Panthers working through some ‘growing pains’ as they reach season’s midway point
It feels like only yesterday that the Carolina Panthers were clackin’ pads in training camp and sweating in the Spartanburg heat.
But it’s almost Week 11 now. The leaves on Charlotte’s trees are beginning to crinkle brightly and fall to the streets.
The Carolina Panthers are 6-3, with a bad taste in their mouths after a 52-21 loss to Pittsburgh on Thursday.
And that one did sting. A lot. But it’s not totally indicative of who the Panthers are at the midway point. A 6-3 record is still, well, a 6-3 record.
Let’s recap a the basics: The Panthers started the season with three new coordinators in offensive coordinator Norv Turner, defensive coordinator Eric Washington and special teams coordinator Chase Blackburn.
Both of their starting left and right tackles went on injured reserve by Week 2, and Carolina was without starting linebacker Thomas Davis as he served a four-game NFL suspension. Carolina also added safety Eric Reid during the Week 4 bye after starting safety Da’Norris Searcy went on injured reserve.
So there was an adjustment period, and a lot of inconsistency on offense and defense through the first four weeks.
“I think the first half was a little bit (of us) kind of feeling our
way with three new coordinators, several new players and several key spots, i.e. the offensive line and our safety position,” coach Ron Rivera said this week, when asked his thoughts about his team at the season’s midway point.
“It’s been a little bit of growing pains for us in those respects. I think we’re still kind of feeling our way to a degree. But I (also) feel we’re getting more and more comfortable out there on the field.”
Carolina kicked off a three-game win streak when they came back from a 17-point deficit in the fourth quarter to beat the Eagles in Week 7.
But the team’s travel woes, which started in Week 2 at Atlanta, continued with the loss in Pittsburgh. The Panthers are 1-3 on the road this season.
With three of their next four games away, Carolina must figure out how to win in a tough environment if it wants to play in the postseason.
Meantime, here’s a look at some notable items halfway through the year:
Curtis Samuel’s 33yard touchdown, Week 9: This play was one for the ages.
One for two decades, to be specific.
Against Tampa Bay in Week 9, second-year receiver Curtis Samuel took a double reverse 33 yards to the house. He actually switched directions halfway through the play, running a total of 103.3 yards from sideline to sideline before scoring, according to the NFL’s NextGen statistics.
The coolest part? Turner actually ran this same play against Tampa Bay 20 years ago as the coach of Washington.
CJ Anderson: We entered the season thinking running back Anderson, a free agent-pickup this spring, would be the “thunder” to McCaffrey’s “lightning.” But it appears the Panthers have a more situational plan for Anderson. McCaffrey is serving as his own complement, as both the feature ball-carrier and a top receiver.
Still, when Anderson comes into the game, keep your eyes peeled. Carolina’s play-design using McCaffrey, Anderson and others as either decoys or targets in a personnel grouping they call “21ponies” is a thing of beauty.
Rashaan Gaulden: Gaulden, the rookie safety out of Tennessee who was the Panthers’ third-round pick this spring, only
The Panthers are only converting 40 percent of third-down attempts. They’re only averaging 1.4 points per third quarter, which is next to last in the league.
Takeaways vs. turnovers: Carolina has 11 interceptions this season, which is one more than they had in 2017. They have 15 totatakeaways and are plus-6 in the turnover margin, which is part of the reason they boast a 6-3 record.
Explosive plays after the catch: The Panthers have had success with Samuel, McCaffrey and rookie DJ Moore in creating yards after the catch. McCaffrey is No. 4 in the league among receivers and pass-catching backs with 445. Moore only has 23 catches, but has created 180 total extra yards after those receptions.
KEYS TO THE PLAYOFFS
Continuing to protect the ball: The Panthers are 5-0 when they take the ball
Pass rush: The Panthers are still trying to solve a hot-and-cold pass rush. They have a mid-league 22 sacks this season, and they’ll get a chance to pad those numbers with quarterbacks Matthew Stafford, Drew Brees and Matt Ryan on the horizon.
Offensive line: After a really strong first eight games in which Newton was sacked a career-low 12 times, the Panthers’ offensive line struggled mightily against Pittsburgh and gave up five sacks. The protection must be fixed if Carolina wants to make a playoff push.
Total defense: The Panthers’ overall defense has stuttered of late, and its allowing 258 yards of offense per game. They must tighten up in all phases with several potentially explosive teams coming their way in the second half of the year.
Wassup, baby: Head coach Ron Rivera has started a new trend this season of wearing a Tshirt into his weekly news conferences with some inside joke or playful reference to his team or staff.
The best this year? It could’ve been the shirt reminding people to vote in this fall’s midterm elections. Or the caricature of Newton kissing the pylon he tripped and almost fell over against Philadelphia.
But let’s be honest, it was the shirt he and Newton both wore last week. It featured a sketch of Turner in his sunglasses, with the phrase, “Wassup, baby”.