Coming off of a surprising overtime victory in Week 6, the Buffalo Bills have a little spring in their step as they look to continue their winning ways this weekend. Buffalo's opponents this weekend? The Carolina Panthers, who have won two straight to improve to 2-3 after an 0-3 start to the season.
Neither team should be feeling particularly great about themselves. Buffalo is missing its starting quarterback and several key defenders, and it's still struggling to move the ball and put up points offensively. Meanwhile, Jake Delhomme is doing his best season-long impression of the Week 6 version of Mark Sanchez, and though the Panthers have won two straight, the teams they've bean - 2-4 Washington and 0-6 Tampa Bay - are hardly the cream of the NFL crop.
This is a winnable game for both sides. Here to discuss this weekend's key matchup is Jaxon from SB Nation's Panthers affiliate, a blog by the name of Cat Scratch Reader. His answers to my questions are after the jump; be sure to check out CSR this morning, as the reciprocating Q&A is up as well.
John Fox has steadfastly stood behind Jake Delhomme, despite his throwing 10 interceptions in 5 games. Carolina has won two straight, but have those wins done anything to relieve skepticism surrounding your starting quarterback?
CSR: Even the most die hard Delhomme fan has lost at least a little confidence in the guy. How could throwing INTs in six games not have an effect? Since we have no better options, we don’t talk about it too much, because to bench Jake would seemingly throw in the towel on the season. We aren’t ready to do that, so we quietly pray this will be the week Jake brings his ‘A’ game.
It seems weird to be typing this, but Steve Smith is not your team's leading receiver this year. Fox blamed it on teams doubling Smith constantly. Are we to believe that that didn't happen in years past, when he was averaging 88 catches per season over the last four years? What do you think the issue is?
CSR: The issue is QB Jake Delhomme. What you pointed out in question one has had a huge impact on Steve Smith. Specifically, Delhomme has yet to hit a deep ball on the season, something he and Smith completed routinely in seasons past. Yes, teams continue to bracket Smith, but Delhomme is less inclined to put one up for grabs because of the huge number of INTs he has thrown already. It was very obvious on the game-winning drive last week - when the Panthers ran on 15 of 16 plays - that Delhomme has been reined in. Smith is now getting fewer opportunities to make plays, and he’s getting a little testy about it. I wouldn’t call him disgruntled or be concerned it’s going to cause a rift on the team, just that he takes a lot of pride in making plays and they aren’t happening so far.
The Panthers have struggled to stop the run this season - and they weren't astonishing at it last season, either. Is Ma'ake Kemoeatu missed that much, or are there other factors at play?
CSR: Though the run defense got off to a rough start, the addition of DT Hollis Thomas two weeks ago has had immediate positive results. Plus, we just added Tank Tyler, so we feel we are in fairly good shape at the moment. I don’t think the Bills will put up huge numbers running the ball this week (we hope). Overall, the defense suffered early from mental mistakes related to picking up new DC Ron Meeks' Cover 2 defense. Combine that with poor tackling and an offense that turns the ball over, and that spells 0-3. Much has changed through the last two weeks, and I expect more of the good play to continue this week.
Julius Peppers seems as if he's up to his old tricks, registering 5 sacks in 5 games. What's the best way for the Bills' young offensive line to slow him down?
CSR: Peppers seems to save his best effort for when it’s most important. On first and second down I wouldn’t do anything special to defend against him. On third and long, though, your tackle will need help. The Panthers are moving him back and forth from the left side to the right, so both of your tackles need to be ready for him. We’ve noticed a few times he’s lost containment defending the run, so running some misdirection to his side will slow him down, too. Your QB better have his running shoes on, as designed roll-outs away from Peppers will de-energize him.
The Panthers have, in general, alternated between also-ran and serious playoff contender under John Fox. How toasty is his proverbial hot seat? Any chance he's gone at the end of the year if Carolina doesn't rebound from its slow start?
CSR: That’s a good question. I think 7 wins or more he saves himself. Anything less and the odds go up he will be replaced. I’ve always thought Panthers owner Jerry Richardson had undying loyalty to Fox…until that is Richardson canned his two sons over the offseason because he thought they were a distraction to the team. I think 7 wins coupled with the injuries and poor QB play will be enough to salvage another season. But I don’t think Delhomme would be so lucky if he doesn’t start playing mistake free ball. I love Jake Delhomme but even I can only take so much ugliness.