Are the Panthers just what the Bills NEED?

The Panthers are finding out the hard way how difficult the rebuilding process can be. A season opening win at Minnesota has been followed by heartache for the Panthers. Most of the struggles are a direct result of the youth movement. They have several rookies playing key positions, which have caused headaches for coach George Seifert.


When they look at the long-term though, they like what they see from their youngsters, particularly LB Dan Morgan (though he has struggled with ankle injuries) and QB Chris Weinke. Fellow rookies DT Kris Jenkins and SS Jarrod Cooper are also playing significant roles, as well as KR-PR Steve Smith. At alternating times, each has made spectacular plays and the mistakes you would expect from the young. Between the rookies and the remade offensive line, however, the Panthers believe they have something for the years to come and hopefully sooner.


Panthers on offense

The key to everything the Panthers do on offense is 29-year-old rookie QB Chris Weinke. He has thrown interceptions (14 after 10 games – third-worst in the NFL), but mostly seems to have a grasp of the Panthers West Coast passing game, and has impressed coaches and teammates with his poise in the pocket and arm. He's not mobile, but makes up for that by getting the ball away quickly.

Weinke has had to play through some nicks – he sprained a shoulder and missed the Nov. 11 start in St. Louis – but not as many as Panthers quarterbacks past. After giving up a league-high 69 sacks last year, the Panthers brought in three new starters on the line. After 11 games it only gave up 20 sacks, which is -10.

Key off-season free agent signees have paid great dividends along the line. Todd Steussie, from the Vikings, has provided a major upgrade at left tackle, and Jeff Mitchell, from the Ravens, has steadied the middle. Steussie's main problem has been penalties, but the Panthers will exchange that for the overall pass protection he offers.

Weinke usually has time to find receivers. Former Pro Bowler Muhsin Muhammad was the Panthers' leading receiver with 42 catches for 481 yards, but he only scored one touchdown. He has also had some troubling drops this year, including a touchdown and a key fourth down pass in two close losses. Muhammad missed the Nov. 25 game vs. the Falcons with a shoulder sprain. He should be back when they play the Bills.

Rangy Donald Hayes has also had good games, catching 38 catches for 411 yards through 11 games, but just one touchdown. Obviously, the Panthers' receivers aren't that productive inside the red zone. Their best weapon there is tight end Wesley Walls. He scored five touchdowns and is a formidable weapon in short-yardage situations.

Carolina had the worst rushing attack in the NFL. Tshimanga Biakabutuka was lost for the season with a foot injury in the fifth game, leaving the job to Richard Huntley and undrafted rookie Nick Goings. Biakabutuka was still the Panthers' leading rusher five games later.


Key matchup: Panthers TE Wesley Walls vs. Bills SS Raion Hill. Weinke appears most comfortable getting the ball across the middle to Walls, who Seifert now ranks as good or better than Brent Jones. He can be rattled, though, meaning Hill should put a few licks on him early.

The way to win: Get Weinke moving around. The rookie can still be confused with a variety of pressure. If the Bills' line can flush him from the pocket and cover the hot reads (usually Muhammad and Walls), it can keep the Panthers' offense off balance.


Offensive player to watch

RB 34 Richard Huntley Ht: 5-11 Wt: 225

Huntley has waited his whole career for the opportunity to start, sitting behind Jerome Bettis in Pittsburgh for four seasons. But since inheriting the Panthers' starting job when Biakabutuka got hurt, he has done little to prove himself more than just adequate. He had 253 yards on 76 carries and had a season high rushing mark of 63 yards. Seifert has grown increasingly impatient with the running game. He can be a catching threat out of the backfield, which Carolina demonstrated when he caught five passes for 31 yards vs. San Francisco Nov. 18.


Panthers on defense

After getting pounded along the front line in recent years, the Panthers spent high picks and money to improve the middle of their line this off-season. The results had been mixed.

The team had a solid pair of tackles in Larry Chester and Brentson Buckner, but Chester broke his leg against the Falcons and was likely out for the year. Together Chester and Buckner appeared to be free agent bargains. Rookie Kris Jenkins will fill in for Chester.

Chester and Buckner's play briefly allowed the Panthers to shift supposed pass-rushing specialist Sean Gilbert outside. But Gilbert suffered a sprained knee Nov. 11 and had been out through Nov. 25. He may be back for the Bills game. The Panthers had just 17 sacks through 11 games, with blossoming right end Mike Rucker leading the way with 6.5.

The Panthers linebackers and secondary are the best examples of George Seifert's youth movement. Though first-rounder and weakside linebacker Dan Morgan hasn't been able to stay healthy and is playing with a partially healed fractured left tibia, the Panthers saw some hints of a special player early in the season. Middle linebacker Lester Towns, a seventh-rounder in 2000, is good against the run, but he had a sprained toe recently, which may hamper his ability to play effectively vs. Buffalo. Strongside linebacker Darren Hambrick looks like an excellent waiver-wire pickup from Dallas. In fact, he may be quite a bit better than the man he replaced, third-year LB Hannibal Navies, who's out for the year with a broken arm.

The Panthers replaced former Pro Bowl left cornerback Eric Davis with second-year Rashard Anderson and have gotten poor results. While Anderson is bigger and faster, he has had rough moments and was benched for corner Jimmy Hitchcock. Unfortunately, Hitchcock separated ribs Nov. 25,

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