FEROCIOUS PANTHERS' FAST START NO FLUKE
Carolina's retooled defence leads NFL in just about every noteworthy category
Two weekends into the NFL season, you might not be aware of what's taking place in Carolina. Well, you should.
The Panthers are 2-0, and perhaps the only fluke is that the schedule gifted them with two home games at the get-go, including facing the awful New York Jets in the opener.
That said, only seven teams across the league enter Week 3 with a 2-0 record: in the AFC just Las Vegas and Denver, and in the NFC, Tampa Bay, Los Angeles Rams, San Francisco, Arizona and the Panthers.
None of the other six teams can boast what the Panthers can. After Sunday, defensive co-ordinator Phil Snow's charges led the NFL in just about every important defensive category:
fewest total yards allowed (190 per game);
fewest rush yards allowed (46.5 per game);
fewest pass yards allowed (143.5 per game); most sacks (10); most QB hits (21); fewest first downs allowed (22);
best third-down efficiency (25 per cent);
and, the most important defensive statistic, scoring defence (10.5 points per game).
Yeah that'll work. That will go a long way toward starting a season 2-0.
After holding on to beat the New York Jets 19-14, the Panthers on Sunday faced a New Orleans Saints team that had obliterated the Green Bay Packers 38-3 just seven days earlier. But Carolina not only shut down Saints quarterback Jameis Winston, they constantly harassed him, and really, embarrassed the entire New Orleans offence. The Panthers held star Saints running back Alvin Kamara to five yards rushing on eight carries, his worst output as a pro.
“(We) had a very dominant performance for the second week in a row,” Carolina defensive end Brian Burns said, per the team's website. “I'm just liking the energy, to be honest. We're all playing together, and for each other, and that's why we're so dominant right now.”
The biggest change from last season on the defensive side of the ball is the pressure being applied up front, to both rushers and passers alike — thanks to a crew of newly added and newly improved front-seven players.
Burns, for instance, is in his third season. He became a starter last year and blossomed quickly, finishing with nine sacks, 21 QB hits, four pass knock-downs and three forced fumbles. The 23-year-old already has two sacks and three QB hits.
He's joined in Carolina's new Qb-hit parade by impact 2021 free-agent signees, including rush linebacker Haason Reddick (after four years in Arizona), tackle Daquan Jones (after seven years in Tennessee) and tackle Morgan Fox (after four years in Los Angeles with the Rams).
Last week, defensive co-ordinator Phil Snow suggested the addition of Reddick, in particular, is preventing the opposition from concentrating on stopping the rush of Burns.
“And I think our disguise is better,” Snow said.
Eight Panthers defenders have at least half a sack entering Thursday's game at the Houston Texans. With Houston QB Tyrod Taylor day-to-day with a hamstring pull, third-round rookie draft pick Davis Mills might well make his first pro start.
Yeah, against this defensive outfit. Yikes!
“Right now, we're exceeding where I thought we could be, and it's surprising to me,” Reddick said. “Getting here, gelling with each other, bonding, getting to know each other, and everybody committing to one goal (and) playing as hard as possible (are the keys).”
Head coach Matt Rhule, in his second season in Carolina after coaching in college, praised his defence from top to bottom following Sunday's divisional win.
“There is a lot of sacrifice and humility from a lot of guys in that locker-room,” Rhule said. “You can't have that many sacks, from that many people, and not have it be everyone else doing their jobs too.
“And it's the offence. Trust me, there are so many times on 4th-and-1, 4th-and-2, I want to go for it. But I keep saying, `You got a good defence today. Trust the defence.' ”
That's not to say Rhule doesn't already have a lot of faith in new quarterback Sam Darnold, discarded by the Jets after three seasons and acquired via a trade in March.
The 24-year-old through two games has completed 68.5 per cent of his throws (which ranks 16th in the league) for 584 yards (11th) and three touchdowns (tied for 12th). He has been picked off only once.
In other words, Darnold has been reliably safe with the ball, but he's making enough plays aerially to put the Panthers ahead, and keep them ahead, through two games.
Having the league's most prolific yards-gainer in running back Christian Mccaffrey helps a whole lot, too.
Like many good teams in today's NFL, Rhule and offensive co-ordinator Joe Brady are scheming ways to gain Darnold more time to throw off run fakes, mostly to Mccaffrey but also occasionally, so far, to his top backup, rookie Chuba Hubbard of Edmonton.
The Panthers smartly are employing more elemental play-action — particularly off waggle (naked bootleg) rollouts away from run action.
Darnold seems to be loving the extra time it affords him to assess things downfield.
“I'm not asking him to be perfect the entire season,” Rhule said.
“I thought he made big throws in crucial downs, on third down (vs. New Orleans).”
For his part, Darnold sounded happy but grounded after his second victory of the season, which took his Jets team until Dec. 27 last year to notch.
“I'm just going to continue to do my job,” he said. “That's all I'm worried about. I have always had a lot of confidence. That's never going to change. Just finding completions and continuing to move the ball down the field. “It's a good feeling.”
No doubt. Darnold actually is 2-0 for the first time as a pro QB, much as Rhule is 2-0 for the first time as a pro head coach, after his first Panthers team limped to the finish line a year ago, losing nine of its last games.
Different quarterback, different defenders, different attitude this year.
FIVE FAST FACTS
Tampa Bay TE Rob Gronkowski leads all pass catchers with four TD receptions ... San Francisco WR Deebo Samuel has the most receiving yards (282) ... Carolina RB Mccaffrey has the most yards from scrimmage (324) and most first downs made (17) ... Carson Wentz has outrushed Kyler Murray so far, 60 to 51 yards ... With eight minutes left in their win over Cincinnati, Bears QBS Andy Dalton and Justin Fields had thrown for only 67 more yards (116) than they had rushed for (49).
TAKING A KNEE
Entering Monday night, scoring was down this season so far compared to last year's ridiculous Nfl-record level (24.8 points per team per game).
But it's not down much, despite so many struggling first- or second-year passers.
Through 31 games in 2021, teams are averaging 23.9 points per game, exactly one point behind 2020's record pace (24.9 through 31 games).
Here are a few statistical comparisons that illustrate the minor cool-down. Whereas six teams to this point a year ago had scored 30 points but lost, only four teams have done it in 2021. Whereas 12 times last year a team had scored 16 points or fewer in a game, in 2021 it's happened 15 times. Whereas a team had scored single-digit points only once at this point last year, it's happened five times in 2021, including Miami's goose egg versus Buffalo on Sunday.
Surely part of the reason for the drop-off is that the league has ordered game officials to call more offensive holding penalties this season, in keeping more or less with pre-2019 levels (that is, approximately 3.2 to 3.5 calls per game on average).
There were 53 offensive holding calls in Week 1, but only 37 in Week 2 prior to Monday night's Detroit at Green Bay game.
Theoretically, then, scoring should have ticked up.
It didn't. And the weather almost everywhere was dry and beautiful.
Maybe one reason for the dip is the plodding play of the young quarterbacks.
In particular, the five rookies who played in Week 2 — namely Jacksonville's Trevor Lawrence, Jets' Zach Wilson, Chicago's Justin Fields, New England's Mac Jones and Houston's Mills (Trey Lance didn't take a snap as San Francisco backup) — combined to complete 69 of 127 (54 per cent) for 676 yards, two touchdowns and eight interceptions.
That's a combined passer rating of 48.54 ... downright dismal.
When we do these calculations for the three second-year QBS who played Sunday not named Justin Herbert (the Los Angeles Chargers QB is now an established star, let's face it), we find that Cincinnati's Joe Burrow, Miami's Tua Tagovailoa (in two series before getting injured) and Philadelphia's Jalen Hurts together went 32 of 57 for 410 yards, two TDS and three interceptions — for a not much better 68.6 passer rating.
When eight of 30 QBS in a given week stumble en masse like that, scoring is going to drop.
Maybe next week will be different.
BUCCANEERS CONFIRM INTEREST IN SHERMAN
Richard Sherman to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers? Possibly.
Head coach Bruce Arians on Monday confirmed an NFL Network report that the Buccaneers had reached out to the former star cornerback after losing starter Sean Murphy-bunting indefinitely with a dislocated elbow.
Bucs GM Jason Licht spoke with Sherman, Arians told reporters, per reports.
“We've got to see,” Arians said. “He's got other things going on, too.”
The coach was referring to legal matters facing Sherman as a result of five misdemeanour charges — including DUI, criminal trespassing and resisting arrest — laid against him in July, after an alleged burglary involving former in-laws of the former Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers star.
The NFL hasn't punished Sherman, as yet.
“We'll kick the tires on some other guys, too,” Arians said.
“If Sherman is the right fit, it's the right fit and we'll move on it.”