The Carolina Panthers defense has looked better week after week so far this young season. They let the Chargers move the ball relatively well, but they forced four turnovers and the pass rush showed signs of life. The defense has been far from good this season, but it’s showing signs of life and looks to be trending in the right direction.
This week’s test is a unique one, and it’s hard to predict how it will go. The Panthers faced statuesque quarterbacks Derek Carr and Tom Brady in Weeks 1 and 2. Justin Herbert has some wheels, but he hasn’t shown that he’s willing to use them yet at the NFL level. Kyler Murray is a completely different threat, so it’ll be interesting to see how Phil Snow prepares this defense to handle it.
With that, here are three keys to the game while the Panthers defense is on the field:
- Contain Kyler Murray as a runner. Murray was a bit subdues as a runner in his rookie season relative to expectations. That has not been the case in 2020. Through games, he’s run for 187 yards on 7.2 yards per carry and five touchdowns. He’s probably one of the more elusive runners in the league, regardless of position. We saw first hand how much strain a mobile quarterback puts on a defense in both phases of the game. Murray’s running ability gives the defense one more player to account for in the run game, particularly on options and the like. It’ll also limit their ability to play man coverage, as Murray will scamper for big chunks of yardage if the back seven has their eyes on their coverage assignment.
- Capitalize on Kyler Murray’s mistakes. While Murray looks like a future superstar, he does still make mistakes typical of a young player. He’s thrown five interceptions already this season, including three in the Cardinals Week 3 loss to the Lions. He’s only taken six sacks so far this season, but he was dropped 50 times in 2019. He trusts his escape ability, which can result in him trying to do too much and taking huge losses. He’s improved in this regard this season, but it’s an area the Panthers could look to exploit.
- Do whatever possible to contain DeAndre Hopkins. The Cardinals hoodwinked the Houston Texans out of Hopkins last offseason, and he’s immediately fit right in. He leads the NFL in both receptions and receiving yardage through three weeks. He’s done most of his damage closer to the line of scrimmage, averaging just 11.1 yards per catch, but the Cardinals will be more than happy with his 9.6 yards per target. The Cardinals have big play threats Christian Kirk (if he recovers in time) and Andy Isabella and the ever-reliable Larry Fitzgerald, but none have proven to be consistently reliable threats this season.
The Cardinals offense hasn’t been quite as efficient as perceived so far this season, but it’s still dangerous. In the past, I’d have almost no hope for the Panthers providing resistance to the Cardinals quick hitting offense, but there’s a chance this new regime knows how to handle it. Regardless, it’ll take a big effort from the defense to give the Panthers a chance to win, and several players will have to step up all around the defense.