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My bold prediction for 2008

The Panthers are unique in that they are the only team in the league with an owner who actually played the game. No other owner has as clear an understanding of what it’s like in the locker room, and how small the separation is between the best and the worst, talent wise. No other owner can really appreciate the combination of talent, execution, and luck it takes to be consistently good and win big in the NFL. I think that when Jerry Richardson evaluates this season, he can take one of two approaches. He can either scrap this current team and see if wholesale changes can fix the attitude in the locker room, or he can go one more year with the current staff and see if a few wins can do it instead.

In business, he never took a lot of risks. Instead he worked hard and was patient, and built a food empire. He’s not a Mark Cuban–in fact he’s the anti-Cuban. If he believes in his product he’ll give it every chance to succeed. That’s why I think that I’m safe in saying this.

No wholesale changes will be made in the off-season.

You may as well get used to the notion of John Fox being around for 2008, because he will. He’s got a big contract and is well-regarded outside of Charlotte. Richardson has plenty of reasons to give him one more year, although he may make it clear that he expects some changes. That means Crossman’s gone for sure, and Fox may not get as much control over personnel decisions.

On offense we don’t need a lot, just another option to throw to and better blocking. With the threat of a real passing game, the misdirection that a zone blocking scheme brings may actually fool a linebacker or two, and running could be more effective. A good quarterback can also make the line look a lot better (consider how bad the line looks when Carr is under center). I kind of expect Fox to open it up like he did in 2003 (come on, did we really look like a ball-control offense in the Super Bowl?). That hinges on two things though. The first is a second receiving threat at the wide receiver position. The second is stability–our offense needs to stay healthy. So here are the offensive changes I’m looking for in the off-season.

Our Offensive Line will remain largely intact. Gross will be resigned at a figure that almost brings the boards down with “Fire Hurney” threads. Wharton, Wahle, and Bridges will probably start in 2008. We will probably draft an offensive tackle, but will start 2008 with largely the same line we had in 2007.

Jake will be our QB in 2008, with Basanez as the first backup and either Moore or a draft pick as the third string. Carr will probably be out of the league, I think everyone will be shocked if he’s still on the roster.

Foster and Williams will still be our backs in 2008. Running backs will go for a premium in the off-season, driven by Michael Turner’s salary demands. Maybe we can borrow Tom Coughlin to teach Foster how to hold on to the ball, because apart from the fumbling we have two decent backs and that’s why this position will be ignored in the off-season.

Jarrett and Smith will be back, and Carter will be if another team doesn’t grab him. Robinson might return, but Colbert will have to go run great routes in practice for someone else. We’ll have a new veteran wide receiver at number two and will also go after one in the draft. Expect some real attention given to this area in the off-season.

Kasay will be back for one more season. Baker will be back also. This means our kicking game will still be the only bright spot of special teams. It’s really impossible to say if we can get better in returns or coverage, but at least we can’t get much worse.

On defense, we really need a couple more players. This unit is suffering from a lack of cohesiveness and a poor balance of talent. We have two (potentially) great players on the defensive line and two who could be characterized as journeymen at best. In the secondary we’re missing a free safety and our strong safety may be a good hitter but he has no coverage skills. The defense is also on the field for way too long, and that has a tendency to wear at the players, both physically and mentally. Look at the difference in effort in the first half and second in our latest game for a perfect example.

Trgovac will be back unless he’s hired away by Michigan. In other words, he won’t be fired. Fox knows defense and obviously respects what Trgovac is doing. He also has a unique understanding of the role and the problems our defense is facing. Trgovac is safe.

Rucker will retire, and the team will pursue a replacement in Free Agency. Don’t be surprised if they make a run at Justin Smith or Jared Allen. This could be our high profile Free Agency signing for 2008.

Morgan will probably call it quits, and if he doesn’t I suspect they’ll finally cut him. If they don’t I think he’ll be demoted to a backup position behind Beason. I love the guy, but just don’t see him on the roster in 2008.

The Panthers will work hard to find a veteran free safety in Free Agency and will look to draft a solid free safety as well. If we strike out at the DE position and still want to spend some serious money in Free Agency, Ken Hamlin is a possibility. They’ll still draft here, and they have Nate Salley coming back next year as well (for what that’s worth).

In sum on defense, if we get a good replacement for Rucker and find a good Free Safety, our basic personnel needs will be met. If the offense can get some points on the board the defense will have more freedom to take some risks. With more scoring the defense will play with less pressure and more abandon. An improved secondary will allow more press coverage from the cornerbacks and more blitzing. It’s not a stretch at all to see the 2008 Panthers at the top of the league in defensive stats. And that’s with some rather minor changes.

Now for the good news. We have an easier schedule in 2008. Tampa Bay will be a year older, the Saints will still be the Saints, and Atlanta will be a non-factor. Four conference wins are almost a certainty. We’ll host San Francisco, Chicago, Detroit, Denver, and Kansas City (combined record of 24-41 so far in 2007), and go on the road against Washington, Green Bay, Minnesota, Oakland, and San Diego (combined record of 36-29 so far in 2007). With a little luck it looks like a double digit win total for the Panthers in the regular season is well within reach.

So wrapping up, I think our draft will target the Offensive Line, the Defensive Secondary, and Wide Receiver. If a gift falls in our lap (like a great QB prospect in the second round), we’ll grab it. Barring injury, we’ll have some great stability at the offensive line and good QB play again. This will keep the defense off the field more. We’ll have two decent Tight Ends who can catch the ball and move the chains. And we *should* finally have a complement to Smitty. Between the tight ends and alternative options at WR, he should get some relief from the regular double-teams.

Frankly, we’re due for some good fortune. The last two years have been killers where injuries have been concerned. This season may suck, but there’s still a lot of goodness left in the core of the panthers. I think that the ownership will see it that way, and though many of you won’t like it, we’ll have yet another off-season with few changes.

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Homers and Haters, Indianapolis edition

Note: This article was written for the Carolina Huddle fan site, and originally appeared in their forums here.

Carolina welcomes the defending Super Bowl champs to Bank of America Stadium this week. The Panthers are fresh off a bye while the Colts are playing their second straight road game on a short week.

The Colts have one of the most potent offenses in the NFL. They’re led by one of the best quarterbacks in the game, and sport a balanced offense that’s ranked third in the league in scoring and total yards.

On defense the Colts field a disciplined group that generally doesn’t make mistakes. They have tremendous speed and are outstanding in coverage. Indianapolis plays a cover two type of defense, and are first in the league in pass defense, third in yards surrendered, and sixth in points allowed.

Here are the units the Colts will bring to BofA Stadium on Sunday:

Quarterback
Peyton Manning is arguably the best quarterback playing the game right now, and is the current leader for career passer rating among active QBs. Manning is currently putting up over 250 yards per game and has thrown 11 TD passes versus only three interceptions. He is known for his audibles and ability to keep a defense on it’s heels. Manning is not so much a playmaker as he is an expert tactician; he knows every trick in the book for wearing down a defense and makes all of them look easy. He also rarely makes mistakes, which just makes defending him that much harder.

Homer says: “Manning is a great player, but he needs a team effort to show it. Under pressure he can be just as ordinary as anyone. The key here will be Peppers and Jenkins, if they can bring pressure from the line then Manning won’t be able to pick the Panthers apart. The Panthers also need to control the clock and try and keep Manning from finding his rhythm. Not easy, but can be done.”

Hater says: “This is the original laser-rocket-arm QB… Manning gets rid of the ball too fast for the Panthers to get pressure on him. He also manages the game well enough to keep the defense guessing and ineffective. The big question on Sunday will be what happens more often, a Manning touchdown pass or a flag on Jenkins for jumping offsides.”

Running Backs
Joseph Addai (100 carries, 492 yards, 5 TDs) shoulders the primary running duties for the Colts. Standing at six feet and 215 pounds, Addai is a straight-ahead runner who also excels at catching passes out of the backfield. He has excellent speed and does well after contact. Kenton Keith (66 carries, 311 yards) backs up Addai and is more of a cutback runner who is good at picking up the blitz.

Homer says: “Addai is good, not great. He gets a big benefit from the distraction Manning provides. We have a line that does real well against straight-ahead runners, and our linebackers have the speed to plug holes as they open. This one is on Morgan, and if he returns Sunday we should be able to contain their running game.”

Hater says: “It’s not fair that the best quarterback in the league lines up next to a running back who’s good for five yards per carry. The Panthers aren’t exactly lighting it up this year in rushing defense (they’re 18th in the league), and Addai will probably go over 100 easy. What’s worse is his ability to catch out of the backfield. And when he gets tired they can go to Keith with no drop-off at all. Not a pretty thought…”

Wide Receivers/Tight End
The Colts receiving corps ranks as one of the best in the NFL. Eight-time pro-bowler Marvin Harrison (20 rec, 247 yards, 1 TD) and 2006 pro-bowl teammate Reggie Wayne (37 rec, 500 yards, 4 TDs) are the only wide receiver tandem in NFL history to catch 75 receptions and 1,000 yards in 3 straight seasons. Tight End Dallas Clark (30 rec, 366 yards, 6TDs) leads the Colts in touchdowns.

Homer says: “The Panthers have already faced some pretty good receivers in games against St. Louis, Houston, and Arizona. The key will be quick pressure at the line to keep Manning from delivering the ball well. The Indy receivers are good, but they aren’t big playmakers and depend on Manning getting the ball to them in the right place. If that gets disrupted, coverage gets a lot easier.”

Hater says: “This group keeps the defense honest and allows Addai to be so effective. The Colts’ receivers demand way too much attention to stack the line. Gamble and Lucas can’t match up here, and we’re basically pinning our hopes on Deke Cooper and Chris Harris to keep this game from becoming a rout. Dallas Clark has the potential to be a monster if Davis is covering him, and if Indy uses Clark a lot then don’t expect to see their punter much.”

Offensive Line
Indianapolis starts a quick and athletic offensive line that not only excels in protection, but is also helping to produce a rushing attack that averages 141.8 yards per game. They excel in the stretch handoff play, and their first step is the same whether it’s a run or a pass. That prevents the opposing linebackers from getting a bead on the play and helps the running game and play-action. Left Tackle Tony Ugoh is a rookie, but has quickly picked up the scheme and does a good job protecting Manning’s blind side. On the right side is seven year man Ryan Diem. Guards Ryan Lilja and Jake Scott flank pro-bowl center Jeff Saturday. So far in 2007, they have allowed only five sacks.

Homer says: “This is the same line that Manning’s thrown under the bus time and again, right? Oh, wait, it’s the same line with a ROOKIE starting on his blind side. I mean a ROOKIE who’s not 100%! This should be the game where McClover finally shines. Don’t expect the Colts to be able to push our defense around here at all, they’re just not big enough and our defensive line has too much experience to bite on their fakes. Advantage, Panthers by a lot here.”

Hater says: “141.8 rushing yards per game and five sacks on the season. If that’s not good, how would you define it?”Defensive Line
Superstar Dwight Freeney (15 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 4 forced fumbles) and Robert Mathis (10 tackles, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble) apply pressure from the defensive end positions, while tackles Raheem Brock (15 tackles, 0.5 sacks) and Ed Johnson (20 tackles, 1 sack) clog the middle. The Colts have been good against the run, allowing only 107.3 yards per game, and bring a decent if not overpowering pass rush. Freeny is a regular pro bowl selection who is considered as one of the best at his position in the NFL.

Homer says: “The Colts are right in the middle of the pack in rushing defense. They give up 4.2 yards per carry, which is more than their opponents have averaged against other teams. They’re 19th in sacks too. This group seems more about reputation than production. The key to the Panthers’ success will be their ability to run, and based on the defensive line that’s not only possible, it’s all but certain.”

Hater says: “The only reason no one runs on the Colts is because they’re too busy throwing the ball in an effort to get back into the game. The Panthers might be able to run, but when you’re down by three touchdowns who does that? Oh, and the idea of Foster running through the line? Well, he might make it a couple times but the way they strip don’t expect him to be carrying the ball when he pops out the other side.”

Linebackers
The Colts start Gary Bracket (41 tackles, .5 sacks, 1 INT) at the middle linebacker position, with Freddie Keiaho (29 tackles, 1 INT) and Tyjuan Hagler (24 tackles) on the outside. This is a fast and solid group, although it’s arguably the weakest group in the Colt’s defense.

Homer says: “When the Panthers aren’t running the ball, they’ll get a lot of help from Jeff King, who should excel against Hagler. Hagler’s strength isn’t coverage and he’s a little undersized at only six feet tall. The rest of the linebackers are quick, so the Panthers need to run north/south and not try to stretch the defense. The good news is that none of them are particularly big, and can be worn down by a steady running game.”

Hater says: “The Colts’ LBs may be small but they get to the ball in a hurry and deliver a nice pop when they do. This is where the running game is stopped on Sunday.”

Defensive Backs
The Colts’ secondary is characterized by their speed across the board. Pro-Bowl Strong Safety Bob Sanders (33 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 1 INT) is the star of the defensive backs. Undersized by NFL standards, he still flies across the field to punish opposing ball carriers. Free Safety Antoine Bethea (35 tackles, 1 INT) has excellent speed and agility and complements Sanders’ style well. Kelvin Hayden (41 tackles, 1 INT) lines up at the left cornerback position, while Marlin Jackson
(47 tackles, 1 INT) lines up on the right side.

Homer says: “This unit is talented, but like all cover two defenses they give up the middle. Carrstaverde should be able to dink and dunk his way down the field with short routes, and once they’re lulled to sleep by that expect a long one to Smith late in the game.”

Hater says: “Bob Sanders is Steve Smith on defense. He’s the real playmaker for them, and hits so hard and so fast that sometimes it looks like there’s two of him out there. He also lines up close to the line and keys on the run in a flash–so don’t look for much action from Carolina there. And the way this group as a whole hits? Steve Smith aside, look for a whole bunch of alligator arms out there on Sunday.”

Prognosis

Homer says: This is the textbook definition of a trap game. Next week the Colts play the Patriots, and last Monday they had a tough game against a tough division rival. In between they have the Panthers, a NFC team that looks like it’s injured and struggling. The Colts are one of the best teams in the league, but they do it more with great role players and solid execution than by overwhelming you with sheer talent. That’s going to work in the Panthers’ favor on Sunday.

When the Panthers have the ball they HAVE to run it, and run it between the tackles. The Indy linebackers will wear down as the game goes on, and the need to control the clock and limit Manning’s touches is critical. The Panthers should work several short passes into the mix, and be content to make their yardage in 3-5 yard chunks. Late in the game the runs that started as two and three yard gains will suddenly be five and six yarders, and that’s when all those short passes will set Smitty up for a long one. The Panthers need to bring a great gameplan with them, because they can’t afford to punt more than two or three times.

When the Colts have the ball the Panthers will need to trust their safeties and blitz hard. Manning needs to feel the pressure enough to keep him from perfect placement on his passes. If that happens, then Gamble and Lucas can keep Harrison and Wayne in check. If the center of the defensive line holds and Addai is forced to run to the outside then that should do it for their running game. It’s all going to be about pressuring Manning and keeping him off balance.

The Colts are going to expect an easy one, and won’t like feeling like they’re in a real fight. The Panthers haven’t won at home yet, because they’ve been waiting to really show the fans something. This week they play hard, physical, and aggressive on their way to a very impressive win.

Panthers 27, Colts 24

Hater says: This has all the makings for a real embarrassment. This season the Panthers have played with some flashes of greatness, but they’re wildly inconsistent and are playing one of the most consistently good teams in the NFL. Look at the Indianapolis/Tampa Bay game to get an idea of what will happen here. The Colts’ offense was just dominating against a much better defense than Carolina’s, despite missing five starters.

When the Panthers have the ball they’ll find a big clog in the middle thanks to the emergence of Ed Johnson as a run stuffer. The few times they do get through the DTs Foster or Williams will get their bell rung by Sanders’ flying across the field or Gary Bracket plugging the hole. The Colts defense is fast. The only way to beat them is be physical, and the Panthers just don’t have the personnel to do that this year. Oh, and just to add to the Panthers’ woes, David Carr might start.

When the Colts have the ball it will just look bad. Addai can run, makes good cuts and knows which direction the end zone is. He may not get 100 on the ground, but he and Keith will combine for at least 150. Manning will pick apart our soft interior with ease, and as soon as the secondary makes an inevitable mistake, he’ll exploit it for a big gain. The only stat the Panthers will lead the Colts in is punting yardage.

It’s not going to be pretty, but maybe it will be a much-needed wake up call for the Panthers. At least the game film will be a teaching lesson for Fox to show what good discipline can do for a team.

Colts 42, Panthers 12.

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Homers and Haters, Arizona edition

Note: This article was written for the Carolina Huddle fan site, and originally appeared in their forums here.

The Carolina Panthers travel to the big pink dome in the desert to take on the Arizona Cardinals this week. Like the Panthers, the Cards are 3-2 and tied for first in their division. Unlike the Panthers, Arizona fans are largely happy with their record right now.

Arizona is one of those teams that always seems to start out saying, “This is finally the year!” and go out saying “Wait until next year!” There are signs though, that this may indeed be the year for them, although some injuries may be starting to interfere with their goal of the playoffs.

In 2006 the Cardinals completed rebuilding their offense by signing Edgerrin James to complement their strong receiving corps. Unfortunately, the running game never materialized and the defense couldn’t stop the pass. The Cardinals finished 5-11, and the front office reacted by firing coach Dennis Green and bringing in former Steeler offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt. Whisenhunt also hired Russ Grimm, one of the best at his position, to coach the offensive line.

So far, Arizona’s results have been encouraging, but more because of the emergence of their defense. Their 30th ranked 2006 pass defense is now giving up 218 yards per game, which is good for 18th in 2007. The Cardinal rush defense, which was 16th in 2006 at 119 yards per game, is now 13th in the league at 101 yards. Overall, the defense has improved from the 29th ranked unit in 2006 to the 14th in 2007. On offense the running game has started to emerge, which has helped the Cards improve from 14th in the league to 10th.

The Cardinals are taking all the right steps to get to the playoffs. They have a young quarterback in place for the long haul, their star receivers Boldin and Fitzgerald are also young, and the club has a head coach in place that brings discipline and faith to the organization. However, the Cardinals have suffered injuries and still a have a work to do on the defensive side of the ball.

Unless Kurt Warner rediscovers his MVP form, the club and its fans may have to go through another season of rebuilding. Here’s what you can count on seeing this Sunday.

Quarterback
Kurt Warner is once again the Cardinals’ starter, the result of a season-ending injury to Matt Leinart. The former two-time MVP has performed well so far this season, with 43 for 69 passing, four touchdowns, and only one interception. His rating of 102.3 is his highest since 1999 with the Rams. This past week the Cardinals signed former 49ers QB Tim Rattay as a backup.

Homer says: “Warner is a great quarterback if you’re playing in the 20th century. Since his knees went, he spends way too much time in the pocket and makes Drew Bledsoe look mobile. If Peppers can’t break out of his sack slump against the Cardinals, well…”

Hater says: “What is it with our luck this year? Instead of Matt Leinart and his four interceptions, once again we get to face a veteran who knows how to exploit our weaknesses. Warner’s made a living with the quick pass, and has two outstanding receivers to throw to in Arizona. He won’t get sacked because he won’t have to hold the ball long enough. Maybe we can stall him in the red zone, but he won’t have a big challenge marching down the field against our soft middle.”

Running Backs
Edgerrin James had a shaky start with the Cardinals, playing behind a poor line and putting up some of the worst numbers of his career. With Grimm’s coaching though, the offensive line is giving James time to find the holes this year and he’s starting to produce the kind of games that management hoped for when they signed him away from the Colts. Edgerrin’s yards per carry are up from 3.4 to 4.1, and more importantly he’s getting into the end zone more. James has gotten three touchdowns already, compared to six for all of last year. A contributing factor to that is the increased use of the lead blocker in Whisenhunt’s schemes. Fullback Terrelle Smith is a six foot, 250 pound back that rarely carries and is not a receiving threat.

Homer says: “James is a good back when he has a great QB to keep the attention off of him, and Warner no longer qualifies. Without Peyton Manning, he’s become rather ordinary and can be handled. He’s fast and hits the hole well, but the offensive line won’t find too many against Jenks and Kemo, and our speed at linebacker should neutralize his game here.”

Hater says: “Where James is going to kill us is in his skill in sustaining drives. Last year he couldn’t manage four first downs per game, this year he’s over five. The Panthers have had trouble getting the opposing offense off the field all season, and James will do his part to keep that streak alive. He’s getting almost 90 yards a game, and when the Panthers give up 100 it doesn’t bode well.”

Wide Receivers
This is where the Cardinals shine. It’s rare for a team to have a receiving tandem as scary as Anquan Boldin (22/286, 3 TDs) and Larry Fitzgerald (34/448, 1 TD). Boldin is a playmaker with tons of quickness and an ability to pick up yards after the catch. Fitzgerald is a tough matchup, and his 6-foot-3 frame makes him and a solid possession receiver. Bryant Johnson is a a solid number three for this unit. Standing at 6-foot-8, tight end Leonard Pope (5/57, 1 TD) is also a big red zone target on the Cardinals.

Homer says: “Meh, I got nothing here…”

Hater says: “There’s no way to put a positive spin on our matchups here. If Warner gets any time to throw, we’re going to give up tons of yards in the air.”

Offensive Line
Last year the Cardinals were never able to get things going on the ground mainly because of poor offensive line play. To help remedy that they used the fifth overall pick in the 2007 draft on Penn State tackle Levi Brown. Buffalo Bill free agent Mike Gandy holds down the left tackle spot. Lastly, center Al Johnson was another free agent pickup, giving the Cardinals three new players on their line. The Guards are returning starters Reggie Wells and Deuce Lutui. Brown has been out with an ankle injury, but may play this weekend. If he can’t go then recently signed Keydrick Vincent will take his place.

Homer says: “Panther fans know all about injuries on the offensive line. Holes don’t open, assignments are missed, quarterbacks get sacked, and the offense just can’t get in a rhythm. The Cards have to deal with a backup Quarterback and a starting tackle who wasn’t even on the squad last week. What’s worse, it’s on the side that Peppers attacks from. It’s going to be a long day in Arizona.”

Hater says: “Their line’s shaken up, but that hasn’t stopped them from getting a running game going. Russ Grimm is the kind of coach the Panthers need–he has the Cardinals actually opening holes in the running game, and they’ve only given up six sacks. Given how well the Panthers have been rushing the passer so far, the Cards have no worries in this area.”

Defensive Line
This has become a strength of the Arizona defense. They’re the fifth best unit in the league where sacks are concerned, and they’re doing a fair job against the run, allowing only four yards per carry. Antonio Smith (18 tackles, 2 1/2 sacks) and Bertrand Berry (11 tackles, 2 sacks) play the left and right end spots, respectively. Darnell Dockett (20 tackles, 5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles) returns to play one of the tackle positions and Gabe Watson (13 tackles) will line up along side of Dockett.

Homer says: “They’ve done a good job getting after the quarterback, but if you look at the teams they’ve played, then their numbers suddenly don’t look so hot. Arizona’s gotten 14 sacks but their opponents have given up 58. The Panthers have given up only 6, so don’t think that Arizona is going to continue their party here. They can be run on too, and the Panthers will take advantage of that.”

Hater says: “This is how a defensive line plays when the coach lights a fire under them. Maybe the Panthers will finally get a clue as they watch their offensive line get crushed beneath a real pass rush.”

Linebackers
Calvin Pace (21 tackles, 1 sack), Gerald Hayes (31 tackles, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble) and Karlos Dansby (43 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble) start at the linebacker spots. This is a fairly young group without a lot of depth. As a unit, they’re decent versus the run but soft in coverage.

Homer says: “This is where having David Carr or Vinny Testaverde will work out for the Panthers. Passing underneath the coverage will be available, and Davidson will game plan for that. The advantage there, of course, is that short passes don’t take a long time to develop, and those plays won’t give the defensive line time to bring pressure.”

Hater says: “The Panthers can go with a QB who can’t get the ball to their playmaker, or one that has just as much rhythm with the Arizona defense as he does with the Panther receivers. Short passes take timing, and the Panthers don’t have it. That leaves the running game, which is where this group shines. Too bad for our running backs that they force fumbles too…”

Defensive Backs
This unit has really improved under the new coaching staff. The defensive backs are anchored by pro-bowl safety Adrian Wilson. Wilson (34 tackles, 2 INT) is a strong blitzer, can stop the run, delivers hard hits and is by far the best defensive player for the Cards. He’s lining up next to a new partner in free safety Terrence Holt (19 tackles, one forced fumble). Corners are where the Cardinals suffered last year, and although Eric Green (20 tackles) has returned newcomer Rod Hood (16 tackles, 2 INT) has won the other starting spot.

Homer says: “The secondary does well against the run, but it’s job is defending the pass. Neither corner can cover Steve Smith, and he’ll draw enough attention that Colbert and King will find themselves open regularly. Assuming the running game keeps the safeties honest, the pass will still be open.”

Hater says: “Just pray that they don’t blitz…”

Prognosis
Homer says: “Ok, we have a matchup against two teams that are tied for first, and there are other similarities. Both teams have lost their starting quarterbacks, and that’s going to be very disruptive to each offense. Both teams can play defense, and both have receiving corps that scare opposing defensive coordinators. The difference is in their recent history. Arizona is used to losing, the Panthers expect to win. The Cardinals are in new territory and excited to be there, while the Panthers are annoyed that they haven’t been dominant.

When the Cardinals have the ball, they’re going to be tentative against our defense. Their tackles can’t stop the pass rush, and it’s coming from the right side where Warner can see it. Expect a lot of passes thrown more to get rid of the ball than to put it in the receivers’ hands. Our linebackers are fast enough to keep James from running wild too. Arizona is going to move the ball, but in money situations it won’t get far.

When the Panthers have the ball it will be more of the same. Depending on who starts, the Panthers will either do a lot of bootlegs and short passes or they’ll give Arizona a heavy dose of the run. When they get close, Kasay will show Racker what reliability means.

Figure on a low scoring game, which will be a surprise given how mediocre both these defenses have been. Once it gets tight and the Cards look at the chances they’ve squandered the old butterflies will return. When it gets tight for the Panthers they’ll ignore their mistakes, look to Kasay, and be comforted.

Panthers win a close one, 13-10″

Hater says: “Kurt Warner vs. Vinny Testaverde? Now THAT inspires confidence…

Warner may not have the mobility he once did but he won’t need much to get the ball out to Boldin and Fitzgerald, and let’s not forget Pope and even James. The Cards have all kinds of players who can catch the ball and they don’t mind using them. They also play with intensity and confidence, which are characteristics the Panthers have lacked lately.

When the Cards have the ball they’ll move it confidently down the field with a series of short runs and passes. No one on that team feels like they need a big play to win, and they’ll have the veteran presence of Warner in the huddle to keep them focused. In the red zone the Panthers have no one who can match up with Pope, and Fitzgerald is money there as well. Racker won’t be kicking anything but extra points.

When the Panthers have the ball expect the Carolina fans to explode in frustration. Outside of a couple decent runs, they’ll do nothing. Three and out will be how it starts, and probably how it ends. The Cardinals will put eight in the box to stop the run and dare Carr to beat the pass rush. If it’s Testaverde, then you want Arizona as your fantasy team on Sunday because he’ll be good for at least two interceptions.

It won’t be pretty this week. Arizona 28, Carolina 6″

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Homers and Haters, New Orleans edition

Note: This article was written for the Carolina Huddle fan site, and originally appeared in their forums here.

The Panthers head to New Orleans this weekend in a showdown with the team that many thought would represent the NFC in the Super Bowl this year. Instead, the Panthers have come out flat and New Orleans has yet to win a game. In sharp contrast to last year’s 10-6 campaign, the Saints’ offense is finding it difficult to score. They’ve yet to get a sack, and their defense has been unable to keep opposing offenses out of the end zone.

Last year the Saints were as fortunate as a team can hope to be. They were almost injury free. Virtually all of first-year-coach Sean Payton’s decisions were the right ones. They were lucky in the draft and free agency as well, netting highly productive players from both. Their schedule turned out to be kind, with most of the NFC South battling injuries and poor play.

In the 2006 draft the Saints found starters Reggie Bush, Roman Harper, Jahri Evans, and Marques Colston. In this year’s rookie class only Usama Young has been able to get on the field, and just as a backup defensive back and special teamer. In the 2006 Free Agency period, the Saints got quarterback Drew Brees and middle linebacker Scott Fujita. This year’s most significant acquisition has been cornerback Jason David. Last year the Saints pulled off draft day trades for starters Hollis Thomas and Jeff Faine. This year they got a backup kicker. In short, things haven’t quite gone their way so far in 2007.

Last year the Saints represented a city on the mend. This year the realities of living in a rebuilding city are showing. According to a recent USA Today article, New Orleans has a higher crime rate than before Katrina, it’s infrastructure is still unstable, and residents are basically stressed out from living in a construction zone. Maybe the Saints are still representing, but it’s not a representation of hope. Then again, maybe they’re still capable of bringing some of that to the people of New Orleans and continuing to inspire New Orleans’ recovery.

Here’s what to expect in the Superdome on Sunday.

Quarterback
Last year Drew Brees was a legitimate MVP candidate. He threw for 4,418 yards and 26 touchdowns, and maintained a 96.2 rating. So far in 2007 he’s not even close to those numbers. Much of his problems stem from the fact that the Saints are forced to throw the ball more this year. Through three games last season, Drew Brees had thrown 99 passes, completing 62 for 714 yards. He had scored three touchdowns and only had two interceptions. This year the Saints have been in more obvious passing situations, and the defenses have reacted. Through the first three games in 2007, Brees has been called on to throw 130 times. He’s completed 83 for 677 yards, one touchdown and seven interceptions. He’s also fumbled the ball twice, and his rating is a lowly 57.1.

Homer says: “Drew Brees played lights-out in 2006 but has clearly come down to earth this year. Just like his coach has experienced, the decisions Brees makes that were so good last year are just terrible now. He’s turned the ball over NINE times in just three games, which isn’t really what you look for in an MVP candidate. It could be a severe case of happy feet, it could be that Drew misses Joe Horn, it could be that he’s consistently in more obvious passing situations. Regardless, Brees is not getting it done. A quarterback needs an offensive line, a running game, and receivers to be successful in the NFL, and Brees doesn’t even have two of three this year.”

Hater says: “Brees has been underestimated before and always seems to find a way to make people pay when that happens. Before everyone starts planning on a big defensive day, here’s something to keep in mind. The knock on Brees is his lack of arm strength and size. He’s a great on-the-field leader and a very accurate passer, particularly in short crossing routes. The Panthers haven’t been vulnerable to the long ball this season, but the short game is another story. Harrington, Schaub, and Garcia have all looked like pro-bowlers exploiting our secondary. Brees actually IS a pro-bowler. And try this number on for size: 94.74. That’s the combined quarterback rating the Panthers are allowing this year. All Brees needs is to get hot at the right time and the Panthers are going to be burned badly.”

Running Backs
The Saints started the season just as they ended 2006, with Deuce McAlister and Reggie Bush lining up in the backfield. McAlister is a workhorse type of back, excellent between the tackles and a strong power runner. Bush is better in space, using his speed to hit the edge and accelerating away from the defense. Last season Bush set a rookie record for passes caught by a running back. Unfortunately for the Saints, McAllister injured his ACL against the Titans in week three, and is out for the season. That leaves Bush as the Saints’ primary back. So far this season Bush has only averaged 2.8 yards per carry. Aaron Stecker (5 carries for 27 yards) will back up Bush.

Homer says: “Deuce McAlister is still the Saints’ best option at running back and he won’t get another carry until next year. Instead the Saints will call on Reggie Bush to be their every-down back. So far in 2007 Reggie Bush has more endorsements than yards from scrimmage. Maybe Bush wants to be like Emmitt Smith, but someone needs to tell him to wait until he’s out of the backfield before he starts dancing with the stars. The Panthers will have no problem shutting him down at all, he does that by himself. Oh, and two fumbles already? Reggie Bust.”

Hater says: “It’s actually hard to worry about the Saints’ running backs, unless you fear the unknown. Bush is not going to scare anyone lining up in the backfield, but Stecker is somewhat of a mystery. He’s not tall but weighs in at 213 pounds and can hit the hole like a fullback. In limited action this year he’s getting 5.4 yards per carry, which is tops among Saints running backs. Unless the Panthers get some run blocking on their defensive line he could look like a star. As far as Bush, if you just try running him between the tackles he’s going to look pretty ordinary. However, Payton uses him in space, throws him the ball a lot (he broke a record last year that way), and finds creative ways to put him in space with the ball. A fast aggressive defense can contain him, but the only one of those that’s been seen in Carolina this year belonged to Tampa Bay.”

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
In 2006 Marques Colston finished third in Offensive Rookie of the Year balloting after catching 70 passes for 1,038 yards and eight touchdowns. He returns as the primary receiver and has caught 18 passes for 185 yards and a touchdown. Devery Henderson (4, 45) mans the other starting slot, and Terrance Copper (3, 29), David Patten (5, 90), and Lance Moore (9, 100) round out this group. The Saints used their number one pick in 2007 on Robert Meacham from Tennessee, but he has yet to appear in a game. At Tight End, ex-49er Eric Johnson has performed well, catching 16 passes for 98 yards.

Homer says: “This one is almost laughable. Marques Colston is showing why he was drafted in the 7th round and Devery Henderson is playing like Devery Handsofstone. In fairness, this unit could probably be effective if they had time to get open, but it’s not happening. Neither starter can match up with the Panthers’ starting cornerbacks, and none of their receivers have a history of doing particularly well against Carolina. An easy day for the secondary.”

Hater says: “The receiving corps for the Saints is a victim of a hurried passer more than anything. They’re getting open enough, and if Brees has the time to make the throw they’re hauling in the catch. Colston is catching 70% of the balls thrown his way, and Lance Moore’s grabbing 60%. All told, through three games the Saints’ receivers have caught 39 of 69 passes thrown their way (57%), which isn’t that bad when you consider that the Panther receivers have caught 30 of 52 (58%). This is actually the most productive unit on the Saints.”

Offensive Line
The Saints are playing with almost the same offensive line that was outstanding in 2006. The success they enjoyed in 2006 is not happening in 2007 though. In protection the Saints are still performing somewhat well, allowing four sacks in three games (in 2006 the Saints surrendered 23 sacks in 16 games). This is a fairly young unit, with an average of just under five years in the league per player. Third year man Jammal Brown lines up at the left tackle position and Jonathan Stinchcomb is in his fifth year on the right. At guards, former Panther Jamar Nesbit (ninth year) is the old man of the line on the left side and second year man Jahri Evans is on the left. Jeff Faine returns for his fifth year at center. The Saints use a lot of counters and misdirection in Payton’s offensive scheme, and the execution starts here.

Homer says: “In New York, Sean Payton became well known for the way he came up with innovative schemes that disguised the weaknesses of his line. He then became well known for not adjusting those schemes after opposing teams figured them out, and was all but replaced in midseason. Apparently no one’s told him that he’s not the only guy in the league who can study film. His line’s been exposed as the collection of has-beens and never-will-be players that everyone knew they were, which is why Drew Brees seems to be constantly facing pressure and the running game is producing 30 fewer yards per game than last year. Someone needs to tell this collection of turnstiles that the phrase, ‘The big easy’ should NEVER apply to football. Not until after the Panthers get well against them though.”

Hater says: “Nothing makes an offensive line feel better than facing the 2007 Panther defensive front. Peppers can covered with an overweight offensive tackle, Rucker has disappeared, and Kemo is only effective in a straight line. The only Panther defensive lineman that this group needs to worry about is Jenkins, and they can throw two linemen at him and still have the running back for a last minute block if needed. So far the Saints’ offensive line has looked mediocre, but that’s been against three very good defenses (5th, 9th, and 11th in the league). Now that the Panthers are in town with their 23rd ranked defense, look for them to get better in a hurry.”

Defensive Line
This unit is also unchanged from last year. Charles Grant (13 tackles) and Will Smith (10 tackles) anchor the defensive end positions for this group, while Hollis Thomas (4 tackles) and Brian Young (4 tackles) guard the interior. They still lack depth in this unit, which was partly responsible for their being 23rd against the run in 2006. In 2007 the Saints are giving up 116 yards per game, which is good for 18th in the league.

Homer says: “This is why the Panthers will win. Simply put, the Saints can’t stop the one-two punch of DeShaun Foster and Deangelo Williams. Last year when the Saints were playing lights-out Foster still averaged 5.3 yards per carry against them. Williams was good for 4.1 and caught seven balls against the Saints for another 61 yards. If that’s not bad enough, both games were played with the Panthers starting a makeshift offensive line. This unit also doesn’t bring pressure to the QB, not that the Panthers were ever really worried about that anyway…”

Hater says: “This unit may have trouble against the run, but they’re disciplined and won’t make mistakes. They’ve actually surrendered 3.7 yards per carry, which is better than the four yards that the Panthers give up, and they’re allowing fewer yards per game than the Panthers do. Foster can get his stats, but only if Davidson doesn’t abandon the running game in an effort to establish the pass.”

Linebackers
The Saints signed Brian Simmons (1 tackle) away from the Bengals in hopes that he would take over at the middle linebacker spot, but he was unable to unseat Mark Simoneau (18 tackles). Scott Fujita (24 tackles) and Scott Schanle (11 tackles) line up on the strong side and weak side, respectively. As with the defensive line, this unit is unchanged from 2006.

Homer says: “What is it with the Saints and defense? Surely no one looked at their 2006 squad and saw potential, did they? Their linebackers are mediocre against the run and mediocre in coverage. Sure they can stop the run, but only after it’s in the secondary. They can help in coverage but only by preventing the short gains from becoming long ones. There’s no way that King doesn’t catch at least six balls against this group, and Foster and Williams will be able to run sweeps on them at will.”

Hater says: “As with the Defensive Line, the Saints Linebackers are not world beaters but instead are a reliable, disciplined unit that doesn’t make too many mistakes. They don’t surrender long runs, they don’t make penalties, and they don’t miss their assignments. They can be beaten, but only by an offense that’s running on all cylinders.”

Defensive Backs
At cornerback the Saints began the season with 2006 starter Mike McKenzie (8 tackles) and ex-Colt Jason David (12 tackles). David fractured his arm in week three and will likely be replaced by either Jason Craft (9 tackles) or the other 2006 starter Fred Thomas. Second year man Roman Harper (19 tackles) has returned from a knee injury to start at the Strong Safety position, while Josh Bullocks (20 tackles) is lining up as the Free Safety.

Homer says: “The deeper you get into the secondary, the worse it gets for the Saints. For starters, take Jason David. He was a reject from the “vaunted” Colts secondary, and he was still the best they had. Now even his backup is going to be the starter. Smitty is trying to get angry about something they said or did, but about all he can grab on to is the fact that they’re TOO afraid of him, and that just pisses him off. What does it mean again when your defensive backs lead the team in tackles? It means the opposing Offensive Coordinator leaves the stadium with a big grin on his face, that’s what it means.”

Hater says: “This unit is where the Saints need help, but there’s good news for them. The Panthers will be starting David Carr, who has a lifetime rating of 75.2 (60.5 in 2007) and wasted no time last week against the Bucs in cementing his backup status with a paltry 211 yards and an INT. If Carr was willing to throw deep he might be able to take advantage of a weak Saints’ secondary. Unfortunately, Carr’s internal clock is all about when he should throw the ball out of bounds or run backwards to take the sack, so New Orleans has no worries here.”

Prognosis
Homer says: “This is an easy one to predict. The Panthers are one of the scariest road teams in the NFL this year, and the Saints are once again the Aints. This New Orleans team can’t score, they can’t play defense, and they can’t figure out why thinks just aren’t working for them any more. It’s so bad that the Saints are the only team in the league that the Rams have circled on their calendar as a win. Everything has gone wrong so far, and it’s just going to get worse. Maybe this year New Orleans will actually get a game-changer with their top five pick.

When the Saints have the ball, they’re going nowhere. This week the Panthers will be able to finally get a rush going from their defensive line. The Saints are decent in protection actually, but they can’t run so the Panther linebackers should be able to stay in coverage and make Drew Brees hold the ball too long. That’s going to result in a couple sacks and an INT or two. Don’t be surprised if the Saints don’t score in this game, they’re that bad on offense.

When the Panthers have the ball it’s going to be one long, sustained drive after another. Fantasy Football players everywhere are dropping defenses like the Bears and Ravens in an effort to start whoever’s playing the Saints. The Saints can’t stop the run, and can’t cover the pass. They have no rush and don’t cause turnovers. This is going to be an easy day for David Carr to get comfortable with his receivers.

Final score, Panthers 27, Saints 10″

Hater says: “Against last year’s Panthers this would be an easy call, even with their injuries. Against the 2005 squad? Easy call. Even the 2001 team would probably go to New Orleans and give them hell and possibly walk out with a win. Not this year’s edition though. The 2007 Panther offense is just as predictable as Dan Henning’s was, the defense has no heart, and the Special Teams play has gotten worse. Pit that against a Saints team that’s angry about last years two losses to the Panthers, frustrated about not winning a game, and coming off a bye, and you have a recipe for a loss.

You can bet that Sean Payton has spent the last two weeks reviewing tape, and has put in several plays designed to exploit the soft Panther middle. Drew Brees will have a field day throwing short pass after short pass, easily beating the slow Panther rush and taking advantage of three Panther linebackers who are dreadful in coverage. Payton will use Reggie Bush in ways that maximize his skills–the Saints will throw lots of short passes to Bush out of the backfield where all that stands between him and a large gain is a Panther defensive back, and none of the Carolina DBs have been good enough to stop those passes so far. This is a game where the Saints offense begins looking like the 2006 edition again.

On defense the Saints will stack eight men in the box until David Carr shows that he can hit the short pass consistently. Even if Foster and Williams rack up some good running yards, Jeff Davidson has already shown a disturbing tendency to call three quick passes that kill a drive. The Panthers will probably score early with their running game, but as the Saints open their lead the Cats will become one-dimensional. With Carr at the helm, that means the game is over.

Another Panther loss is on the horizon. With two bad defenses on the field look for a high scoring Saints victory. New Orleans 38, Carolina 24.”

Comments

Homers and Haters, Tampa Bay edition

Note: This article was written for the Carolina Huddle fan site, and originally appeared in their forums here.

Tampa Bay comes to Charlotte this Sunday in a match of the two division leaders. The Panthers own a 8-5 overall record against the Bucs, and have won seven of the last eight in the series including a sweep in 2006.

The 2006 Bucs had the second most punts in the league, three players made triple digits in tackles, and the offense managed just 237 first downs. In short, their offense was terrible and it showed in their record. A lot of Tampa’s problems could be attributed to injuries, but they weren’t content to just get healthy. The Bucs took decisive action in the offseason. They overhauled some key positions in free agency and drafted for defense, and a lot of people in South Florida believe they’ve made the necessary effort to get back to the playoffs.

As their 2-1 record suggests, these Bucs are not the same team the Panthers swept in 2006. Last year’s starting quarterback is now fourth on the depth chart, and they have all new starters on the left side of the offensive line. Tampa’s defense is playing well, and they have a very good mix of veteran experience and youthful energy.

Quarterback
Jeff Garcia is the Buc’s starting QB this season, and has performed well in the role. After a season where he had 1309 yards, 10 TD’s, and only two interceptions, Garcia has started in Tampa right about where he left off in Philadelphia. Through three games he’s maintained a 105.6 rating by throwing for 595 yards and two touchdowns. He has yet to turn the ball over. Backing up Garcia are Luke McCown and Bruce Gradkowski.

Homer Says: “Jeff Garcia is 37 years old and is playing for his fifth team in the past five years. Kind of makes you wonder how comfortable his teammates are in the locker room with him, huh? Just say that no one is in a hurry to hit the showers and leave it at that, ok? On the field, he’s playing his own version of the prevent offense, “bend them (over) but don’t break them.” How can a guy maintain a 100+ rating with almost 200 yards per game for three games and only score two touchdowns? At least he still has his spleen, and if he wants to keep it he’ll be getting rid of the ball in a hurry. He’ll pad his stats between the 30 yard lines, but once the field gets short and the middle closes don’t look for too much from him.”

Hater Says: “Last year Garcia put up 312 yards and three TDs on us, and that was back when our defensive line believed in pressuring the QB. Garcia is a mobile west coast offense specialist, who excels at getting the ball out quickly and accurately. He doesn’t need a lot of time because he’s never going to try and beat you long–he’s only averaging 9.2 yards per catch. Instead, he’ll carve an opponent up in the short passing game. Unfortunately, that’s exactly where the Panthers are vulnerable. We’ve folded before effective west coast offenses before, and now with our gaping holes in the secondary coverage we’re pretty ripe for the picking. We gave up 361 yards to Joey-freaking-Harrington, for crying out loud! Unless our safeties and linebackers start playing like they know how to defend the pass, we’re in for a very long afternoon.”

Running Backs
Cadillac Williams has yet to return to the explosiveness exhibited in his rookie season, but remains the primary running option in Tampa Bay. Williams has rushed for 167 yards so far, and at the same 3.5 yards per carry he averaged in 2006. However, while the Caddy found the endzone only once last season he’s already scored three touchdowns in 2007. So far his biggest problem in 2007 has been turnovers, as Williams has lost two fumbles so far. The rest of the lineup remains unchanged, with Michael Pittman and Earnest Graham lining up behind him. Fullback B.J. Askew is known more for his special teams play than carrying the ball.

Homer Says: “Tampa’s running game won’t scare anyone. They’ve played some pretty soft run defenses in Seattle (16th), New Orleans (19th) and St. Louis (28th), and Williams has still only managed to eke out a miserable 3.5 yards per carry. It’s bad enough that after only three games his coach has had to field questions about changing to a running back by committee system. Fortunately for the Buc’s opponents, Chuckie’s decided to stay with Williams as the starter. As long as you can keep Williams from lulling you to sleep, you can shut down Pittman and Graham pretty easily.”

Hater Says: “Yards per carry statistics don’t matter a lot when your quarterback is good enough to get you in third and short consistently. Williams is a speed back who hits the hole quickly and with enough pop to get a few yards when they’re needed. He may have had health problems in his short career, but Caddilac is healthy now and has already scored three touchdowns. Earnest Graham has carried 13 times for 88 yards and two TD’s, and Pittman’s gone 15 for 80. That means as a unit the Bucs have averaged 4.4 ypc, which is good enough for 13th in the league. Or if you prefer, a much better average than the Texans, Rams, or Falcons have managed.”

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
The receivers in Tampa Bay are a talented unit with several question marks. Their primary receiver, Joey Galloway, is 35 and has a history of injuries. Ike Hilliard and Michael Clayton both look like their best years are behind them (to be fair, Clayton is still young but he’s never looked the same since a strong rookie year). Second-year-man Maurice Stovall and return man Mark Jones round out this unit, but neither have caught a pass in 2007. At tight end, Alex Smith looks to be rebounding from a disappointing sophomore season with seven receptions for 95 yards, a 13.6 yard per catch average.

Homer Says: “What’s to worry about here? David Boston was supposed to be a part of this unit, but after looking at the age and talent level of both his opposite receiver and Quarterback, he decided to drink himself off the team instead. Joey Galloway passed his prime long before he even joined the Bucs in 2004, and although he’ll get a ball or two he doesn’t make plays like he used to. Ike Hilliard has been having ankle problems all season and Clayton has caught a whopping two passes in three games. As a matter of fact, the ENTIRE Bucs receiving corps have only caught 23 balls so far this year. The only possible bright spot here is the Tight End, who has pulled in seven balls per … wait, that’s for all three games? Never mind.”

Hater Says: “The Bucs are a slow and steady team with a balanced and deliberate offense. The Wide Receivers won’t kill you with speed, but they’re very experienced and still know how to get the job done. 61% of their catches go for first downs, and at tight end 71% of Alex Smith’s grabs move the chains. When you consider how soft Carolina’s middle is, and look at Thomas Davis’ coverage skills, this group almost guarantees at least one very long sustained drive on Sunday.”

Offensive Line
This unit was a real weakness for Tampa Bay in 2006, particularly on the left side. That’s been overhauled with good results in 2007. The Bucs signed Luke Petitgout away from the Giants to anchor the left tackle slot, and drafted Arron Sears in the second round to play the left guard. Center John Wade, right guard Davin Joseph, and right tackle Jeremy Trueblood return from a solid 2006 campaign. So far they’ve been much more effective than last year’s unit, surrendering only four sacks after giving up 49 last year.

Homer Says: “This line better be prepared come Sunday. The Panthers and Bucs don’t like each other and there’s nothing like a good old fashioned rivalry to wake up a slumbering defense. The last time the Bucs visited Bank of America Stadium, Julius Peppers had three sacks and the Bucs could only manage 69 yards on the ground. In Tampa Bay they gained only 64 yards and Peppers had another sack while Chris Simms lost his spleen. The Carolina defense has been deadly against the Bucs, and you can expect their line to just be outmatched and overwhelmed this week.”

Hater Says: “No one in Tampa is looking for their line to provide anything more than solid protection and the occasional hole. The linemen are athletic and adept at giving Garcia more time than he needs to get rid of the ball. Last year was last year, and none of the Panthers are even playing at same level they limped through 2006 with anyway. Tampa Bay has looked at the game film from Atlanta, and now know that all you have to do is stand in front of Peppers and Rucker to keep them from getting to the QB, and as long as you don’t run straight at Kemo you can take advantage of his lack of lateral quickness and spring into the secondary. This group is going to give Garcia as long as he needs to find the open man. A defensive front who could only manage one sack against a team that was giving up six and a half per game certainly isn’t going to challenge Tampa’s group.”

Defensive Line
This has traditionally been a strength of the Buccaneers, and after a disappointing 2006 there has been a major change here. The Bucs have let ends Simeon Rice and Dewayne White go while spending the No. 4 pick in the draft on Gaines Adams (5 tackles), a stud defensive end out of Clemson. Adams currently backs up free agent Kevin Carter (12 tackles, .5 sacks and one forced fumble) at the right defensive end. Greg Spires (13 tackles, 1 sack) lines up at the left defensive end, while Chris Hovan (5 tackles) and Jovan Haye (8 tackles, 1 sack) return at the defensive tackle spots. Tampa Bay uses a rotation on the interior with Greg Peterson (7 tackles, .5 sacks) and Ryan Sims to keep the line fresh.

Homer Says: “Tampa Bay’s defense is allowing 125 rushing yards per game against some of the worst running teams in the league in Seattle (17th), St. Louis (21st), and New Orleans (27th). The Panthers are putting up 142 yards per game on the ground, and doing it without big stat-padding runs. Look for the Cats to run right at the Bucs and keep their linebackers honest. Last year Foster was running behind a makeshift line and still averaged almost four yards per carry. This time he has Bridges and Hartwig opening the interior holes, and should have a big day.”

Hater Says: “In protection, the Panthers have allowed six sacks already. On defense the Bucs have managed five, so you can count on at least a couple of sacks and tons of hurries when the two teams meet. Since Carr is going to play, you can count on having several drives killed that way. They have plenty of youth and depth here and will be fresh enough in the fourth quarter to shut down our running game. And just like the offensive line, the defense has the game film from Atlanta and you can bet that they’ve shown the Abraham highlight reel to their DEs time and time again. The book is out on how to get through our line, and Tampa’s read it.”

Linebackers
The linebackers are another unit where the Buccaneers have replaced aging stars with young talent. Shelton Quarles is gone after 10 years in the middle, which is manned by third-year-pro Barrett Ruud (35 tackles, 2 forced fumbles, one Int.). Tampa also signed Pro Bowler Cato June (14 tackles, one Int.) from the Colts, placing him on the strong side. 34-year-old Derrick Brooks (25 tackles, 2 forced fumbles) returns on the weak side.

Homer Says: “The Tampa LBs are supposedly decent in coverage, but since their line is allowing so many rushing yards they will have to play up so we won’t get to see that. This group will have their hands full trying to keep Foster under five yards per carry, which is giving Jeff King reasons to plan for a big game. We should be able to match up against them well, particularly if the zone blocking scheme can open holes for the running game.”

Hater Says: “This group has more interceptions than the defensive backs do. David Carr is not going to find easy lanes in the two seconds he allows himself every play before throwing it out of bounds or running backwards and crumbling into a fetal position. They’re disciplined and stay in their areas. They’re also ball hawks, adept at causing fumbles. That doesn’t bode well for either Williams or Foster, both of whom are known to cough it up occasionally. If we’re in third and long against these guys then go ahead and get Baker warmed up.”

Defensive Backs
Jermaine Phillips (24 tackles, one sack, one Int.) returns at the strong safety position, and is joined by fourth round pick Tanard Jackson (15 tackles), who beat out last year’s starter Will Allen (3 tackles) at the free safety position. Ronde Barber (13 tackles, 1 forced fumble) returns at one corner, and is re-joined on the other side by Brian Kelly (5 tackles).

Homer Says: “The Bucs have a good secondary that gets tons of opportunities to make plays because they find the ball back there so often. When your defensive backs are all team leaders in tackles doesn’t that indicate that the ball is getting past the line a little too often? Barber is old and has been abused by Smith in the past, and Brian Kelly isn’t exactly a shutdown corner. This group may not give up too many big plays, but they won’t be able to stop us from executing our game plan.”

Hater Says: “The Bucs defense is already ninth in the league in pass defense, in large part because of their DBs. Like the linebackers, they’re talented, disciplined and have completely bought in to Kiffin’s system. There’s no way Carr will go deep on them, his best bet is to hit some underneath routes and hope a receiver can break one. When we get to the red zone though, don’t look for those routes to appear. The Bucs have allowed only two touchdowns through the air this year, in large part because of this unit.”

Prognosis
Homer Says: “The way the NFC South works is simple. The Bucs beat the Falcons, the Falcons beat the Panthers, and the Panthers beat the Bucs. So now they’re up, and down they’re going to go. The Panthers always psyched for Tampa Bay and always give them a great game. A lot of naysayers will point out that so far this year, the talent’s been there but hasn’t been tapped. This will change on Sunday.

Look for Peppers to finally get on track, and overwhelm the right side of their line. When that happens the rest of the defensive line will feed off of it and bring their A game. Jenkins is already playing lights-out, and with McClover likely to finally play Panthers front four will deliver the defensive pressure Panther fans have been waiting for. Our corners have always played the Buccaneer receivers well, and with the troubles the Bucs have had running the ball on such stalwart defenses as St. Louis and New Orleans, don’t expect them to do anything on the ground. Once their offense becomes one-dimensional, it’s over.

David Carr is not a drop-off from Delhomme either. Given time he’s not only more than capable of leading the offense, he also spreads the ball around better than Jake does and his release is faster. With the strength that our running game has shown this year, Carr should have plenty of time to find a receiver and a soft secondary to exploit. The Panthers should have a really balanced attack Sunday, and will shut down the Bucs easily.”

Panthers 20, Bucs 9

Hater Says: “What sets the Bucs apart from the teams the Panthers have beaten is that they’ve actually won a game in 2007. Like the Panthers, they’ve gotten healthy and brought in some needed youth on their defense. Unlike the Panthers, they’re actually playing defense this year. While the Panthers have matched their record, they’ve given up 67 points while the Bucs have only surrendered 37. This team is still built on defense and it shows.

The good news is that the Panthers have scored more than Tampa this year. Through three games the Cats have put up a whopping two more TDs than the Bucs. Of course, that was also with their first string quarterback, who won’t be available this week. Carr is going to have to make his debut against against an agressive defense that’s gotten strong results this season. Panther fans will finally get a chance to see him play, unfortunately it will look like he’s back in Houston, circa 2002.

When the Bucs have the ball they move it. Jeff Garcia is the perfect fit for John Gruden’s offense, and his short passing game makes up for any deficiencies in the running attack. The Panthers have already shown that they can be exploited by the short passing game, and that’s Garcia’s specialty. Look for the Panther linebackers to get worn out chasing down passes through the first three quarters. Then, with the platoon of backs they have, Tampa Bay will be able to keep the pressure on in the fourth quarter with fresh legs in their running game.

This is a tough enough contest when the Panther’s defense is playing well. Given that they’re not, it looks to be a long afternoon in Carolina.

Bucs 24, Panthers 13″

Comments

Homers and Haters, Atlanta edition

Note: This article was written for the Carolina Huddle fan site, and originally appeared in their forums here.

This week the Panthers head to Atlanta, where they hope to rebound from their home loss to the Houston Texans. In the Falcons, they have an opponent with a lot of familiarity, but which is at the same time a very different team from the one they split with in 2007.

A new coaching staff always brings change to a football team, but the changes in Atlanta go a little above and beyond anyone’s expectations. Start with the loss of both of their primary backup QBs, their starting DE, a starting LB, and half of their receiving corps, and you have what could be called a major shake-up. Then add the coaching change and throw in the Michael Vick circus, and you have the Atlanta off-season.

Bobby Petrino has minimal NFL experience but is well regarded as a creative offensive genious. He’ll be tasked with coaxing a successful performance out of free agent QB Joey Harrington. Among his other challenges will be shaping up a defense that could charitably be called inconsistent in 2006. If he succeeds at both the Falcons could contend for the playoffs. If he fails at either, the Falcons will strong contenders in the Brian Brohm sweepstakes.

Here is what you can expect from the 2007 edition of the Atlanta Falcons.

Quarterback
Now that Vick is gone, the focus is on Joey Harrington, formerly of Detroit and Miami. The third overall pick in 2001, Harrington has been cursed with poor coaching, mediocre protection and just plain bad teams. This is probably Harrington’s last chance to be viewed as a legitimate NFL starter. His lifetime QB rating is 68, although many feel he still has potential to be much better. Through the first two games in 2007 he has raised it to 74.1, despite being sacked 13 times.

Homer: “Joey Harrington hasn’t thrown a touchdown pass since the republicans controlled congress. He’s thrown several interceptions though, so it’s not like he hasn’t made a contribution. Expect Lucas and Gamble to both take advantage Sunday, and look for Jooo-eeeey to get booed by the home crowd no later than the third posession.”

Hater: “Joey Harrington is an accurate passer who’s willing to stand in the pocket and take a hit. He’s not getting the protection he needs right now, but he’s more than capable of making the quick short pass. As Matt Schaub showed last week, that’s the formula for killing the Panther’s defense. He won’t kill you with the long ball, but if he has any game film at all he knows he won’t need to.

Running Backs
It’s interesting to see the effect that the absence of Vick has on the running game. Age is a factor too, as Warrick Dunn is 32 and coming off back surgery this offseason. So far he’s only averaged 3.0 yards per carry, down from 4.0 in 2006. Backing him up is second year pro Jerious Norwood, a quick back who averaged 6.4 yards per carry last season but so far is averaging 4.5 this year. At the fullback spot is one of the biggest acquisitions the Falcons made in the offseason, ex-Raven Ovie Mughelli. Mughelli is a powerful blocker who fits Petrino’s offensive scheme well, and is not expected to carry the ball much.

Homer: “Well, the foul clowns have lost their best running back in Vick, so they’re stuck with Done and Injurious. Neither fit Petrino’s scheme and it shows. Both are capable runners but require these things called holes to run through. Based on the season to date, holes aren’t a part of Petrino’s offense. Still, either can be dangerous catching passes out of the backfield, but as long as Harrington is the QB we won’t need to worry about that.”

Hater: “Last year the same group of backs ran all over this defensive line on opening day. This is the group that also ran through Dan Morgan and knocked him out for the season. The Falcons have started against two of the better defenses in the league. Their running game will get a lot better, and as the line gets more accustomed to Petrino’s schemes those holes will show up. Look for Mughelli to nuetralize our linebackers, and if the holes start opening against what has been an ineffective Panthers defensive front, the Falcons could have a big day on the ground.”

Wide Receiver/Tight End
The Receivers in Atlanta for the most part never really clicked with Vick. He connected with only 52.6 percent of his passes in 2006, and with Harrington at they helm they’re already bringing in a much more respectable 67.3 percent. As a group, that’s good for seventh in the league. The Falcons signed New Orleans’ Joe Horn (3 catches, 48 yards) in the offseason to be their new number one receiver. On the other side is Roddy White (8 catches, 110 yards), who has deep threat speed but lacks reliability. Backing them up are former number one receiver Michael Jenkins (3, 28), Adam Jennings, and third round draft choice Laurent Robinson (3, 32). The Tight End is all-pro Alge Crumpler (7 catches, 93 yards) and they use a number of two tight end sets with Dwayne Blakely (2, 18).

Homer: “Joe Horn could be good, but his new job as spokesman for the AARP is getting in the way of his football commitment this season. White could be good too, but you have to catch the ball more than you drop it to be considered as such. He had seven drops last year and didn’t even catch half the passes thrown to him. Sure, it was Vick throwing, but that’s pretty bad. The only member of this group who can hurt the Panthers is Alge Crumpler, and for the reason why he won’t please refer to the Quarterback section.”

Hater: “Apparently the Falcons have had receivers all along, they just never had a good passing game when Vick was under center. Joe Horn is feeling especially good about this game because he’s heard that the Panthers aren’t bothering to cover their opponents’ number one receiver this year. He’s a very solid and experienced veteran who’s an ideal fit for the short passing game, while Roddy White is a legitimate deep threat. The biggest day will be reserved for Alge Crumpler. Didn’t Thomas Davis play safety in college? Why on earth does he have so much trouble in coverage then? Bank on this–Crumpler has seen Owen Daniel’s performance against Davis, and can’t wait for Sunday.”

Offensive Line
This is a solid unit, with four of the five starters returning. Traditionally Atlanta has relied on quick and athletic linemen to run Jim Mora’s zone blocking scheme, but Petrino has installed a new scheme that’s more complex and employs a heads-up, physical style. Left tackle Wayne Gandy and right tackle Todd Weiner are average, but center Todd McClure and right guard Kynan Forney are fairly good linemen. Joining the line this year is second round draft choice Justin Blalick, who is a larger more physical type of blocker who fits the type of scheme that Petrino wants to run.

Homer: “Ok, let me get this straight. You inherit a zone blocking line that has been partially responsible for one of the best rushing attacks in the league for several years. Said line has been put together with quick and athletic linemen, and they know their jobs well. Rather than build on that, you install a power scheme that requires big, bruising type of player. Who said Petrino was a genuis again? No wonder they can’t run any more.”

Hater: “Didn’t the Texans have a line that was suspect? Our defensive front sure has a way of making the mediocre look good this year. I expect Jenkins and Kemo to dominate for the first two series. Then, having established that they COULD be the better unit if they wanted to, they’ll pull their standard disappearing act for the rest of the game. By the second quarter Harrington will enjoy enough time in the pocket to do his best Joe Montana imitation. We could do a lot of damage against this unit, but recent history suggests we won’t unless they manage to suffer a couple of injuries.”

Defensive Line
The heart of this unit is made up of two seasoned veterans–end John Abraham (4 tackles, 1 sack) and tackles Grady Jackson (6 tackles, 1 sack) and third year man Jonathan Babineaux (5 tackles, 2 sacks). First round pick Jamaal Anderson (3 tackles) makes up the fourth member of the line. This is a talented unit, but in the past has been hurt with injury. When healthy this is a strength of the Atlanta defense.

Homer: “John Abraham figures to make a huge contribution in the four games for which he’ll be healthy this year. He’s already had two, so look for him to go down in the first quarter as a way of pacing himself for the rest of the season. And is it just me or does Grady look like Jackson the Hut? If you cut him he’ll bleed gravy. He’s the only player in the NFL who rides a little scooter when he goes shopping at the Wal-Mart. Jonathan Babineaux is the dog killer who didn’t end up in jail, and Anderson looks lost so far. There’s nothing to fear here.”

Hater: “The last time the Panthers faced a healthy John Abraham he spent more time in their backfield than Grady Jackson does in front of the refrigerator. And given that all Jackson does is plug up the middle, that size is put to good use. Anderson is an all-pro in training and Babineaux is a high-motor defensive tackle who’s looking forward to running through the Hartwig-Mathis revolving door. The Falcons defensive line has given us fits in the past when they’re healthy, and they’re healthy now.”

Linebackers
Over the last several years the linebacker group has generally been considered average at best. In the middle Atlanta starts ten year veteran Keith Brooking (15 tackles), with Demorrio Williams (6 tackles) on the strong side and Michael Boley (13 tackles) on the weak.

Homer: “The Falcons don’t have linebackers, those are special teamers who forgot to run off the field.”

Hater: “Keith Brooking is a pro-bowl linebacker who brings all kinds of leadership to the defense. Although none of the linebackers is a big run-stuffer, all of them are fast and can fly to the ball. If the Falcons can keep our offensive linemen off of the LBs, then the Panther’s running game will go nowhere. At least we won’t have to suffer through William’s and Foster fumbling everywhere.”

Defensive Backs
The Falcons have drafted for speed here, beginning with all-pro DeAngelo Hall (7 tackles, 1 INT) at cornerback. Joining him on the right side will be ex-Houston cornerback Lewis Sanders (9 tackles), who will be pushed by second round draft pick Chris Houston (2 tackles). At the safety position they line up former all-pro strong safety Lawyer Malloy (9 tackles), and former cornerback Jimmy Williams (9 tackles) at the free safety position

Homer: “Do you ever wonder what would happen if DeAngelo Hall’s play lived up to his mouth? It moves way too much for a guy who was burned as much as he was last year. Lawyer Milloy is good but he’s also 33 and with the lack of depth the Falcons has here he better not get tired. If you really want an idea of the talent pool here, just consider that they start a cast-off from the Houston Texans, a team that has never been known for their secondary.”

Hater: “This is another speed unit, and it’s capable of flying to the QB or sticking to the receivers. That’s especially effective against the Panthers because all a defense needs against them is one player fast enough to cover Smith. Atlanta loves to bring a safety up to pressure the QB, and with the lack of a second receiver the Panthers are not going to be able to counter that effectively. Expect Hall and Williams to blanket Smith all day, while Colbert and Carter make Lewis Sanders look more like Deion.”

Prognosis
Homer: “The forecast in Atlanta is pain, pain, and more pain. The Falcons and Panthers just don’t like each other, and in this matchup the Panthers clearly have an edge in talent. The receivers aren’t good enough to get open, and Harrington’s going to end up padding the DLine’s sack stats. Expect a lot of people to think that the Panthers D is getting well as a result of this game.

Their defensive line has never been great against the run, and this year the linebackers inexplicably got worse. Foster and Williams will both have big days, with 200 yards in easy reach. Smith loves it when Hall covers him, and should have another big day.

Bottom line, the Falcons were already a team in decline before their disaster of an offseason. This week the Panthers offense will show well while Harrington will have to look to week four for his first TD pass. Panthers 35-9.”

Hater: “The Panthers will probably go into Atlanta with a lot of confidence, maybe even more than they had against Houston. For the second week in a row that will burn them. In the NFL any team can beat any other on any given Sunday, and the Falcons have a lot to play for. They’re the kind of team that plays to the weaknesses on the Panthers–fast on defense and patient on offense. They also have a lot of pride and resentment from last season to work out on the field.

Look for the Falcons to play a boring, deliberate ball control game that may not reach the end zone often, but will get there enough to give the team a chance to win. On defense, expect the Falcons to follow the formula for beating the Panthers. They’ll shut down the run and blanket Steve Smith, and make our second receivers beat them. It won’t be pretty, and the Henning comparisons will begin as a result.

Falcons 17, Panthers 10″

Comments

Homers and Haters, Houston edition

Note: This article was written for the Carolina Huddle fan site, and originally appeared in their forums here.

The home opener is upon us. Fresh off a convincing win against Kansas City, the Houston Texans roll into town brimming with confidence. The Panthers have only played them once in franchise history, losing 10-14 in a game played at Houston in 2003. Since then the Panthers had a decent run of things, appearing in both the Superbowl and NFC Championship, while the Texans have yet to make a playoff appearance.

The Texans are trying to shake the “expansion” tag this year, and many feel they finally have the pieces in place to do it. With a young and athletic defense and a new franchise QB in place, they may have finally gotten the mix right in the standard NFL formula of how to build a winner. Currently they’re ranked fourth in the league in defense, although that’s only based off of one week. Last year they were actually in St. Louis Rams territory overall. Unlike St. Louis, they weren’t horrible against the run though, so you couldn’t make them one-dimensional. Their stats against the run and the pass may not be great, but they indicate a good balance on defense that the Rams didn’t and don’t have. They also had to play the Colts and Jags twice, the Eagles, Cowboys, and Patriots. That’s seven games against top ten offensive teams, which doesn’t help in the stats department.

So what did they do in the offseason? Well, they have a ton of good talent on their roster from so many years of picking near the top of the draft. Still not all of it worked out, so they started at QB by getting Matt Schaub from Atlanta. They also grabbed RB Ahman Green from the Packers, and went defensive in the draft by selecting DT Amobi Akoye with the 10th selection of the first round. Their two remaining trouble spots, offensive line and defensive secondary, got minimal help in the offseason. Sometimes that’s enough though, and given how the offensive line was coming on at the end of 2006 there could be some surprises from this team in 2007.

Expect the 2007 edition of the Texans to be a decent improvement on 2006. They won’t take the league by storm, but they have a good balance of talent all over the field. If they execute well they have the talent to sneak up on a lot of teams.

Here’s what we’ll likely see from them this Sunday.

Quarterback
The Texan’s first draft pick ever, David Carr, will be on the Carolina sideline this week as Matt Schaub lines up under center for the Texans. He was once one of the best QB’s in the ACC, second only to Philip Rivers, and was drafted by Atlanta to back up Michael Vick. He was one of the most coveted back-up QB’s in the game, and after three seasons the Falcons traded him to the Texans where he has since earned the starting role. In three preseason outings he completed 24 of 33 passes for 242 yards, and against Kansas City last week maintained that accuracy with a 16/22 performance for 225 yards and a rating of 101.5. He has great vision and makes good decisions with the ball. It’s still early in his career as a starter, but he looks a lot like the real deal.

Homer: “Matt Schaub? Are you kidding? This guy couldn’t win the starting QB spot over a glorified running back in Atlanta. In college he couldn’t buy a completion greater than 10 yards, and he hasn’t shown a lot of arm strength at the pro level either. And with the line in Houston, the only decision he’ll have time to make is whether to throw it out of bounds or take the sack. He may have looked good against KC, but this week he has to play against a real NFL defense.”

Hater: “Matt Schaub is where it starts for this game. He’s the type of quarterback that gives our defense fits. He’s accurate, calm, and a great leader. Picture Marc Bulger without the happy feet. He doesn’t have to throw the long ball to kill us, but he won’t try. He’s great at spreading the ball around. If our corners lay off the receivers, he’ll hit them short. If they press, he’ll burn us long. He’s the guy we should have traded for, and if we had you can bet that he would have been good enough to finally put Jake on the bench. Hurney sucks for not making that happen. By the way, last week the Texans went 9-14 on third down and the Panthers went 4-12. That’s the kind of difference a good QB like Schaub makes for your team.”

Running Backs
The Texans lost their franchise running back last season to a knee injury, and had to go shopping in the free agent market to replace him. They found what they were looking for when they signed Ahman Green, formerly of the Green Bay Packers. In 06 he had 1059 rushing yards, 46 receptions, and 6 TDs. The only downside he has is his age–he turned 30 this year. Still, the Texans feel he’s got at least a year left and intend to make it matter.

Homer: “Ahman who? Fumblestiltskin? I thought he was done, or was that just his career? Seriously, this guy should invent an injury before he steps on the field against us. The last time he faced our defense he went 14-36, and that was with a passing attack to keep our linebackers honest. His style of running just doesn’t mix with how our defense is put together. If you want to know about Green, just look at how much of an effort RB-starved Green Bay made to keep him.”

Hater: “Ahman Green may be old but that only helps you when it’s late in the season. It’s September and those legs are fresh and strong. This is the man who was arguably the best in the league before his injury in 2005. From 2000 to 2004 he gained more total yards from scrimmage than any back in the NFL. That includes a 120 yard game against the Panthers in 2004 and 73 in a limited effort in 2002. The guy’s a bulldozer who makes his own holes, and won’t be brought down on first contact. He’s also a receiving threat and when he’s on his game he’s easily one of the best backs we’ll face this year. Our linebacking speed won’t do us a lot of good against a back who can move the pile like Green does. And speaking of Dan Morgan, expect the entire stadium to get reeeeeeal quiet the first time Green runs into him. That bell’s just waiting to be rung, and Green’s the kind of running back that can do it.”

Wide Receivers/Tight End
Last year Andre Johnson posted career highs in catches (103) and yards (1147). Aside from his performance though, the Texans really didn’t have much else in the passing game (which sounds strangely familiar…). To address this, the Texans drafted Jacoby Jones in the third round. He currently backs up Kevin Walter but has the talent to assume the starting position this season. Their tight end, Owen Daniels, was a nice surprise last season with 34 catches and five TDs. Against the Chiefs, Houston used five different receivers and the TE.

Homer: “I admit, I respect Johnson. He keeps his mouth shut, but that could just be out of embarrassment–he’s afraid people will notice he’s playing for the Texans. He’ll get some yards and make a nice stat box, but that’s all he’ll do. When the field is compressed and there’s not a lot of room to operate, he won’t have time to… oh, wait. Was that another sack?”

Hater: “Andre Johnson is an animal out there, but you would never know it. All he does is go out there and make play after play after play. He was the only receiver in the league to get 100 catches last year. He has size, speed, and the hands to routinely catch balls in double coverage. You think Lucas drew a lot of flags last week? Its’ going to look like confetti out there. And on the other side… well hell, with Johnson they won’t need another side. Too bad for us anyway that Jones is looking like a playmaker himself. He’s a Steve Smith in training, and we better hope Gamble doesn’t give him his signature cushion or he’ll learn a lot Sunday.”

Offensive Line
This has traditionally been the Texans position of weakness. Behind this line David Carr was sacked 42 times in 2006. Texans management has been patient though, and last season there were signs that the line might be coming around. In 2006 Gary Kubiak installed a quick-throw offense and a new blocking scheme that suited his line better, and they began to respond late in the season. They still gave up two sacks to the Chiefs, but for the most part Schaub was able to get rid of the ball effectively. This is probably the best collection of talent the Texans have had in their short history, but look at what they’ve had before you start thinking that is a strength.

Homer: “The Texans have an offensive line? HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA *breath* HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA! Phew, that was a good one! I hope for his sake that Schaubbie learned something about scrambling from Michael Vick in Atlanta-he’s going to have a long day. Their line wouldn’t start for most SEC teams, let alone an NFL one.”

Hater: “Ok, so the Texans look great against us at the skill positions. You can tell me it doesn’t matter because their line sucks. Go ahead, tell me. Ok, feel better? Too bad that just saying it doesn’t make it so. Granted, they aren’t the best unit in the league but they don’t have to be. With Schaub’s quick decision making they’ll be fine in protection, and Green has never needed a big hole. They came together really well at the end of last season, and Kubiak’s blocking scheme is designed to maximize their strengths. I also hear their LT isn’t planning to get injured during the game, so we can cross that off our game strategy list.”

Defensive Line
The defensive front has a lot of talent, and although it’s been criticized, it is stronger in 2007. Former first overall pick DE Mario Williams burst out against the Chiefs with seven tackles and two sacks, and a fumble recovery he ran back for a TD. Next to him is 2005 first round pick (16th) Travis Johnson, a quick and strong run specialist. Their 2007 first round pick (10th), Amobi Okoye is the young but very talented other DT, and Anthony Weaver (35 tackles, 1 sack) rounds out the line at the other DE position.

Homer: “Mario ain’t so super, we can take him out with some nail clippers. And are they seriously going to start a 20 year old Defensive Tackle? Their line has talent, but collectively they have something like eight years of experience. They’ll make a few plays, but don’t expect any consistency there.”

Hater: “This is where I start getting nervous. Mario Williams has all the tools to become dominant in the NFL, and showed us he’s ready last week with two sacks. Gross is going to have his hands full, Williams is bigger, stronger, and faster than he is. On the other end is the ex-Raven Anthony Weaver, who had 35 tackles last year, and the middle is clogged by two first round picks. With Hartwig and Kalil already showing that strength can get through our line, I’m looking for Jake to develop a severe case of happy feet.”

Linebackers
Arguably the Texan’s best unit, the linebackers are led by defensive rookie of the year DeMeco Ryans, who was amazing against the run in 2006. He is the vocal leader of the Houston defense. Lining up next to him are Morton Greenwood (109 tackles) at the Weak side and former Raider and Saint Danny Clark at the Strong side. This unit doesn’t have a lot of depth, but the starters are very talented.

Homer: “Hey DeMeco, see the play? See it going left? Go get it! Get it! Oops, wait, the running back went right. Dang, dang, dang… All day long baby, welcome to the Davidson offense.”

Hater: “The Linebackers make me sick. I was SCREAMING at the Panthers to draft Ryans last year, and instead we get another running back and Na’il Diggs. Great. Morgan goes down, our season’s over, and Williams doesn’t show much more than a nice smile. In the meantime Ryans is getting DROY honors. The guy’s a stud, and a premier run-stuffing one. He’s great in coverage too. And the idea that Foster and Williams can outrun the LBs here is just silly, they do a great job at containment and are almost designed to stop the run. And with Foster and Williams running the ball, look for some nice turnover stats to be padded, courtesy of this group.”

Defensive Backs
Along with the Offensive Line, this was the other area of concern for the Texans in 2006. Unlike the Offensive Line though, there wasn’t a glimmer of hope at the end of the year. Dunta Robinson is the top corner, and on the other side is Demarcus Faggins. They’re decent in coverage but didn’t make too many interceptions in 2006, combining for only three. C.C. Brown (76 tackles) is back as the free safety and Jason Simmons is at the strong safety position after the starter, Glenn Earl, went out for the season with a foot injury.

Homer: “This is rich. Their starters would struggle to be backups on most teams. At least the Rams had a legitimate starter in Tye Hill-the Texans can’t even say that. This is the game where every receiver we have looks like an all-pro. Smith is reportedly trying to get psyched by imagining up a transgression, but keeps bursting out in laughter just thinking about them trying to cover him. It’s just not fair…”

Hater: “You know, I would feel pretty good about the DBs if I thought Jake would have time to exploit them. Too bad the Texans aren’t going to let that happen.”

Prognosis

Homer: “I’m trying, but I just can’t seem to get worried about this team. On offense their lack of experience will make them look like jokes trying to contain Foster and Williams. I can’t see them getting any pressure of note on Jake, and even if they do it’s not like the secondary can cover our receivers. Smith is almost guaranteed a long ball on Sunday. The Texans may have a nice statistical balance on defense, but as far as I’m concerned it just means both our running game AND our passing game will do well.

And defensively? Come on, you want me to be afraid of MATT SCHAUB? How scary can he be on his back anyway? We made one of the best passing attacks in the league look less than ordinary last week, and you think I should be concerned about Matt Schaub? This is a joke, right? See, I know it’s a joke because you’re also talking about Ahman Green running THROUGH our DL. Give me a break.

Panthers in a yawner, 30-10.”

Hater: “If there was ever a textbook definition for the term ‘trap game’, this is it. If the Panthers were a consistent team I might feel better, but they’re not. They always play down to the level of their competition, and seem to be allergic to home openers. The Texans are talented and well coached, and good enough that they beat Indianapolis and swept the Jaguars last year.

The Texans offensive line has gelled and is doing a pretty good job executing Kubiak’s blocking schemes. Sure they’ll give up a few sacks, but the Texans can move the ball. Schaub is willing to take more risks than Carr was, and makes better decisions. Andre Johnson is a game breaking WR and finally has a QB who has the patience to let the play develop before forcing the ball in or throwing out of bounds. The line won’t open too many big holes, so they have a runner who doesn’t need them. They won’t put up 40, but they won’t need to either.

This week the Panthers will finally go up against a solid defense, and it’s a young and fast one full of playmakers. Yes, the secondary is suspect but the pass rush is there. They got to Damon Huard three times last week and I believe they also intercepted him twice. With their rush the LBs won’t need to drop into coverage as much, so they can focus on the run. Since Ryans has the speed to keep up with Foster and Williams that spread stuff isn’t going to produce like it did last week.

So this is the game where the Panthers get surprised. Expect the Texans to throw a blanket over Smith and hope their rush can create enough pressure to prevent Jake from getting into a rhythm. By the end of the game he’ll be seriously rattled, enough so that it will come as no surprise to anyone that his first interception of the season will be on what looks to be the Panthers final go-ahead drive. The game will end, the boards will erupt, and the Texans will have delivered a serious wake-up call to John Fox.

Texans, 17-13. Yeah, it sucks to lose our first game at home but at least we should be used to it by now.”

Comments

Homers and Haters, St. Louis edition

Note: This article was written for the Carolina Huddle fan site, and originally appeared in their forums here.

This Sunday the Panthers open their season at St. Louis against the Rams. Last year they came to BofA Stadium and we shut them out in a 15-0 yawner. At the time both teams were in the midst of disappointing seasons brought on by injuries.

The Rams finished 2006 next to last against the run and allowed the fifth most points in the league. Instead of adding run stuffers in the free agency market, the decided to focus on outscoring everyone in the league. That can be a good formula for success when you’re playing average NFL defenses, but it tends to fall apart when you find someone who can contain your weapons.

Regardless of how well the Rams finish, they’re going to be one of the more entertaining teams to watch. The original “Greatest Show on Turf” is making a comeback, and don’t be surprised to see the Rams involved in some of the higher scoring contests this year.

Here’s what to look for:
QB
Marc Bulger is one of the most accurate passers in the league. Last year he posted a QB rating of 92.5, which was one of the highest in the NFC. If you let him get in a zone he’ll distribute the ball as well as anyone and he can get it out while under pressure.
Homer says: Sure Bulger’s good, but you have to have an open receiver and time to find him–two things he didn’t have last year when they played the Panthers. Jenkins and Lewis are healthy, and Peppers and the Predator will provide plenty of pressure from the line, and Lucas is healthy now. It’s not going to be an easy start for him.
Hater says: Bulger is the kind of QB who can give us fits. Look for quick outs to Jackson and lots of passes to the Tight End, which we still don’t know how to stop. Bring all the pressure you want, he won’t need a lot of time to get the ball out and unless Davis suddenly figures out how to cover and the CBs decide to line up a little closer than 10 yards off the line we’re going to get a steady diet of 4-5 yard passing plays.

RB
Steven Jackson’s one of the best RBs in the league. Last year he was third in the NFC in rushing yardage and had the second most TDs. He also showed he can catch out of the backfield, bringing in 90 balls for 806 yards and three more TDs. He has the ability to turn a short catch into a long gain.
Homer says: He may be a good back, but our defense has seen plenty of those and has a way of making them look normal. With Kemo clogging the middle he’ll have to find his yards outside, and we have a healthy Morgan patrolling the lanes to keep those gains short. Don’t forget how effective he is against the run, and without him we managed to keep Jackson plenty quiet last year. Running is the last of our concerns.
Hater says: It’s almost unfair to have to play a team with a QB like Bulger and a RB like Jackson. If he can’t get it done inside, they’ll line him up for a screen and let him get his yards that way. He may only get three or four yards at a time that way, but let it happen enough and he’ll break one on you. And for everyone who thinks we play the run well and play Jackson even better, he had a patchwork OL last year and we didn’t exactly keep Atlanta from running all over us in that season opener. Jackson’s also physical. Watch Morgan get his first injury of 2007 trying to stuff him headfirst.

WR/TE
As if Torry Holt (93 receptions) and Isaac Bruce (74 receptions) weren’t enough, the Rams signed Drew Bennett (46 receptions) and Randy McMichael (62 receptions) in the offseason. You wouldn’t think this was an area they needed to upgrade, but they did anyway. This is the foundation of the Greatest Show on Turf, take two.
Homer says: Torry Holt still has what it takes to be a top receiver in the NFL, but he’s not going to get it done with speed any more. He’s cautious inside, but he’s still at the top of his game. And he’s supposedly the explosive one. Isaac Bruce? How many 35 year old receivers still get it done in the NFL? This unit gets by more on name recognition and pinpoint passes than it does talent now. Gamble and Lucas will look better than they are against them. And Bennett? Meet Mr. Marshall, who would start for most teams. McMichael is a good tight end, but didn’t make a ton of grabs in the red zone last year and there’s no reason to think that Davis can’t keep up with him.
Hater says: Two veteran receivers who know how to get open, a QB who can find them, and two more legitimate options plus a running back who catches well? You really think we can shut THAT down? And they may be old, but that only helps at the end of a season, not in the beginning.

OL
This unit is anchored by pro-bowl left tackle Orlando Pace. The line did a good job of making holes last year, even after Pace went down to injury in week 10. There’s not a lot of depth here, but the starting five is definately above average.
Homer says: They may open the holes, but we close them right back. And Pace may be good at protection, but our pressure will come up the middle and from Peppers anyway. They may be a decent unit, but our starters made them look awful last year and you can expect a repeat performance in 2007.
Hater says: It’s not the running game we need to worry about with this unit, it’s protection. Now that Pace is back and everyone’s healthy Bulger will have more than enough time to get the ball out.

DL
The Rams didn’t have a great run defense last year, and addressed that by taking Adam Carriker in the draft. He’ll line up next to La’Roi Glover, who brings a long-time veteran presence to the line. They brought in James Hall from Detroit to take pressure off of Leonard Little, who is one of the NFC’s better defensive ends.
Homer says: Carriker may be good someday, but he’s just a rookie. Look for overpursuit and an easy time for our line to open holes in the running game. Aside from Little there’s not going to be a lot of pressure brought by this unit, which is good news for our passing game.
Hater says: The line isn’t going to scare anyone, but it can get the job done by holding up the play until the LBs get there.

LB
Witherspoon and Tinoisamoa are both undersized for their positions, but have great speed and get to the ball in a hurry. Brandon Chillar is a good strong LB in a system that really doesn’t require one, and Chris Draft is a backup who plays all three spots.
Homer says: They may be fast, but when the play is already three yards past the line of scrimmage by the time they get there you’re going to have success in the running game.
Hater says: I miss Spoon…

DBs
This is the weakest unit for the Rams. Tye Hill is their best player here and he’s small at 5′10″ (which is probably really about 5′8″). Their other corner will miss the first four games, so they’re starting a backup here in nickelback Ron Bartell. O.J. Atogwe is a good free safety, and Corey Chavous brings a lot of veteran leadership to the defense. Neither will scare anyone though.
Homer says: If our line brings Jake any time at all, he’ll be able to pick apart this defense with ease. Smitty’s going to have a field day here…
Hater says: Yes, Smitty should do well. Too bad we don’t have any other receivers to take advantage of this group.

Prognosis
Homer says: This is going to be a higher scoring game than the one in 06, but the Panthers offense should be able to force their will on the St. Louis defense. Even if the running game doesn’t get started they don’t have anyone outside of Little who can put pressure on the QB so we should be able to pass at will. On defense, our backs are good enough to contain their receivers. If a healthy Morgan and Beason can contain Jackson, you can expect Bulger to start looking one-dimensional as all he’s able to do is hit Jackson in the backfield or McMichael in the flat. Either way, they’re not likely to be shut out again but they’re not going to light it up either.

On offense the Panthers should be able to run well, they did against St. Louis last year and this system is friendlier to our backs’ style. Look for Davidson to mix the run up a lot early on and get the defense on it’s heels. Once that happens you’re going to see a lot of passing, and the boards will be buzzing about the return of Colbert and Jeff King. Although they have a better offense than we do, I think we still outscore them. Panthers 29-20.
Hater says: Our defense doesn’t have the fire it needs to get enough pressure on Bulger to phase him. We might be able to slow Jackson early but you can bet the Rams learned from what we did last year and will be ready. If we shut down the run initially then Bulger will pepper us with short passes to make the LBs back off, and then they’ll balance out their attack and let Jackson run wild. Morgan’s going to be shaking off the rust, Beason’s a rookie, and we have no safeties of note. That means the entire middle of the field is going to be open, which is bad news against anyone. Against an offense as good as the Rams, it’s suicide.

On offense we’ll do ok, but don’t expect to run at will. Carriker will close down the middle and Glover will be in his first game and provide a steady presence. Playing against old people is great in December, but he’s well-rested now and that’s going to make it hard to get those holes open to run. That’s especially true against their linebackers. Playing against undersized people is great in December after they’re all banged up but right now they’ll be flying to the ball and closing the gaps as they open. In the preseason we haven’t been able to run anyway, so you’re going to hear a lot of complaints about same old same old on Monday as we end up with the one-dimensional attack we had in 2006. Smith will get his yards, but we don’t have a reliable number two option and that’s going to end up killing us. We’re probably looking at 20 points, but we’ll give up 27.

I still miss Spoon…

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