Panthers Game Grades & Notes – Week 8

Carolina Panthers (2-6) vs. Minnesota Vikings (1-7)

Bank of America Stadium, November 30th 2011.

Overall Offense: B

The Panthers had a solid game plan under offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski and managed to score 21 points through the air, however several key penalties and a string of 3 & outs in the 2nd, allowed the Vikings back in the game, rather than keeping Adrian Peterson on the sidelines which would have helped out a shotty defense. The Panthers offense did a good job holding the ball for 28 minutes, had a nice 50% 3rd down efficiency rate and were able to make some big plays at key moments. However, they didn’t quite score enough and made too many mistakes for the grade to be any better than a B.  

Quarterbacks: B

Cam Newton had an outstanding game against a tough Vikings defense. He threw for 290 yards and 3 TDs with no interceptions for a QB rating of 117.6, including a nice pass to Brandon LaFell on 4th down, gaining 44 yards on the play as they drove to tie the game in the 4th quarter. He added 53 yards on 6 carries including a 24 yard scamper in the 3rd quarter. However amongst the good, Newton was sacked 3 times and lost the ball twice on fumbles.

Running Backs: C

Jonathan Stewart & DeAngelo Williams continue to be an efficient duo, capable of either having their own big day out or helping Newton move the chains. On this day, they were merely helping move the chains with Stew gaining 49 yards on 13 carries and DeAngelo rushing for 26 on 7 attempts. Combined, they only managed 3.8 ypc and although they look explosive at times, the offense needs more balance & Double Trouble need more carries. If they can do that, Cam will have less on his shoulders & the Panthers can control the clock and game more. Steve Smith also added a nice end around play for 12 yards, in which he owned Cedric Griffin via a nasty stiff arm.

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: B

3 passing TDs from Newton: 2 to TE’s and 1 to Steve Smith. What a day to be a Panthers receiver. Shockey finally got his 1st TD as a Panther vs. the Vikes on a 1 yard pass – his only reception for the day.  Not wanting to have Greg Olsen feel left out, Newton hit Olsen on a streak, straight down the middle for a 39 yard TD catch, totaling 73 yards for the day on 4 receptions. Smith continues to be a threat every time he touches the ball, having another big day with big plays, catching 7 balls for 100 yards, including a nice catch and run 22 yard TD. However despite the good, Legedu Naanee and Smith had key holding calls that would’ve changed the game and apart from LaFell’s 44 yard 4th down catch, the supporting cast of receivers didn’t do much.

Offensive Linemen: D

The offensive line had a forgettable day out. While they kept Newton clean for most of the afternoon, they allowed 3 sacks including 2 key fumbles (that they were unable to recover both times) that allowed the Vikings back in the game. Tackle Jordan Gross, in All-Pro form, was beaten twice on one play by DE Jared Allen. First for the sack, then on the recovery of the ball. The Panthers line also failed to open up holes for the Panthers RB duo of Stewart and Williams, only averaging 3.8 ypc on the ground. Penalties also killed the Panthers, an area that the line and the team in general needs to clean up over the next few weeks.

Overall Defense: D

The Panthers scored a D, because they simply allowed the Vikings to run over them in the 2nd half. Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott had a good plan and in the 1st half, it was executed well, holding RB Adrian Peterson. But through the defenses and offenses fault, the D stayed on teh field too long as the game wore on and holes opened up for the Vikings offense, allowing Peterson and rookie QB Christian Ponder to control the game. Although the Panthers did a good job pressuring Ponder and forcing several mistakes, in the end they couldn’t stop the Vikes offense enough to keep the lead. Signs of improvement are little consolation for this D.

Defensive Linemen: B

The defensive line was one of the bright spots for the D, helping keep Ponder in check and helping to hold Peterson to only 86 yards on the ground, with a 15 yard TD run being the longest allowed. The combination of Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy again gave the Vikes offensive line fits, with Johnson racking up another sack & 2 more QB pressures, along with rookie Terrell McClain. Hardy didn’t have a sack, but knocked the ball down once, almost picking off one of those. The front 4 disrupted Ponder enough into mistakes, and played lights out at times, forcing the Vikings to go 3 & out 7/14 times. Honorable mention to DE Antwan Applewhite, played a solid game and has been playing well for a while.

Linebackers: D

The Vikings had the Panthers linebackers running around all day and although they kept the Vikings offense in check in the 1st half, they eventually grew tired and cracks appeared. LB Omar Gaither had a solid game and had to play more once LB Thomas Williams went down with a neck injury early in the game. Gaither finished with 7 solo tackles and a sack, James Anderson added 7 tackles with 4 solo stops, and Dan Connor only made 2 stops. The group was out of position at times, especially when they were sucked up in blocks on Adrian Peterson’s screen pass TD in the 2nd quarter. The LBs also couldn’t stop Peterson at the goal line, allowing him to rumble in for a 9 yard run, and couldn’t stop Percy Harvin from scoring up the middle in the 1st. Toby Gerhart was also popping off nice runs (26 on 5 carries) until he went out with an injury – a relief for the defense at that point. The LBs (and safeties) had trouble containing Ponder’s safety valves of TE’s Visanthe Shiancoe & Kyle Rudolph who picked up some nice gains that helped the Vikings keep the ball moving. Overall, this group is hurting and more injuries are just wearing on this group and the defense.

Secondary: C

The secondary didn’t have a bad day compared to the linebackers, especially Captain Munnerlyn. Munnerlyn was everywhere, on special teams he was covering kicks like a demon and on D, he helped contain the Ponder passing attack. He had a key strip of Percy Harvin inside the 10, wrestling the ball from Harvin’s grip and showing the tenacity you know coach Ron Rivera loves. He also added a sack on a blitz, jumping Ponder from behind. Safety Sherrod Martin had a game to forget, all over the place and not in a good way. He couldn’t wrap Peterson up at the goal line, allowing him to spin out of the tackle and score. Charles Godfrey had 9 stops and several good ones on RB Peterson. Chris Gamble struggled against Percy Harvin at times, especially in the 4th when he missed a tackle on Harvin that kept the Vikes drive alive to get the game-winning FG.  Overall, the unit held the key guys in Ponder 18/28 for 236 and Harvin to 58 yard on 4 catches, however the Vikes were efficient enough to get enough points to win. The Panthers could’ve done with defensive back Darius Butler, who had to miss the game to be with his daughter, who had open heart surgery. (She’s expected to make a full recovery.)

Overall Special Teams: F

When the game starts out with a 78 yard kickoff return by the Vikings and ends with a missed 31-yard FG attempt by Olindo Mare, the unit is headed for a F – no matter what they do in between. Panthers kick returner Kealoha Pilares fumbled twice, recovering both and didn’t do much else in returning the ball. Armanti Edwards fielded the ball well and picked up minimal yards on punt returns. The kick coverage team forced the ball inside the 10 a couple of times, helping out the D with field position and punter Jason Baker had a solid day, not making any glaring mistakes.

Overall Coaching: C

Coach Ron Rivera has this group in the right direction, no doubt. They’ve been competitive in every game, taken it to some of the better teams in the leagues and for a young group with several key injuries, they’re doing better than a lot of people originally thought. This game was winnable, as were a few earlier in the season. But that’s the mark of a young team. Penalties, errors.. things that good teams eliminate so in that same situation, they win rather than come away with an ‘almost win.’ Against the Vikings, the Panthers had a good gameplan on both sides and were able to execute for the most part. After the 2nd half, the Vikings controlled the game on both sides and without that lull in the 3rd, the Panthers probably would’ve won the game. Small things, finishing drives rather than go 3 & out – are marks of a young team. The D was on the field way too long in the 2nd half (another mark of a young team & a patchwork D) and no doubt the Panthers need some help at LB and possibly another DB, whether late this season or next season. The Panthers are yet to play a complete game, with special teams being the main problem this time around. Overall, hard to criticize the coaches except when Rivera decided to end the 1st half and let the clock run out, rather than try a FG (which in the end, would’ve tied the game & changed the outcome.) Execution is the main problem with this group, and the Panthers have the bye week to work that and any other kinks out before Tennessee in week 10.

Game ball:

Cam Newton: Played an almost mistake free game, was poised in the pocket, used his legs and helped move the chains and put points on the board. Leads from the front, helps Smith get his 100 and drove the team down the field in the final seconds, doing all he could to help get a win.

Stats: 22/35 for 290 yards, 3 TDs, O interceptions, 117.6 QB rating & 6 carries for 53 yards and 2 fumbles.

Goat of the Week: Olindo Mare: It should never come down to one play where the blame is laid upon just one guy, but it’s kind of his job. From 31 yards out, usually it’s a money kick. A chip shot. Almost an extra point attempt. One play is all the Panthers needed him to execute, and he choked – handing the Vikings a win rather than a chance to win in overtime, and dropping the Panthers to 2-6, heading into their bye week.

Stats: 0/1on field goals, 3/3 on extra points, 3 touchbacks.

Next up for Carolina: Bye week.

Sound FX: Ron Rivera and the Panthers:

Rivera loves him some Cam Newton. And when I say love, I mean l-o-v-e. Here

Carolina Panthers (1-4) at Atlanta Falcons (2-3) Preview:

Almost. Almost, but not quite.

One or two plays is all it takes in the NFL. A couple of plays here and there and a young team could be 4-1 rather than 1-4. But that’s the difference between the good teams in this league and the rebuilding ones that are still developing their team.

Not quite good enough, not quite ripe enough is how you can describe the Carolina Panthers season to date. A young team, hanging in games but not quite there yet. Not experienced enough to close out those close games, to finish drives and to put teams away.

And while they’re 1-4, there’s hope. Little consolation to the Panthers players and fans, but after going 2-14 last season with a QB carousel and numerous big questions looming over this team, the way Cam Newton and new head coach Ron Rivera have breathed life back into the team and the city of Charlotte, is something that must not be taken lightly.

When Ron Rivera was first hired and he put together his staff, I was excited. My thoughts were, it would take a couple of off-season’s to get this team turned around, from a John Fox team to a Rivera team. Players have to shake what they know and inhale a whole new system, a new philosophy and way of playing football. The X’s & O’s are basically the same, but it’s the way the team carries itself, the mindset, along with the roster – getting that to Rivera’s liking that would take it’s time.

No need to look any further than my good friend, the Detroit Lions. Look at where they’ve come from. A couple of seasons under Jim Schwartz and some solid offseasons of free agency and drafting and they’re sitting at 5 & freakin’ 0. The Motown is dancin’ in the streets and for good reason. That gives me hope, that a team that was once 0-16 or a team that was 2-14 can turn it around and get back to being a great, consistently good football team that fans will want to come and see, each and every Sunday. It just takes time. The team needs to gel, become experienced so in the redzone, they can put up 6 instead of 3. In the 4th quarter, they can comeback from 14 down to win by a TD. Less penalties, less coaching errors.. better play all around. Sharper, smoother; a well oiled machine.

The Panthers aren’t there yet. They’ve shown signs of a young team that should be capable in the future. For the most part, they’ve done as well as can be expected with a rookie head coach, quarterback and a defense full of band-aid players. They’ve done well to revitalize veteran All-Pro wide receiver Steve Smith, forgotten for a couple of seasons, now once again relevant as one of the best WRs in the game. He was always good, he just needed help getting the ball delivered. The Panthers have done well to produce 2 solid DE’s who through 5 games, have 9 sacks combined. It’s like Peppers and Rucker on the edge again (which I love.. all starts in the trenches.) The middle of the line has been the problem, with 2 rookies starting and other serviceable guys rotating in there. The linebackers and secondary have been hit hard by injury and have held their own against top passing offenses like Green Bay & New Orleans, despite giving up chunks of yards. They’ve done well to stay in games, but once again.. not good enough. And don’t even get me started on special teams play this season. However, like all areas as the season progresses.. improvement is showing.

This week the Panthers take their fantasy football road show into rival Georgia, down the I-85. The Panthers hope to finally put a complete game together of offense, coaching, defense and special teams against a struggling 2-3 Atlanta Falcons team.

This game should be a fantastic game. 2 dangerous teams, the Falcons coming off a home loss against the Packers and the Panthers coming off another close loss against another division rival in the Saints. Realistically, the game could go either way. The arm wrestle could come down to a field goal, rather than a shootout. Both offenses may struggle, or both defenses may fail. Always an entertaining game, let’s break it down a little more closely:

The quarterback situation for both teams is intriguing. Matty “Ice” Ryan’s ice has melted into a pool of murky, smelly (typical for the area) watery goo this season. With the tag of being overrated around the league, Ryan has struggled immensely this season, already throwing 6 interceptions (tied for 4th in the NFL with Carolina’s Newton), throwing 196 times (3rd in the NFL behind Drew Brees & Tom Brady) and only completing only 61.2% of his throws. With a QB rating of 79.9, he’s been sacked 14 times (tied for 6th, along with Eli Manning & Phil Rivers) and only has 13 plays of over 20+ yards – most to receiver Roddy White, who is tied for 2rd in the NFL in receptions with 32. Overall, not exactly a balanced offense, with star RB Michael Turner only getting the call on 84 carries, for an average of 4.3ypc. The Falcons have put 104 (20.8, ranked 19th) points on the board against opponents this season, but have allowed 130 points (26ppg, ranked 24th.)  No doubt, the Falcons could’ve won a few more games had the offense clicked, had there not been some key injuries and had Roddy White’s hands not been made of stone. (See, game vs. Bucs, week 3.)

On the injury front, the Falcons will be missing veteran lineman Todd McClure and rookie WR Julio Jones who is due to miss with a jamstring injury. (Not a typo, will let you think about that one.) They’ll also be missing star defensive end John Abraham, who’s out with a knee injury and no doubt would have been a thorn for the rookie Cam Newton.

But so far, everything Newton has faced, every defense he has seen (some good ones, including Capers’ Packers D, Gregg Williams dirty Saints D & Del Rio’s D in Jacksonville) the rookie has taken in stride and won the battle numerous times, even if the war itself wasn’t won in the end. An impressive start and unheard of, the Panthers QB who is gaining a cult-like following not only in Carolina but all over the US, is playing well above his age and expectations. What’s even more impressive is despite his multiple 300 & 400 yard games, he just wants to play football & win.

This week, he’ll face a Falcon D that ranks 24th in yards allowed per game, a passing D that is allowing 294.2 yards passing per game (ranked 28th) and a rushing D that has given up an average of 89.2 yards per game on the ground (6th in the NFL). The key for the rookie will be to help establish the run, get the D playing the run so later in the game, the pass is opened up with the safeties playing closer to the line of scrimmage, because of the run.

No doubt Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski will want a balanced offense as we’ve seen (except for the first few games, in which the Panthers went pass-happy) to keep the Falcons guessing. The Panthers need to control the time of possession and convert on 3rd down – something they’ve been improving upon, but need to get better in. Drew Brees and the Saints last week, showed the Panthers first hand last week how you do it on 3rd down. Keep your D rested, tire the other D out and keep a guy like Matt Ryan and Michael Turner, cold on the bench. Basic football principals that just need to be executed.

Coming into this game, the Panthers offense has done a complete 180 degree turn, ranking 5th in the NFL with an average of 428.2 total offense per game, scoring 23.2 point a game, good for 15th in the NFL. Throwing to Smith, early and often while still establishing the running game is key for Carolina. Good things happen when you give your key players the touches and feeding Williams, Stewart, Smith & TE Greg Olsen early and often, should pay dividends for the Panthers, if their D can keep up with their offense.

Key matchups for Carolina in this game:

QB Cam Newton vs. Falcons defensive coordinator Brian Van Gorder

Going into this week 6 matchup, both QB’s have similar stats. Newton has shown great poise in the pocket as well as being able to make plays with his feet when he’s needed to. He’s passed for 1,610 yards so far – best for 4th in the NFL, on 194 attempts (completion percentage of 58.2) with a QB rating of 84.3 (ranking 15th in the league). Although he only has 7 TDs to go with his 6 interceptions, he’s also scored 5 TDs with his feet already. That will be a factor for the Falcons defense, and what kind of looks they’ll show. Do they keep a spy on him ala what the Panthers did in ’05 vs. Michael Vick, do they commit to the pass knowing they’re capable of stopping the run or do they force him to beat their D with his arm? If I were Newton, I’d be liking the challenge of trying to beat this D with his arm. Bring it on, throw it over CB Dunta Robinsons way and move the chains. Can Newton eclipse the 400 yard mark yet again? Although that would be awesome, if he has to throw it 35 times a game, that usually means the running game isn’t working which makes the offense one dimensional in which case, the Falcons suddenly have the advantage of knowing.

RB DeAngelo Williams/Jonathon Stewart vs. LB Curtis Lofton 

Only recently have the Panthers been able to get their running game on the move. Last week, DeAngelo Williams broke the century mark for the first time this season and scored on a 69 yard QB option play. The Panthers finally looked balanced, driving up and down the field in trying to keep up with Brees and the Saints. If the Panthers can have continued success on the ground and get chunks of yards on 1st and 2nd down, it’ll ease the load on rookie QB Newton and keep the Falcons off the field, so long as they can convert on 3rd down. And while most of the attention has been on Williams this week, Stewart is making his presence felt in other parts of the offense, having already had a 100 yard game earlier in the year; however, that 100 yard game was receiving yards. With Stewart the go-to back on passing downs in both pass-catching and blocking, the Panthers have a dual threat, not only on the ground but also in the passing game. Both backs can be elusive in the screen game and out in the flats, making life a little more difficult for the Falcons linebacking duo of Curtis Lofton and Sean Weatherspoon. Both LBs are having solid years and lead a Falcons D stout against the run. This week will be another big test, as the Panthers are just finding their feet in the running game and could potentially explode if not contained early on.

WR Steve Smith vs. CB Dunta Robinson

Other than Calvin Johnson & Wes Welker, no WR is hotter in the NFL right now. Smith has been given a legit QB to get the ball to him, with Smith 2nd in the NFL in receiving yards with 609 yards, with  27 receptions and 3 TDs to date. This week, he faces a prime matchup that favours the ever passionate Smith. CB Dunta Robinson has been thrown to 27 times with 21 completions and his partner in Brent Grimes, thrown to 26 times with 14 completions. No doubt, Smith will get doubled. If the run game can have success and the TE’s can get in the game early, look for that safety to worry less about Smith, leaving Smith one on one with Robinson or Grimes – a dangerous move if you’re Atlanta’s defensive coordinator Brian Van Gorder. Either way, Smith will be a factor as a target or a decoy.

DE Charles Johnson vs. OT Sam Baker

Charles Johnson has more than earned his big pay check that he earned this offseason. Going into week 6, he has a sack in every game (12 sacks in his last 12 games) & is a constant threat, pressuring and harassing quarterbacks. Along with the Panthers other starter at DE, Greg Hardy, the Panthers pass rush continues to improve. Look for the Panthers to have some more success against a shaky Falcons offensive line that has given up 14 sacks already this season. The Panthers D must be licking their chops, knowing what kind of success they could potentially have if they execute. Either a sack or some turnovers would suffice, just so long as QB Ryan stays off the field, along with his battered offensive line.  Look for a TE or a double team to possibly come over to Baker’s side to help seal the edge to give Ryan more time in the pocket to find his WRs downfield.

CB Chris Gamble vs. WR Roddy White

Looking at tape this week & watching some of the numerous drops Roddy White has had this season, Panthers CB Chris Gamble must be loving the thought of how good he might have it come Sunday. No doubt, the WR dropping a few here and there will make his life easier but at any time, White is a threat and could find his hands this week. Gamble still has to do his job and to date, has had an exceptional season shadowing some of the league’s best WRs. If he can shutdown White and keep Ryan’s target to TE Tony Gonzalez, that will help the Panthers D not have to worry about one less threat, as they’ll no doubt have their hands full with Gonzalez over the middle and RB Michael Turner churning out some solid yardage also, this season. The Panthers D ranks 15th in passing defense, giving up an average of 231 yards per game. If the Panthers can keep Ryan to 150-200 yards with a TD and a few turnovers, the offense should be able to take over and capitalize.

As the players take to the field for another divisional matchup in a few hours time, no doubt it will be a game added to the history between these 2 clubs. Coming into this week, the Falcons historically hold the edge over the Panthers with a 20-12 lead since Carolina came into the league in ’95. Both teams are looking to rebound, having a less than ideal start to the season, Carolina losing 3 straight now, the Falcons coming off a big loss against the Packers, it will be a fun game for Falcon & Panther fans alike.

The key to this game, what it all comes down to in the end is QB play – stating the obvious. Ryan has looked less than sharp; unable to make the plays he did in seasons past and the rookie sensation Cam Newton – an unknown to the Falcons, stealing the spotlight and looking to get the offense balanced, consistent and on their way to hopefully, their 2nd win of the year and the start of a streak.

Big plays are key for the Panthers. They’ve turned this offense around from a boring season last year to an explosive, high scoring offense this season, lead by Smith & Newton. If they can take advantage of the Falcons less than solid D, they’ll force Ryan to have to make plays with his arm, rather than have their O pound away with Turner which is what they’ll aim to do early. The Falcons O, will want to control the game with Turner and take advantage of the Panthers soft run D. The Panthers run D has been average, getting gashed for big yards in 4 out of the 5 games they’ve played. If Atlanta can keep their offense on the field and Cam Newton off the field, it’ll make things exceptionally hard for the Panthers to try and score with less plays. Playing from behind is the last thing Carolina needs right now.

Both teams would prefer to hold the ball, win the time of possession battle and keep their opposing offenses on the sidelines but one team. We should see a heavy dose of run early from both teams, maybe a few exchanges of punts and a real slog fest. I expect a lower scoring game for both teams, as both sides are evenly matched. It will be an arm wrestle, but in the end I see Carolina prevailing 24-17 with Newton throwing 2 TDs and DeAngelo Williams scoring on the other one. I expect a big day from Panthers WR Steve Smith and Falcons RB Michael Turner, but I expect Ryan to turn the ball over, helping the Panthers get a lead early and sitting on it, forcing the Falcons to win on the back of Ryan.