The Panthers' defensive woes have been well-documented. They collapsed down the stretch in 2008, allowing 45, 31, 28, 28, and 31 points. While much has been said about Jake Delhomme throwing five interceptions in the playoffs against the Arizona Cardinals, little attention has been paid to the fact that the defense gave up 27 points in the first half.
After spending the offseason working on installing a new defensive scheme, the thinnest position on the team took a gut shot after the only true nose tackle on the roster, Maake Kemoeatu, tore his achilles during warmups on the first day of training camp.
Once the games actually started, the team didn't fare much better. Starting outside linebacker Thomas Davis missed almost all of the preseason with a nagging injury. All-world middle linebacker Jon Beason missed two games and weeks of practice after injuring his knee against the Dolphins. Starting free safety Charles Godfrey, who needed all the practice he could get, missed two games with a broken hand.
Through it all, the Panthers basically pulled people off the street to try to replace Kemoeatu.
Nick Hayden, who had spent the offseason preparing to spell under tackle Damion Lewis, was woefully undersized and completely ineffective. Third-round pick Corey Irvin, widely considered to be a project, was placed on IR, and Marlon Favorite was cut.
The result was an embarrassing display. Opposing teams could put in just about anyone at running back and they would turn into Walter Payton. Ray Rice, Ronnie Brown, Isaac Redman, and in the case of the Giants, the entire state of New Jersey made mincemeat of the defense.
Compounding the problem was the Panthers' absolute refusal to wrap up and tackle. Ron Meeks has said repeatedly his new defense emphasizes swarming to the ball and going for the strip. Apparently he hasn't stressed tackling.
The icing on the cake is the return of the Panthers' pillow-soft coverages in the secondary. Fox and co. are still more than willing to give up an automatic 10 yards in the hopes that the defensive line could get to the quarterback—which they couldn't—or in the worst case scenario, stiffen at the goal line—which they were consistently unable to do.
Now the Eagles loom on the horizon. This Philadelphia team is an offensive juggernaut with a host of speedy wide receivers, a Pro Bowl quarterback, a rebuilt offensive line, and a stable of dangerous running backs.
At least Panthers fans won't have to watch Mike Vick tear the team apart again, as he's suspended for the first three weeks.
It doesn't get any easier after that. The Panthers have to play the AFC and NFC East this year, along with the division winners from the NFC North and West.
They have two games against hard-running Atlanta and two against last year's most prolific offense, the New Orleans Saints. It's a far cry from their schedule in 2008, which would have been more difficult if they'd had to play the SEC West.
If any Panther fans believe in miraculous turnarounds, there is reason to not commit ritual seppuku. The defense the Panthers put on the field on Sunday will not resemble the one shown in the preseason.
Beason, Davis, and the entire secondary will be healthy. Second-round pick Everette Brown, the defensive end who led the ACC in sacks last year, has almost looked like he deserved the Panthers trading their 2010 first-round pick for the rights to select him.
A couple of late season additions look promising: Louis Leonard, acquired from the Browns for an undisclosed draft pick, certainly has the size to plug the defensive line at 6'4", 325 pounds.
They also managed to steal Ra'Shon "Sonny" Harris off waivers from the Steelers, who had hoped to stash him on their practice squad. They got a good look at the 6'5", 321 pound defensive tackle; he tore them to pieces in the fourth game of the preseason.
The Panthers' offense will start the season at full strength. Running back Jonathan Stewart, after not practicing since the first week of August, will reportedly be available on Sunday.
Fourth-round running back Mike Goodson, rookie from Texas A&M, has looked like a world beater spelling fellow world beater DeAngelo Williams. Lions' cast-off Kenny Moore, wide receiver from Wake Forest, played himself into the slot position. Jake Delhomme quietly completed over 60 percent of his passes.
What is certain is that while the defense goes through their growing pains, the offense has to pick up the slack. Nothing helps a defense like a sterling offense, and if the Panthers can score like they did in the second half of 2008, the defense won't have to worry about getting run over.
If they can't, then Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Dallas might make the Panthers go into their week four bye down 0-3.
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