When discussing the current state of the 2017 Carolina Panthers (5-3), there is both good news and bad news on both sides of the football ball.
What’s working well offensively
After what coaches and players said was a great week of practice, Carolina’s first scoring drive of a 17-3 victory against Tampa Bay was a great example of what the team probably had in mind when considering an “offensive evolution” this offseason.
Quarterback Cam Newton targeted/handed off to nine players during a 17-play, 82-yard, 8:38 drive in the first quarter, during which the Panthers converted five third downs. Carolina rotated personnel in and out of the game often during the unscripted drive, which kept Tampa’s defense on its heels as they shifted to counter.
“One of the things I always talk about is if we can spread the ball around it helps our offense,” said coach Ron Rivera. “It really does. Because now you can't really zone in on one guy and say, ‘Hey, we have to take him away.’ Now you've got to respect everybody who is out there. When you have 10 different guys touch the ball on a drive like that, I think it's very effective for you.”
The good news:
▪ Carolina avoided using running back Christian McCaffrey as an ineffective battering ram between the tackles Sunday as they had in prior weeks. Instead, they leaned almost solely on his strength as a receiver, and as a mismatch player the Buccaneers’ defense had to track throughout the game – especially when set in motion.
Coaches discussed taking some of the pressure off McCaffrey in the run game (and at punt return) to simplify things and allow him to play faster – a tactic that appeared to work, as McCaffrey was targeted seven times with five catches and 49 yards, a team-high against Tampa Bay.
▪ The Panthers used Cameron Artis-Payne with success on their first drive when running north to south, and sent in veteran Jonathan Stewart for the 1-yard, pile-leaping touchdown – the first rushing touchdown of the year scored by a player other than Newton.
▪ Newton was also stellar when executing zone-read plays and used his legs well, including a 20-yard run in the fourth quarter.
“There was a lot of good things that happened, a couple of clutch third-down conversions that were really good,” said Rivera. “The quarterback made a couple of good decisions on a couple of his zone reads. I mean, just really pulling the ball and running for it.”
▪ Carolina’s offensive line kept the pocket clean for Newton, who did not take a sack or a hurry Sunday.
The bad news
The Panthers are still struggling with consistency from drive to drive. While their first scoring drive worked well, the team had difficulties finding that same rhythm through the rest of the game, accruing only 172 yards of offense after that original 82-yard drive.
▪ Carolina has yet to establish a deep threat passing – although Sunday, it wasn’t for lack of effort. Newton threw deep (passes of 20-plus yards) five times throughout the game – three times to Devin Funchess, once to Curtis Samuel and once to Kelvin Benjamin.
Just one of those passes was successful – a 25-yard touchdown pass to Benjamin – but the others fell incomplete. Three of those passes were on long third downs. The touchdown was only Carolina’s second play of more than 20 yards in two games.
What’s working well defensively
Not only was Sunday Carolina’s fourth game this season in which they did not allow an offensive touchdown, they also have been extremely disruptive up front when stopping the run and hassling the quarterback. The Panthers are second in the NFL in sacks (27, led by veteran defensive end Julius Peppers, who has 7.5), and fifth in the league in rushing yards allowed per game (81.6).
They’re also complementing their front with a secondary that currently ranks third in the NFL in passing yards allowed per game (182).
The good news
Defensive coordinator Steve Wilks has really taken the 2017 mantra of the defensive line to heart: “We rush!”
According to Pro Football Focus, the Panthers have blitzed on 42.6 percent of opposing pass plays this season, which is the second-highest blitz percentage in the league (the average is 29.8 percent). That’s a 17.3 percent increase from 2016.
“(Wilks is) an aggressive-style guy, and he's doing a lot of things aggressively. We're attacking. He's looking for opportunities to attack,” said Rivera.
“I would agree with that, that I’m somewhat aggressive,” Wilks commented dryly.
The bad news
Living by the blitz also makes a defense susceptible to dying by the blitz. When a team blitzes, cornerbacks are left one-on-one against receivers and if a quarterback can escape the blitz, they will target that matchup.
On Sunday, Carolina was lucky Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston was inaccurate in getting the ball downfield in this situation, misfiring on multiple touchdown opportunities.
More good news
Wilks does feel comfortable with second-year cornerback James Bradberry, if he does get put on an island.
“James has definitely improved from last year. He was good last year, but he's definitely taken the step, in my opinion, as well as (Daryl) Worley,” said Wilks. “When you have guys like that, you feel more comfortable as a play-caller to put those guys in those situations knowing they're going to succeed.”