, nothing special at all, but highly effective.
The fact is that outside of Benjamin, Bersin has been the most consistent WR throughout camp. He’s what you need in a chain mover. A scrappy, fundamentally sound player, with good hands and nice clean routes. At this point I would say Bersin has gone from post draft long shot to virtual lock for week one.
The Panthers Defense Is Lost Without Luke Kuechly
Ok….maybe not lost, but there certainly is a sizable drop off when 59 exits the field. After three series Friday Kuechly was rested in favor for looking at other players. The results speak for themselves: In the first three series the Panthers surrendered just 46 yards and a field goal, in the remaining six drives the Carolina Defense yielded 332 yards, and three drives of 80 yards or more. Staggering to say the least, Kuechly is brains of the Carolina Defense and the player that makes the whole thing work. His ability to react to plays before they happen, cover the flats, use his athleticism blitzing, and his incredible tackling ability all add up to one player the Panthers just can’t be without in 2014. He’s a Defensive player Coordinators absolutely must account for on every play, and one that will continue to get better entering his third year in the NFL.
Chemistry Still An Issue For Newton and Receivers Not Named Benjamin
Friday night Newton was sacked several times, and looked hesitant to throw the ball at other points. While some were quick to jump on Byron Bell and the rest of the Offensive Line, that wasn’t the whole story. For whatever reason, the other Receivers weren’t getting passes thrown their way. The first reaction was that the Panthers pass catchers weren’t getting open down field, and while this could certainly be the case without coaches tape it’s hard to say for sure. Then, Jason Avant commented on Saturday that after watching the film the he and the other Wide Receivers on the roster were in fact getting open down field. This to me says chemistry and trust still hasn’t developed. This isn’t totally surprising with Newton missing time during the off season after ankle surgery, but it is something the Panthers will need to correct in a hurry. With the start of the season just two weeks away the Panthers cannot have their Quarterback hesitant to push the ball vertically, and everyone needs to be on the same page. Which is why in my opinion, Head Coach Ron Rivera has been adamant that Newton and the rest of the starting Offense will play on Thursday in the Preseason finale against the Steelers. Historically the Panthers have rested starters in this game in favor to get a look at the backups, however that doesn’t seem to be the plan for Thursday. The good thing is it should be a good test for the Offense, as the Steelers have a talented Defense with some young and explosive pass rushers. I wouldn’t expect Cam and Co. to be out there long, but it should be some more quality reps to develop the chemistry in the unit.
We Were Introduced to Byron Bell’s Dance Moves Friday, and They Are Legendary…
As Colin Hoggard host of The Call Up on WFNZ put it….#Belling
Projected 53 Man Roster
Quarterback: Cam Newton, Derek Anderson
Thought Process: Same decision as last week, it’s a numbers game and Cam has shown enough mobility that Joe Webb has become a luxury the Panthers can’t afford despite his admirable performance throughout the weeks.
Running Backs: DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, Mike Tolbert, Fozzy Whitaker
Thought Process: With Barner’s trade to Philly the fourth Running Back spot has become Fozzy’s to lose in my opinion. It doesn’t hurt that Darrin Reaves hasn’t been able to play in two games, and Fozzy has taken advantage of the opportunity.
Wide Receivers: Kelvin Benjamin, Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant, Tavarres King, Brenton Bersin, Corey Brown/Free Agent
Thought Process: Earlier today Tiquan Underwood was cut due to his inability to make plays even against practice squad bound players. This opens the door for Corey “Don’t Call Me Philly” Brown to make the 53 man roster as the lone “burner”. In my opinion, the Panthers could look to the last round of cuts to bring in a more proven home run threat, but for now the spot is Brown’s.
Tight End: Greg Olsen, Ed Dickson, Brandon Williams, Richie Brockel
Thought Process: Richie Brockel makes the roster as a fourth TE, but will primarily be used as a lead blocker at FB. Brandon Williams completes a trio of athletic Tight Ends who can all stretch the Defense. I don’t forsee any changes to this group despite D.C. Jefferson’s touchdown catch Friday night.
Offensive Line: Ryan Kalil, Byron Bell, Nate Chandler, Amini Silatolu, Trai Turner, Chris Scott, Gary Williams, Brian Folkerts, Fernando Velasco/Free Agent Addition
Thought Process: Same list as last week. Depth is an obvious concern, and the Panthers could look to make upgrades in this area.
Defensive Line: Charles Johnson, Star Lotulelei, Kawann Short, Greg Hardy, Dwan Edwards, Mario Addison, Kony Ealy, Wes Horton, Colin Cole
Thought Process: I said it last week and I’ll say it again, if it’s not broke don’t fix it. The Defensive Line and Linebackers are the obvious strengths of the team. A nine man rotation allows for fresh bodies most of the game. Having Charles Johnson, Greg Hardy and Kony Ealy in the rotation allows for creative scheming up front as all three can slide inside to allow for more pass rush on the field.
Linebackers: Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, Chase Blackburn, AJ Klein, Jason Williams, D.J. Smith
Thought Process: See above, the Linebacker unit definitely isn’t broken. D.J. Smith has made some plays both on Special Teams and in the late stages of games so he holds onto that last LB spot.
Cornerbacks: Antoine Cason, Melvin White, Bene Benwikere, Charles Godfrey (versatility to play Safety keeps him here), Josh Norman
Thought Process: The play of Cason and White have been bright spots in the Secondary. Charles Godfrey and Bene Benwikere continue to battle for the Nickel and Dime roles, and Josh Norman could be a huge wildcard if he can keep his emotions in check and be more consistent.
Safeties: Roman Harper, Thomas DeCoud, Colin Jones, Robert Lester, Tre Boston
Thought Process: Still the weak link of the team in my opinion, I almost expect to see additions in this area after cuts. Something to watch will be Roman Harper, who has been gone an awfully long time with Turf Toe.
Special Teams: Graham Gano, Brad Nortman, J.J. Jansen
Thought Process: Not much to say here, both Nortman and Gano are two of the best at their respective positions. Jansen is a longtime Special Teamer in Charlotte who can play Linebacker in a pinch.
*Frank Alexander wouldn’t have to be included on 53 man roster till his suspension is over*
Did you really think I wasn’t going to find a way to fit Brandon Williams in here? You obviously don’t follow me on twitter…
In all seriousness, the effort to run the Defender down and force him out of bounds didn’t go unnoticed in the film room.
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