Monthly Archives: September 2012

Carolina Panthers crushed by Giants, 37-6

Charlotte, NC – Just when the Carolina Panthers had a great opportunity to make a statement – on prime time – they flopped. Just when they had a chance to come out and show the defending Super Bowl champs what they were made of, they flopped. The New York Giants crushed the Panthers 36 – 7 before 73,951 at Bank of America Stadium in a game that was not that close.

Thursday night’s game began just like the first two Panthers games – with the opposing team driving 80 yards for a touchdown. But this time, the Giants did not let off the gas. Playing several starters short, this one was ripe for the picking (for Carolina), but the G-Men showed what they usually do – they play their best football when their back is against the wall.

New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning runs past Carolina Panthers defensive end Frank Alexander during Thursday night’s game.

“I was proud of the guys, we talked about getting a fast start,” Giants quarterback Eli Manning said. “First drive, we got the ball and went 80 yards for a touchdown. That was a great start and we kept it going the whole game.”

Andre Brown really did a number on the Panthers. “Andre really stepped up when we needed him, and this week, the same right off the get-go,” Manning said. “Ramses (Barden), he made a bunch of catches, made some big plays on high balls over the middle. He wanted an opportunity and he got it, and he stepped up.”

Barden finished with nine receptions for a game-high 138 yards. Backup running back Brown ate up 113 yards, slashing the Panthers’ defense for gains of 31, 16, 19 and 14 yards throughout the game. Imagine what the Giants would have done with their first-teamers.

Not bad for a backup…New York Giants running back Andre Brown slashes past Carolina Panthers defensive lineman Dwan Edwards during Thursday night’s 36-7 win for the Giants.

Coming off a short week, the home team usually has the advantage. The Panthers were favored in this one, and deservedly so. After a huge win against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, the Panthers apparently forgot how to tackle. And how to get pressure on the opposition’s quarterback. Manning, the two-time Super Bowl MVP, picked apart the Panthers for 288 passing yards.

With the Giants missing their starting running back, offensive tackle and star wide receiver to injuries, you’d think Carolina’s defensive front four would have had an easier time handling the Giants offense. “We lost focus,” Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy said. “It got away from us and we didn’t punch them back. They came out and did what we expected them to do. They played a high level of football and we couldn’t come back. We had no counter.

“The defense came out slow. The offense didn’t come out swinging and they took advantage of it like a good team’s supposed to do.”

Coach Ron Rivera said the Panthers are still young on both sides of the ball. The average age of a Panthers’ player is 24 with four years of NFL experience – both of which are below the NFL averages – and the team still has trouble figuring out how to fight back for a win.

“When you get smacked in the face, you have to get ready to turn around and throw a punch back,” Rivera said. “And at times we don’t know how. We have to learn.”

Carolina Panthers rookie cornerback Josh Norman was targeted early and often by New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning. On this play, Norman, who was burned often during the game, got the better of Giants receiver Ramses Barden, deflecting a potentia touchdown pass away.

Usually reliable linebackers Jon Beason and Luke Kuechly missed makeable plays. Rookie cornerback Josh Norman was targeted early and often by Manning…and it paid off. He was repeatedly burned. The linemen were not effective, other than defensive end Charles Johnson…but he was only able to get pressure early in the game. Hardy struggled to beat his man off the line and Ron Edwards was a non-factor.

Hardy talked about why Manning had his way with the defense: “Slow start. Slow middle. Slow finish. We weren’t ourselves today. They (Giants’ offensive line) came out, they protected him (Manning), he got the ball out fast,” Hardy said. “That’s their MO and we just didn’t respond at all.”

Adding to the frustrations of the night…New York Giants’ Stevie Brown (27) and Prince Amukamara (20) celebrate Brown’s interception of a Cam Newton pass during the Giants’ 36-7 win in Charlotte.

“This is NFL football, so the next guy can be just as productive as the first guy,” Hardy said. “Anybody can kill you, you just got to come out and play.”

Kuechly, playing in just his third pro game, understands the team’s situation saying, “We’ve got to play consistently. You can’t get too high for one game and not come back with the same energy the next.”

“Even more than the size of the holes, it was the fact that we weren’t wrapping up and tackling when we got our hands on them,” backup defensive end Thomas Keiser said. “That’s where we bled yardage.”

When they were not scoring touchdowns, Giants kicker Lawrence Tynes was killing the Cats. He had five field goals on the night, improving on the four he had Sunday against Tampa Bay.

A frustrated Carolina Panther – quarterback Cam Newton looks at the scoreboard during the fourth quarter of Thursday night’s 36-7 loss to the New York Giants.

Offensively, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton was ineffective. His quarterback rating was 40.6, compared to Manning’s 110.2. His favorite target Thursday night was tight end Greg Olsen, who had 98 receiving yards, his high as a Panther. Newton, by the way, has never won a game in which he throws an interception. He is now 0-11 throwing an interception in 19 starts.

Newton talked about what the fans should think after this embarrassing loss. “Who wants to support something that puts on a performance of embarrassment. That’s what that was tonight.”

“We didn’t want their offense to have the ball,” Giants coach Tom Coughlin said after the game. “We held the ball a long time in the first half. We came in knowing we had a lot to defend. It wasn’t a physical week, it was a mental week.”

The Giants plan to slow Newton down was simple. “We got a couple of licks on him. That was not what happened the week before. You saw when he had time to throw the velocity he has on that ball.”

“We got beat by a better football team,” coach Rivera said. “They outcoached us and outplayed us. That’s the bottom line.”

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Carolina Panthers host New York Giants Thursday night

Charlotte, NC – A quick turn-around is in store for the Carolina Panthers and the New York Giants as each gets ready for battle in the NFL’s Thursday Night game in Charlotte.

Fresh off a 35-27 defeat of the defending NFC champion (New Orleans), the Panthers now get the defending Super Bowl champions in the nationally televised game (NFL Network) at Bank of America Stadium.

Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera

Everything was clicking Sunday when the Panthers beat the Saints. The zone read offense ran up a lot of points, yet the defense gave up more yards (486) to New Orleans. “The stats don’t show it defensively, but we came out and made some amazing plays,” Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. “They were our spark.”

To come back with a very good game last week against New Orleans was huge for the Panthers. Coming off a disappointing loss at Tampa in the season opener, the Cats used their offense, defense and special teams to beat the Saints. “It was big,” said Rivera. “I think the nice thing and the good thing about it is we came back and played the way we are capable of both offensively and defensively.”

The biggest defensive plays were the bookend interceptions. Early in the first quarter, safety Charles Godfrey returned one for a touchdown that tied the game and slowed the Saints offensive momentum. The second interception came with less than a minute to play when linebacker Jon Beason intercepted a Drew Brees pass which sealed Carolina’s win.

If the Saints offensive juggernaut rolled up 486 yards, how will the Panthers defense slow down the New York passing attack that gained 510 yards against Tampa Bay last Sunday? A lot of the responsibility falls on the linebacking corps – Beason, rookie Luke Kuechly, James Anderson and Thomas Davis. Returning from injuries, Beason and Davis are a welcome addition back to the defense and Kuechly has stepped in nicely.

Overall, the Carolina defense has six new starters from last season when they finished 28th in yards allowed and 27th in points surrendered. The offense, however, returned nearly everyone, and rebounded nicely last Sunday, accumulating 463 yards against the Saints following a disappointing effort in Tampa the week before.

Cam Newton is the Carolina Panthers quarterback…and a great option to run the ball. He gained 71 yards Sunday against the Saints, making up for his tough opening game at Tampa.

The biggest improvement came in the running game. Carolina gained just 10 yards in the opener, but rushed for 219 Sunday. Quarterback Cam Newton (71 yards) and running backs DeAngelo Williams (69 yards) and Jonathan Stewart (51 yards) came up big.

Newton also completed 14-of-20 attempts for 253 yards and a touchdown. He now has a 100.8 quarterback rating for the first two games of the season.

Big plays were the spark needed for the offense Sunday against new Orleans. Receiver Steve Smith’s 66-yard reception after the Saints closed to within one score in the fourth quarter was the play of that drive in which the Panthers scored their last touchdown. Smith had three receptions for 104 yards, marking the second straight week and 40th time in his career he has surpassed 100 yards in a game.

Carolina Panthers third-year wide receiver Brandon LaFell could be enjoying a breakout season.

Third-year receiver, Brandon LaFell, is gaining in confidence. He had an outstanding training camp and during the season, is averaging 17.2 yards per catch. He caught six for 90 yards against the Saints. His 25-yard run on a reverse got the Panthers in position for their final touchdown drive of the first half.

New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning put up over 500 yards passing Sunday against Tampa. The Carolina Panthers defense must find a way to slow him down or it will be a long night on Thursday.

Now come the Giants and quarterback Eli Manning. Both teams are playing on a short week, which always is challenging…for the players and coaches.

“It is a heck of a challenge,” says Rivera. “It is a short week and coming out with a win against New Orleans helps. We have to continue to work with the type of energy we showed last week. We have a tough opponent coming in with the Giants, the defending champs, and it will be a battle.”

Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott had high praise for Manning after his dismantling of Tampa on Sunday. “What he did yesterday I’ve seen time and time again…He’s as good as there is out there in the game today. I firmly believe that. And we’ve got to be prepared.”

This will be the eighth time the Panthers and Giants have met, with Carolina leading the all-time series, 4-3.

Rookie cornerback, Josh Norman (Coastal Carolina) has supplanted fourth-year starter Captain Munnerlyn in the season’s biggest surprise, so far.

While he is not happy about losing his starting job, Munnerlyn said, “I’m good with it. But it’s a part of football. I know they need me on special teams.” Munnerlyn, a starter last year and for much of 2012, has been relegated to the nickel package and special teams as Norman grows stronger each week.

There are two questionable starters for the Panthers, as listed on the injury report Wednesday:

  • Running back Jonathan Stewart (toe injury): Stewart did not practice all week, and looking back to the same scenario in Week 1 at Tampa Bay, Stewart did not play. Rivera stated that if this weren’t a short week, he would have a better chance of playing. “It’s one of those things where if we’re playing on Sunday, he’s got a much, much better chance than he does if we’re playing on Thursday. He came out and it was still a little stiff, a little bit sore.”
    Rivera said Stewart was listed with an ankle injury despite the fact that it’s his toe. “It’s more of a thing where the toe’s connected to the ankle,” Rivera said. He went on to explain that it’s not turf toe, however, “I’m not quite sure how to explain it. But it’s sore.”
  • Right tackle Byron bell (ankle sprain): Rivera said if Bell does not start, Garry Williams, who has gotten the bulk of the first-team reps this week, would be the likely starter, but Bruce Campbell has also gotten work in practice this week.

The rest of the Panthers injury report shows backup guard/center Mike Pollak (shoulder) is out. Linebacker Thomas Davis (hamstring) and special teams player Colin Jones (shoulder) are questionable, although Rivera said Davis has a good chance of playing. Linebacker Jon Beason (elbow), C Ryan Kalil(ankle), WR Steve Smith (knee) and WR Kealoha Pilares (foot) are probable.

Steve Smith (knee) is listed as probable although Rivera said listing Smith on the injury report “is really more of a formality now than anything else.” Smith was limited in Tuesday’s practice, but fully participated on Wednesday.

On the other side of the ball, Giants running back Ahmad Bradshaw, right tackle David Diehl and wide receiver Domenik Hixon have been ruled out of Thursday night’s game.

LATE BREAKING INFORMATION: Giants wide receiver Hakeem Nicks is also OUT for Thursday night’s game. (4:12 p.m. update, Wednesday)

This is one of those games where I predicted an upset for the Panthers when the schedule came out. I also thought they would be 2-0 at this time (yes, I missed on the Tampa game but correctly predicted the upset win over the Saints). I think this will be a very high scoring game. The over-under is 50.5 points, which is attainable. Each team’s offense is getting better as we go into Week 3. Stopping Eli Manning is a very formidable task, and the same goes for Cam Newton.

It seems like every game is a big one in the NFL…especially, so far, for the Panthers. After losing to Tampa in their opener, last Sunday’s game was a “must-win” due to the fact that they were playing the Saints, an NFC South division rival. Thursday night’s game, while big, does not have that “must-win” feel to me. The line opened favoring the Giants by 2.5 points and has now dropped to Carolina plus 1 and even a pick ’em game at some books. Even though it is a home game for Carolina, I’m going with the Giants by a field goal in this one. But I hope I’m wrong.

Carolina Panthers beat Saints in home opener, 35-27

Charlotte, NC – The Carolina Panthers knew Sunday’s game against NFC South division rival New Orleans was a huge one.Coming off a disappointing offensive effort in their season opener at Tampa, the Panthers won a must-win game before 72,879 fans at Bank of America Stadium.

“I said to the guys before the game that this was a must win, and it really was,” offensive tackle Jordan Gross said. “We couldn’t go 0-2 to start this season off and lose at home, and lose to the Saints again. Their team has been successful the past few seasons. To set a new standard around here we had to beat them.”

Last week, the running game was anemic in Tampa. This week, the Panthers had a 2-to-1, run-pass ratio against the Saints, with 41 rushes and 20 passes. Each member of the Panthers’  backfield scored a touchdown.

Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart ran for 51 yards against New Orleans on Sunday.

“We knew that we had to pick it up. Last week wasn’t good enough,” said fullback Mike Tolbert, who scored his first touchdown as a Panther on a 2-yard run. “Coach knew that we needed the ball a little bit more, and he gave it to us. He gave us our shot, and we made it happen.”

So did the Panthers’ defense.

Carolina Panthers defensive end Frank Alexander hurried New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees several times and batted this pass attempt down.

Last season, half of their defensive starters were out in Week 17 when New Orleans destroyed the Cats, 45-17. In that game, the Saints were able to put up 617 yards. Several players were upset that the Saints kept quarterback Drew Breese, running back Darren Sproles and tight end Jimmy Graham in the game to go after individual records

“We weren’t a very good team Week 17 last year. I don’t really talk about last year very often,” Gross said. “But that being said, I was glad to beat them. The Saints have kind of been at the top for a while. It’s fun to beat those guys.”

Carolina Panthers safety Charles Godfrey intercepts New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees on Sunday.

This time, it was different…very different.  Safety Charles Godfrey’s interception got the Panther going…and linebacker Jon Beason ended the Saints’ comeback hopes. With the Saints at their 29 with 31 seconds left, Beason – playing deep middle – cheated toward Graham’s side and Brees never saw him.

“It’s hard to get an interception on Drew. He’s so good. He’s going to make those unbelievable passes,” Beason said. “To get a chance to even get a hand on the ball is big. So a pick, I just said to myself when I caught it, ‘Finally.’ ”

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton ran for a personal-best 71 yards and completed 14 of 20 passes for 253 yards and a touchdown, and finished with a quarterback rating of 129.2.

Offensively, the Panthers made the home crowd  very happy. Quarterback Cam Newton had a great day, completing 14 of 20 passes for 253 yards and a touchdown, and ended up with a quarterback rating of 129.2. Additionally, he rushed 13 times for 71 yards, a personal high. One reason for the great numbers…the zone read offense.

Newton said the zone read pulled the linebackers closer to the line of scrimmage, opening the Panthers’ play-action passing game. “You do read option, read option, read option and get them to play seven and eight in the box, and you’ve got so many variations of plays and passes you can run off of it,” Newton said. “So many teams are doing it now, and with good execution it’s going to be successful.”

The Redskins ran the zone read during a 40-32 win at New Orleans in Week 1, rolling up 459 total yards behind rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III.  The Panthers beat that…with 463 total yards. And…the Saints also rolled up some impressive yardage numbers – 486 – but the final numbers that counted were on the scoreboard.

Carolina Panthers receiver Brandon LaFell had a breakout day Sunday against the Saints.

The breakout star of the game, however, was receiver Brandon LaFell. He had a team-high six receptions for 90 yards and spiced it with a 25-yard run that LaFell felt should have gone another 33 yards to the end zone had he not gotten “happy feet.”

Coach Ron Rivera came over to LaFell’s locker after the game and held a handshake for an extra few seconds. “Good game,” Rivera said.

“Thanks,” came LaFell’s reply.

LaFell had an outstanding training camp and has benefitted from the extra work he put in prior to the season.

“Man, it felt great today. We got out there and got into a rhythm,” LaFell said. “Cam found me a lot today. We just got out there and made plays. I got real confident early because I kept getting the ball and I kept continuing to roll.

“With Steve (Smith) pulling double teams and I’m getting one-on-ones, I’ve got the biggest smile on my face in the stadium. That’s going to happen a lot this year. I always tell Smitty I go off how you go.”

LaFell remained humble despite having a breakout game. For instance, he did not ask Newton to look for him more often.

“I don’t say nothing to Cam because I’d hate to be one of those guys fussing about the ball and he starts forcing the ball my way and bad stuff starts to happen,” LaFell said. “I just do my job, go run routes and get open.”

Carolina Panthers receiver Steve Smith went 66 yards on this catch. He and Brandon LaFell have the potential to be one of the top receiving duos in the league.

Rivera saw Sunday what he and offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski envisioned with Smith and LaFell on the outside. Smith is in his 12th NFL season, LaFell two games into his third season.

“Brandon is developing into a fine receiver,” Rivera said. “He showed what he is capable of and those types of plays that he makes, the consistency by which he is making them, is really helping us. He really did a nice job.”

For LaFell, who attended Louisiana State, it was an especially satisfying Sunday.

“All (Saturday) and all (Sunday) morning, I’m getting text messages from roommates and old friends I went to college with (saying) the Saints are going to whoop y’all. They said we’re pulling for you but we’re pulling for the Saints,” LaFell said.

Panthers’ wide receiver Steve Smith said the reason LaFell has become so valuable is simple. “Ever since Moose (Muhsin Muhammad) retired and also with Ricky (Proehl) retiring, we’ve been looking for a guy to step in and step up. I think Brandon has done that,” Smith said.

“He’s grown and he’s improving. … He’s been doing a great job. He pushes me. I push him.”

LaFell and Smith took advantage of the Saints’ coverage, getting open and combining for 194 receiving yards.

“(LaFell) had a great game. It seemed like he had a ton of big plays,” tight end Greg Olsen said. “We’ve always said on any given day it could be a lot of different guys. We can spread the ball around. Today was kind of a collective effort. Brandon did a great job. Steve always does a great job. It was a good all-around performance.”

And with that, the Panthers ended a four-game losing streak against the Saints. New Orleans has been the class of the division recently, but with the fallout from Bountygate (loss of coaches and players), Smith suggested there could be a changing of the guard in the division.

“Times change,” Smith said. “We’ve got to play them again, so it makes no sense to act like we’ve just won the world championship or we’re going to the playoffs. It’s one game. One game to learn from. One game to say, ‘Good job.’ But we have to move on and move on really quickly.”

Really quickly…like in four days when the Panthers host the defending Super Bowl champions, the New York Giants, on Thursday night.

Carolina Panther drop season opener to Tampa Bay

Tampa, FL – The 2012 NFL season did not begin at all like the Carolina Panthers envisioned. Even before kickoff, Carolina knew division rival New Orleans had already lost its opener to the Washington Redskins and this was a golden opportunity to gain a game in the standings before the two teams meet next Sunday in Charlotte.

But nothing worked for the Panthers in their 16-10 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “I don’t know what happened. I never expected to only rush for 10 yards,” center Ryan Kalil said. “Not quite the start of the season we wanted.” Just look at these numbers:

  • 10 total rushing yards by the Panthers, tying a team record for the fewest in a game (vs. New Orleans in 2000).
  • -1 yards rushing for tailback DeAngelo Williams on six carries.
  • 2 third-down conversions, in 10 attempts, for the Panthers.
  • 83.3    Cam Newton’s quarterback rating.
  • 95.5    Josh Freeman’s quarterback rating.

All week, the Panthers practiced in dry (yet humid) conditions at the IMG Academy in nearly Bradenton. Unfortunately on Sunday, they encountered a wet track due to early rains, and a lightning storm with heavy rains during halftime (which caused the NFL to clear the stadium and delay the start of the second half).

Carolina Panthers’ running back DeAngelo Williams looks for some room to run against Michael Bennett and Tampa Bay’s defense. Without his running back partner Jonathan Stewart (DNP – injury), Williams was held to a career-low -1 yards in Sunday’s opening game at Tampa.

“We just kind of got behind, had to abandon the run,” Williams said. “After doing that, we had to pass to get back in the game.”

Abandon the run? What run attack was he talking about? Receiver Kealoha Pilares was the Panthers’ leading rusher with 5 yards, gained on an pitch from Newton on a zone-read play. With Jonathan Stewart out with a sprained ankle, Williams tied his career low.

Coach Ron Rivera said the Bucs showed different fronts than they had in the preseason under new head coach Greg Schiano, the former Rutgers coach who replaced Raheem Morris.

“It’s one of those things where you prepare and prepare for the great unknown,” Rivera said. “And aIl of a sudden they show up and do some different things that you didn’t have a chance to prepare for.”

Tampa Bay showed a much more aggressive defense in the opener than they had last year…that’s the influence of the new coaching staff. If they continue to play like they did against the Panthers, the NFC South just got a whole lot tougher.

Newton, the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2011, was 23-of-33 for 303 yards, with one touchdown and those two interceptions. The Panthers still have never won a game in which Newton has thrown an interception, falling to 0-10.

Carolina Panthers QB Cam Newton is sacked by Tampa Bay’s Michael Bennett during Sunday’s opening game at Tampa.

“Turnovers,” Newton said. “You can’t win a game with turnovers. I’ve got to do a better job on my part of protecting the football. I don’t know what you want me to say. No one likes losing. I think the most frustrating part is knowing that I wish I could have those two throws back. You’ve got to move on and continue to get better.”

Trailing 13-0 at the half, the Panthers’ defense came out after the extra-long intermission and forced Tampa to punt. Then, Newton and the offense started moving the ball on their first possession. He was 4-for-4 on the drive, and his last three throws were all clutch.

He hit tight end Greg Olsen for 11 yards on third-and-5, found Steve Smith for 32 yards, then hit a wide-open Brandon LaFell for a 22-yard touchdown pass on a play Newton sold with a play-action fake.

But Newton could not maintain the momentum.

He was intercepted on the Panthers’ next two series after throwing into coverage. The first interception came one play after rookie kick returner Joe Adams gave the offense its best starting field position with a 21-yard punt return to the Bucs’ 41.

Newton was looking for LaFell, but cornerback Aqib Talib deflected the ball and safety Ronde Barber grabbed the ball out of the air for the first interception. Newton was more upset with his second interception – a floater down the sideline to Smith that safety Ahmad Black tracked down.

Another piece of the puzzle that just didn’t work were the Panthers’ special teams. Last season, special teams were a major problem. All throughout the off-season, they worked to improve them through the draft and free agent signings. Unfortunately, they broke down against Tampa. The line needs to do a better job of protecting their punter. Miscommunication on the protection allowed Talib to come off the left end untouched and block rookie Brad Nortman’s punt, setting up the last of Connor Barth’s three field goals.

“It’s not one person’s fault. It’s bad communication,” said Haruki Nakamura, who was on the side where the protection broke down. “They brought us in to shore-up special teams, and up to that point we couldn’t have played any better on special teams. But when you have stuff like that happen, it’s really frustrating.”

Defensively, rookie linebacker (and first-round draft selection) Luke Kuechly said, “We were just flat. We didn’t come out with the energy we needed to. You could see a difference in the second half in how we came out. We got a quick out, and that’s how the first half needed to be. It can’t be like you’re going to feel it out and get a feel for the tempo of the game. We have to set the tempo. In every game, you have to set the tempo and make the other team play off you. We didn’t do a good job of doing that.”

“We know what we can do and how well we can play,” Kuechly said. “We just have to get out there and do it. We can’t wait until we’re down 13 and say, gee, we’ve got to start playing. We have to set the tempo now.”

After the game, tight end Olsen had an idea for what the Panthers could do with their season-opening loss. “Throw away a lot of it,” he said. Olson caught six passes for 56 yards, but seemed frustrated by the offense’s inability to generate consistency and points against the Bucs.

“Our defense did an unbelievable job of keeping us in the game and giving us short fields,” Olsen said. “It’s just bad … what can you say? You can’t score 10 points and expect to win in the NFL.”

Carolina Panthers’ Haruki Nakamura tries to stop Tampa Bay rookie Doug Martin during Sunday’s opening game at Tampa

With a new defensive coach for Tampa Bay, the Panthers had to rely on pre-season film to see what changes were being made since last season.  And yet, Tampa changed their looks for the opener. “There are always some surprises with a new staff but we had some new wrinkles, too. We didn’t execute well. The first series, I had a big drop that stalled us out,” Olsen said.  “It seemed like any time we got something going, we had a self-inflicted issue that stalled us out.”

Penalties and interceptions hurt Carolina. Panthers’ cornerback Captain Munnerlyn committed a huge penalty in the first quarter that just continued to give Tampa Bay momentum. Munnerlyn was flagged for fair catch interference when he slammed into Tampa Bay’s Sammie Stroughter, who was running up to field a short punt.

Munnerlyn knew he had made a mistake but felt it was nearly unavoidable because of how Stroughter ran into him trying to field the punt. “Me being a punt returner, I know guys can do that,” Munnerlyn said. “When I was running, I was like oh, no. I knew I was running too fast and I couldn’t slow down. I tried to jump out of his way. Returners are taught if they run into you, it’s a penalty. The guy did a great job of running into me. I was just trying not to be called for a personal foul. There would have been a fine for that.”

Tampa Bay controlled the time of possession, keeping Newton on the bench. “I think it was 37 or 38 minutes of time possession,” Schiano stated. “That’s critical when you keep No. 1 (Cam Newton) off the field. The best way to defend him is not to have to defend him.”

Panthers linebacker Jon Beason, playing in his first game in a year after recovering from injuries that kept him out of the entire 2011 season was not happy at all. “Anytime you lose, you have to be more critical of yourself and what we did in the first half, in particularly in the first quarter. The (first) three series I think they got points on. I think that’s unacceptable.”

Couldn’t have put it better myself. With a very angry New Orleans Saints team coming to Charlotte for Week 2, the Panthers have to right the ship…and do it quickly. They need to have their leader, Cam Newton, make smarter plays. Yes, he’s flashy and puts up incredible numbers. But his mistakes are costing the team wins. “He did make some mistakes and it was, at times, unlike him,” Rivera said. Rivera also credited Newton for several of his second-half throws. Again, like the running game, the line did Newton no favors. He was sacked three times and hurried other times.

An NFC South battle next Sunday (against New Orleans) with both coming off embarrassing losses, in my opinion, should be a great match-up. The NFL season is a long one…for a reason. No team thinks they are done already. Last season in Week 1, the Bears beat the Falcons…the Steelers lost by 28 and the Giants lost to a dreadful Washington team by two touchdowns. No one goes undefeated in the NFL. The Panthers are a talented team with a lot of expectations on their shoulders. How they answer next Sunday will determine a lot. And with their next three games (Sunday’s vs. the Saints; Thursday night at home against the Giants and a road game at Atlanta) being equally tough…this team can be 0-4, 1-3, 2-2 or 3-1 by the end of September. We should know a lot about the character of this team by then.

Carolina Panthers: Season Outlook and Opener in Tampa

The Carolina Panthers open the 2012 regular season with an NFC South divisional rival as they travel to Tampa Bay to play the Buccaneers on Sunday. This marks the first time the two teams have opened the season against each other.

Because of the Democratic National Convention taking place in Charlotte, the Panthers began preparations for the game on Tuesday in Bradenton, FL at the IMG campus.

Will Carolina Panthers QB Cam Newton suffer from the sophomore slump? I doubt it!

Quarterback Cam Newton, last season’s offensive rookie of the year, heads a potent offense that finished fifth in the League in points, and most of his offensive teammates also return.

Guard Travelle Wharton and tight end Jeremy Shockey have left the team, but the team is very confident that second-round draft pick Amini Silatolu (replacing Wharton) and former back-up tight end Greg Olson will pick up the slack.  Offseason acquisition fullback Mike Tolbert also replaces Shockey.

In addition to Newton’s terrific season (accounting for 35 touchdowns – 21 scoring passes and an NFL quarterback record 14 rushing touchdowns), veteran wide receiver Steve Smith returns. Smith has moved to the top 36 career receivers in receptions and receiving yardage, caught 79 balls and had 1,394 receiving yards in 2011. Smith will look to extend his streak of 75 consecutive games with a reception, which began in 2006. He has played in 151 career games and with six games played, he will rank second in team history, passing Brad Hoover and Muhsin Muhammad.

Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil, the author of a full page ad that ran in the Charlotte Observer in July declaring the Panthers will win the Super Bowl this year, heads the offensive line that returns four of five starters.

Coach Ron Rivera feels this year’s team will be better than last year when the team was the first to have three 700 yard rushers and saw their passing game jump from 32nd in 2010 to 13th last year. “I think we have the potential to be better. Cam is now in his second season and has gone through offseason OTA’s for the first time. We have good continuity throughout our starters and some young players who I believe are prepared to take another step up.”

Rivera is speaking of receiver Brandon LaFell, who had an excellent preseason, tackle Byron Bell and the big fella, Newton. LaFell, now in his third season, started the final six games last year and Bell started 12 as a rookie after moving into the lineup due to injuries.

On the defensive side of the ball, there are more changes, but good ones. Linebacker Jon Beason returns after missing the entire 2011 season with a torn Achilles suffered in the opening game at Arizona. He missed much of the preseason with a pulled hamstring, however. Thomas Davis, who has been attempting to come back from three ACL surgeries after missing the last 2-1/2 years, played in only one preseason game (against the New York Jets), but looked good. Rookie Luke Kuechly, the team’s No. 1 draft choice, had a strong preseason and will be a starter at linebacker on Sunday.

After backing up All-Pro safety Ed Reed in Baltimore, newcomer Haruki Nakamura will also begin the season as a starter. One of five potential new defensive starters, he was impressive in the preseason and knows what it takes to get to the championship game, as he did with the Ravens. Other potential starters are defensive end Charles Johnson, linebacker James Anderson, cornerback Chris Gamble and safety Charles Godfrey, all back from last year, will try to improve upon the 28th ranked defense (in yards allowed) last year.

“We saw some good signs of progress in the preseason and now have to  transfer that into the regular season while continuing to improve,” said Rivera.

Carolina Panthers’ rookie kicker Brad Nortman won the punting job beating out veteran Nick Harris.
Carolina Panthers placekicker Justin Medlock beat out incumbent veteran Olindo Mare during camp this year. .

One area the Panthers worked during the offseason to improve upon were the special teams.  Carolina drafted its first punter, Brad Nortman, and he averaged 48.2 yards per kick in the preseason. Placekicker Justin Medlock, with just one NFL game under his belt, but with three solid years of CFL experience behind him, beat out incumbent veteran Olindo Mare for the position. His strong leg was the difference. Kick returner Joe Adams, is a quick (and fast) player who has the potential to change games in a hurry. These three specialists should give the Cats a big improvement over last season’s dreadful special teams.

The Panthers and Bucs have met 23 times previously, with the Panthers holding a 14-9 edge. The game will mark head coach Greg Schiano’s debut in the NFL. He is the ninth head coach in Buccaneers’ history, and was the head coach for Rutgers University for the past 12 seasons.

Every season is a fresh start, but…on December 24, 2011, the Panthers came of age, beating Tampa Bay 48-16 at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte. This year every team begins anew, but on paper, the Panthers look to be much stronger.  The Panthers made two new additions to their roster as the team reached the NFL’s 53-man active roster limit for the regular season.

The team acquired safety Colin Jones from the San Francisco 49ers on Friday, August 31, in exchange for an undisclosed draft choice and signed defensive tackle Dwan Edwards on Sunday, Sept. 2.

Jones is a second-year player from TCU, who played 13 games for the 49ers last season, seeing action primarily on special teams (a glaring weakness on the Panthers part last year).

Edwards is in his ninth NFL season, having played the last two in Buffalo, where he started 24 of 27 games for the Bills. His career began in Baltimore where he played six seasons for the Ravens after being selected by the team in the second round (51st overall) in the 2004 NFL Draft.

Having seen this team play four (okay, three…we all know the fourth preseason game is a joke) games and having watched many practices, the Panthers are going to be much improved from last year. The only problem…their division rivals, the New Orleans Saints and the Atlanta Falcons are also improved. The Saints, in fact, just got a whole lot better, as their previously-suspended players were granted amnesty and all of them, including All-Pro Jonathan Vilma, are eligible to play beginning Sunday. The Panthers improved to 6-10 last season (they had nowhere to go but up) and Cam Newton’s level of play shocked nearly everyone. Newton is poised to be even better this season, and has the weapons he needs to lead this team to the top. Looking at their schedule when it first came out, I said the team would win 10 or 11 games. I am sticking with 10 wins this season, but even that could be a stretch. The opener is one of those games they must win, because the next three games (New Orleans, New York Giants, at Atlanta) could all be losses. Their fate in the NFC South Division could be sealed by the end of September, but, should they win two of those three games, the Panthers will have put their divisional rivals on notice…as well as the rest of the league.

I am confident the Panthers will prevail, 24-10, in the opener.

Football America: NCAA and NFL games to watch this week

Today, the best of both worlds…NCAA and NFL football. Both the college kids and the pros have full slates this weekend. Last week, NCAA games drew great numbers of fans to television screens and stadiums (except at Maryland, where only 31,000 – they say – fans cheered the mighty Terps onto a 7-6 win over Bill and Mary).

USC’s Matt Barkley is the leading candidate for the Heisman Trophy after week one…

So today, let’s start with the college game. Simply stated, at the end of last season, I said USC (yes, THAT USC…the one in Southern California, not South Carolina) would win the 2013 BCS title…and I am sticking with it. This week, they go into the Meadowlands to play Syracuse. Hardly a fair fight, but at least the folks in the East will get a chance to see the Heisman-frontrunner, SC quarterback Matt Barkley in person. It won’t be as grizzly as Florida State-Savannah State, but the men of Troy will prevail.

Georgia at Missouri:

I do like my Alma Mater, MIZZOU, to upset Georgia tomorrow in Columbia. I said it as soon as the schedule was announced, so I cannot go back on my word now. Yes, Georgia is good…but I think the Tigers will really be up for this special once-in-a-lifetime game.

Vanderbilt at Northwestern:

In the Brainiac Bowl, shouldn’t there be a spelling bee or a math contest here?  Both teams want to play big-boy football…but it’s the Commodores that will rule this one. Head Coach James Franklin has everyone believing they are good…and they are. They could have beaten USC (no…the one from Columbia, SC with the Ol’ Ball Coach) last week…so they are a serious team.

Nebraska at UCLA:

And out west, I think Nebraska will bring smiles to their hordes of fans who travel to UCLA to see Big Red win. The Huskers have fallen in early West Coast games before, but I think this is a different team and I expect big things from them. Huskers…big…over the Uclans!

In the NFL, we had a great opener (getting a fantastic 16.8 rating) on Wednesday night as the defending Super Bowl champs, the New York football Giants lost to Dallas. The Giants were not that bad…in fact, they are pretty good. If not for a horse-collar tackle by the end zone (yes, a correctly-called penalty against Dallas) and a couple of dropped balls by Victor Cruz, the game could have gone the other way.

Sunday’s action features seven games that could swing either way…but these are the ones I really like:

Will Carolina Panthers QB Cam Newton suffer from the sophomore slump? I doubt it!

Carolina at Tampa:

In the battle of Convention cities, there’s too much Cam Newton…even if RB Jonathan Stewart does not play, the Panthers are the better team. Jon Beason returns to linebacker, and he is joined by first-round pick Luke Kuechly, who is much better than you think, plus my friends, both of whom I predicted would beat out veteran, incumbent kickers, P Brad Nortman and PK Justin Medlock, are keys to the win. Panthers (-1) by 7 points.

Washington at New Orleans:

Great storylines on both sides…those of you who have followed my writing know how high I was on Robert Griffin III (from now on, RGIII) for the past two years while he was at Baylor. The Heisman winner leads the Redskins into the future…but not Sunday. He needs a lot of help…and he will be running for his life at times as the Saints take all their venom out on the undermanned Redskins. It was bad enough to lose your head coach for a season, your first interim coach for six games…but add to this the wrath of Hurricane Isaac…and the Saints are once again playing for the city of New Orleans. NOLA will survive…the Skins, not so much. Saints (-7) win by 17 points.

Miami at Houston:

We’ve all been “wowed” by the enthusiastic new head coach of the Dolphins (yawn), Joe Philbin. Seems like a very, very nice man. Should be my accountant. I’m no expert, but I have yet to see the man raise his voice. New QB Ryan Tannehill returns to the Lone Star State, where he played his collegiate ball (Texas A&M), but he’s not facing KU or Texas this time. He’s facing a terrific defense and a very, very good team, with high expectations. No worries, Houston. The Texans (-12) also win by 17 points.

So there you go…the weekend outlook for six games, NCAA and NFL…hope you enjoy your viewing!