The Panthers finished seventh in the NFL in offensive yards in 2011 and are eighth after two weeks of the 2012 season, averaging 382.0 yards a game. Carolina leads the NFL with an average of 6.9 yards per play. The Panthers are seventh in passing yards (267.5) and tied for 11th in rushing (114.5).
Carolina, like the Giants, has a quarterback from a Southeastern Conference school who was chosen first overall in his draft class. Cam Newton, who led Auburn to the 2010 BCS National Championship, hasn’t won two Super Bowls like
Newton was the 2011 Offensive Rookie of the Year after starting all 16 games and completing 310 of 517 passes for 4,051 yards and 21 touchdowns and rushing for 706 yards. He was the first player in history to pass for 4,000 yards and rush for at least 500 yards in the same season and his 14 rushing touchdowns set a record for quarterbacks. As those stats indicate, Newton has a rare combination of size (6-5, 245), speed, strength and athleticism. He has a strong arm and can shake off defenders when he’s on the move. His backup is former Cleveland starter Derek Anderson, with Jimmy Clausen at No. 3.
The Panthers traditionally have an outstanding rushing attack and last year they led the NFL with an average of 5.4 yards per carry. After being held to just 10 yards on the ground in their season-opening loss at Tampa Bay, the Panthers ran for 219 yards in their victory over the Saints. Carolina has one of the league’s best running back tandems in DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. Williams has a franchise-record 5,115 career rushing yards and his 5.03 yards-per-carry average is third in history among backs with at least 750 attempts. The team’s primary back on first and second downs, Williams is an instinctive and explosive back who is quick to the line of scrimmage. He is shifty enough to make tacklers miss and fast enough to outrun them to the end zone. Stewart, who rushed for 206 yards against the Giants in 2009, is an all-around playmaker with quick feet, vision, balance and good hands.
Mike Tolbert, signed as a free agent from San Diego, is listed as the starting fullback, but he also lines up at halfback, in the slot, out wide and sometimes goes in motion. Tolbert has been the third-down back early in the season. He is a physical runner who does some of his best work in the red zone. Backup Richie Brockel is a fullback/halfback hybrid with deceptive quickness when running routes.
Twelve-year veteran Steve Smith is still one of the NFL’s most dangerous receivers. The five-time Pro Bowler, who has a franchise-record 709 catches, is Newton’s top target. Smith is an exceptional athlete who makes superb adjustments when the ball is in the air and has unusual ability on the sideline. Smith can pick up big yardage on end-arounds. He is a physical finisher who shows no signs of slowing down. The other starter is Brandon LaFell, a third-year pro with terrific speed. He had the Panthers’ only touchdown by a wideout in the first two games. Louis Murphy was acquired in a trade with Oakland on July 24. He has good size and speed and has shown exceptional concentration tracking deep balls.
Tight end Greg Olsen is a smooth receiving tight end who gets in and out of his breaks quickly. He had 18 touchdown receptions the previous three seasons. He is also a competitive blocker. Gary Barnidge is the top reserve.
Carolina returned four of five starters on the offensive line, including three-time Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil and two-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jordan Gross (who has started all 137 games in which he’s played, the most by a lineman in team history). Gross is the Panthers’ best offensive lineman, a smart, intuitive player who is equally strong blocking on runs and passes. The right tackle is Byron Bell, who started 12 games as an undrafted rookie in 2011. He is a big, heavy-bodied player with long arms and a testy disposition. Eight-year veteran Geoff Hangartner has started 18 consecutive games at right guard. He is a smart player who can line up at any of the three inside spots. Amini Silatolu is a rookie from Division II Midwestern State who was drafted in the second round and earned the starting job at left guard in training camp with his toughness and competitiveness. Kalil is a smart, crafty center with an exceptionally strong upper body, which helps him sustain and finish blocks.
In 2011, the Panthers finished 28th in the NFL in total defense (377.6 yards a game), 27th in points allowed and 27th in defensive third down efficiency. Carolina allowed at least 250 passing yards in eight of 16 games. They were, however, the only NFC South team that did not install a new defense this preseason. The results have been mixed. After two games, their 4-3 defense is ranked 19th, but the Panthers have allowed 372 yards a game.
The Panthers rotate eight defensive linemen in and out of the game. Left end Charles Johnson is Carolina’s best pass rusher. He has mass, strength and is quick when reading schemes. Johnson has a variety of moves he used to record 20.5 sacks the previous two years. On the right side is Greg Hardy, a high-motor player who consistently clogs rush lanes and pressures quarterbacks. Dwan Edwards was released by Buffalo at the end of training camp and signed by the Panthers – who quickly started him at defensive tackle. He already has 2.5 sacks. Edwards is a strong player who creates a new line of scrimmage with his push. Next to him is Ron Edwards, who missed the entire 2011 season with a torn right triceps. He is a sturdy two-down anchor in the middle of the line. Frank Kearse, Antwan Applewhite, Sione Fua and Thomas Keiser all played last week.
Middle linebacker Jon Beason went to three consecutive Pro Bowls before tearing his left Achilles tendon in the 2011 season opener. He is back to his pre-injury form and leads the Panthers with 12 tackles (nine solo), despite sitting out all four preseason games. Beason is an active, violent player who is a powerful tackler. The weakside backer is rookie Luke Kuechly, the ninth overall selection in the 2012 draft. He is a sound and instinctive player who has demonstrated good pursuit effort. Kuechly is removed in the sub defenses. James Anderson, a former starter on the weak side, is now the strongside backer. He set a franchise record with 174 tackles in 2011. He is a tall, athletic linebacker who locates the ball quickly and has very good straight line speed. Eight-year veteran backup Thomas Davis is believed to be the first player to return to the field after three ACL reconstructions. He is on the field in Carolina’s nickel package. Despite his surgeries, Davis is a physical blitzer who throws his body around. Jason Phillips also contributes.
Left cornerback Chris Gamble is the franchise record-holder with 27 career interceptions. The senior member of the secondary, he is a bump-and-run defender with good ball awareness who competes against the run. Rookie fifth-round draft choice Josh Norman is the right cornerback. He has good body control and is at his best in press coverage. Captain Munnerlyn started 14 games last season and in the preseason, but now rotates with Norman. He also plays inside in the nickel. Munnerlyn has a good feel for zone coverage and provides feisty support in the run game. Strong safety Charles Godfrey is widely regarded as the secondary’s best player. He is a consistent playmaker near the line of scrimmage. Godfrey also intercepted a Drew Brees pass and returned it nine yards for a touchdown last week. Free safety Haruki Nakamura was a free agent signee from Baltimore. He replaced Sherrod Martin, who is now the top reserve safety. Nakamura is quick on his drops and quickly locates the ball in coverage.
The Panthers have had a youth movement on special teams. The kicker is Justin Medlock, who is finally getting a chance after being selected on the fifth round of the 2007 draft by Kansas City. Medlock played the previous three seasons in the CFL. Signed as a free agent in March, he made four of six field goal attempts in the preseason and connected on all six PATs and his only three-point try in the first two games. Punter and holder Brad Nortman is a rookie sixth-round draft choice from Wisconsin. Nortman has a very strong leg and can drop it inside the 10 from in close. He did, however, have a punt blocked vs. Tampa Bay. Another rookie, Joe Adams, is the punt returner. As a senior at Arkansas, he was second in the nation with a 16.9-yard average on 19 punt returns. He ran back four punts for touchdowns last year. Adams shares the kickoff return duties with Kealoha Pilares, who averaged 25.7 yards on 23 returns as a rookie last season, including a 101-yarder against Detroit – which earned him the NFC Special Teams Player of the Week Award in Week 11. Second-year pro Colin Jones was acquired late in the summer and is an outstanding cover specialist.