NFC South preview (cont.)
What the Panthers do best: Split the run load.
Only the Jets and the Titans ran the ball more productively than Carolina last year, and you'll get little argument around the league in making the case that the Panthers have the NFL's finest backfield tandem in Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams. The duo became the first in league history to both reach the 1,100-yard plateau in 2009, and at age 23 and 27, respectively, there's still plenty of ceiling room left for the well-matched pairing.
Stewart is bigger, stronger and runs with more power than Williams, but both can break tackles and know how to make themselves scarce in the open field. They're going to again be the backbone of this Carolina team, because with a quality offensive line, a thin receiving depth chart, and the relatively unproven Matt Moore installed as the Panthers starting quarterback, it only makes sense to keep running the ball in Charlotte.
What the Panthers need to improve: Passing game.
It's hard to take Carolina seriously as a playoff threat when the passing game can't find a way to threaten a defense vertically. Other than old reliable Steve Smith -- who simply has to give up his flag football career -- the Panthers have no receiver who remotely scares a defense. Third-round rookie Brandon LaFell has looked promising at times this summer and should factor into the lineup right away. But the Panthers may never make a player out of ex-USC receiver Dwayne Jarrett, and there's just no semblance of balance in the Carolina offense because of the lack of reliable pass-catchers.
Which Panther needs to step up: Linebacker Dan Connor.
When weakside linebacker Thomas Davis re-tore the ACL in his right knee in June, Carolina made the somewhat risky decision to move star middle linebacker Jon Beason to the weak side, inserting 2008 third-round pick Dan Connor into the middle. After two years of mostly watching and waiting, the ex-Penn State star's time has come. The question is, can he possibly come close to the play-making level of Beason, who roamed from sideline to sideline, finding the ballcarrier?
Connor has never started an NFL game, and appeared just 19 times in his first two seasons, mostly on special teams duty. He's a football junkie and the son of a coach, but this is a big step up in responsibility for a player who will now handle the team's defensive checks at the line, and be asked to show the speed and range required of the middle linebacker role. Carolina's defense has been sharp this preseason, but the real test will come when the Panthers open on the road at the Giants' noisy new stadium. Connor will be center stage for the Carolina defense, with any and all growing pains on full display.
Predicted record: 7-9.
The Panthers are a team forced to play in a state of flux this season, what with nine starters from last year's 8-8 club either released or not re-signed, and head coach John Fox in the unusual situation of working in the final season of his contract. There's some talent on defense and in the running game, but Carolina doesn't have enough depth or impact players to put together anything approaching a playoff run in 2010.
What the Bucs do best: Defend the pass.
Maybe it's because everybody loved running against Tampa Bay's 32nd-ranked run defense, but the Bucs pass defense actually finished a very respectable 10th overall last season, surrendering just 207.4 yards per game and intercepting 19 passes. The secondary is led by third-year cornerback Aqib Talib, whose play-making skills sparkle at times (a combined nine interceptions in his first two seasons). He's not the most consistent of cover men just yet, and he's suspended Week 1 for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy, but Tampa Bay sees signs of improvement in his game and believes he's ready for the kind of season that will elevate him into the top tier of young NFL cornerbacks.
Tampa Bay's Ronde Barber is anything but young, and he's likely in his final season of a long and distinguished 14-year run with the Bucs. But he still provides valuable veteran leadership, albeit with a role that may decrease this season if rookie third-round pick Myron Lewis can play his way into more than the nickel back assignment.
What the Bucs need to improve: Let's start with run defense.
Plenty of choices in this category for Raheem Morris's young, rebuilding squad, but Tampa Bay's dead-last run defense was gashed for 158.2 yards per game last year, and that's why the Bucs spent their first two draft picks on defensive tackles Gerald McCoy of Oklahoma and UCLA's Brian Price. In an ideal scenario, McCoy boosts the interior pass rush while corralling ballcarriers left and right, and Price eats up blocks, allowing Tampa Bay's linebackers to flow to the ball.
In reality, the rush defense needs more help than just McCoy and Price can give it. The Bucs linebacking and safety play was dreadful at times last season, but the overall defensive performance did improve in the season's final six games, when Morris took over coordinating the unit. The hope is that McCoy and Price are building blocks up front, and everything gets a little more stable with a better foundation in place.
Which Buc needs to step up: Middle linebacker Barrett Ruud.
Ruud has led the Bucs in tackles for three years running, but Tampa Bay needs more from him this year and he knows it. Ruud made far too many of his 142 tackles too far downfield, his critics say, and some of those critics work on the Bucs coaching staff. He's in the final year of his contract, and Ruud must emerge as more of a difference-maker this season if he's to return to Tampa Bay.
The thinking goes that with McCoy and Price now on the job at defensive tackle, Ruud will be freed up to pursue the ball more and not have to fight off the blockers that former Bucs defensive tackles failed to neutralize. Ruud's a key component and one of the few experienced veterans in Tampa Bay's front seven, and if he's consistently in the middle of the action this season, the Bucs defense has a chance to take a major step forward.
Predicted record: 6-10.
There's at least hope this season in Tampa Bay, because young players like quarterback Josh Freeman, rookie receiver Mike Williams and the aforementioned McCoy and Price have the potential to lift a franchise that hit bottom during the midst of last year's 3-13 finish. But the Bucs' youth movement is far from finished, and we're still in the process of finding out if Morris, 33, and general manager Mark Dominik, 38, have a plan that will produce incremental progress.