Some thoughts about what we've learned about the Carolina Panthers in the first three games, what to look for in the weeks ahead, and other general observations:
Left guard Travelle Wharton has been sorely missed since he suffered a sprained knee in the first half of the opener at San Diego. Carolina is fortunate to have Geoff Hangartner as a more-than-able backup, but there's a reason the Panthers gave Wharton a hefty contract extension during the offseason.
The offensive line opened huge holes for the running backs in the first half against the Chargers and hasn't been the same without Wharton. Coach John Fox said Wharton is due back at practice Wednesday, so he'll likely play Sunday against Atlanta.
Fox insists running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart are considered starters and will continue to split carries. But it's reasonable to question whether Stewart needs to start getting the ball more.
Stewart has gained one more yard than Williams (145-144) on eight fewer carries. Stewart is averaging a full yard better per rush (4.7 to 3.7) and has three touchdowns to none for Williams.
Stewart was the difference-maker in the Week 2 win against Chicago, which is precisely why the Panthers drafted him 13th overall. But except for the second half against Chicago, he hasn't had much of a chance to make a difference.
That's bound to change soon.
This weekend's opponent, Atlanta, ranks ninth in the NFL in total offense and first in rushing. Are the 2-1 Falcons really that good?
Early season statistics can be skewed based on strength of schedule. The Falcons likely are much better than expected, but their stats are helped by the fact that they've played 0-3 Kansas City and 0-3 Detroit, who rank next-to-last and last in the league, respectively, against the run.
Carolina's three opponents so far – San Diego, Chicago and Minnesota – have stingy defenses that have exposed weaknesses in the offense.
Carolina ranks 27th in total offense, 26th in passing and 23rd in rushing. The 2-1 Panthers have scored just four offensive touchdowns.
Only five teams have fewer offensive scores, and they have a combined 1-13 record: 0-3 Cleveland and 0-3 St. Louis with two touchdowns each; and 0-3 Cincinnati, 0-2 Houston and 1-2 Jacksonville with three touchdowns apiece.
The league average is six offensive touchdowns per team.
Strong safety Chris Harris is an emerging Pro Bowl and all-pro candidate. He's making big plays each week and is challenging end Julius Peppers and linebacker Jon Beason as the team's most dominant defensive player.
Carolina has been tough to stop in short-yardage situations, a big improvement over past seasons. Fullback Brad Hoover is three-for-three converting third-and-1 situations into first downs, and Stewart is two-for-three.
Stewart ranks 13th in the league in kickoff returns with a 24.8-yard average, but his importance as a running back raises the question of whether Fox should lift the return duties once regular returner Ryne Robinson is back from a knee injury.
Fox was noncommittal about the issue Monday. However, he said he expected Robinson to practice Wednesday.
Charles Chandler: (704) 358-5123