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Time to Get Our Respect Back!By Matt Edwards
Well, how things have changed in such a short time! A week and a half ago, we were pretty close to being a consensus preseason Super Bowl pick. Now, after being dominated by the Falcons and suffering several injuries, no one is talking about us in a positive light. That's fine, the Panthers have always relished the underdog role. This season marks the third opening game that we have lost. Not only that, but it also marks the third opener that we've lost a key starter for the season. It was Steve Smith two years ago against Green Bay, Kris Jenkins last year against New Orleans, and then this year it was Travelle Wharton against Atlanta. Maybe next year we'll just forfeit the opener in an effort to keep everyone healthy!
There has been a lot of concern surrounding the Panthers in the past week. Steve Smith is still being bothered by his hamstrings since the beginning of training camp. Dan Morgan has suffered yet another concussion and the future of his career has to start becoming a concern for him, his family, and the Panthers. Adam Seward will hold down the middle linebacker spot until Morgan is ready to go again and Seward may well represent the future of the position for the Panthers. Travelle Wharton is done for the year, leaving a line that was already lacking depth and still trying to gel, without its starting left tackle. To make matters along the offensive line even worse, Justin Harwig, the newly acquired center is nursing a sore groin. Jordan Gross, a top 10 overall pick a few years ago, will be moving back to left tackle for the remainder of the season and Todd Fordham will take over at right tackle. Geoff Hangartner will fill in for Hartwig if he is unable to play.
Last week against the Falcons, the Panthers showed few positives. They gave up 252 rushing yards, the second most in franchise history. Much of this is to blame on two starting linebackers being out since N'ail Diggs did not play and Morgan went out early. However, with a defensive line sporting as much talent as the Panthers' does, this is absolutely inexcusable. If a team can't rely on its backups to fill in reliably, that will make for a long season. Injuries happen in the NFL and everyone on the 53 man roster has to be able to perform when and if called upon. The lone positive of last week's game was John Kasay. He knocked down two field goals including a 54 yarder for the Panthers only points.
Things aren't going to get any easier this week. The Vikings will try to establish the run early and often. However, their power running style should be easier for the Panthers' defensive line and raw linebackers to contain than the Falcons' misdirections and stretch plays. Brad Johnson isn't going to do anything spectacular, but he is a smart, veteran quarterback and he won't make too many mistakes either. Look for the Panthers to try to also establish the run early. The Vikings have a good pair of young, pass rushing defensive ends in Erasmus James and Kenechi Udeze. Look for the Panthers to try to slow them down with the run and some screen passes. If Carolina can't establish the run, Delhomme could be in for another long afternoon as those two defensive ends will be able to key on rushing the passer against an unstable offensive line. When Delhomme does drop back to pass, look for him to try to take advantage of the height available at the wide receiver position. With Keyshawn Johnson at 6-4 and Drew Carter at 6-3, they will have a huge height advantage over the Vikings starting corners, Fred Smoot at 5-11 and Antoine Winfield at 5-9.
The biggest key to the game will be the running game. Whichever team is able to establish the run will probably win the game. If the Panthers can't establish the run, Delhomme will be running for his life again. If they can't stop the run, well… we've already seen that. The Vikings are comfortable with Johnson as the starting QB, but they don't want him throwing the ball 35+ times a game either. The Panthers need to come out and make a statement. Some Vikings fans are even talking things such as, "Do you really think the Vikings are going to lose? I don't." and "Losing to a Smith-less Panthers would be a HUGE disappointment." It may only be the second week of the season, but after coming out flat against the Falcons and having some injury issues, the team needs a confidence booster. 23-17 Panthers.