Midseason report: Panic, pray – or plan for a parade?
The Carolina Panthers have some superlatives, some things to fix and some good moments as they cross over the 2018 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 threegame 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 33-yard 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.
Cam Newton: This could also be Newton in the “most valuable” category.
He is playing more efficiently than ever this season, and seems to be thriving in his new relationship with Turner and his system.
Newton has thrown for 2,086 yards and 17 touchdowns with just five interceptions, has a career-best 68.5 completion percentage and has also rushed for 352 yards and four touchdowns.
Newton has always been capable of being this player, but suffered a setback in 2017 while recovering from shoulder surgery. In 2016, the Panthers’ offense stalled mightily from what it was in a record-setting 2015 season. Turner’s system factors in the addition of new and versatile playmakers to put less onus on Newton to put the offense on his back, for better or for worse.
So far this season, things are looking good for Newton.
WHERE’D HE GO?
CJ Anderson: We entered the season thinking running back Anderson, a free agentpickup this spring, would be the “thunder” to McCaffrey’s “lightning,” much like former downhill runner Jonathan Stewart was. 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 played 16.5 percent of the team’s defensive snaps entering Thursday night’s game at Pittsburgh.
Gaulden played a hybrid defensive back role while at Tennessee, and Panthers coaches say he’s re-learning traditional safety. But he’s a big part of the team’s plans after Davis ultimately retires. Hybrid linebacker/big nickel Shaq Thompson will slide into Davis’ role, and Gaulden will fill the big nickel and play some safety. With Reid playing so well, Carolina can take a more long-term approach to Gaulden’s development.
Marquis Haynes: The rookie defensive end is a speedball off the edge, but has some developing to do, according to coaches.
Carolina is still trying to find the most productive combinations for their pass rush, which is inconsistent. Haynes could be a part of the bigger-picture plans for the defense.
Third quarter/third down: 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 total takeaways 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 away more than they turn it over this season, 1-1 when even and 0-2 when they turn it over more than they take it. It goes without saying that they need to protect the ball and force explosive takeaways to get to the postseason.
Everyone gets a piece: In the Panthers’ two most explosive offensive performances, a Week 8 win against Baltimore and a Week 9 win against Tampa Bay, offensive skill players rotated in often and everyone contributed. Against Baltimore, nine players touched the ball while against Tampa Bay, 11 did.
Defensive consistency: Carolina will stuff a top rusher one week, and then give up a 100-yard game the next. The Panthers’ defense will lock down two of the league’s best receivers, and then give up two costly explosive plays the next week. Consistency moving forward will be one of the biggest keys to playing into January.
Pass rush: The Panthers are still trying to solve a hotand-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.
MOST ‘GOOSEBUMPS’ MOMENT
Graham Gano’s 63-yard game-winner: Carolina Panthers kicker Graham Gano nailed a career-high 63-yard field goal for the go-ahead score that sealed the Panthers’ wild victory against the New York Giants in Week 5. The moment was absolutely electric. Gano is riding a streak of 39 consecutive made field goals.
Donte Jackson: Carolina’s second-round pick out of LSU should absolutely be in the Defensive Rookie of the Year discussion, despite one rough play Thursday night against Pittsburgh’s No. 1 receiver, Antonio Brown.
In Week 9, Jackson tied for the league lead in interceptions with four. He also has 37 tackles, a sack and seven defensed passes. He has played almost 94 percent of defensive snaps.
There are certainly some things left to learn for the rookie, but Jackson is proving to be quite an exciting - and dependable - player in Carolina.
Wassup, baby: Head coach Ron Rivera has started a new trend this season of wearing a T-shirt 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”.
Carolina Panthers wide receiver Curtis Samuel, right, and quarterback Cam Newton celebrate a touchdown against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Nov. 4. At 6-3, the Panthers have work to do.
Carolina Panthers cornerback Donte Jackson returns an interception against Tampa Bay on Nov. 4. The Panthers’ overall defense has stuttered of late, and its allowing 258 yards per game.