Things are certainly looking up in Panther-land. Not only did the Panthers manage to dispose of the Saints in fairly comfortable fashion, but their 26-7 victory means they sit undefeated after two weeks for the first time in 2017. Add to that the fact that the defense is leading the NFL through two weeks and Sam Darnold looks a different player from the man who threw 39 interceptions to 45 touchdowns over three seasons with the Jets and fans could be forgiven for looking past a Texans team that was projected to be one of the worst in the NFL entering the season.
Not so fast, however.
The Texans might not have a roster that will allow them to compete for a Lombardi Trophy this season, and losing Tyrod Taylor to injury certainly won’t help matters, but a road game on a short week is never something to be taken for granted. So, what do the Panthers have to do to make sure they are able to come back from Houston with both a W, and a mini-bye to prepare for a talented Cowboys team?
Donte Jackson’s Time To Shine
It would be unfair to say that Donte Jackson hasn’t played well so far this season, because he has, but the game against the Texans is a chance for him to show that he can not only be an important piece on a good defense, but a lockdown corner.
Through two weeks, Brandin Cooks has 14 catches on 21 targets for 210 yards and a touchdown. Or, to put it another way, Cooks accounts for 35% of Houston’s pass attempts, 36% of their receptions and 41% of their receiving yardage. It would be a slight exaggeration to say that the Texans’ passing game goes as Cooks goes, but it would only be a slight exaggeration.
Fortunately for the Panthers, on paper Jackson is an excellent match-up for Cooks, with the vertical speed to carry him on deep routes and the quickness to mirror at the head of routes, with Cooks not having the physicality to cause problems for the 5’10 and 180lbs Jackson at the catch point. The Panthers are almost certainly not going to spend the whole game in man coverage but when they do then the burden of covering Cooks will likely fall on Jackson and, if he is up to the task, then that is likely to go a long way to limiting the Texans’ passing attack.
Run The Ball Without CMC
The Panthers’ rushing attack hasn’t been particularly good so far this season, ranking 30th in the NFL through two weeks (via PFR), with only the Packers and the Raiders averaging fewer yards-per-carry. While a lot of these struggles are due to the offensive line, it is notable that Christian McCaffrey is currently averaging 3.8 yards-per-carry, while fourth-round pick Chuba Hubbard has struggled to just 1.3 yards-per-carry. If the Panthers are going to be able to remove some of the offensive burden from McCaffrey then this is going to have to change.
Fortunately for the Panthers, the Texans’ rush defense currently ranks 23rd in the NFL, allowing an encouraging (for the Panthers at least) 4.6 yards-per-carry. The Panthers don’t need to run the ball for 200 yards against the Texans in order to win this game, but for this game to be part of a sustainable winning trend for Carolina then their run game cannot be about CMC routinely bailing out the rest of the offense.
Some of this is on the offensive line, some is on Hubbard himself and some is on Joe Brady, but they need to find a way to survive without CMC on the field, even if they aren’t going to thrive without him.
A Big Game For The Linebackers
The Panthers’ run defense currently ranks as the best in the NFL on a yards-per-carry basis, and they will hope to continue this run of form against the Texans, but they will likely be tested by how the Texans look to use their multitude of running back in the passing game. So far this season, the Panthers have been fairly good at covering running backs, allowing seven catches for 53 yards on twelve targets, but the Texans are likely to be the first team to line up with multiple running backs and force the Panthers into more coverage snaps from multiple-linebacker formations.
So far this season, the Texans’ running back have combined for eight receptions for 67 yards and two touchdowns on thirteen targets and, while that isn’t the kind of production that is likely to have the Panthers quaking in their boots, given the questions of the Panthers’ linebacker depth and Jeremy Chinn’s move to safety, this isn’t a trivial matter either.
So far this season, the Panthers have shown a lot of very encouraging things on defense, but a key element as the season goes on will be how they are able to tailor what they do to specific offenses, and this week that will mean matching up with multiple running backs on a more regular basis.
Offensive Line Needs To Continue To Improve
The Panthers have managed to scrape by with improvised offensive lines at times in the past decade, and while nobody is going to confuse the 2021 unit with one of the NFL’s best, for the Panthers to be successful this season they need to at least be effective. With Pat Elflein headed to IR this week, the Panthers are expected to start Dennis Daley at left guard in his place and, while Daley has had some ups and downs so far in this young season, the fact that the Panthers’ pass blocking win rate saw a significant uptick in week two indicates that things might at least be trending in the right direction.
This will certainly be helped by facing a Texans defense that ranks joint last in the NFL in QB hits through two weeks and, while some of that might be due to facing a very strong Browns’ offensive line in week two, this is not a unit that is expected to be among the league’s best at getting after the quarterback. What they have done well so far this season, however, is take the ball away in the form of interceptions, so if the Panthers aren’t able to keep Sam Darnold clean then any potential mistakes could be punished heavily.
The Panthers’ offense is going to have to grow as the season goes on for this team to be relevant come the final few weeks, with the offensive line likely being the central part of that equation. They aren’t likely to play like All-Pros against the Texans, but if they can take another step from their improved game against the Saints then that is only going to help.
Make The Rookie Look Like A Rookie
The Panthers certainly won’t mind the fact that, due to Tyrod Taylor’s injury, they are going to face their second rookie quarterback in three weeks. While that is no guarantee of success, the Panthers have another chance to cause real problems for an opposing quarterback with exotic pressures and multiple fronts.
Matt Rhule spoke about the potential for them using from three-man fronts this week in order to counter the Texans inside rushing game but, whether that is a major part of the game plan or not, the Panthers are likely to mix up their defensive fronts and personnel again this week, especially in obvious passing situations. However, with Yetur Gross-Matos expected to miss the game and Morgan Fox having missed some practice time this week with injury, that is likely to mean an expanded role for rookie Daviyon Nixon and, perhaps, Phil Hoskins.
Nixon has only played 18 defensive snaps so far this season but has manged half a snap and two pressures in that span, and has a chance to make a name for himself with a good performance in an expanded role on primetime. Whether it is Nixon or somebody else, getting in the face of the rookie quarterback is highly likely to lead to positive outcomes for the Panthers.
The Panthers enter their third game of the season as an ascending name and can help themselves further with a road win ahead of a mini bye to cement their hot start to the season. NFL records early in the season can be fickle things and a loss would certainly take a lot of the shine off a start that has impressed with substance as well as style.
Last year, the Panthers occasionally looked like a young team in games like this and, with the first road trip of the year coming on a short week, there are likely to be plenty of changes for distraction, making this a good early test of the culture that Matt Rhule has talked so much about. There are likely to be harder games this season when it comes to the personnel matchups, but a win is a win and the Panthers need to make sure that is what they come home with.
(Top photo via Chanelle Smith-Walker/Carolina Panthers)