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Monday Morning Optimist: Shanks for nothing, I guess

Year One of the Matt Rhule era is a fairly known quantity at this point. Let’s talk about why that is still a foundation for optimism.

Carolina Panthers v Minnesota Vikings
This would have been such a poignant image after a win. Eh, it’s still funny.
Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

The Carolina Panthers put their best Chinn forward yesterday before taking one on the foot. It’s just as we always said. The discussion surrounding this team should be that of a win off the back of Jeremy Chinn’s triumphant, even historic, efforts. Instead, questionable game management and an inefficient day from Teddy Bridgewater doomed the team to their eighth loss of the season. Now we get stuck talking about which prayer is going to be the most effective, which sacrifice the most potent, when begging with the divine for DJ Moore’s ankle.

This season we’ve spun circles about how exciting Joe Brady’s offense has been and how much Phil Snow has pulled out of an aggressively young defense. The offense is just this close to pulling it all together. The defense stepped closer than we ever imagined in the offseason to holding up its end of the bargain in a handful of close games, only to throw it away in the final minutes by allowing teams to pass at will against three man fronts. Never has that been more and simultaneously less true than yesterday.

What I liked

Jeremy Chinn - Extremely Optimistic

Making NFL history as the first player in the Super Bowl era to score back to back defensive touchdowns in a game is automatically optimstic. The only other player to do that in the NFL was Fred “Dippy” Evans in 1948 with the Chicago Bears. He entered the league a few years earlier as the fourth player the original Cleveland Browns signed to a contract. Like I said, history.

It isn’t Chinn’s fault that he outscored the Panthers offense

He went ahead and added to his two fumble recoveries with a team and career high 13 tackles. This kid has a bright future. Lining up behind Brian Burns means the Panthers have a bright future, just so long as they can get leadership on the defensive side of the ball that doesn’t feel obliged to gift wrap close games in their waning seconds.

Teddy Bridgewater - Somewhat Optimistic

Really? Yeah, really.

He looked shaky in his first start back from a knee injury. It was easily his least efficient performance of the season. Maybe the two are related. Maybe he also had his most daring day of the season, with more shots attempted downfield than we have seen to date. They weren’t all complete, but more than a few of them kept the Panthers in that game. Maybe the inefficiency on those balls was related to his unlucky short balls and just maybe he’ll be able to pair increased stability with his increased willingness to take risks in games to come. I’m here for that.

What I didn’t like

Joe Brady - Somewhat Pessimistic

Listen, I still love the guy and everything he has brought to the Carolinas. But his propensity to get cute in high risk scenarios has bit our asses more times than it has kissed them. This week was still progress on the season as a whole. Brady’s offense under Bridgewater looked more like the same under PJ Walker last week than Bridgewater of old at times. There were shots down field on almost every drive that lasted longer than a bathroom break.

They were unfortunately held back by an uncharacteristic lack of efficiency by Bridgewater that affected his short and long throws alike. It all might have worked out in the end but for questionable clock management and play calling in the fourth quarter that left just enough time for Kirk Cousins to put a saddle on Snow and ask the old defensive coordinator to call him “daddy.”

That questionable management may be more Rhule’s fault than Brady’s, but I’m hoping if I start listing him here then the Jets won’t steal him in the offseason. I might have that kind of power. Don’t look at me like that. Look at the next season where we put the real catharsis you need today.

Phil Snow - I mean what in the name of hell do I even put here, man?

Snow’s defense started the first half with that three man front shit again and surrendered a touchdown on the opening drive. Afterwards, they switched to a heavier pressure look and Chinn ended up outscoring the Vikings until the final minute. That change could have signaled an honest understanding of past mistakes. It could have been the first step of an evolution into a capable NFL play caller.

With the game on the line, however, he switched back to dropping eight guys into coverage and the Vikings traipsed down the field without a worry in the world. To better express our utter disappointment in this decision, there’s this from our own Erik Sommers:

Hi, gang. Erik here. Let me speak plainly.

What in the wide wide world of sports was that?!?! SERIOUSLY PHIL SNOW?! I thought we had MADE IT PAST THIS when we SHUT OUT the Detroit Lions by playing LESS three man fronts, and brought pressure MORE OFTEN.

I have absolutely no explanation for why, oh why, would a coaching staff watch something fail more often than not, switch away from it to watch a different alignment overwhelmingly succeed... and then GO BACK TO THE FAILING THING WITH THE GAME ON THE LINE.

As Walker so perfectly put it. We were getting outplayed by the Minnesota Vikings until we dropped the three man front and started to bring more four and five-plus man rushes. Yes, the first touchdown we gave up was actually against a blitz, but it was the three man rush that got them into the red zone. The change was made too late. But from that point until the end of the game, the defense was working by keeping the pressure on Kirk Cousins. In fact, it worked until the point where you thought the game was out of reach for the Vikings, when we went back to the prevent-style defense, only to watch the Vikings score a touchdown in less than one minute.

Then Matt Rhule has the audacity to wonder why the lack of pressure resulted in a game winning drive. TALK TO YOUR DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR MATT.

The strength of this Panthers defense lies in mainly our defensive ends and blitzing linebackers. Getting Brian Burns especially, and also Yetur Gross-Matos, as well as Efe Obada into one on one situations is very often resulting in pressure generating wins. Phil Snow has shown some creativity with his blitzes when he decides to utilize them. By going to a three man front and ensuring that at least two of your three down linemen are double teamed, you are conceding your ability to get pressure unequivocally, giving the quarterback and his receivers an eternity to find holes in your increasingly stretched and overly-suspect zone coverage.

In other words... MAN UP PHIL. (End Erik’s rant)

The takeaway

An exciting, intentional offense that relies on efficiency went off the rails as soon as that efficiency went out the window. That checks out. A defense that relies on pressure in the passing game surrendering yards under a three man front is like a baby stealing candy from you, dear fans. We’ve seen most of the different kinds of good and bad this team is capable of generating in 2020. Some of that comes to down to coaching, some to talent, and some to the age of the Panthers players.

How each element is going to combine to form the story of any one game seems to be a weekly scramble. The good news for the Panthers is that most of their talent is young. They should be able to acquire new talent each year. The parts for a good team aren’t exactly here yet, but the coaching staff seems ready to make a product that is greater than the sum of whatever they have on hand. With time—and that is one of the biggest upsides of having young talent—they should be able to take what they have and what they are going to add and continue to make these Panthers better. And these Panthers are already better than last seasons.

Snow obviously has some soul searching to do. Rhule and Brady, too, to a lesser extent. That their failures are currently covering up their successes is good news for the long term of the franchise. What’s wrong is being aired out in broad daylight. That’s a good place to be one year into a new coaching staff. They know what to fix. If they’re a good staff then they can. If not then it’s best to know that early, too.