The Carolina Panthers suffered a beat down of the highest order on Sunday night. A game that players said they were ready for on social media, yet looked completely unprepared off it. Head coach Ron Rivera said he did a bad job managing the team's reaction to Greg Hardy being placed on the commissioner's exempt list, which could be true, or an excuse. Let's take a look at where the Panthers stand in the league three weeks in.
There have been plenty of bright spots with Kelvin Benjamin breaking out and proving he's a legitimate receiver while Greg Olsen is reliable as ever, but don't pretend this thing is going well.
Offensive line problems have marred the Panthers over the first three games, ranging from mediocre to abysmal in the first few weeks. We were told to believe in the players, which we did, but in a trio of games those fears have been justified.
The Carolina Panthers are tied for 28th in the league allowing eight sacks in three games. No team below them has a winning record, or is even .500. This is a huge concern.
Creativity can help mitigate these problems, but thus far that's been stymied by Cam Newton's lack of mobility. It feels weird to say, but the Panthers' QB hasn't been himself since recovering from injury. It's my hope it's internal and that it's simply about getting his confidence back, but there's a distinct possibility an injury is carrying over.
The rest of the offensive picture is equally sorry.
20th in the NFL with 332 yards per game
19th in the NFL with 21.0 points per game
29th in the NFL with a 3rd down conversion percentage of 39 percent.
18th in the NFL with an average time of possession of 29:57.
24th in the NFL in penalty yards
The yards are pretty much whatever, they don't always indicate success. However, the rest of the stats are deeply concerning for a team supposedly built around running the football and control of the clock. This is only going to get worse with injuries mounting to the Panthers running backs.
One small bright spot (kind of) is a 5.4 yards-per-play rating, good for 16th in the league. It's not much, but it's something.
Ultimately I'm still kind of unclear why we should believe Mike Shula is the long-term answer at offensive coordinator, but I'll give him the rest of the season to win me over. Heck, others seem to be head-over-heels in love with him.
Unlike the live fast, love hard approach to Mike Shula I know what Sean McDermott is capable of, and we saw his defense dominate in weeks one and two before collapsing on Sunday Night Football. This skews the numbers in a bad way over three games, but that doesn't make them any less valid.
In terms of a total unit the Panthers don't have a pass rushing problem, but they do have a Charles Johnson problem right now. Simply put: He's not producing. I'll be the first to decry an over-reliance on sack numbers, however when you're paying a guy as much as CJ he needs to be getting constant pressure, which isn't happening.
The secondary was going to be the defense's Achilles heel much like the offensive line on the other side of the ball, however that came with an inherent belief that the pass rush could mitigate the issues. That hasn't materialized. Instead a group of veterans and rookies are getting picked on, a lot. The thing about older players like Antoine Cason and Thomas DeCoud isn't that they can't play, it's that players tend to get more inconsistent as they age. It's the weird inverse bell curve of the NFL.
Nevertheless, here's how the Panthers are stacking up.
14th in the NFL with 347 yards allowed per game.
10th in NFL in points allowed per game with 19.3.
17th in the NFL in first downs allowed per game with 20.7
11th in the NFL in 3rd down attempt percentage with 40 percent.
8th in the NFL in penalty yards on defense with 139 total yards.
The disparity between first downs allowed and third down percentage hails to the concept of "bend, don't break" but it's ugly nonetheless. When the offense is sputtering like this they need the defense to create a short field where possible, but allowing 20 first downs wont cut it.
Right now the Panthers have a defense that's hovering in the top half of the league and an offense in the bottom third. To right this ship Sean McDermott's unit will need to return to 2013 levels.
Graham Gano and Brad Nortman are leg-wielding monsters, the rest is pretty bad.
The Panthers are 6th in the league in touchback percentage thanks to Gano, and 9th in punts landing inside the 20 thanks to Nortman's leg.
When it comes to returning kicks, that's where this thing falls apart. Carolina is 22nd in average yards per kick return and 19th in average yards per punt return. Neither of these helps the offense achieve a manageable field position. I think Philly Brown has a future on the roster, I'm just not enamored with him being "the guy."
Part of this is being spoiled too. Having Ted Ginn back there in 2013 made life easy. It showed us just how valuable a solid returner is in the NFL. That safety net is gone now, hopefully someone can make something decent out of the opportunity.
If these trends continue...
It all comes down to two simple numbers: Scoring 21 pts and allowing 19. This is skewed by the Pittsburgh game, but with the running back problems it could see a downward trend.
A two point spread isn't much, meaning there's entirely the possibility Carolina could squeak out a lot of close games or lose close ones. When you have a kicker as good as Graham Gano it's easy to see it going positively.
The sky isn't falling, but these trends need to be corrected and we will hope the Steelers game was an aberration.