Carolina's Front four vs Baltimore's Front three
This could turn out to be where this game is won or lost. Both teams will be going with a run oriented offense. Carolina is coming into this game with what could be the best defensive line the organization has had. They are young and have looked very solid in the preseason, while being able to get to the QB and being able to stop the run. The debut of DE Julius Peppers will take place in this game, and it should be interesting to see how far along the rookie is. Rucker will be starting as the other DE, and will be looking to improve on last year's 9-sack season. DT will be setup on a heavy rotation, with Jenkins and Buckner probably getting the start. Buckner is listen as probable with a knee injury, but should be able to play and get a lot of reps in. Sean Gilbert and Shane Burton will also see a large number of reps.
The game Sunday will be the first regular season game in which the Ravens show off their new 3-4 defense. Their defensive line will be looking to make a statement that they are ok after the loss of their monster run stoppers Siragousa and Adams. The job of clogging the middle will rest on the shoulders of rookie Kelly Gregg. Defensive end looks very solid with Mike McCrary and Adalius Thomas. Together, they will be trying to get to Peete and open the way for Baltimore's speedy linebackers to reek as much havoc as possible.
New look linebacker key for the Panthers
The linebackers for both teams will be the focal point of both defenses. Carolina will be sporting their new look linebacking corps, which looks very promising. Defensive minded Fox has seemed to have given defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio reign over this group. Del Rio basically molded the dominant group created in Baltimore. His first move was to improve the speed and it appears he has succeeded in that aspect by moving the very rangy Dan Morgan from the outside back to his college position in the middle. Morgan has the speed and athletic ability to go from sideline to sideline and is solid in coverage. On the outside you have Mark Fields (FA St Louis) and Hannibal Navies. In the preseason, this group attacked and swarmed over the ball.
Everyone knows all about Baltimore's all-world linebacker corps. What most do not
realize is how big of a difference the 3-4 scheme is going to affect them. Look for a couple miscues and missed assignments, but the sure talent of this squad will give them the nod. The big question will be if Ray Lewis can continue his great form of the previous season by having to run through offensive lineman on his way to the quarterback or running back. Joining Lewis in the middle is Ed Hurtle, who has looked pretty strong in preseason. If the Panthers try to run away from Lewis, look for him to have a big day. On the outside is Shannon Taylor and
Peter Bowler. Boulware will be happy to back in the OLB spot rather than having to play DE as he did much of last season, and will be a constant threat. Stepping in for last year other OLB, Sharper, is Taylor.
Carolina's Corners and Safeties vs Baltimore's Corners and Safeties
Does anyone really know how either one of these teams secondary is going to perform? This is the weak link on both defenses, at least on paper that is. Carolina has made many changes with the CB position since last season. They have probably the largest contingent of nickel backs in the history of the NFL. With no clear-cut starters coming in, it has left a wide-open race. Terry Cousin, a free agent pick-up from Miami, has proven to be the best CB. Reggie
Howard has impressed the coaching staff enough to earn the second starting spot. As far as the safety positions go, Carolina is the better of the two. The hard-hitting Mike Minter will be the leader of the secondary from the strong safety position. Playing beside him will be Deon Grant. Deon has looked much improved over last season. He is a more sure tackler, and is quietly becoming one of the better ball hawks of at the free safety position.
Baltimore will have the best corner on the field with Chris McAllister, but some of his effectiveness will be reduced due to return duty, a decision made this week by the coaching staff. This move could hurt him if Carolina tries to stretch the field with deep routes. Gary Baxter will be the other starter at corner. Safety position will be a weak one for the Ravens. Anthony Mitches will get the start thanks injury to rookie SS Will Demps. At free safety, rookie
Ed Reed from Miami will get the nod. Reed has the knowledge to play the position, but will have to get use to the speed of the NFL, and it won't happen this week.
Carolina's Special teams unit vs Baltimore's Special teams unit
One of Carolina's few bright spots from the past two seasons, has been the play of their special teams. The unit ranked 5th last year overall in the NFL for special teams units. Their two Pro Bowlers, KR/PR Steve Smith, and Punter Todd Sauerbrun highlight the squad. Todd is once again looking great so far this season, with a net punting average over 45 yds/kick. He also seems to still have his great accuracy, and in a low scoring, ball control game, this could turn out to be a bigger factor than it would seem. With Steve Smith's new role at wide receiver, it has yet to be seen just how much he will be used in the kicking game. He lead the league last year with the kicks/punts returned for touchdowns, but look for his time there to be reduced, as the coaching staff is worried about too many reps wearing him down. John Kasay remains the reliable kicker in Carolina as well. Kickoff and punt coverage for the Panthers has not been a problem in the past two seasons either, and do not look for it to be in this game. If this is as close a game as most anticipate, it could very well be decided by a key special teams play.
For Baltimore, gone is their biggest threat on special teams, KR/PR Jermaine Lewis to the expansion Houston Texans. It has yet to be seen who will step up to take his place. Matt Stover is a very reliable kicker for the Ravens as well, so they should have no problems with the field goal unit.
Overall, the edge has to go to Carolina, as their kickoff and punt coverage teams should leave the Ravens with bad starting field position most of the afternoon, in a game where field position should turn out to be the difference.