By Ted Fleming
If there was one thing that had the Panthers feeling uneasy about their season opener against the Seattle Seahawks it was the state of their running game. Jonathan Stewart was already out being placed on the physically unable to perform list meaning he will miss at least the first six weeks and there was concern whether Mike Tolbert would be ready after missing the entire preseason with a hamstring issue.
With no other fullback on the roster or practice squad, Tolbert’s absence would have been a serious blow to Carolina’s chances against a Seattle squad some have predicted will be Super Bowl bound. They have one of the best defenses in the NFL, they were ninth overall a year ago, and may be on the verge of becoming elite. That raised the inevitable question, what was Panthers head coach Ron Rivera going to do?
It may be a moot point because Tolbert stepped onto the practice field on Monday for the first time in a month and with a day off on Tuesday he can nurse any soreness he might have after such a long layoff. If there are no setbacks, he will be on the field at Bank of America Stadium this Sunday.
The 27-year-old Coastal Carolina alum may be the best blocker on the team and that is good news for veteran DeAngelo Williams and second-year player Armond Smith who will see time in Stewart’s absence. And you can bet quarterback Cam Newton was sweating just a little bit because he needs to be upright and not being chased around the field if the Panthers are to have a shot at a victory.
The Panthers got off to a horrendous 2-8 start in 2012, but they did play the Seahawks close when the two clashed in Week 5. The Carolina defense put up nine points in a 16-12 loss with Captain Munnerlyn accounting for the only touchdown on a Pick-6 of an errant Russell Wilson pass.
The only way to describe the offense in that game was offensive because Newton was just 12-29 for 141 yards, he was sacked four times and still led the team in rushing, accounting for 43 of the team’s lackluster 82 yards. Things are supposed to be different this year despite what fans have seen in the preseason. The Panthers can feed off their 3-1 exhibition record, but they still struggled offensively.
Carolina has a new offensive coordinator in Mike Shula and if you are to believe what is coming out of the Panthers camp, the Panthers have just scratched the surface on what they will be able to accomplish. They will need to pull out everything in the playbook to get past the Seahawks.
Cam Newton, who wants to look forward and not back on a dismal 7-9 record where the team had to rip off five of their last six including the final four just to get there, needs to execute Shula’s game plan to perfection. If Mike Tolbert is a go, that may be all he needs.
Prediction: The Seahawks are 0-3 in road openers under head coach Pete Carroll. Enough said. Panthers get a touchdown on offense and defense and win 14-13.
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Ted Fleming is a freelance writer covering all things Carolina Panthers. His work can be found on Examiner.com.