The Carolina Panthers should consider themselves rather lucky that things fell the way they did this past weekend. Following a poor loss at home to the Philadelphia Eagles, the Panthers still retain first place in the NFC South and are still one of the best teams record-wise in the conference despite the loss. The main issue coming out of the defeat, however, is the offense. The team’s pathetic excuse for a ground game is the primary culprit.
While quarterback Cam Newton did throw three interceptions in this game, he was also forced to throw 52 times thanks to the ineffectiveness of the rushing attack. What was even more sad was the fact that he was also the team’s leading rusher, carrying the ball 11 times for 71 yards. The rest of the team combined for 14 carries and 11 yards. Brutal doesn’t begin to describe it. Stats never tell the full story though, and the fault isn’t entirely on our running backs. From play-calling, to blocking execution, to hitting the right lanes, the entire ground game is a mess right now.
As for the Chicago Bears, they have shown flashes of improvement on defense the past couple of games, especially last week where they leaned on it heavily to snag a win in Baltimore. The defensive effort put on display in that game appears to be somewhat of an outlier, however, compared to the previous games for the Bears this season. This should be a winnable game for the Panthers, provided they can get their collective heads out of their backsides and have a complete game offensively.
With that, lets look at the Panthers offense a little bit.
- O running game, where art thou? It is no secret the Panthers rushing attack has been putrid for most of the year. In a season where the emphasis was supposed to be taken off Newton and placed on the backs of RBs Jonathan Stewart and Christian McCaffrey, the plan has certainly backfired for the most part. Much of this can likely be attributed to the loss of C Ryan Kalil in the middle of the offensive line. While C Tyler Larsen has done his best, it is clear his isn’t anywhere close to the kind of blocker and on-field strategist that Kalil is. With things looking up so far this week in practice for Kalil, we might finally see him retake the field and help this offense right the ship. This would be a good week to start, as the Bears rank in the middle of the NFL pack in rush defense, allowing 104 YPG on the ground. That might not sound like much, but in the past two weeks, the Bears have allowed 284 yards on the ground to guys who are not household names by any stretch. Getting Kalil back and attacking the Bears defense with stretch runs might jump start a stagnant portion of this offense.
- Vegetable Stew: At the rate Jonathan Stewart is going right now, he might end up surrendering the Panthers’ rushing record back to former RB DeAngelo Williams. It is clear that age might be finally starting to show for the Panthers RB, however the Panthers run blocking hasn’t been much better. TE Ed Dickson’s blocking has been nearly non-existent when asked to do so, Larsen continues to get no push in the center of the line, and the play-calling is not changing despite the glaring difficulties we are having. Getting Ryan Kalil back should help, but if Stewart’s struggles continue, it might be worth giving RB Cameron Artis-Payne a look.
- Don’t throw 52 times again: Poor passing is what killed the Baltimore Ravens last week, as the Bears managed to snag their first two INTs of the year, including one returned 90 yards for a TD by S Adrian Amos that proved to be pivotal in their eventual OT win. The Panthers must get the run game going and limit the amount they ask Newton to do. That surgically repaired shoulder isn’t going to last long if he has to throw over 40 times each week because we can’t get more than 20 yards on the ground. Not to mention the risk of INTs increases dramatically when forced to throw that many times.
- Mind the pressure: Last week, containing DT Fletcher Cox was a failed mission (the man is a monster at DT though, so that’s not entirely surprising). This week, the Panthers face a 3-4 front that brings pressure from the LBs, as three of the teams four main LBs, Leonard Floyd (3), Pernell McPhee (3), and Willie Young (2) have generated eight sacks so far between them. The recently extended DE Akiem Hicks has also been a force off the edge, getting to the QB for a team leading five times on the year so far. The Bears may not have a Fletcher Cox on their defense, but the unit has been getting into the backfield with some regularity.
- Dial back the INTs: While the blame can be spread around for Newton’s three INTs last week, the obvious thing to say here is that we can’t expect to do that and win games. The only silver lining about doing it last week was that the team still had a chance to win in the 4th quarter despite the turnovers. While the Bears don’t have a ball hawking defensive backfield, they might be feeling a little more confident this week given what they did to the Ravens last Sunday. Keeping the pressure off Newton and calling more plays designed to roll him away from pressure will go a long way in reducing that number and keeping the ball out of the hands of the likes of Amos, Prince Amukamara, and Kyle Fuller.
- Red Zone Inefficiency: If there is one thing that annoys me more than the lack of a run game, is kicking damn field goals after we get into the red zone. To me, there is no excuse to not get a touchdown in goal to go situations when you have the likes of Newton, wide receivers Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess, and running backs Stewart and McCaffrey. We got away with in the weeks prior to last Thursday’s Eagles match-up, where it finally bit us. We cannot settle for field goals in the red zone. The play-calling needs to get more aggressive and leverage the strengths this team has to get points on the board. Luckily, the Bears defense seems to struggle a little in the red zone, as they have allowed 10 touchdowns in that portion of the field so far this season.
The main concern should continue to be the run game this week. I cannot stress enough how much this is holding back both the offense and the team as a whole. Like I said above, getting Kalil back to anchor the line should be a big boost to the unit and I would expect the rushing attack to improve this week. If it doesn’t though, we won’t win many more games this year. You cannot be totally one-dimensional and succeed on a regular basis.