There was a time where one needed to wonder what it would look like if the Carolina Panthers actually game-planned for their opponent, or found a way to modify their scheme to deal with another team's personnel. After yesterday, look no further-- the Panthers did it.
So many soul-crushing occasions this season the Carolina Panthers have jumped out to an early lead, only to squander it in the second. Thankfully they managed to button down, contain Robert Griffin III, and walk away with their second victory of the season. It wasn't always pretty, but it was effective-- and finally that chip the Panthers have had on their shoulder has been exercised in a game.
Early in Sunday's game it appeared the same-old Cam Newton would be rearing his ugly head yet again. An opening series that saw the Panthers QB overthrow Steve Smith, and under-throw Greg Olsen on subsequent downs. Unlike in prior weeks, Newton was able to settle himself, and overcome a second quarter hand injury to have his best game of the season. It was a bizarre sequence of events that saw the second year QB become more accurate, and display better touch after having his thumb cut open; almost as if taking a little off his passes was just what the doctor ordered.
The first thing that became apparent early in the game was that Rob Chudzinski knew his opponent. Coming out in a double-TE set, he tested a secondary who struggled against tight ends. Getting both Gary Barnidge and Greg Olsen involved was an effective way to move the chains, and took a lot of the pressure off Cam Newton. This hearkened back to the 2011 season, where Jeremy Shockey and Olsen paired to be Newton's safety net, and effective pass catchers-- particularly on third down.
Defensively we saw a further progression from Sean McDermott's unit from loveable losers, to just plain loveable. It can't be understated how little defense talent he has to work with across this team, but it doesn't matter; the pass rush is improved, the linebackers are flying all over the field, and the secondary, while still bad, are making huge strides.
Defensive line-- Extremely Optimistic
Singling out a single linemen would be doing this unit a disservice. Sure, Charles Johnson led the line with two sacks, but as a whole they totaled four sacks, 24 tackles, and eight QB hits. When the line plays this well it allows the linebackers to rove more, and play more aggressively. This is the key change the Panthers have made over the last few weeks.
Cam Newton-- Extremely Optimistic
Newton has taken his lumps this year, some deservedly, some inflated by media members lacking stories. Against the Redskins yesterday he was almost perfect. It wasn't that Cam was seeing a deadly defense, of that he single-handedly won the game-- it was that he won a game he should have won, and made the plays he should have made.
Luke Kuechly-- Extremely Optimistic
Kuechly tackle counter: 15 total, projected 142 on the season.
Since moving to middle linebacker he's been sensational, that much we know. What you may not be aware of is that Kuechly is on pace to have more tackles than Jon Beason's rookie season, and will vastly surpass that if he starts at middle linebacker for the remainder of the season. There's nothing more to say about Uncle Luke, other than he looks like a very special player.
Thomas Davis-- Extremely Optimistic
I'll confess, when Davis went down early clutching at his knee my heart was in my throat-- but TD proved what we know about him, he's a warrior. Overshadowed by Cam Newton, and the team's poor play overall, Davis is quietly having one of his best seasons. On pace for 76 tackles, TD is flying all over the field, and laying huge hits on opponents. It has gotten to the point that teams are running their offense away from him, and that's great to see.
Greg Olsen-- Somewhat Optimistic
Games like yesterday's are why the Panthers decided to invest a third round pick in acquiring Olsen from the Chicago Bears. It wasn't always pretty, as Olsen dropped an easy pass, but overall we saw a tight end who made Cam Newton's life easier, and on third down became the Panthers most reliable receiver.
Honestly, what's the point of nitpicking a win like this? Nobody was perfect, and plenty of players didn't have their best games. However, to narrow anyone out yesterday as poor would be looking for fault, and that's not the point of this piece.
The defense contained RGIII and Alfred Morris, and did just what they needed to in order to win. Meanwhile the offense wasn't firing on 2011 levels, but they did enough to win the football game. This will hopefully be a signature win, and the Panthers can continue to show this improvement moving forward.
The season is lost, that much we already know. However, this was a game that was a gut check, and showed what the Panthers were made of. Defensive injuries has wracked one side of the ball, and the offense weren't perfect-- yet they found a way to win. I'm not ready to talk about what this did to the Panthers draft pick, not yet, a win is better.