One thing that you hear a lot listening to Panthers press conferences, be that with Matt Rhule or one of the players, is the desire to take things one week at a time, and to build winning seasons through a focused week-by-week approach. This week, that means a focus on the New Orleans Saints, who come to Carolina fresh off a comfortable 3-38 win over what was expected to be a very good Packers team.
It is still far too early in the season to have a firm idea of who teams are but, having beaten the Jets by a reasonably narrow margin. the Panthers will have a change to cement themselves a team to watch for as the season goes on against a Saints team that is seen as a genuine play-off contender.
But what do they have to do to make that dream a reality?
Stop The Run
The Panthers’ run defense was one of the worst in NFL history during the 2019 season and, while it improved last season, it was still one of the worst in the NFL. If the Jets game is any indication, however, then the Panthers many have made significant strides in this regard over the past year, as they held a Jets’ rushing offense that ranked around the middle of the pack in 2020 to 45 yards at 2.6 yards-per-carry.
This will certainly be relevant against a potent Saints rushing attack that managed 171 yards at 4.4 yards-per-carry against the Packers, including 140 yards in the first half. This is particularly important as the Saints’ offense is built around ball control and sustaining drives more than throwing sixty-yard bombs and, with Michael Thomas out with an injury, that is going to mean a heavy dose of the run game. Taking that away is therefore going to be crucial.
Of course, that is easier said than done, but if Derrick Brown and DaQuan Jones are able to eat up blocks and force runs wide where the Panthers’ second-level speed can take over then they have a chance to at least soften the blow.
Sustain Drives on Offense
Yes, scoring points is obviously good, and the Panthers definitely need to do a better job of that as well, but they also need to do a much better job of picking up first downs on a consistent basis as well. If they aren’t able to do this, as was the case against the Jets, then it forces the defense to spend a lot of time on the field, sapping their energy and allowing opponents to move the ball more easily as the game goes on.
Against the Jets, half of the Panthers’ twelve possessions ended in a punt following five or fewer offensive plays being run. No team is going to be able to move the ball at will every week, but the Panthers have consistently struggled in this regard under Joe Brady and, while individual player error can certainly be a factor, the play calling has also been a significant component.
The Panthers are probably going to punt at some point against the Saints, and that isn’t a disaster, but what they have to avoid is the situation they had in the third quarter against the Jets, where they had three consecutive three-and-outs. Do that against the Saints, and it is unlikely to end with a win.
Prove That Pass Rush Success Wasn’t Just About the Jets
While the Panthers likely won’t complain about having a comparatively gentle home game to start the 2021 season, one thing this does mean is that is still a little hard to judge how much of what went well against the Jets was due to the Panthers and not, well, the Jets.
Possibly the clearest example of this is the pass rush, where the Panthers had a huge amount of success getting to Zach Wilson and could have added to their six sacks if they had been more consistently effective at bringing him down in the backfield once a clear rush lane opened up. The caveat to all this is that the Jets are expected to have one of the worse offensive lines in the NFL season and lost left tackle Mekhi Becton to injury in the third quarter.
While articles doubting the Panthers’ pass rush for this very reason might make good motivational material for the Panthers’ defensive line, they will certainly have a chance to end such conversations with a similarly impressive showing against what is a very strong Saints’ offensive line. This doesn’t mean they have to get pressure on Jameis Winston every snap, but if they aren’t able to force him to move his feet in the pocket and rush decisions then it is hard to see how they are going to come away with a win.
Skill Position Depth Players Need to Contribute
There was a lot of optimism about the Panthers’ young skill position players following a preseason where Terrace Marshall Jr, Tommy Tremble, Chuba Hubbard and Shi Smith all impressed, but after a fairly quiet showing against the Jets they need to have something of a bounce back performance on Sunday.
Some of this, as Matt Rhule mentioned, is about not making the kind of rookie mistakes that make it hard for them to get on the field, but against a Saints’ secondary that has the likes of Marshon Lattimore, Desmond Trufant, Bradley Roby and Paulson Adebo to match up with the Panthers’ big-name receivers, it will be up to those further down the skill-position depth chart to make an impact.
As well as the rookies, this is also an important game for the Panthers’ tight ends, who were largely absent as receivers against the Jets. While the Saints’ linebackers and safeties are also no slouches, it is going to be crucial for the Panthers to push the Saints depth on the back end as much as they can to give themselves as many chances as possible for creating plays down the field.
Score Some Damn Points
This is a carry-over from last week as, following some struggles in the redzone during the preseason, there were major concerns about the Panthers’ ability to get over the goal line. Concerns that haven’t gone anywhere after the Panthers scored just one redzone touchdown on four trips against the Jets. The solution to this, however, is likely to be a combination of things.
They have to do better on the offensive line, both to give Sam Darnold more time to find an open man and also to allow the Panthers to continue to run the ball effectively as they get towards the goal line. They also have to execute better in general, as a missed pass to Ian Thomas and a fumbled exchange on a fourth down run removed two chances to score. And, while teams can always point to a play here and there and bemoan what could have been, the Panthers also have to improve the consistency of their offensive play calling.
Ultimately, the margin for error is always going to be small in the redzone, and the Panthers don’t suddenly have to start converting every opportunity, though of course that would be nice, but they can’t continue to move the ball down the field only to fall short when it matters most.
The Saints game is a really significant one for the narrative around the Panthers for the early season. A win would move them from being a team expected to be towards the middle of the pack to a legitimate play-off contender, a loss would be a significant hit when it comes to the division standings.
It certainly won’t be easy, the Saints are viewed as a good team for a reason, but if they can look competitive in the trenches in particular, then they at least have a chance to move to 2-0 for the first time in a while.
(Top photo via Chanelle Smith-Walker/Carolina Panthers)