The Carolina Panthers defense hasn’t been great so far this season, but it hasn’t been the dumpster fire that many people expected coming into the season. Through two weeks, the Panthers are 27th in points allowed per game, 15th in yards allowed per game, 21st in yards allowed per play, and 29th in defensive DVOA. Again, not good. But it’s not terrible.
On paper, Week 3 is the easiest match-up this defense has faced to date. The Los Angeles Chargers have been so-so moving the ball while struggling to put points on the board. They’ve scored 36 points through two weeks, but an electric performance from rookie Justin Herbert provides optimism that the offense has more to offer than it’s shown thus far.
With that, let’s look at three keys to the Panthers visit to Los Angeles.
- Limit the yards after catch for the Chargers offensive weapons. The Chargers have two of the better YAC threats in the league in wide receiver Keenan Allen and running back Austin Ekeler. In Week 2 against the Chiefs, the rest of the receiving corps stepped up as well. About 60% of Justin Herbert’s passing yardage came after the catch, with four different players averaging over five yards after catch per reception—the aforementioned duo plus Joshua Kelley and Hunter Henry.
- Contain the quarterback run. Justin Herbert has some wheels. He only carried the ball four times for 18 yards against Kansas City, but he did score on an athletic four yard scamper. He ran for 13 touchdowns in college and was occasionally used as a read option quarterback. With more time to prepare as a starter, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Chargers look to use Herbert’s 4.69 40 speed more often. The Panthers faced two of the least mobile quarterbacks in the league in the first two weeks of the season, so this isn’t something that they’ve had to account for yet.
- Keep the Chargers behind the chains. Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn is a former running back, so it’s not surprising that he likes to do the whole ‘establish the run’ thing. The Chargers have run the ball on 55.3% of their plays so far this season, the second highest rate in the league. The Panthers have generally been pretty good at containing the run outside of a couple of big Leonard Fournette runs in the fourth quarter of Week 2. The Panthers have limited opponents to gains of two yards or less on 41.5% of their carries thus far. If they can maintain or slightly bump that number up, it’ll force the Chargers to do something they don’t want to do—throw the ball down the field. That’ll also open up opportunities for the pass rush to make an impact for the first time all season.
The Panthers offense will probably struggle to score points in this one. This Chargers defense was already a tough test given their assortment of talent on the defensive line and in the secondary. It’s only more difficult now that Christian McCaffrey is out. With that in mind, it’s imperative that the defense steps up to give the Panthers a shot to win this game.