The Carolina Panthers (6-6), on a four-game skid, shuffled things around this week in a clear attempt to change the downward momentum of their season.
Head coach Ron Rivera has taken over complete control of the defensive play-calling, which demoted defensive coordinator Eric Washington to take charge of the front seven. Washington retains his title.
Rivera also fired two defensive assistants on Monday, secondary/cornerbacks coach Jeff Imamura and defensive line coach Brady Hoke.
And now, a true shift in momentum will have to go through, of all places, Cleveland (4-7-1) this Sunday. Sure, it’s Cleveland. But the Panthers have only won once on the road this season, out of six trips.
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Naturally, you have questions. I picked a few of the best I received on Twitter this week to answer. Let’s get to it!
Question from @PanthersFan_InAfrica: I seem to recall some teams having an assistant to specifically help with clock management. Any chance the Panthers will do that with Ron now calling plays?
The Panthers do have assistants that help out with situational things such as clock management, time outs, challenges and the like. Rivera said this week that their roles will increase even more this week with him occupied by calling the plays. I believe Washington will also play a big role in any situational adjustments needed as well.
Question from @Way_Lew: With Washington focusing on the front 7, can we expect a more dominant defense line presence?
I think that will play a role in the Panthers’ pass-rush becoming more consistent, but I think Rivera’s calls might help with that too. I liked what they did last week for the first time all season - they benched defensive tackle Vernon Butler and moved Wes Horton to the inside to get more speed up the middle. It looked a little more cohesive than it has in prior weeks.
Cleveland’s rushing, on the other hand, was pretty solid for the first 10 weeks of the season, with only one game under 100 rushing yards. But in the last two weeks, teams have held the Browns under 100 yards rushing. Carolina needs a disciplined front, and needs to be sure to contain quarterback Baker Mayfield if he runs, too. The Panthers struggled to contain Jameis Winston on the ground early on last week, and it affected how the defense played Tampa Bay for the rest of the game.
Question from @srinderman5788: How will Cam’s shoulder injury impact the passing game against an aggressive Browns defense?
This is a really important game for quarterback Cam Newton and his right shoulder for a few reasons.
First, Newton needs to rebound from a four-interception game last week. He needs adequate protection, so I think we’ll see a scheme that allows more max protection against the Browns’ talented rushers. That means he’ll be getting the ball out quickly, and likely favor short and intermediate passes when he does throw. Good news for his shoulder, on that front.
But there is a valid question floating around Panthers-ville right now: If Carolina gets mathematically eliminated from the playoffs (a lot depends on that this week but would be more likely in Week 15), will Rivera bench Newton? The Panthers have to win out to truly stay alive in the postseason hunt, and I’d guess they’ll play Newton as long as he gives them the best possible chance to do that.
Question from @Chris_Rash: Is it fair to say that Devin Funchess is one game into a five-game tryout period to return to the team in 2019, or is that an over-reaction?
It’s not an over-reation — in fact, this entire year has been a “tryout period” for Funchess, who is in a contract year. In fact, this one year is more telling than the past few have been because this year the Panthers put him in the “X” for good. They wanted to see what he could do in a feature role, with more responsibility. The Panthers’ scheme under Norv Turner stays away from a stereotypical “No. 1” receiver (case in point: running back Christian McCaffrey is technically the No. 1 receiver with 80 catches), but they’re watching Funchess closely to see how he handles the specific role he’s in.
Question from NCSUPackfanLee: Will Mayfield torch the secondary like every other team has lately? Or has Rivera tightened the reigns and gained control over this runaway stagecoach?
Solid metaphor there. Mayfield is getting hot, averaging 10 yards per pass attempt over the past three weeks, with 871 yards, eight touchdowns and three interceptions.
On the converse, the Panthers’ secondary gave up 12 explosive passing plays for a total of 468 yards in the last four weeks. That’s almost 40 yards per explosive passing play, which is enough to flip the field each time.
That takes me back to the above question about the pass rush. Rivera really likes to find the balance in his calls between an explosive rush and complementary coverage, and that will be even more important this week with his hands all over the defense.
There should be a fire under the fannies of the cornerbacks on the roster with him watching them so closely this week in practice. If they can disrupt Mayfield up front and make plays on the ball for the first time in several weeks, the Panthers could find their mojo again.