Game Preview: Carolina at Indianapolis
The Panthers and Colts have been two of the NFL's breakthrough teams this season; both have translated unfinished business from 2002 into undefeated records so far this year. Indianapolis is less than a week removed from one of the greatest comebacks in league history, beating the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 38-35 in overtime last Monday night. The Panthers have some momentum of their own, calmly and efficiently beating their past two opponents after two stunning wins to open the season.
Undoubtedly the game of the week, each team will be looking to keep their streaks unblemished. For the Panthers to take down the high-flying Colts, execution of the game-plan will be crucial.
Delhomme Must Make Plays – While hardly putting up any eye-opening numbers (he has yet to have a 200-yard passing day), Delhomme has done an excellent job of making the smart read and not forcing numerous turnovers. In the system the Panthers run, Delhomme has the luxury of not being the primary source of offense. While his cool and efficient play has been a big part of the Panthers' start, there will be many times throughout the season when he will be counted on to stretch the defense with a deep throw or move the chains on a 3rd and long. Sunday may well be one of those times. Delhomme might be called on to make the big pass on Sunday and he cannot afford to miss.
Run Stephen, Run – It doesn't take an expert analyst to realize the impact Davis has had on the offense and the team as a whole. Posting four straight 100-yard games for the first time in franchise history, Davis' hard running has been one of the primary reasons the team is undefeated. Despite the impressive progress Tony Dungy has made with the Indianapolis defense, they still lack the bulk up front to consistently stop the run. Deuce McAllister and Michael Pittman have each posted 100-yard games against the Colts the past two weeks. Offensive coordinator Dan Henning will look again to Davis against the Colts, hoping to expose their weak defensive underbelly. Davis is the perfect runner to attack the Cover 2 defense, which can be susceptible to north-south running in between the tackles. This was evident earlier this season when he gashed Tampa Bay for 142 yards. If the Panthers want to keep the explosive Indianapolis offense off the field, a powerful running game will be essential and Davis is the key.
Todd Steussie – Considered to be on the decline, veteran left tackle Steussie has been more than adequate throughout the season's first four games. He will have to have one of his better performances Sunday if he wants to contain defensive end Dwight Freeney. The battle between the two will be a big factor in the passing game for the Panthers. Freeney is the one superstar on the Colts' workman-like defensive line (13 sacks last year). Indianapolis' overall pass rush is heavily based on his performance. When contained (as in the Tampa Bay game), the quarterback has plenty of time to find holes in the Cover 2 zones. When he consistently beats his man (most notably in a victory over the Titans), a whole offense can be disrupted. It will be of extreme importance for Steussie to use his veteran savvy in neutralizing the second-year phenom.
Julius Peppers – Despite playing well, Peppers has been a bit slow in collecting sacks for the 2003 campaign. He will most likely be playing against Tarik Glenn, one of the more underrated left tackles in the league. Glenn had excellent success against Simien Rice last week, but an injury may limit him against the Panthers. Peppers must capitalize on the situation and be able to apply pressure on Peyton Manning for the defense to succeed. If Manning is allowed to sit in the pocket he will pick a defense apart. Peppers must make an impact Sunday to aid the secondary coverage.
Secondary Play – Perhaps one of the only down points this year has been the statistical play of the pass defense. While much improved over the first two contests this year, the secondary still lacks the consistency to contain a premier passing attack – such as the Colts. Terry Cousin and Reggie Howard will have the unenviable position of covering Marvin Harrison, who has been on fire the past two weeks (165 ypg, 5 TD). Cousin has had his troubles in several games and at the least must prevent Harrison from making those long, back-breaking touchdown receptions. Open-field tackling will be important, as they cannot let Harrison get behind them and make big gains after the catch.
Kicking Battle – Indy's Mike Vanderjagt and John Kasay have been equally impressive this season, both knocking in field goals from deep and short distance with incredible accuracy (Vanderjagt's miss and subsequent knock off the post last Monday notwithstanding). With two strong defenses, it may come down to which team can make all their given field goal opportunities.
Cover Teams – Rod Smart has been an incredible sparkplug on special teams and had an electrifying 100-yard return to help secure the victory last weekend against New Orleans. He will have to keep his eye on Indianapolis rookie Brad Pyatt, whose 90-yard return against Tampa Bay helped start the Colts stirring comeback. The Panthers desperately need great field position and Smart is a big key to that. Conversely, the coverage units need to attack Pyatt and prevent the big-play Colts offense from starting near or inside Panther territory.
Overall, this will be an exciting and important game for both teams. The Panthers need this win to stay at least two games ahead of Tampa Bay within the division (possibly three if the Bucs lose to Washington). It should be an epic contest, and Carolina needs to play to its full potential if they wish to leave the RCA Dome with a victory. If they can execute well and win any battles mentioned above, the Panthers have an excellent chance of being 5-0 and in the NFC South driver's seat.