PFF Game Ball
For not only giving Panthers fans hope of a presence in front of Luke Kuechly but also for taking apart the man who took our Super Bowl game ball this award can go to no other than Star Lotulelei.
Carolina – Three Performances of Note
A Star in the Making
A week after giving the best guard in the league (Evan Mathis) a hard time in fits and starts during his second preseason display Star Lotulelei put in a show (+4.6) against the Ravens to really get Carolina fans excited for the season ahead. Carolina has been without a real presence at defensive tackle for a long time, they’re highest-graded DT in the PFF era (2008 onward) was Ma’ake Kemoeatu (+10.5) in 2008 and though it has been an issue, they have never properly addressed it, until this draft.
By taking Lotulelei in the first round and Kawann Short (+1.7) in the second, they made a statement of intent that things needed to change and the first-rounder is starting to find his feet in preseason. Working principally against starting left guard Kelechi Osemele (last seen dismantling Justin Smith in the Super Bowl) the Panthers’ first round selection was able to consistently get a convincing upper hand. A hurry and a sack were good returns in the passing game, but it was in the running game where he proved to be a one-man wrecking crew. With two tackles for loss, two other stops and disruptions beyond taking the ball-carrier down, this display offered plenty to get excited about. Can he carry this sort of play forward when it counts?
Troubles Upfront Spread Through the Offense
For as much as the playmaking of the defense and special teams will have encouraged Carolina fans, the offense was stuck in neutral for much of the night. The malaise started up front where aside from Ryan Kalil (+0.4) in the middle of the line every starting lineman graded -1.5 or worse. On the left side, Jordan Gross and Amini Silatolu both earned that grade but constructed it differently. Gross struggled badly with his run blocking (-2.5) being troubled by a series of defenders starting with Arthur Jones and running all the way through to Terrell Suggs and John Simon. To his inside Silatolu surrendered two pressures (1 hit, 1 hurry) on only nine pass blocks. The bigger problems came on the other side with Garry Williams (-2.3) and Byron Bell (-4.0) struggling badly in pass protection. These struggles up front led to problems for the Panthers’ skill position players with Cam Newton facing pressure on 10 of his 24 drop-backs and, on their 22 designed runs, the Carolina offensive line only afforded their runners 1.4 yards per carry before contact.
Kuechly Marks his Territory
Last season Luke Kuechly drew plenty of plaudits based around his nose for the ball-carrier but he was far from the finished article, showing inconsistency at times in pass coverage. Last night, though, was a good night for Kuechly in coverage, which combined with three stops in run defense will all add up to a performance (+3.7) that will rightly pull in plenty of positive press. After an early blip losing track of Visanthe Shiancoe on the Ravens’ opening drive it was all positive for Kuechly from there on out, feasting on some extremely optimistic passing from Joe Flacco. Early in the second quarter he had tight coverage on Dallas Clark, bracketing him with Captain Munnerlyn, to drive to the inside shoulder and break up the short pass. He then emphasized his control of the short area later in the second by breaking up a pass to lead to an interception (nullified by what I’ll call a cautious personal foul flag from the officiating crew) before finally booting the Ravens off the field by taking an interception himself on another ill-advised short throw from Flacco.
This disparity in where teams must look to challenge Kuechly and the Panthers’ pass defense over the middle is little better illustrated than Flacco’s passing stats over the middle. On short passes (0-9 yards downfield) Flacco went 5/8 for 31 yards with two interceptions as Kuechly helped shut that region down; meanwhile on intermediate throws (10-19 yards) Flacco found some joy going 3/4 for 50 yards and a touchdown. As with many linebackers, but particularly Kuechly at this early stage in his career, you must challenge in behind him.
"A week after giving the best guard in the league (Evan Mathis) a hard time"
Well ain't that ironic...