The Carolina Panthers have demonstrably met a goal they set for themselves on defense in the 2019 off season: they got faster up front. Drafting Brian Burns and Christian Miller, signing Bruce Irvin, and switching to a new defensive front that takes advantage of their and 2018 draft pick Marquis Haynes’ speed off the edge has produced major returns for the team.
They had the sixth fewest sacks in the league a season ago and started this week with the third most sacks in the league through three games. They added six more against Houston. That is with Burns missing snaps yesterday with a possible wrist injury and Irvin missing the first three games with a hamstring injury that he is now clearly over.
Through four games, the rookie Burns has notched 2.5 sacks, two tackles for loss, and nine quarterback hits. He has also gotten his hand on at least two kicks, though he may not have been officially credited for either. It is only a matter of time before he starts to truly rack up the sacks—and blocks—that he has been coming so close to.
Burns and Irvin aren’t the only defensive stars who have or are missing time, either. Cornerback Donte Jackson and defensive tackle Kawann Short both missed yesterday’s game. While the offensive side was missing its own stars in quarterback Cam Newton and right guard Trai Turner, the defense didn’t seem to miss a beat and kept the Panthers in the game against a normally potent Texans offense.
Head coach Ron Rivera is probably pretty happy with that balance since it resulted in a win, bringing the Panthers to 2-2 on the season. He can’t, however, be any kind of happy with the performance turned in by Kyle Allen. Back up quarterbacks aren’t expected to be capable of heroics. Their jobs are to hold down the fort until the starter returns. With Newton’s timetable for return a mystery at this point, however, the Panthers need Allen to take a step beyond the traditional back up role.
Allen showed flashes of taking that step against both the Cardinals and the Texans, but he has shown alarming signs of inconsistency as well. He has fumbled five times, losing four of them, in just two games. He also made a few plays against Houston that absolutely saved that game for his team. The third down in the fourth quarter, where he ducked under a sure-as-could-be J.J. Watt sack before converting with a 17-yard pass to Jarius Wright, was an unbelievable play that would have challenged even Newton at his most nimble. Here’s to hoping that any progress towards consistency from Allen will mean consistently good decisions and not consistently dropped balls.
The Panthers will continue to lean on Christian McCaffrey in the meantime, for as long as he has legs to stand on. We’ll dig more deeply into his use—or overuse—later this week. Suffice it to say here that the Panthers would be up a different creek altogether without a player of his talents and versatility in the backfield.
All told, Carolina isn’t in a bad spot despite their 0-2 start. They have a swarming, almost overwhelming defense. That defense has the depth to withstand a few hits of their own. They have a star quarterback who is on the path to the health for the first time in years. Their back up quarterback has proven that, at the very least, he won’t give the game away without trying his damnedest to get it back. And they still have a few legitimate stars on offense, each of whom is capable of breaking a game wide open on any given Sunday.
They are a team that has proven it is built to win without singular, heroic efforts. That is something that would not have described most of the Panthers teams between 2011 and now. They are also, excitingly, a team that contains more than one incredible hero. McCaffrey, D.J. Moore, Curtis Samuel, Greg Olsen, Burns, Jackson, James Bradberry, and Eric Reid can all turn a game on a single play. That’s without a healthy Cam Newton. That’s with a Kyle Allen who can throw four touchdowns in one week before losing three fumbles the next.
With one quarter of the 2019 NFL season in the books, the Panthers have a little room to breathe at 2-2. That’s a long ways from the dire feeling of a start that featured two tough losses and significant uncertainty at the quarterback position. While there still isn’t precisely clarity around either Newton’s injury or Allen’s potential development, there is a lot more honesty in the air.
That more than anything—well, maybe not more than the two wins—has me feeling optimistic about the future of the Panthers. Meanwhile, Rivera’s defense has the present in good hands.