Monday, November 28, 2011

Cam Newton, Panthers Escape Indianapolis Embarrassment

Rookie sensation Cam Newton did everything in his power to make sure the Indianapolis Colts didn't earn their first win of the season on Sunday.  Newton completed 20 of 27 passes for 208 yards and ran for his 10th rushing touchdown on the season as the Carolina Panthers handed Indianpolis their 11th consecutive loss, 27-19.

Carolina iced the game when starting free safety Sherrod Martin snagged his third interception of the season on an acrobatic catch in the back of the endzone with only 35 seconds remaining.

Martin made an incredible catch, dragging his right foot to remain inbounds just inches away from the endline.  The interception halted a furious Indianapolis comeback attempt with no timeouts remaining in the final moments of the contest.  While the Panthers never fell behind in the game, the pesky Colts refused to go away, coming within inches of possibly tying the game until Curtis Painter tossed his second interception of the day.

DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, and Cam Newton had a huge day for Carolina on the ground.  The trio rushed for a combined 192 yards and three touchdowns.  The Panthers' highly-touted running game took advantage of a porous Indianapolis defense that allows an average of 145.6 rushing yards per game.  Williams accounted for two of Carolina's three touchdowns, the second of which was a two yard plunge, catapulting Carolina to a 24-13 lead.

The Colts responded with a fantastic catch-and-run by perennial Pro Bowler Reggie Wayne on a 56 yard touchdown, giving the hometown fans in Lucas Oil Stadium a glimmer of hope.  The 2-point conversion attempt failed, and Carolina returned the favor with a 76 yard kickoff return by Kealoha Pilares deep into Indianpolis territory.  Despite poor field position, the Colts' much-maligned defense held their ground and forced a 41 yard field goal by Olindo Mare to give their offense one last chance to pull out a seemingly impossible victory.

Indianapolis put on possibly their best defensive effort of the season, despite their inept offense led by Curtis Painter.  The Colts' inability to sustain drives led to Carolina grabbing a quick lead and never looking back.  A paltry 1 for 9 on third down, the Colts struggled mightily in the first half with only 10:28 time of possession.  Carolina attempted to take a halftime lead, but Indianapolis defensive end Jamaal Anderson had other plans, blocking a 45 yard field goal attempt, giving the Colts the momentum advantage going into the locker room.  The Colts were unable to capitalize, going three and out to open the third quarter. Carolina responded with a 64 yard touchdown drive to take a 17-10 lead and never surrendering their advantage again.

With their third victory of the season, Carolina proved they haven't quit on the season despite a poor record and deflated playoff hopes.  The Panthers snapped a 12-game road losing streak dating back to the beginning of the 2010 season.  Cam Newton and his teammates eclipsed last season's win total of two, and look primed to play the role of spoiler down the stretch in the NFC playoff picture.  Newton has now thrown for over 3000 yards, by far the most for any rookie through his first 11 games.  Sophomore wide receiver Brandon LaFell took advantage of his first start of the season, grabbing five receptions for 46 yard, filling in the for the banged-up Legedu Naanee.  Jeremy Shockey had three receptions, extending his streak of consecutive games with a catch to 131.

Running back Donald Brown proved to be a bright spot for Indianpolis, rushing for 80 yards on 14 carries, tallying a touchdown that gave the Colts their first offensive touchdown in the month of November.  Curtis Painter's struggles continued, but it appears the counsel of Peyton Manning on the sideline has helped the oft-criticized signal caller direct the offense. Painter made some nice throws running the two minute drill, but still leaves plenty to be desired as a starter in the NFL.  Reggie Wayne grabbed his first touchdown reception  since the first game of the season.

With their 11th loss of the season, Indianapolis is off to their worst start of a season since 1986, when the Colts opened the year 0-13 before finishing with a 3-13 record.  The loss all but ensures Indy will wind up with the No. 1 pick in next year's draft, and all eyes still remain on Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck to be the top pick. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Apocalypse Meow

       The 2010 Carolina Panthers season will be remembered for what many consider to be the worst offensive football team in the NFL since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. The 2011 Carolina Panthers will be remembered for a defense that is just as bad, if not worse than the putrid offense of the previous season. Rookie head coach Ron Rivera & general manager Marty Hurney will have their work cut out for them during the offseason to improve what most analysts view as the worst defense in Carolina Panthers history.  Marty Hurney and his team of scouts have failed to capitalize in both the draft and free agency to address team needs, provide quality depth, and give the proud Panther fans a team to cheer on Sundays in the Fall.
    All of this began following the 2009 season. Perennial Pro Bowl defensive end Julius Peppers was soon to be a free agent, and the team had already signed him to the league franchise tag during the 2009 season.  Rather than signing Peppers to the tag again to receive compensation for his contract rights, Hurney, team owner Jerry Richardson, and then head coach John Fox allowed Peppers to leave the team for free.   This upset many Panther fans and was viewed as a questionable decision across the league. With Fox knowing he would be leaving the organization, the team suffered with a dismal 2-14 season, last in the NFL.
    In February of 2011, Ron Rivera was announced as new head coach of the franchise. He brought with him a new staff of coaches, determined to get Carolina back to the top of the NFC South. The top order of defensive minded Rivera and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott was getting an offensively challenged team some help on defense. With the #1 overall pick in the NFL draft, many pundits called on Carolina to draft Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley or LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson. Both players were expected to be standout players capable of making an impact from the start of their career; instead, Carolina & Hurney elected to draft Heisman winning quarterback Cam Newton from Auburn University. While a good pick, a failure to shore up the defense has led to Carolina’s demise this season. While Marty Hurney made an excellent choice in Newton, it’s his other choices that have questioned his ability to be a competent GM in the NFL. With 2 3rd round selections, Carolina drafted defensive tackles Sione Fua of Stanford and Terrell McClain from the University of South Florida. Both have shown they aren’t capable of being starting defensive tackles in the NFL thus far. In the 4th round, Carolina selected cornerback Brandon Hogan out of West Virginia; Hogan has yet to see action this season, as he is still recovering from knee surgery that forced him to miss his entire senior season, a questionable choice to say the least.
    Through 10 games in the 2011 season, Carolina ranks 27th in total defense out of 32 teams. The rush defense ranks 30th in the NFL at 140 yards per game, having allowed a league high 14 touchdowns on the ground. The pass defense is 17th, yielding 234 yards per game, with 16 touchdowns allowed. Carolina is averaging 28 points allowed per game on defense with 34 touchdowns total against the Panthers; those stats also include special teams which has been a disaster for Carolina as well, allowing a league high 3 return touchdowns on special teams. The only teams worse than Carolina at stopping the run are winless Indianapolis and the lowly St. Louis Rams.  Taking a look at the bottom 4 teams in rush defense you’ll see a trend, and that is that they’re all in last place. Certainly not a coincidence.
    A remedy for many struggling offenses this season has been a game against Carolina. Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson had only 1 game with 100 yards rushing, and that was against Cleveland, who is ranked 29th in the NFL in rush defense. Johnson had a huge game against Carolina, totaling 174 yards against the pitiful panthers. Last Sunday against the Detroit Lions was the lowest point of the 2011 campaign for Carolina. Quarterback Matthew Stafford had a career day, accumulating over 300 yards through the air en route to 5 touchdown passes. That wasn’t even the worst part for coach Rivera’s squad. Running back Kevin Smith, who prior to November 7th was out of the NFL, ran for 140 yards and 2 touchdowns. Smith also had 61 yards receiving with a touchdown. While Carolina has made great strides offensively with Newton and reviving veteran receiver Steve Smith, coach Rivera and his staff still have miles to go before being considered a contender in the NFC playoff picture.