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.

MOST IM­PROVED

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 ca­reerbest 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 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 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.

NO­TABLE STATS

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 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 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, aWeek 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.

NEEDS FIXIN’

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.

MOST ‘GOOSE­BUMPS’ MO­MENT

Gra­ham Gano’s 63yard game-win­ner: Carolina Pan­thers kicker Gra­ham Gano nailed a ca­reer­high 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.

STRONG­EST ROOKIE

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.

BEST T-SHIRT

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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