After an 0-3 start put the heat on head coach John Fox, Carolina rebounded with back-to-back wins against Washington and Tampa Bay to turn the thermostat down a notch. However, they’re still well behind New Orleans and Atlanta in the division, and a playoff-free season might spell the end of Fox’s tenure in Charlotte.
OFFENSE (#26 total yardage, #8 rushing, #29 passing, #24 scoring):
Jake Delhomme is several years – and Tommy John surgery – removed from the player who led his team to Super Bowl XXXVIII. He put up one of the worst performances in playoff history last January, tossing five picks and losing a fumble, and appears to be on the same track this season. One wonders how much longer Fox can afford to stick with the struggling signalcaller, who’s currently tied with rookie Mark Sanchez for the league lead in turnovers (10 interceptions, two fumbles). Then again, Fox may not be inclined to make the move to either second-year player Matt Moore or the recently-signed A.J. Feeley unless he absolutely has to.
Until then, the Panthers are likely to rely on their running game, and they have a good one-two punch in DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. A season after pacing the entire league with 18 rushing touchdowns, Williams leads the team with 372 yards and four scores. Fellow first-round pick Stewart isn’t far behind, averaging five yards per carry despite a tender Achilles tendon.
Playmaking wideout Steve Smith is having a subpar year, averaging just 12.3 yards on his 21 receptions with no touchdowns, and vocalized his discontent after catching just one pass for four yards against Tampa Bay. Running mate Muhsin Muhammed may be little more than a possession receiver at this point; despite leading the team with 22 receptions, the 14th-year vet has yet to gain more than 20 yards on any of those catches. Tight ends Jeff King and Dante Rosario (two each) have the Panthers’ only touchdown receptions in 2009.
The same front five, bookended by a pair of first-round tackles in Jordan Gross and Jeff Otah and anchored by center Ryan Kalil, has started every game this season. They may be opening holes for the running backs, but have also allowed 13 sacks in the team’s first five games.
DEFENSE (#12 total yardage, #29 rushing, #2 passing, #27 scoring):
Following numerous offseason trade rumors, right end Julius Peppers got off to a quiet start in 2009, but made his presence felt with a three-sack effort against Washington to increase his team-leading total to five. Tyler Brayton starts on the other side, with second-round pick Everette Brown also working his way into the rotation. Damione Lewis starts at one tackle, but the Panthers had to scramble to fill the other spot when Maake Kemoeatu was lost for the season early in training camp. They recently settled on a pair of veterans, signing free agent Hollis Thomas and trading next year’s fifth-round pick to Kansas City for Tank Tyler.
The Bills might catch a break this weekend if weakside linebacker Thomas Davis, the team’s leading tackler, is forced to miss this game with a hamstring injury. If he can’t go, either Dan Connor or journeyman Landon Johnson is his likely replacement. Pro Bowler Jon Beason starts in the middle, with Na’il Diggs on the strong side.
Chris Gamble – whose interception set up the winning touchdown the last time these two teams played – and Richard Marshall are the starting cornerbacks. The Panthers’ depth at the position took a hit courtesy of the league office this week, when Dante Wesley’s vicious hit on Tampa Bay punt returner Clifton Smith earned him a well-deserved suspension. Chris Harris and Charles Godfrey line up at safety; neither one will make Panthers fans forget Mike Minter. The yardage stats may claim that the Carolina pass defense is among the best in the league, but opposing quarterbacks are completing over 68 percent of their passes, while the Panthers managed just three interceptions.
At kickoff on Sunday, John Kasay will be two days shy of turning 40, but it doesn’t look like he’s slowing down: the 130 points he scored last season, including 28 of 31 field goal attempts, were the second-highest total of his 19-year career. He’s 4-for-5 so far this year, with the only miss coming when a 52-yard attempt was blocked last week.
Punter Jason Baker is crushing the ball, grossing 48.4 yards per kick, but the league’s worst special teams – Carolina is dead last in both punt and kickoff coverage – deduct almost 14 yards from his net average.
A pair of rookies have taken leading roles on the kick-return teams, with Captain Munnerlyn dropping deep on punts and Mike Goodson doing the same for kickoffs. Backup receiver Kenneth Moore stepped into the kick-return role when Goodson was shaken up, and responded with a 55-yard runback against Washington.
Tough game to call. Both teams have beaten terrible Tampa Bay; the Panthers have also edged equally-bad Washington, while the Bills’ other win came courtesy of Mark Sanchez’s penchant to throw the ball to the other team. Neither defense has shown much ability to stop the run, which could be a huge factor because both teams’ passing games have been stuck in neutral.
The oddsmakers have installed the hometown Panthers as seven-point favorites. I’m intrigued to watch Ryan Fitzpatrick run the offense with a week’s worth of reps under his belt, and if Chris Draft has anything left, he’ll be a badly-needed upgrade to the linebacking corps. But all those injuries on the Bills’ defense worry me, especially if Kyle Williams’ shoulder limits his effectiveness against Carolina’s solid running game.
Logic tells me that DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart end up making the difference in this game – but I wouldn’t be shocked to see a Bills win, either. How’s that for hedging your bets?
See you inside Bank of America Stadium.
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