There's usually a point in every season where teams discover what they're best at...what they're capable of...and what they can realistically aspire to become over the remainder of their schedule. Sometimes, teams are so well-prepared they establish that identity during the preseason. Or, they have enough veterans who carry over from one season to the next, that it's already assured. But, for other teams...especially those undergoing a rebuilding phase with a new GM, lots of new draft picks expected to contribute right away, and a new offensive coordinator, it takes a little longer. That's the case for this year's Carolina Panthers.
Yesterday's victory against the (lowly) New York Giants can be viewed a lot of different ways. Some might say it was just two bad 0-2 teams going after each other to determine who would be the "least" bad. Others would say it was an opportunity for one of those teams to turn things around. To reclaim and salvage what the rest of their season can be. And to establish an identity separate from the losing mentality of their prior record, the naysayings of the sports media, and the mounting disappointment of their fans. Is one game enough to do all that? Some will take a wait-and-see attitude about it. Others will unequivocally say yes. For this year's Panthers, I'm more inclined to go with the latter.
In a lot of ways, I think the Giants game has helped crystallize what this year's Carolina Panthers are all about. And we've seen inklings of it throughout the 3-1 preseason, the way we held Seattle in check (despite the loss), and now the way we've bounced back following the heartbreaker against Buffalo. A less disciplined team could have completely folded up shop, started assuming they were playing for a lame duck coach who would soon be replaced, and mail it in when the mostly-intact, recent Superbowl-winning Giants rolled into town looking to salvage their season. But our guys didn't do that. Instead, they fought back...in pretty dramatic fashion...and put together a statement game that says far more about who they are and what they're capable of than anything else could.
So, just what kind of identity did the Panthers find yesterday? First and foremost, I feel this is a defensive powerhouse. They were already regarded fairly high before this game, but they've gotten even better after that dominating performance against the #1 passing attack of the Giants. The Carolina Panthers are now #4 in scoring defense, holding their opponents to just 12 points per game. That's a potent stat, because it implies this defense is going to make sure we've got a chance against just about every opponent we face.
In fact, if you go back and look at the Seattle game through that prism now (and compare it to how the Seahawks have done against the vaunted San Francisco 49ers and even the blowout victory they had against the Jacksonville Jaguars), two things leap out at you. One, we played Seattle tougher (and closer) than last year's Superbowl runner-up. And, two, we're clearly not the hapless, pushover team the Jaguars demonstrated themselves to be by giving up 45 points to Seattle. So what does that mean? It means, despite our earlier two losses, we're capable of holding teams under two touchdowns per game. Thus, all the offense and special teams have to do is make sure we score at least that much and our glass will be far more full than empty on any given day.
In addition, the defense of the Carolina Panthers is having an impact on the other phases of the game now. Yesterday, when Cam Newton threw an ill-advised out pass and the Giants intercepted it deep in our territory, the defense bailed him out. It wasn't just one play either...i.e., the Panthers' defense didn't just force another turnover to kill their possession. No. It was methodical. The relentless play of Greg Hardy caused the Giant's O-line to hold him, taking away a would-be TD run. Then, the pressure on Eli resulted in a sack. Next thing you know, the Giants are attempting a longer FG than they would like...and they miss it. Major momentum changer.
Likewise, when the Panthers' special teams botched another punt and turned the ball over to New York with decent field position, Carolina's defense brought the pressure again. The Giants just kept going backwards. End result, New York has to punt because they're still too far out of FG range. In essence, this defensive effort tells me Carlina's defense is for real. It's all-world caliber. It's ready to tee it up against anyone in any situation. And it's going to win far more battles than it's going to lose. More importantly, it's going to buy time for the other phases of the Panthers team to catch-up. And I think that's what we saw yesterday.
For instance, up until the defensive dominance, the Panthers' offense was NOT playing very well. Cam got sacked in an ugly way. The running game wasn't going all that well. His completion percentage in the passing game wasn't great. And then he had the potentially back-breaking interception. Yet, the defense held strong enough to completely stymie the Giants' offense in return until Cam (and Shula) could figure it out and get things back on track. And they did. The points didn't come flooding in at first. A 17-0 lead at halftime isn't quite blowing the doors off someone yet. And I'm sure we all held our collective breaths, just waiting for the letdown we assumed would come based on the Buffalo game and past disappointments (Atlanta anyone?). But here's the difference: this year's Panthers' defense wouldn't let that happen. They stayed after the Giants and actually lived the Carolina mantra of "Keep Pounding."
In the second half, I think the Carolina offense found its identity, too. Cam got comfortable. His O-line did a fantastic job of pass protection against a pretty decent (and now desperate) D-line in the Giants. DeAngelo Williams started finding the creases and hitting the corners on his outside runs. Shula called a better game. Receivers stepped up. No TD catches for Steve Smith and Greg Olsen? That'd normally be a loss, right? Not this time. Brandon Lafell and Ted Ginn give you 3 TDs on their own. No TD run for DeAngelo? That'd normally be an expected loss, right? Not this time. Tolbert and Cam provide the goaline scoring on the ground. Steve Smith takes a wicked hit and stays down for a bit? Season must be over right? Nope. The offense keeps rolling. And the longer they played, the more momentum they picked up. They found their identity by feeding off what the defense was doing. And that's the way it should be.
On top of all that, I think the coaching staff has come around, too. At least for this game. Yeah, there was that headscratcher "mercy" run on 4th and 7 that made everyone wonder if Rivera was off his meds again. But he also went for it on 4th and 1 with a "no hesitation, trust my offense to get it and my defense to stop the Giants if they don't" decision. And it paid off. Leasson learned? Perhaps.
Likewise, look at Shula. He had Cam in the pocket initially and Superman just wasn't hitting the open guys (or throwing them open). I actually think Cam took matters into his own hands on one of those key 3rd down conversions where he ran it straight up the middle and dove head first to keep the chains moving. I think that's when the light went on for Shula. He called a lot more triple-option (and even designed) runs for Cam after that. He didn't go Chud-crazy with it either. He did it just enough to loosen up the offense, get Cam comfortable, and keep the Giants honest so they had to honor the run. That didn't just open up the passing game either. It also opened up DeAngelo again. He had one of his best running performances of the season, and it's vaulted both him and the team to #3 in the NFL in rushing right now. That's not an accident. This team can be successful on offense when we run the ball and mix in the long and mid-range passes to stretch a defense. The coaches actually said we were going to run the ball more this year and trust our RBs. That's exactly what wound up happening yesterday. It just took a little bit of Cam running with the ball to make it possible.
So, what next? The greatest danger for the Panthers right now is that they take their foot off the gas. I'm not just talking about the bye week (though that's a concern all its own). Rather, I'm also talking about the coaching staff and the players themselves. If they get too comfortable with the blowout win over the Giants and think the hard work and relentless pressure can be dialed back a bit, they're wrong. Likewise, if the coaches don't consistently demonstrate they've learned their lessons on how best to use Cam and how to take risks on offense to ensure a win, they'll fall back into bad habits and this team will fail. It's up to this defense to set the tone. Everyone else, from the offense to the special teams to the coaches themselves, can feed off what this defense brings to the table. They just have to do it game in and game out. The good news is I think this defense has the ability to do that. Maybe not against every team on the schedule...but against more of them than not. And that can make all the difference. All it takes is finding your identity. And then? Embracing it.
But that's just my two cents,