Pan­thers work­ing through some ‘grow­ing pains’ as they reach sea­son’s mid­way point

The Herald (Rock Hill) - - Sports - BY JOUR­DAN RODRIGUE jro­drigue@char­lot­teob­server.com

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:

BEST PLAY

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”.

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