Things certainly haven’t started well for the 2022 version of the Carolina Panthers, with a pair of close losses to the Browns and Giants leaving them in an 0-2 hole. However, with a vision rival coming to town in Week 3, the Panthers have a chance to not just get their first win of the season, but to get their season back on track as they look to stay relevant through October and November for the first time in a long while.
While the Saints do enter the game with a superior record to the Panthers, this is very much a game that the Panthers should have marked on their calendars as one they should be winning. So, with that in mind, what are the areas of the game that the Panthers have to get right to get their first win in nearly a year?
Embrace the RPO Game
The Panthers offense has been really poor through the first two games of the season, as they have struggled to sustain drives in part due to their 29th-ranked 3rd-down percentage, but also due to their general inability to consistently move the ball through the air, as evidenced by their equally poor 29th-ranked overall passing offense.
Of course, it would be nice if the Panthers suddenly became able to throw the ball all over the place and consistently convert third downs through the air but, while this might be something that can be developed as the season goes on, in the short term the Panthers need to be able to do enough through the air to give the defense enough wiggle-room to go and win games.
And that brings us to RPOs.
When Baker Mayfield was at his best in Cleveland, he was playing in an offense that used the threat of the run to get the ball out of his hands quickly and allow the skill position players around him to make plays in space.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that the passing plays that were most effective in the Panthers’ two losses so far (excluding the blown coverage TD to Anderson against the Browns) have been those off of run fakes. In particular, the Panthers have been able to have some sucess in both games working the RPO game, both to DJ Moore on slants and also to tight ends over the middle.
Through two games, it is still very unclear what the Panthers’ offensive identity is right now, but if they are going to move the ball effectively through the air then they would do well to lean into what has worked thus far and put the RPO game at the center of what they are doing offensively.
Don’t Let The Run Game Beat You
If the Panthers’ passing game is bad, the Saints is awful. Through two games they rank dead last in the NFL in passing offense, with only the Rams, Bengals and Colts having thrown more interceptions. Of course, this hasn’t been helped by Jameis Winston having to play hurt, but as he is unlikely to make a miraculous recovery before Sunday this should be an area where the Panthers have a real advantage.
However, in order for the Panthers to be able to maximize the impact of this advantage, they need to force the Saints into situations where they have no choice but to throw the ball, and that means avoiding giving up an early lead and, crucially, not allowing them to move the ball effectively on the back of their run game.
This will be no easy task as, while the Saints haven’t run the ball as much as some other teams so far this season, when they have run the ball, they have been exceedingly good at it, ranking 6th in the NFL to this point. If the Saints are able to keep moving the ball at the same 6.5 yards-per-carry that they have managed thus far this season, then it likely won’t matter if Jameis doesn’t throw a pass all game.
On a positive note, the Panthers’ run defense took a massive step forward against the Giants after a disappointing showing against the Browns. This was helped by the improved play of Derrick Brown and Matt Ioannidis in the middle of the defense, but also by the fact that they were able to use Shaq and Luvu as the primary linebackers, with Damien Wilson playing just 9 snaps after being on the field for more than 30 against the Browns.
The Saints are likely to try and use multiple tight end sets to try and force the Panthers into exposing their lack of linebacker depth, and Marquan McCall is going to need to step up in place of the injured Bravvion Roy, but if the Panthers can contain the Saints running game, then they will put themselves in position to capitalise on the chances the Saints are likely to give them in the passing game.
Don’t Be Afraid To Vary Things
Through two games, only seven skill position players have more than 10% of the offensive snaps, with a core group of DJ Moore, Robby Anderson, Shi Smith, Ian Thomas and Christian McCaffrey being the only ones to crack 70%. In other words, on any given play there is a fairly good chance that the defense know what personnel are going to be.
This is something that Matt Rhule mentioned as something they want to work on for this week and, while this isn’t something that should take two games to become clear as a problem, Rhule is right that the Panthers should give some of their other players a chance to show what they can do with meaningful snaps. However, this is more than simply an issue of failing to utilise some of the talent on the roster.
Against the Giants rolled out in 11 personnel (1 tight end, 1 running back and three receivers) on over 80% of their offensive snaps, and they are yet to run any formations with either no running back or multiple running backs on the field. While 11 personnel is the basis of what all NFL offenses run, and the Rams in particular have been very successful running 11 personnel almost all the time, teams that aren’t willing to vary formations miss out on a potential opportunity to put stress on a defense.
If they can mix their personnel groupings around a bit more and look to maximize the number of different ways they use positionally flexible players like McCaffrey, Shenault and Tremble, then that should both create opportunities for individual mismatches and the potential to vary alignments to interfere with what defenses are trying to do.
There is no one way to design an effective NFL offense, but if McAdoo continues to try and run everything out of 11 personnel then that is going to only make things harder for all involved.
The Panthers haven’t been without reasons for optimism through two games and, while the closeness of the scores is maybe a little deceptive about how poor they have also been at points, if they can take the run defense from the Giants game and combine it with the second half offense from the Browns game without the pass defense falling apart then they should be in with a real shout.
Whether they can do that, however, will remain to be seen.
(Top photo via Chanelle Smith-Walker/Carolina Panthers)