Fowler shares his thoughts on flawed, tal­ented Pan­thers team

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY SCOTT FOWLER [email protected]­lot­teob­server.com

The Carolina Pan­thers have shown us a lot of what they are — and what they aren’t — head­ing into Sun­day’s huge home game against the Seat­tle Sea­hawks.

At 6-4, the Pan­thers look far more frag­ile than they did two weeks ago at 6-2. Still, they would qual­ify for the NFC play­offs as the No. 5 seed if the

post­sea­son started to­day.

Here are 16 thoughts on the team, based on my own ob­ser­va­tions and con­ver­sa­tions with sev­eral peo­ple who know foot­ball and watch the Pan­thers closely.

1. De­fen­sive iden­tity: This is the Pan­thers’ big­gest prob­lem. Sim­ply put, the Pan­thers don’t have one. For years, this was a team with an ex­cel­lent front seven that could dic­tate a game’s tempo with that group and stop the run with im­punity. Not any­more. 2. Of­fen­sive fire­power: On of­fense, the Pan­thers don’t have the same iden­tity prob­lem. Carolina has sur­rounded Cam New­ton with a group of play­ers who can run af­ter the catch and at least have a chance of get­ting

the Pan­thers to 31 or more points a week — which in these strange NFL days is usu­ally a win­ning num­ber to shoot for. 3. Play­ing par­tic­u­larly well:

Cam New­ton (20 touch­down passes, six in­ter­cep­tions, 68.4 com­ple­tion per­cent­age); right­side of­fen­sive line­men Trai Turner and Tay­lor Mo­ton; rookie wide re­ceiver DJ Moore; run­ning back Chris­tian McCaffrey.

4. Needs to im­prove: Corner­back James Brad­berry (in­con­sis­tent and must make more plays on the ball); the en­tire lineback­ing corps (sim­ply not cre­at­ing enough turnovers); the in­te­rior pass rush in par­tic­u­lar (op­pos­ing quar­ter­backs are find­ing it too easy to step up in the pocket).

5. Devin Funchess: He’s a free agent af­ter this sea­son, and I think he’ll be gone in 2019. Carolina looks like it wants to make its bed with “run-af­terthe-catch” re­ceivers, even if they are small. That isn’t Funchess’s strength, and the Pan­thers al­ready showed their hand in 2017 on what they think of big, rel­a­tively slow tar­gets by trad­ing away Kelvin Ben­jamin.

I can’t imag­ine they will of­fer Funchess — who has a back in­jury and prob­a­bly won’t play Sun­day — as much money as he can find else­where.

6. Smoke and mir­rors:

The Pan­thers are manag­ing to get it done on the left side of the of­fen­sive line de­spite start­ing two un­likely play­ers (of­fen­sive guard Greg Van Roten and left tackle Chris Clark, signed off the street be­fore Week 2).

Watch how of­ten Carolina tries to run to the right side when it does run — it’s pretty pre­dictable. Matt Kalil still isn’t ready to come back off knee surgery, and that slow re­cov­ery has been frus­trat­ing for all in­volved. Both left guard and left tackle will likely be ad­dressed in the off­sea­son. The Pan­thers also don’t have a great deal of con­fi­dence that the of­fen­sive line is go­ing to blow any­one off the ball, which is why they throw so much in short­yardage sit­u­a­tions. (I’d use New­ton more on quar­ter­back sneaks, but that’s just me.)

7. Thomas Davis:

While the 35-year-old line­backer hasn’t said for sure that this will be his last NFL sea­son, I think it will be with the Pan­thers. Same with Julius Pep­pers. Ryan Kalil has al­ready said this is his last sea­son. Next year’s team will def­i­nitely be younger.

8. Luke Kuechly:

I feel like he’s missed more tack­les this sea­son than any I can re­mem­ber. We are so used to con­sis­tently stand­out per­for­mances from No. 59 that it has been star­tling. Still, Carolina is way bet­ter with Kuechly on the field than with­out him. He’s not play­ing badly by any means; he’s just not been vin­tage “L-u-u-u-ke.” Kuechly has to come up big in these last six games.

I don’t think new de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Eric Wash­ing­ton is us­ing it enough. So what if the Pan­thers get burned oc­ca­sion­ally while do­ing it? They are get­ting burned re­gard­less. Old de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Steve Wilks blitzed more of­ten and cre­ated more havoc while do­ing so.

9. The blitz: 10. Scor­ing in bunches:

The NFL is a pass-first league, with rules de- signed to help crowd­pleas­ing of­fenses. It’s no co­in­ci­dence that the three best NFL teams by record (New Or­leans, the L.A. Rams and Kansas City) also are the three teams who have scored the most points. Each av­er­ages over 35 points per game.

The Pan­thers have to con­tinue to sur­round New­ton with tal­ent — and that in­cludes bet­ter block­ers. The Pan­thers av­er­age 26 points per game right now, which is 10th in the league. That’s good, but not good enough to be elite. Carolina needs to av­er­age in the 30s if it is go­ing to catch New Or­leans any­time in the next cou­ple of years.

11. Most un­der­rated Pan­thers:

Slot re­ceiver Jar­ius Wright doesn’t have a lot of catches, but the ones he does make seem to mostly come on third down and are in­valu­able. Mo­ton, at right tackle, has qui­etly had a tremen­dous year. Cur­tis Sa­muel ab­so­lutely should be get­ting more snaps.

12. Chris­tian McCaffrey: He’s play­ing ex­cep­tion­ally well and has re­ally made a leap in his sec­ond sea­son. With that said, I don’t like McCaffrey play­ing 96.7 per­cent of the of­fen­sive snaps. I know he wants to, but that’s too much. I think re­leas­ing C.J. An­der­son — who was un­der­stand­ably frus­trated with his lack of play­ing time and not shy about let­ting peo­ple know — was risky.

Carolina’s new owner has been hands-on and re­fresh­ingly pro­gres­sive on a num­ber of fronts. He’s squarely in the hon­ey­moon pe­riod right now, but Tep­per has been very hard not to like so far.

14. Tor­rey Smith: I hope he comes back soon from his knee in­jury — ideally Sun­day vs. the Sea­hawks — and that he’s ef­fec­tive. His salary is $5 mil­lion again next sea­son and not guar­an­teed. He needs to make sure the Pan­thers have no qualms about pay­ing it.

15. The im­por­tance of Seat­tle: The Pan­thers haven’t lost at home yet this sea­son. If they lose to the Sea­hawks, this twogame slide will turn into a three-game freefall.

16. Odds: Win Sun­day’s game against Seat­tle and I think the Pan­thers will have a 70 per­cent chance of mak­ing the play­offs. Lose it, and I be­lieve that post­sea­son chance drops to 30 per­cent.

13. David Tep­per:

JEFF SINER [email protected]­lot­teob­server.com

Pan­thers wide re­ceiver Cur­tis Sa­muel is find­ing his rhythm, and coaches say they are look­ing for more ways to in­crease his role.

PAUL SAN­CYA AP

Pan­thers mid­dle line­backer Luke Kuechly blitzes Lions quar­ter­back Matthew Stafford last Sun­day in Detroit. This isn’t Kuechly’s best sea­son, but the Pan­thers are still bet­ter with him than with­out him.

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