The Panthers certainly didn’t have the start to the season they would have wanted, dropping to 0-1 against a Jacoby Brissett-led Browns team on a 58-yard game-winning field goal by rookie Cade York. While the Panthers can certainly feel aggrieved about a couple of calls on the Browns’ final drive, what is hard to ignore is the fact that, for three quarters, the Panthers struggled to muster anything worthy of being competitive in an NFL game.
Crucially, it’s only one game, and though the Panthers will certainly have harder tests this season they still have a lot of football to play and a lot of time to turn their fortunes around. Their first chance to do some comes this Sunday in the form of a trip to the Giants, who sit 1-0 after their own last-minute heroics.
So, with that in mind, what are the keys for the Panthers to be able to come back from New Jersey with a 1-1 record?
Stop The Damn Run
The Panthers’ run defense was one of the big questions entering the season as they had struggled to contain teams on the ground at various points in the 2021 season, and they certainly didn’t do much to make those questions go away with their week one performance against the Browns as they allowed 217 yards and a score on 39 carries, with Nick Chubb contributing 141 of those yards at over six yards-per-carry.
Things don’t get much easier this weekend either, as they will come up against a Giants team that ran all over the Titans in Week 1 thanks to a fantastic 164-yard performance from Saquon Barkley and what appears to be a much-improved offensive line. But what can the Panthers do to fix the issues that were all too abundant during Week 1?
A lot has been made about the Panthers’ poor tackling, often referencing the fact that the vast majority of the Browns’ rushing yardage came after contact, but the issues go well beyond a couple of missed tackles. While the tackling needs to improve, part of the issue was the fact that the Panthers were often having to attempt spectacular tackles from bad angles due to players up front being worked out of their gaps.
This is a good example of why pinning the Panthers’ run D issues on tackling due to large YAC numbers is somewhat unfair. Yes, Shaq gets contact, but he’s having to try and be a hero because Hoskins gets worked out of his gap. https://t.co/Lwfx89ODqF
— Vincent Richardson (@vrichardson444) September 13, 2022
This isn’t just about Phil Hoskins though, with several of the Panthers lineman struggling to keep contain against what is admittedly one of the best offensive lines in football. Though the Giants’ offensive line is far from the weakness it was a few years ago, the Panthers need to be far more disciplined and technically sound upfront to make sure they don’t allow the Giants to keep ahead of the chains with the ever-present chance of a big play.
Also, one of Saquon’s biggest issues as a running back has been his tendency to try and bounce runs outside unnecessarily, and this means that the Panthers will need to be especially disciplined at how they set the edge and the support angles they take to the flat. In short, this needs to be a real team effort and, if they can’t get it done this week, then every team they face is going to try and run the ball down their throats until they prove they can.
Demonstrate A Plan For McCaffrey
In recent years, the Panthers have struggled to find a way to maximize CMC’s value without running him into the ground. Against the Browns, he was almost a complete non-entity in the first half and, while his touches did improve as the game went on, getting just 57 yards on 14 touches from your star running back is not a great look.
If the Panthers are going to commit to using McCaffrey more sparingly, and for the record I think they absolutely should, then they have a choice to make – they can either move him around the field while keeping a more conventional workhorse back as the primary ball carrier or they can fully commit to the spread and throw the ball 80% of the time with McCaffrey remaining as the primary ball-carrier.
If they plan to do the former, then they need to give D’Onta Foreman a much more significant role against the Giants after having just 2 carries against the Browns. Foreman is not only the most proven of the Panthers’ other running backs but is also a good stylistic compliment to McCaffrey who can force teams to commit to stopping the inside running game which should then open up both the play-action passing game and create more opportunities for McCaffrey to do what he does best.
Should they take the other route, then that is likely to place even more pressure on Mayfield to master the quick passing game and consistently get the ball out quickly and accurately to allow the Panthers’ receivers to make plays after the catch. This is certainly the harder approach to get right from a personnel perspective but shouldn’t be dismissed as Mayfield has been at his best when coaches have looked to get the ball out of his hands early.
Whatever the Panthers do, however, they need to have a much clearer and more developed plan than they showed on Sunday, as if they continue to hedge their bets and live in the uncomfortable middle ground then that’s unlikely to end well.
Dial 911 For Pass Rush
After the Panthers made their offseason trade for Baker Mayfield, questions about the roster were focused largely on whether the Panthers had done enough to replace the loss of production they could expect with Haason Reddick taking his talents to Philadelphia and, after one game, those questions have only got louder.
The Panthers’ pass rush was potent in 2021, but it was very dependent on the play of Reddick and Burns on the edge, with the Panthers struggling to get consistent pressure when one or both of them left the field. While there was hope that the likes of Marquis Haynes and Yetur Gross-Matos would step up and take up some of the slack, the pair managed just one QB Hit in 88 combined snaps. If they can’t muster more than that against the Giants, then that will dump a huge amount of pressure onto the secondary.
This is especially important because, as become clear against the Browns, the Panthers ended up having to fall back on blitzing to try and generate pressure. The only team to blitz more in week one and knock the quarterback down less often were the Dolphins and, while it’s only one week, if the Panthers have to blitz to get pressure against the Giants, then Daniel Jones is more than capable of finding the open man and allowing his receivers to eat after the catch.
Some of this is about personnel, some of it is about usage and some is about technique, but unless the Panthers are going to make a splash signing a week into the season then their best bet is to continue to develop the players they already have and trust that it’s a matter of time before they make good in the flashes they have shown in previous seasons.
The Panthers will certainly hope that that’s how things play out.
The Panthers are a long way from done, they’ve just had one very frustrating loss. With that being said, and given the context of how last season ended, the Panthers (and more specifically Matt Rhule) are not in a position to lose games, certainly not ones against a Giants team that beat them so thoroughly a year ago.
Teams and coaches have turned things around after falling behind early in the season, the 2013 Panthers being a prime example, but unless Rhule and the Panthers want to hold themselves to that sort of standard then they need to make sure they tick all three of these boxes.