It’s August, and you know what that means, football is back.
The Carolina Panthers are entering camp with great momentum, as they became the first team in NFC South division history to win back-to-back division titles. They also were able to lock up two key pieces to their success, in linebacker Thomas Davis and quarterback Cam Newton to contract extensions. These moves strongly indicate that Carolina is in every of way contending for many years.
Also, the Panthers benefitted from landing numerous under the radar moves to improve the club’s weaknesses from last season. The signings of Michael Oher, Jarrett Boykin, Ted Ginn, and Charles Tillman will not jump off the page, but it does address three key areas of weakness that were contained on the offensive line, wide receiving core, and special teams. These moves show the Panthers front office is paying attention and are doing whatever it takes to make the team better. As of recently, the city of Carolina has been resonating through immediate success from a resurgent Cam Newton and a steady defense. In order for Carolina to maintain their success within the division and to possibly break out in the playoffs, here are the five keys that the Panthers need to get done in 2015.
In sports, health is the most important aspect of any team’s success. For the Panthers it’s been a hurdle they’ve dealt with for many years. Whether it was countless lingering injuries sustained to Cam Newton or constant turnover from their running backs. Now that training camp has just gotten underway, the entire Panthers, mainly the offensive unit needs to remain healthy all season.
Although Carolina has had health issues with Newton. Defensive Tackle Star Lotulelei and offensive lineman Jonathan Martin have already experienced early setbacks due to injury this training camp. Even though this takes a shot to the Panthers’ depth, the main takeaway is that both have time to recover through the preseason and won’t have to worry about returning until the regular season starts in one full month.
To say the least the Panthers need to avoid the injury bug the best they can in order to contend again. Because with an offense that is still waiting to hit its stride, right now defensively is where this team is at it’s best.
2. Protecting Can Newton
Carolina signed Cam Newton to a five-year, $104 million contract extension this off-season. This was the biggest benchmark the front office made in the early spring. Now, the next biggest thing is keeping him safe.
The Panthers offensive line has been pretty bad over the years and the results over the years reflect upon it.
Since entering the league in 2011, Cam Newton has been hit 587 times, which is 270 times more than any other quarterback during that timeframe. Yes, that is partially due to his style of play being a dual threat quarterback, making him more susceptible to bone crushing hits. However, another factor is the depth and chemistry within the offensive line.
Over the years, Carolina has tried repeatedly to address the thin offensive line, and every year it seems another unfortunate circumstance rises. To provide a more clear glimpse of what is going on is that newly acquired offensive tackles Michael Oher and Daryl Williams have been heavily riddled with injuries. Oher is trying to rebound from an injury filled season a year ago with the Tennessee Titans. The Panthers need him to return back to his dominating self when he was in Baltimore, where he protected Joe Flacco’s blindside. Williams has been well-known for falling victim to injuries when he was an Oklahoma Sooner and putting an out-pour of faith in him starting is a tall task to attest to.
3. Getting off to a Fast start
The Panthers must take advantage of their first four games of the season. Where they play Jacksonville and Tampa Bay on the road, and host New Orleans and Houston. Right there this provides a great chance for Carolina to come into the season hot. All of these teams on paper should translate into a few victories early on, maybe an undefeated start.
For starters, Jacksonville and Tampa Bay are still trying to find an identity for themselves. Houston carries a dominant defense with a suffocating duo of Jadaveon Clowney and J.J. Watt, but their quarterback situation is still up in the air. Now, after the loss of running back Adrian Foster to a groin injury, this puts the Texans offense back a few more steps. The Saints are getting older and traded Jimmy Graham to the Seahawks to create cap space. While Drew Brees may still be Drew Brees, his age is catching up with him.
If Carolina has any indications of securing a shot in the playoffs, beating teams that you’re more superior than is mandatory. The cards are stacked in their favor and once Carolina hits the meat grinder of their schedule, when they face Seattle, Philadelphia, Indianapolis and Green Bay. Making the most out of every game will help out in the long run.
4. Utilize the running game
This off-season the Panthers parted ways with their all-time leading rusher in Deangelo Williams. Heading into camp all of the pressure now shifts onto Jonathan Stewart’s shoulders. Stewart has the potential to become the lead running back and be featured as an excellent downhill runner and a pass catcher out of the backfield. The only thing holding him back will be reduced playing time.
For his career, Stewart has accomplished the stat line you want from a starting tail back. He has amassed 4,825 yards, 30 touchdowns, and through his carries he’s averaging 4.6 yards. Considering the lesser load he has been used to, these numbers are pretty darn good. Of course staying healthy is the biggest necessity, but from what he’s done, Stewart no doubt is the man in charge to douse the heavy workload.
To complement Stewart, Carolina has a plethora of young backs who are still waiting to break out. Mike Tolbert has bounced from to team over the years, but right now is at a place where he can become a durable second option. Fuzzy Whittaker is in the same position as Tolbert and might need more time to develop. Lastly, recent draft pick Cameron Artis-Payne from Auburn has a future in the Panthers backfield. Though lining him up in the slot or on special teams are other options they may look into.
Carolina might have lost their leading rusher from a year ago. But feeding Stewart and the rest shouldnt be a problem. The Panthers are a better team when they rush for over 100 yards because it takes an added pressure off of Cam Newton and the passing game.
5. Producing a reliable special teams
Along with the offensive line, the biggest shortcoming for the Panthers in 2014 was special teams. Numerous times Carolina rotted away games from being inept during punt return coverage.
As a whole Carolina ranked tied for 24th in the kicking game and that needs to change. During the off-season, they were able to re-sign Ted Ginn Jr to be the main kick and punt return specialist. If the Panthers want to beat the teams above them, one way is to win the battle of field position. If Ginn can shorten up the field by returning kicks this will greatly decrease the chance that Newton has a longer field to work with.
The best scenarios Carolina has is if they are able to pin opponents deep into their own territory. With a defense as good as the Panthers, having more field to work will force Carolina’s linebackers to not become exposed that much in press coverage.
The Panthers have a very high ceiling this year and covering all the mistakes coming in can finally make Carolina a contender that will compete with Seattle and Green Bay.
Cam Newton has done everything that he has been asked to do and more. The only thing left to do is provide him help in other areas.