The 2013 Carolina Panthers: A fast start could go a long way

(USA Today)

Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers need to get an early jump on the opposition.

Head coach Ron Rivera is entering his third season with the Carolina Panthers and there is already talk of him being dismissed if the team struggles early. The Panthers have talent, but slow starts and heartbreaking defeats have chipped away at the confidence of quarterback Cam Newton. The solution to the problem is there, and it’s up to Rivera to work to the obvious strengths of his team.

Cam Newton avoided a letdown to his outstanding rookie campaign — in spite of an early season bout with the media. Newton passed for close to 3,900 yards, cut down on his interceptions (12) and rushed for over 700 yards. Newton accounted for 27 touchdowns (19 passing, 8 rushing) and in the process has passed for more yards in his first two seasons than any quarterback in NFL history.

Seven of the Panthers nine losses were by seven points or less. Newton’s frustration was understandable, yet overblown in the press after a Week 6 loss to the Cowboys. The Panthers closed out the season by winning five of their last six games — including victories over Atlanta and New Orleans.

Other than veteran wide out Steve Smith, the identities of Carolina’s receivers are tough to recall. Being the No. 1 option for over a decade hasn’t slowed down the crafty veteran and last season, the 34-year old posted his 7th season with at least 1,000 yards receiving. Brandon LaFell was an excellent complement to Smith and posted career highs in receptions, yardage and touchdowns. Tight end Greg Olsen became Newton’s most reliable target in 2012. His 843 receiving yards ranked fourth among all tight ends and he was also among league leaders with 11 receptions of 20 or more yards. The additions of Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon give the Panthers depth as well as field-stretching capability.

The Panthers greatest strength has been underutilized to say the least. The team ranked 9th in rushing yardage — more than a third of which can be attributed to Newton. It’s time for Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams to up their production. Both are potential 1,000 yard backs, but injuries and playing catch up has hurt their output. Fullback Mike Tolbert was a great pickup and was most effective in red zone and short yardage situations. If the Panthers are going to be a force, run production has to be at a premium.

Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil predicted a Super Bowl appearance before the start of last season, but spent a majority of 2012 on the sidelines with a foot injury. Carolina threw together what they had up front and did pretty well — finishing in the top half for total rushing yards and right in the middle for sacks allowed. Kalil’s return will be much-needed.

The Panthers defense steadily improved with the play of defensive ends Greg Hardy (11 sacks, 23 pressures) and Charles Johnson (12.5 sacks) last season. Carolina added defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short via the draft. The emergence of NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Luke Kuechly was a big reason the Panthers defense finished 10th in total defense. The NFL’s leading tackler was a machine at Boston College, but didn’t break into the Panthers starting lineup until Jon Beason went down in Week 5. Beason will move to the inside upon returning. Since signing a five-year $51 million extension in 2011, Beason has played in only five games and undergone three surgeries. Linebacker Thomas Davis returned from a torn ACL and finished behind Kuechly in tackles. Chase Blackburn was brought in from the Giants via free agency.

Carolina’s secondary is pieced together with cast offs and career backups. Chris Gamble was released and eventually retired. Drayton Florence was signed to bring some leadership to an inexperienced group. Second-year player Josh Norman is being counted on to step up, provided he can stay out of Rivera’s dog house. Look for another free agent pickup when teams begin to make their cuts.

The NFC South is one of the NFL’s most competitive divisions. Each team has a quarterback who has been to the Pro Bowl at least once in the last five seasons. The Panthers don’t have as much top-tier talent as the New Orleans Saints or the Atlanta Falcons, but they are better in some areas than others. Ron Rivera has to find a way to make the running game the staple of the offense. After Steve Smith, the receivers are decent and should contribute. The offense will continue to go as far as Newton takes them. The front seven is impressive, but the secondary is a major concern. The Panthers need to start fast, win at home and take advantage of a winnable early schedule as they fight with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to stay out of the basement.

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