2012 NFC South Preview (cont.)
What the Panthers do best: Run the football.
It's safe to say Cam Newton exceeded even the most rosy-eyed outlooks as a rookie, including a first-year record 4,051 passing yards, with 21 touchdowns. But opponents must respect Carolina's historic ground game.
Newton himself ran for 706 yards and 14 touchdowns, while the under-appreciated tandem of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart racked up explosive yards once again: a combined 1,597 yards and 11 TDs on just 297 carries. The Panthers averaged an awesome 5.41 YPA on the ground in 2011, the No. 7 mark in the history of the NFL and not far off the record set by Jim Brown and the 1963 Browns (5.74 YPA). Opponents will focus on Newton's arm at their own peril.
What the Panthers need to improve: Pass defense.
As noted in our look at the statistical question marks facing all 32 NFL teams this year, Carolina fielded one of the worst pass defenses in NFL history last year, surrendering nearly eight yards every time opposing quarterbacks dropped back to pass. The future in 2012 is very simple: show dramatic improvement in their ability to stop the pass or waste another year of great offensive production.
Which Panther needs to step up: Luke Kuechly, linebacker.
Life changes fast in the Not For Long League. Just ask Panthers linebacker Jon Beason. He was the defensive face of the franchise in 2010, signed a big contract before the 2011 season and then missed the entire year with an Achilles' injury. He's struggled with injury here again in the preseason.
His injury opens the door for Kuechly, a record-setting tackling machine at Boston College and the No. 9 overall pick in the 2012 draft, to eventually take over the middle of the Carolina defense. Even if Beason is healthy, Kuechly will play the weak side, where his rangy play can be utilized in coverage. The linebacker has a rare and instant opportunity to lift a bad defense and make himself a star in the NFL.
Predicted record: 9-7.
If they make it through September, the Panthers can start thinking playoffs. But the early slate is not easy: Carolina faces the Saints, Giants and Falcons in three straight games before Sept. 30. A 2-2 month would be good; 3-1 a great sign for the future.
What the Buccaneers do best: Not much.
It was hard to find any bright lights for the Buccaneers in 2011. It was a horrible season, even by the standards of an organization that once lost 26 straight games. The defense was terrible, and promising third-year QB Josh Freeman regressed badly after a strong sophomore season.
The brightest light on the team was its offensive line, and even then it was only mediocre. Tampa ranked No. 16 on the Offensive Hog Index used by Cold, Hard Football Facts.com to rank each OL, along with No. 16 rushing the football (4.21 YPA). But even then the team ran for only 1,458 yards and 9 TDs, led by LeGarrette Blount's 781 and 5. It looks like rookie Doug Martin, the team's second pick in the first round (No. 31 overall) of the draft, will take Blount's job this season.
What the Buccaneers need to improve: Every aspect of defense.
Tampa's defense was the worst in franchise history by almost every measure, including the only place that really counts, on the scoreboard. The Bucs surrendered a franchise worst 494 points. For a little perspective, the 2002 Super Bowl champ Bucs were nearly 300 points better on defense (196 points). Tampa posted the worst defensive passer rating (97.2) in franchise history and joined the very short list of teams in NFL history that surrendered more than 5.0 YPA on the ground. Top pick Mark Barron (No. 7 overall) must live up to the hype to give the team a big boost, but has struggled with nagging injuries, too.
Which Buccaneer needs to step up: Greg Schiano, coach.
The new sheriff arrives in town with a reputation as a tough, hard-nosed devotee of fundamental football. He's been handed a young team that appears to have a lot of talent at key positions, but that underachieved badly and even simply surrendered by the end of the 2011 season. It's an ideal situation to mold a team in your own image, and there's really nowhere to go but up. Of course, Raheem Morris was that bright young coach in 2009. He won just 17 games in his three seasons. Schiano faces both opportunity and pressure to build a winner fast.
Predicted record: 6-10.
Tampa has shown glimpses of being a team on the rise in the preseason, including a 30-28 win over New England in which it pounded Tom Brady and Barron recorded a pick-6. But the regular season is a different animal and Tampa is thrown right into the fire, hosting Cam Newton and the Panthers in Week 1 before a classic where-do-we-stand game in Week 2 at the Giants.
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