CHARLOTTE, N.C.- It's the season and home opener for the Carolina Panthers, who will host the Baltimore Ravens this coming Sunday at 1 PM, and we are here to provide you with a position by position breakdown of both teams, and who has the advantage at each spot. A special thanks to Brent Lucas, who contributed to this article for the defensive matchups.
Carolina's Rodney Peete vs Baltimore's Chris Redman
This will be the starting debut for both quarterbacks for their respective franchises, but that's pretty much where the similarities end. Peete is a 14-year veteran of the NFL, but last threw a NFL pass back in 1999 for the Washington Redskins against the Miami Dolphins. He does own a better than .500 record as a starter in his career, with 37 wins versus 35 losses. Peete's gameplan going into this Sunday should be to be efficient, and mistake-free, as the Panthers intend to stick with new offensive coordinator Dan Henning's run first, pass second style of offense. He will be going up against a Raven's defense that has overgone a major facelift, with a few remaining familiar faces. The Panthers offense should look to challenge Baltimore's secondary as well, as they are pretty inexperienced. Look for Peete to pick on rookie FS Ed Reed from Miami, to see if he can force some rookie mistakes early. A lot of Rodney's success is going to depend on the effectiveness of Carolina's rushing attack, to take some of Baltimore's patented pressure off of him.
Chris Redman made his last regular season appearance during the 2000 season against Cincinnati, going 2 for 3 for 19 yards. Chris' biggest advantage in this game will be the inexperience of Carolina's young secondary. With the Panthers' addition of CB Terry Fair this week, the gap may not be as great as it previously was talent wise, but a void still exists in the Panthers defensive secondary. Being so inexperienced, don't expect to see Chris throwing the ball down field too often, but he will try to burn Carolina's young defensive backs a few times for sure.
Carolina's Lamar Smith and Brad Hoover vs Baltimore's Jamal Lewis and Alan Ricard
Probably one of the biggest focal points of both offenses, the running backs in this match-up are likely to be the ones who turn this game in favor of their respective team. Lamar Smith makes his first start as a Panther, coming over from the Miami Dolphins. Smith is a bruising runner, who tends to wear defenses down, and seems to get better as the game progresses. Lamar has rushed for over 2000 yards over his last two seasons with the Dolphins, but that was behind an offensive line that was geared for the running game. It has yet to be seen if Carolina's offensive line can open the holes necessary to create an effective ground attack. Originally, it was intended for Smith to split time with rookie Deshaun Foster. Foster was injured in the Panthers 3rd preseason game at New England, and should return to action around week 3 of the season. Also in the backfield with Smith will be FB Brad Hoover. Hoover appears to have bulked up in the off season, and has really turned himself into a threat to opposing defenses. He seems to be catching the ball better out of the backfield, and also seems to be a little tougher to bring down this year.
Baltimore's Jamal Lewis returns to action for the first time since tearing his ACL early in the 2001 season. It appears that Lewis has bulked up a little in his rehab period, going from 225 lbs. before the injury, up to 245 lbs. currently. He will be going up against a very young defensive line in Carolina, but one that has looked impressive against the run during the preseason. A lot of Lewis' success is going to depend on how well Baltimore's offensive line is able to stabilize Carolina's youth and quickness, especially from the linebackers. Joining Lewis in Baltimore's backfield is FB Alan Ricard, who will be making his first NFL start. Look for one of the two, Smith or Lewis, to have several breakout carries that could prove to be the difference in the game.
Edge: Baltimore (by the slimmest of margins)
Carolina's Muhsin Muhammad and Steve Smith vs Baltimore's Travis Taylor and Brandon Stokely
It's not very likely that the WR position will get a lot of attention in this game, but both teams do have receivers capable of making the big play. In a game featuring an inexperienced QB on one team, and a capable but unlikely veteran on the other, it's doubtful that either team will gain an advantage here. Taylor and Stokely both have more experience than Smith, but don't look for the Panthers to go to Smith unless they are trying to stretch out the field to set up the run. Moose should be Peete's primary target in 3rd and long situations, and should have the experience to get open and make several first down catches.
Baltimore is likely to test Carolina's secondary and will hope to play on their youth at the position. If the Panthers' secondary can step up and make a few plays early, look for the Ravens to shy away from passing the ball and stick with Jamal Lewis on the ground to pick up the slack. If Carolina's secondary is not on their game, this could be exploited to the point that it wins the game for Baltimore.
Carolina's Wesley Walls vs Baltimore's Todd Heap
Probably the position that has the most parity between these two teams, look for this match-up to possibly be a key difference in the game. Wesley Walls seems to find a way to get open no matter who the Panthers are facing, and it is a rarity to see him drop a pass. This is why he is so often referred to as a "security blanket" for whomever the quarterback may be. The key to Wesley's game this week is probably going to be more of his run blocking, as opposed to his route running. How he handles that responsibility will go a long way in determining who has the better running game on Sunday, as he will be asked to block Pro Bowl LB Ray Lewis, or Peter Boulware. Also look for Kris Mangum to line up at tight end in Carolina's single-back formation, primarily for run blocking as well.
Todd Heap, whom many seem to think is the next up and coming star tight end in the league, will make the start for the Ravens. Heap saw very limited action last year, playing behind All Pro Shannon Sharpe. The lack of on-the-field experience can be deceiving though, when you think about the fact that Heap was learning from Sharpe. Still, based off of his inexperience so far in the NFL, it's hard to pinpoint what kind of effect he can have on the game. If Redman gets in trouble in the pocket often, look for Heap to have a decent receiving day.
Carolina's Front Five vs Baltimore's Front Five
Carolina's offensive line has pretty much remained intact from the 2001 season, in which they gave up a franchise low 31 sacks. The biggest problem is the fact that previous head coach George Seifert preferred to pass as opposed to rushing the ball, and this group seems to be a little behind when it comes to the ground game. Depending on how well LT Todd Steussie, LG Jamar Nesbit, C Jeff Mitchell, RG Jeno James, and RT Chris Terry can neutralize the Ravens defensive line and four linebackers (Baltimore has switched to the 3-4 defense this year), will go a long way in deciding how effective the Panthers rushing game will be. Don't look for them to have a problem protecting Rodney Peete, as they are experienced in picking up blitzes from multiple defensive coverages, as last season showed.
On Baltimore's side of the ball, there are a few new faces, and with those new faces again comes inexperience. Also depending on how well this new line can mesh together as a unit, Jamal Lewis could be in for either a remarkable comeback game, or the first signs of a run stopping Carolina defense could begin to show.