It would probably be getting ahead of things to say that the Panthers have turned their season around but, having got their first win of the season last week against the Saints they have at least avoided slumping to 0-3 and, with a win against the Cardinals, they could get themselves back to .500 and credibility in the NFC. 

In order to do this, they will need to beat a Cardinals team that is not only also 1-2 but was not exactly convincing in their lone comeback win against the winless Raiders. This then is a game the Panthers will definitely view as one of their more winnable remaining games, even if it isn’t a ‘must win’ game coming so early in the season. 

So, with that in mind, what do the Panthers need to do in order to get back to .500 for the first time in nearly a year. 

Run The Damn Ball

Though the Cardinals’ run defense is far from their most significant defensive issue, at this point the Panthers’ plan on offense needs to be introspective rather than overly focused on the opponent. Through three games, their passing offense is arguably the worst in the NFL with only the Bears throwing for fewer yards-per-game.

In other words, if the Panthers are relying on their passing game to win the day, then they probably won’t be winning.

Adding to this equation is the fact that the Panthers’ run game has been relatively strong, averaging the 9th-most yards-per-carry despite inconsistent usage, most notably against the Browns. Though Christian McCaffrey’s appearance on the injury report seems less of a formality this week than previously, this should still be an area of relative strength for the Panthers on Sunday.

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What is more, if the Panthers do properly commit to running the ball, then that is not only their best chance of moving the chains on a consistent basis but should also force defenses into personnel groupings and alignments which then make it easier for the Panthers to throw the ball. It’s not a ground-breaking idea, but sometimes establishing the run genuinely is the best thing an offense can do.

Contain Kyler, Especially On Third Down

The Cardinals’ offense hasn’t exactly been firing on all cylinders so far this season, ranking towards the middle of the pack both through the air and on the ground. This doesn’t mean that shouldn’t be taken seriously but, given how well the Panthers’ defense has played on early downs so far this season, the Panthers will hope to force the Cardinals into lots of third-down situations. 

Now, for as good as the Panthers’ defense can be, their third-down defense has been a relative weak point, ranking towards the middle of the pack, but they will hope that this could improve facing a Cardinals offense that currently ranks 29th in 3rd-down offense. 

So, what is there to worry about?

The one ace that the Cardinals have up their sleeve is the escapability of one K.Murray. Even if the Cardinals’ offense scheme doesn’t consistently put him in the best position to make consistent plays through the air, what he can do better than almost anybody else in the NFL is turn broken pockets into big gains, and that will be especially valuable when the Panthers’ pass rushers have their ears pinned-back on 3rd-and-longs.

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In order to counter this, the Panthers’ edge rushers and blitzers need to make sure they are extremely gap-disciplined, forcing Kyler into other rushers rather than creating potential rushing lanes. Furthermore, they need to make sure they use their elite athletes in Burns, Chinn, Shaq and Luvu to make sure Kyler can’t get free in the open field. 

The Panthers under Phil Snow did a really good job against Kyler back in 2020, but they need to prove that was no fluke if they are to match their impressive defensive showing against the Saints.

If Not Now, Then When For Offense

Through three games, Baker Mayfield has been far from the franchise-leading saviour that some hoped he could be. He is completing just 52% of his passes and throwing for under 185 yards-per-game but, more than any statistic, he has looked frenetic in the pocket, has struggled to consistently make quick reads and has struggled with both batted passes and ugly misses to open receivers. 

While some of the blame has been directed to the Panthers’ offensive line and receivers, the offensive line has been much improved from the unit that struggled throughout last season and the likes of DJ Moore have been creating far more consistent separation than their catches and yards indicate. This is a Mayfield problem at its heart, and he needs to get his things sorted fast. 

But what does this have to do with the Cardinals?

Well, these struggles have been reflected in the Panthers’ performances more generally, as they have consistently struggled to move the ball down the field, in large part due to an ability to get the ball past the markers when the ball is in Mayfield’s hands on third down, ranking 31st in 3rd-down efficiency. 

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However, in the Cardinals they get a chance to face one of the NFL’s absolute worst pass defenses, so, if they can’t get things to work this week then things are looking bleak for the chances of the Panthers’ passing offense clicking at any point this season. 

Importantly, Mayfield doesn’t need to be elite, he just needs to be good enough to allow the offense to continue to function, and his probationary period is fast running out.

The Panthers have a really good chance to get back to .500 when the Cardinals come to town on Sunday and, while there is a long road from 2-2 to postseason contention, the Matt Rhule era has only got so many more losses left and needs a strong showing to convince ownership that last week wasn’t a fluke.

While the defense will need to have another good showing following an excellent performance against the Saints, for the Panthers to improve on last season the offense has to be able to pull their weight and, thus far, that just hasn’t been the case. However, if the offense can find itself against the Cardinals, then the Panthers might be able to be a genuine part of the NFC conversation.

Vincent Richardson on Twitter
Vincent Richardson
Managing Editor at Riot Report
Fan of zone coverage, knee bend and running backs running routes. Twitter: @vrichardson444