The preseason is over. I'll reserve my thoughts (mostly negative) on our training camp and preseason for another day, because quite frankly, today is a great day. Why? I just said it... THE PRESEASON IS OVER!!! I'm going to enjoy a nice, long Labor Day weekend followed by a shortened work week, and then it's finally time for some games that matter. So on that note, it's time to look ahead to our Week 1 opponent, the Carolina Panthers, and their strengths and weaknesses...
Vegas Line - PHI -1
2008 Offensive Rankings - 10th overall, 19th passing, 3rd rushing
2008 Defensive Rankings - 18th overall, 16th passing, 20th rushing
1) The Run Game
With apologies to the Giants, Titans, and Vikings, I'm going to go ahead and call this the best rushing attack in the NFL. Last year, DeAngelo Williams racked up 1,515 yards and 18 rushing TD's (with 2 more coming on receptions) on only 273 carries (a staggering 5.5 yards per carry). I know it's just one year, but how is he so frequently not mentioned among the best backs in the NFL? And if Williams isn't enough, Jonathan Stewart added 836 yards and 10 TD's on 184 carries (4.5 ypc) in his rookie season.
The Panthers' offensive line is led by Jordan Gross, one of the true "elite" left tackles in the NFL. On the other side, we all know Jeff Otah (thanks for the 1, 2, and 4 by the way, Carolina), who played very well in his rookie season. The interior guys (Travelle Wharton, Ryan Kalil, Keydrick Vincent) are solid, if not spectaclar. This is a very young group (avg age of 27) that thrives on wearing down defensive lines and popping long runs in the 2nd half.
Something to watch for - Not to be ignored is the best run blocking WR in the game, Muhsin Muhammad (that's right, Hines Ward... dirtiest doesn't mean best). Keep an eye on number 87 - they usually run in his direction, and I'm looking forward to watching the running game matchup between Muhammad and Sheldon Brown.
2) Big plays
We all know about Steve Smith (teammate puncher and big play WR extraordinaire) - Last year, he put up 1,421 yards and 6 TD's on 78 receptions (18.2 ypc), and had (8) 100-yard games, all despite missing 2 games because he punched his teammate in the eye during training camp. He's a big play waiting to happen on any snap.
But it's not just Steve Smith. This rushing attack doesn't have a grind-it-out style by any means. They pop big ones. Case in point - In Carolina's final 9 games, how many games did Deangelo Williams NOT have a rush of at least 20 yards? NONE. That's right... None. Incredible.
3) Beason and Peppers
These 2 players (on an otherwise shaky defense) are outstanding, period. Let's just move on.
1) The QB
Intangibles and a fiery demeanor are nice attributes, but at some point talent is really important too. I think that about sums up Jake Delhomme. Obviously, the lasting impression everyone has of the Panthers last year was Delhomme's abysmal performance against the Arizona Cardinals, who are picked off Delhomme... 17 times in that game, I think? I can't remember. It was either 16 or 17 times - I lost count. Anyway, to just look at that one game and judge a guy solely on that isn't fair. So I'll judge him on this - He has a great offensive line, an amazing rushing attack, and one of the best WR's in the world. How in the world is he not absolutely torching the terrible defenses in the NFC South? 15 TD's, 13 INT's - Unacceptable with the weapons he has.
"Off the topic question" - Was Jake Delhomme's 5 year, $42.5 million deal the worst contract of the year (any sport)?
2) The rest of the defense
There's a common misconception out there that the Panthers have a good defense. Julius Peppers is an elite DE and Jon Beason is a great, up and coming middle linebacker in this league, but after that, what do you have? The Panthers suffered a terrible setback when they lost Maake Kemoeatu to a season-ending injury, and it's looking like Jon Beason may miss the opener against Philly. Last year, the Panthers ranked 18th in total defense (16th vs the pass and 20th vs the rush).
What should be our biggest fear?
I'd feel infinitely more confident going into this game with a healthy Stewart Bradley, but alas, he's hurt and we trudge into the season with Omar Gaither at MLB, flanked by Akeem Jordan and Chris Gocong. Thats's not exactly a favorable matchup against this rushing attack. Also, I have a lot of confidence in Jason Peters, but I would expect that Julius Peppers will get to know Brian Westbrook pretty well by the end of this contest, as the Eagles will look to help Peters by having Westbrook "chip" for most of the afternoon.
What should be their biggest fear?
How are they going to stop our offense... at all? With Beason and Kemoeatu out, it creates an enormous hole in the middle of their defense that the Eagles should look to exploit. They should expect the Eagles to create favorable matchups in the short to intermediate passing game with Westbrook on their linebackers and the speedy receivers underneath, and then look to pop some deep balls when the defense looks to take away the short game. This should also be a game in which we can do some serious damage on the ground.
The enormous hole up the middle created by the injuries to Maake Kemoeatu and Jon Beason are the difference, as the Eagles move the chains at will, as they survive a big day on the ground by Deangelo Williams.
Eagles - 34
Panthers - 23