While they lead their division, Carolina is 0-2 at home and 0-1 against the AFC (lost to the Texans in Week 2). They've won two games and have a game and a half lead in their division, but have a point differential on the season of only +13. Quarterback Jake Delhomme is done for the season and no one is certain -- not even head coach John Fox -- whether backup David Carr or the ageless Vinny Testaverde will start on Sunday.
The Panthers are explosive on both sides of the ball and have playmakers on offense, defense, and special teams. Don't let the numbers and injuries fool you -- this is a team that is loaded with talent in all phases of the game.
The big name on the defensive line is, of course, left end Julius Peppers. Peppers possesses rare speed and agility for a man his size and is occasionally asked to drop into pass coverage. The versatile and dangerous player has had considerable success in that area, pulling in three career interceptions. Colts right offensive tackle Ryan Diem will have his hands full on Sunday and may need assistance from Dallas Clark, Kenton Keith, or Joseph Addai -- as long as Indianapolis does not roll protection over to left tackle Tony Ugoh's side of the field to give him help with right end Mike Rucker.
Oft-injured, but extremely talented, defensive tackle Kris Jenkins is a penetration specialist who tends to spend a lot of time in the backfield harassing quarterbacks and tackling tailbacks for a loss.
Crafty veteran Mike Rucker will use every tool in his arsenal to confuse, confound, and overpower Ugoh. While not blessed with the size (a light 270 pounds at 6-foot-5, especially for this defensive line) or athleticism of the rest of the unit, Rucker has a tremendous motor. And as a nine-year veteran, he will teach Ugoh a thing or two the hard way.
The man the Colts will need to be most concerned about come game time is defensive tackle Maake Kemoeatu. Kemoeatu is a load to move at the point of attack at 6-foot-5 and charitably listed at 345. He specializes in clogging up running lanes to allow Carolina's talented linebackers to flow to the ball.
Right guard Jake Scott and center Jeff Saturday will have their work cut out for them as they attempt to move the massive tackle off the ball. This will be a huge determinant in whether or not Indianapolis will be effective running the ball, since they've favored the strong side of the formation so far this season and the speed of Peppers makes it difficult to run to the outside.
With Dan Morgan out, first-round draft pick Jon Beason will continue to play in the middle, away from his natural weakside position. Beason has transitioned well to the Mike linebacker position and there have been very few hiccups in Morgan's absence.
Where the Panthers have felt the void left by Morgan, however, is at weakside linebacker, where both former Packer Na'il Diggs and second-year pro James Anderson have seen playing time. If Indianapolis is able to motion the receiver or tight end to their side of field or get Addai or Keith the ball in space on the weak side, they should be able to pile up yards.
Linebacker Thomas Davis
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Strongside linebacker Thomas Davis presents an interesting matchup for the Colts. Davis played safety in college, but scouts felt as though he was too slow and lacked the coverage ability to play the position at the NFL level. He will, at least at the line, draw Dallas Clark and presents the tight end with the stiffest challenge he has faced yet. While Davis did not have the necessary tools to play safety, he still runs better and is more adept in pass coverage than any linebacker Clark has faced this season.
Peyton Manning has leaned on Clark pretty heavily this season. The pressure that the front four is liable to bring, coupled with Davis taking away Manning's security blanket and the fact that Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne will need to contend with Carolina's talented secondary, could all add up to a long, harried afternoon for Manning.
Chris Gamble is a first-round cornerback with excellent size (6-foot-1, 200 pounds), great ball skills thanks to playing a lot of offense at Ohio State, and can be deadly in the return game. He also moves very fluidly and has better-than-average instincts. As luck would have it, he draws Harrison at a down point in the season. Harrison missed one game with a knee injury and has yet to get on track (20 receptions, 247 yards, 1 touchdown). While it's difficult to say that Marvin Harrison is ever on the wrong side of a matchup, that is the case for Sunday's game.
Former Seahawk Ken Lucas is essentially Gamble's twin on the right side. He is about the same size (6-foot tall, 205 pounds), runs about as well, and has about the level of coverage skills that Gamble possesses. However, he faces a serious challenge in Wayne. The receiver is about as big as Lucas with his 6-foot tall, 198-pound frame, but is faster, more fluid and precise in and out of his cuts, and a more talented athlete. Look for Manning to target Wayne frequently when Harrison is stymied by Gamble, and when Davis is able to take away Clark.
Both safeties for the Panthers -- strong safety Chris Harris and free safety Deke Cooper -- are tough, physical players who are more comfortable near the line of scrimmage than they are in coverage. If Clark is able to get past Davis, Harrison is able to beat Gamble, or Wayne is able to out-manuever Lucas, they will find that beating Harris and Cooper is a much easier task -- if either (or both) of the safeties don't try to take their heads off in the meantime.
Overall, the secondary is extremely aggressive. The cornerbacks have a tendency to jump routes and get fooled by play-action and pump fakes. The safeties are too concerned with their run support duties and can be caught out of position. Given time, Manning can make them pay for their mistakes with big plays to his receivers over the top.
Additionally, this could be a big game for rookie Anthony Gonzalez. Injuries at the position have left the Panthers perilously thin at cornerback. After Gamble and Lucas there is a precipitous drop in talent. Gonzalez still has a great deal to learn before he can be counted on as a starter (blocking and blitz recognition being at the top of the list), but Sunday's game could be a huge step in his development.Watch for Part II of this scouting report that covers the offense and includes summary comments about this weekend's matchup between the Panthers and the Colts.