The Carolina Panthers and Baltimore Ravens enter the 2010 NFL Season with slightly different expectations. Carolina, coming off an 8-8 season, is hoping for a return to the playoffs after missing out on the festivities in 2009. Conversely, Baltimore, after reaching the second round of the playoffs last season, are hoping to build of back-to-back post season appearances, and are legitimate Super Bowl contenders.
Therefore, it is important to view each teams successes as failures within the context of their goal.
That said, both teams will need improved play from their young signal callers, as well as an improved defense in order to reach their goal.
The Panthers finished the 2009 season strong, going 4-1 down the stretch. This surge was partly fueled by their young quarterback Matt Moore, who threw 8 touchdowns and only 1 interception in those final 5 games. But this excitement quickly diffused as soon as the offseason started, when sack-master Julius Peppers bolted for Chicago. As a result, the Panthers will be taking an extensive look throughout the season at Charles Johnson, Everett Brown, and Greg Hardy, to find a long-term replacement for Peppers. Tonight, I saw very little pressure from any of the Panthers, aside from Tyler Brayton.
For Moore, it will be vital for him to build on the chemistry he found towards the end of last season with WR Steve Smith. During the 4-1 run, Smith finished with 19 catches, 378 and 3 touchdowns. Unfortunately, Smith’s absence, along with the absence of OT Jeff Otah, and RB Jonathon Stewart made life more difficult for Moore this evening. And although they will be back for the regular season, the Panthers would certainly prefer Moore to be able to work with them in the offseason. Instead, their absence will mean Moore will have to develop chemistry with them “on the fly” in the regular season, limited their effectiveness.
Tonight, these complications, along with Moore’s inexperience, showed. He was consistently pressured, resulting in an overthrow (negated by a BAL penalty) and a throwaway, just on the first drive. These problems culminated in a big hit on Moore resulting in a fumble. One this particular play Moore didn’t read, nor did anyone pick up, a blindside blitz from the secondary. This is a reflection of his inexperience. The pressure on Moore continued throughout the second drive. On the rare occasion Moore did have time, however, he made strong, accurate throws. The Panthers will have the preseason to find a solution to their offensive line woes, although they may be wise to rely heavily on their 2,000 yard backfield through the first few weeks of the regular season, until the line gels and Moore gets more comfortable.
Moore was unable to get any offense going, and after going 4/7 for 32 yards, was replaced by Jimmy Clausen. Clausen was deemed by many to be the most NFL ready quarterback in the draft, and in tonight’s game he showed many of the attributes he was praised for in college. Clausen is battling a foot ailment which, according to Jon Gruden prevented him from properly executing rollouts, QB waggles and the like in pre-game warm ups. That said, Clausen showed good mobility when the pass protection broke down, and consistently kept his eyes down field looking for an open target. This skill is difficult for many young quarterbacks to develop, so Clausen seems to be ahead of the curve in this regard. Most of Clausen’s passes tonight were in the short to intermediate variety, probably due to a limited playbook for a rookie quarterback. Nonetheless, he showed good poise in the pocket, as stood tall and, released accurate throws downfield amidst a collapsing pocket. Overall, I thought he did a nice job for his first live action against another opponent.
The big story in Baltimore this offseason was the acquisition of WR Anquan Boldin. The Ravens are hoping Boldin can emerge from Larry Fitzgerald’s shadow in Arizona and provide Joe Flacco with a bonafide #1 receiver. And, from the first snap, it was clear the Ravens wanted to test out their new look passing game, as they began with 4 straight pass plays. Boldin’s value to the offense was clear on the first play of the game, when he ran a double move towards the right sideline. Although he did not record a reception on that play, he garnered the attention of the safety, which cleared much of the field, allowing fellow WR Derrick Mason to make a big catch. So, even if he is not catching passes, he will help the offense by opening things up underneath for Mason, tight end Todd Heap and company.
On board to help Flacco as the offensive opens up are three offensive minds: offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, quarterbacks coach Jim Zorn, and senior offensive assistant Al Saunders. And although I am not privy to each of their specific roles and responsibilities, their past resumes, especially Saunders’, tell me they will help Flacco tremendously.
Perhaps these 3 minds have already had a positive influence on Flacco this offseason, as he appeared very confident, especially out of the shotgun. He showed a quick drop back, and got the ball out to his intended target quickly. This tells me he has a sound understanding of offense, and is comfortable running it. He showed a good deep ball on the touchdown to receiver Mark Clayton, looking off safety in the process. Flacco was good as one can be in limited preseason action, finishing 8/12 for 130 yards and the lone touchdown.
Aside from Flacco, Baltimore’s running back trio of Ray Rice, LeRon McClain and Willis McGahee, looked solid in limited action. Newly acquired backup quarterback Bulger looked up and down, and his desire for the game was curiously questioned by Ron Jaworski during the broadcast. The Ravens’ rookie tight end Ed Dickson also caught my eye, with an athletic catch along the sideline, as well as some nice YAC after catching an underneath route. Perhaps he can eventually grow into a long term replacement for the aging Todd Heap.
On the other side of the ball, unlike years past in which their defense was the strength of the team, this year it may be their downfall. Gone are Gary Baxter, Chris McAlister and the rest of the lockdown secondary we have become accustomed to seeing over the years. Further complicating the problem is the unfortunate loss of cornerback Domonique Foxworth to a torn ACL, and the ailing hip of safety Ed Reed. Had the Panthers o-line given Moore more time, I believe he would have had more of an opportunity to exploit their secondary. But the Ravens defense did show some good things, namely rookie and mountain of a man Terrence Cody, who showed very good penetration at the line of scrimmage and registered a few tackles for a loss. A guy to look for in the long run is Prince Miller an UDFA from Georgia. He is a tough, instinctive player, and did a nice job on Dez Bryant this past year. Prince also returned a punt 57 yards tonight, which is precisely what an UDFA like himself needs to do to earn a roster spot.
It’s still preseason, and so its important to not draw large conclusions, particularly in a sloppy game like this one, played in the rain. It’s also important to remember many star players are either limited, or held out entirely, namely Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis and the aforementioned Steve Smith. But I liked what I saw from Flacco and the rest of the Ravens’ first-string offense. How their defense can come together will be the key. On the other side, I thought Clausen played well, as did running back DeAngelo Williams and Tyrell Sutton, but Carolina will have to improve their pass rush and their pass protection to make a serious playoff run.
Pros – Flacco, passing game, running back trio
Cons – Must find a solution at the cornerback position
Pros – Moore (when given time), Clausen, running game in limited action
Cons – Pass protection, pass rush