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Panthers at Cardinals defensive preview: The defense is more important than ever with Cam Newton ailing

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The defense is going to have to take the lead while the Panthers struggle to manage their injured quarterback.

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Carolina Panthers Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

For the second consecutive season, the Carolina Panthers are mired in a situation where their coaching staff is mishandling an injury to their star quarterback while the team suffers. Cam Newton’s status for Week 3’s tilt with the Arizona Cardinals is up in the air while he deals with a foot injury and Ron Rivera and Marty Hurney try to figure out what that means.

Whether or not Newton takes the field, the Panthers will not have their best quarterback out there. An immobile Newton and a 100% Kyle Allen are both exponentially easier to defend than a fully healthy Newton. That fact makes the defense’s performance even more vital to the success of the Panthers in a Week 3 game that’s as close to a must-win as you can have this early in the season.

The Panthers defense will be tasked with figuring out hot new young coach Kliff Kingsbury’s college-style offense run by the smallest quarterback I’ve ever seen on a football field. The winless Arizona Cardinals have a better record than the Panthers and have accounted well for themselves so far. This team was historically inept on the offensive side of the ball last season—only five teams since the turn of the century have posted fewer yards in a season than the 2018 Cardinals, and none of them were the 2010 Panthers. Take that for perspective. But through the first two weeks of this season, Kyler Murray and crew rank in the top half of the league in both yards and points despite playing against two tough defenses in the Detroit Lions and Baltimore Ravens.

It will be a tough test for the Panthers defense, more like the Los Angeles Rams than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Cardinals spread the field and run most of their offense out of the shotgun. They get the ball to their play makers in space and expect them to make plays. They pass the ball a lot. A lot a lot. Like, their rookie quarterback has thrown the most passes in the NFL a lot.

To counteract this newfangled offense, the Panthers will have to break away from their usual game plan, something they’re usually not comfortable doing. That means they have to...

  • Press up on receivers and disrupt the offense’s timing. The Panthers have never liked to do this, but if there were ever a time to start, it’s now. Kyler Murray takes his share of deep shots, but a lot of the offense revolves around bubble screens and quick passes within five yards of the line of scrimmage. Here are Murray’s passing charts from the first two weeks from NFL’s Next Gen Stats.

The jury is still out on whether or not Kingsbury is a good NFL coach, but he doesn’t appear to be stupid. If you give the Cardinals openings underneath, they’re going to take them. The Panthers can still deploy their preferred zone coverages, but it’d behoove them to do so only after throwing off the timing of the Cardinals’ pass plays.

  • Contain Kyler Murray the runner. He hasn’t displayed his rushing chops in the NFL yet, but that doesn’t mean the Panthers can sleep on Murray’s scrambling ability. He ran for over 1,000 yards in his final season at Oklahoma despite quarterback sacks counting against that total and can allegedly run a sub-4.4 40-yard dash. Even when Murray isn’t running for positive yards, he’s good at Russell Wilson-ing around in the backfield for a couple seconds before heaving the ball to an inexplicably wide open wide receiver.
  • Maybe get an interception or something. Kyler Murray hasn’t been bashful about throwing the ball into tight windows. Only Ryan Fitzpatrick, Mitch Trubisky and Deshaun Watson have been more aggressive. The Panthers will have a chance to turn some of those aggressive passes into turnovers, and short fields are exactly what the Panthers hobbled offense will need.

The Panthers have always tried to win games with their defense. The health of their star quarterback makes the execution of that ideal even more paramount. The Panthers need this one, and it’s up to the defense to get it for them.