The Carolina Panthers will debut a brand new defense on Sunday against the Las Vegas Raiders, which makes previewing it difficult, but we’re going to try. The newness of the defense is twofold. Not only do the Panthers feature a brand new defensive coaching staff led by Phil Snow, but they also have the highest turnover rate. Only 34.2% of the team’s defensive snaps are back from last season, which is the lowest number in the NFL.
All that said, there’s no way for us to know what the Panthers defense will look like. The coaching staff has been very coy about how they plan to do things, and the only notable piece of intel we have is that rookie Jeremy Chinn is listed as a co-starting linebacker even though he’s more of a safety by trade. That implies that we’ll be seeing a versatile front seven with a more Buffalo Nickel style base defense.
On the other side of the coin, the Raiders returns nearly its entire offense from last season, save for one position group. Derek Carr is still the quarterback, Josh Jacobs will dominate the carries once again, and the offensive line is all the same. There is one notable position group that’s undergone significant changes, and it works out nicely for a brand new Panthers back seven. And that brings us to our keys:
- Capitalize on the one week where the secondary is more experienced than the opposing wide receivers. I don’t know the best way to elaborate on this, but it does seem like something that’s worth mentioning. Now that Tyrell Williams is out for the season, the Raiders top three wide receivers have a combined one season of NFL experience. Hunter Renfrow, who is in his second season, is joined by rookies Henry Ruggs III and Bryan Edwards in the starting lineup. Veterans Zay Jones and Nelson Agholor are the backups, but they’re bad. The Panthers couldn’t have asked for a better match-up in Week 1 as they try to find their footing.
- Be ready for the checkdown. Derek Carr has a great arm and has the physical abilities of a great quarterback, but he’s rarely willing to unleash those powers. He’s arguably the most conservative quarterback in the league. His average pass attempt was 2.3 yards short of the first down marker, which was the third most conservative mark in the league (our very own Teddy Bridgewater was the highest [or lowest?] in this metric). He also only threw 11.7% of his passes into tight windows, the second lowest rate in the league. Carr can sling it, but he’d much rather check down to an open receiver underneath.
- Please look competent against the run. I inexplicably watched some highlights of late season Panthers games from 2019, and let me tell you, they’re as bad as you remember. The frequency with which defensive linemen were thrown to the ground, turned around, or completely washed out of the play was incredible. A young defense playing a new scheme is certainly going to have its growing pains, but hopefully they at least look like an NFL team through the struggles.