The Panthers suffered their first defeat of the 2021 season last week on the road against the Cowboys but have a chance to get things back on track ahead of a comparatively winnable stretch of games when the 1-3 Eagles come to town on Sunday. The Eagles are a better team than their record suggests, and this is far from an easy game but, if the Panthers are the kind of team that trades for a 31-year-old All Pro cornerback in the final year of this contract, then this is a game they should win.
However, as the injuries have started to mount up, and as a number of new faces look to settle in, what are the key areas that the Panthers have to have success in in order to move to 4-1?
Offensive Line Has To Change Something
The Panthers’ offensive line has been really poor through the first four games of the season, especially in pass protection where they have allowed 27 QB Hits and 11 sacks. Taylor Moton and Matt Paradis have both been fairly good, though neither has been great, but the remaining three spots have been, and continue to be, areas of real concern for the Panthers.
Dennis Daley might not have been amazing, but he does appear to be an improvement over Pat Elflein, but both John Miller and Cam Erving have really struggled at points this year. Things have also been complicated somewhat with both Erving and Paradis missing time at practice this week and, though neither player has been ruled out for Sunday’s game, this is far from an ideal situation.
But what can the Panthers actually do about all this?
Aside from adding new players, something that Scott Fitterer says they have looked into, any solution is likely to have to come from just trying something new. If Matt Paradis is unable to go then that will almost certainly force Sam Tecklenburg into the starting line-up in the short term, but the Panthers do have some choices to make at both right guard and left tackle.
Though Matt Rhule continues to speak highly of both John Miller and Cam Erving, if their play doesn’t improve then it is going to be hard to ignore calls for rookies Brady Christensen and Deonte Brown to see the field. All rookies are going to have their ups and downs but, quite frankly, the ups would make for a nice change at this point. The Panthers also have Trent Scott as an option at either guard or tackle, should the Panthers feel uncomfortable starting two rookies.
Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter what they do, the Panthers just can’t keep rolling out the same unit week after week and expecting things to get better. The Eagles are slightly below average when it comes to generating pressure, but that will present a real challenge for the Panthers’ offensive line if things don’t improve.
Run Defense Needs To Rebound
The Panthers’ run defense was on a historically good pace through the first three games of the season, holding opponents under fifty yards-per-game and doing so at a high efficient clips as well. All that changed, however, against the Cowboys, who rushed for 245 yards at over seven yards-per-carry. It is still too early in the season to know which of these narratives is the correct one to focus on for the Panthers’ run defense, but they need to make sure that it’s the former.
Some of this is about scheme, as the Panthers struggled to match-up with the Cowboys’ 12 personnel sets (two tight ends), both in terms of who was on the field and where they lined up. This is something that will likely get another heavy dose of against the Eagles, with both Dallas Goedert and Zach Ertz being central to the Eagles’ offense. Having had a week to look back at their tape from the Cowboys game the Panthers need to show that this isn’t going to be a lingering issue.
This is going to be made more complicated, however, by the threat that Eagles’ quarterback Jalen Hurts is as a ball carrier, with a team high 226 rushing yards on the season, and the absence of Shaq Thompson due to injury. The Panthers’ defensive coaches do have a lot of familiarity with Hurts from their times at Baylor and Oklahoma respectively, and this should certainly help, but they also need their linebacker depth to come through.
This is also an opportunity for Jermaine Carter to make a case for a starter-level contract with his rookie deal ending after the season, and a big game would certainly go a long way to helping the Panthers weather the impact of Thompson’s absence.
The Panthers don’t need to hold the Eagles to under fifty yards to win this game, but they can’t allow another team to run all over them without both risking the outcome of their game and creating a template for every remaining opponent this season.
Robby Anderson’s Role Needs To Continue To Re-Grow
When Sam Darnold was traded to the Panthers back before the draft, it was expected that the major beneficiary of this would be another former Jet, Robby Anderson, who was Darnold’s favorite target in New York. However, through the first month of the season, that has not been the case, with DJ Moore in fact emerging as the clear #1 receiver in Carolina.
While there are only so many targets to go around, it is also clear that things just aren’t quite clicking with Anderson at this point, highlighted by at least one frustrating miss on a deep shot against the Cowboys. Anderson doesn’t need to have a 1500-yard season to make good on the contract extension he signed during training camp, but if his numbers don’t improve from 2.5 receptions for 37 yards on five-and-a-bit targets then teams are going to start to focus even more on DJ Moore as we move through the season.
There is no easy solution to this beyond continue to rep and trust that the timing and connection will come. It’s not that Anderson hasn’t been getting open, it’s just that the ball hasn’t been finding him. This shouldn’t be that difficult to fix, but the Panthers can’t keep this narrative lingering as they move into the meat of the season.
Take Away The Safety Blankets
Despite the fumbles, the Cowboys actually had a fair amount of success against the Panthers when they looked to work the ball short to their tight ends. Dalton Shultz and Blake Jarwin combined for seven catches for 76 yards and two touchdowns on eleven targets, approximately half of the Cowboy’s receiving production overall.
If they allow the Eagles to complete easy passes to the tight ends then things could get a lot, lot worse.
So far this season, Dallas Goedert and Zach Ertz have managed 341 yards (around 30% of the Eagles’ total) and three touchdowns on just 35 targets. They might not be breaking loose for 40-yard plays on a regular basis, but they have been extremely effective at moving the chains for the Eagles, thereby allowing Jalen Hurts to take deep shots down the field to the likes of Jalen Reagor and DeVonta Smith.
The Panthers’ defense has done an excellent job of stopping big plays in the passing game so far this season, and that hopefully shouldn’t change against the Eagles, but they need to make sure they don’t allow them Eagles to move the ball down the field with the short passing game, as this will not only lead to them being in scoring position, but would almost completely remove the Panthers’ pass rush from the equation, something that became a real issue for them against the Cowboys as the game went on.
As with all these things, it isn’t about being perfect, but Goedert and Ertz are going to be the Eagles’ best chance of moving the ball against the Panthers.
Run The Damn Ball, Again
As nice as it would be for the Panthers’ offensive line to suddenly emerge as one of the best pass protecting units in the NFL, this is unlikely to suddenly become the case. In order to get around this, and to prevent Sam Darnold to become a sitting target in the pocket as he did at times against the Cowboys, the Panthers need to be able to keep pace with the chains against the run.
Though Chuba Hubbard is far from a proven entity at this point, the Panthers’ run game actually performed quite well against the Cowboys, with Hubbard and Royce Freeman combining for 69 yards on sixteen carries while Darnold, Moore and Anderson contributed a further 44 yards on eight carries. With Christian McCaffrey still unlikely to play on Sunday, though this is not the impossibility it seemed it might be earlier in the week, this group just need to continue to move the ball effectively to take pressure off of Sam Darnold and the Panthers’ pass protection.
While the Eagles aren’t terrible against the run, allowing a mediocre 4.4 yards-per-carry on the season, only the Seahawks have allowed more total rushing yards through four weeks, with their opponents averaging 34 rushing attempts per game. The Panthers don’t have to reach this mark in order to win the game on Sunday, but if they are able to consistently use the rushing game to keep the Eagles’ defense on the back foot then that will only help the offense as a whole and, importantly, allow the defense to stay fresh as the game wears on.
Despite their mounting injuries, the Panthers will likely enter Sunday’s game against the Eagles as favorites. Though those chances would certainly be helped if some of the players who haven’t been full participants in practice this week are able to go, with the Eagles being the first of five games against 1-3 opponents the Panthers have to be able to capitalize on this second quarter of the season.
A loss on Sunday certainly wouldn’t spell the end of their play-off hopes, especially with the prospect of so much talent returning as the season goes on, but a win to cement a 4-1 start would certainly help remove some of the bad taste from the Cowboys game and allow them to very much turn their sights on reaching the midseason point in a commanding position in the NFC.
(Top photo via Chanelle Smith-Walker/Carolina Panthers)