Going into Week 4, the Carolina Panthers sported the league’s stoutest defense by a long shot. However, their first three tests—the Jets, Saints, and Texans—could not be mistaken for a gauntlet of offensive juggernauts. The defense faced by far their toughest test to this point in the season against the Cowboys, and they did not pass it.
The Cowboys torched the Panthers, gaining 7.7 yards per play and tallying up 36 points, six more points than the Panthers allowed in the first three weeks combined. The Panthers struggled to get pressure on Dak Prescott and had several coverage breakdowns on the backend. Their run fits were shoddy and the tackling of Ezekiel Elliot and Tony Plloard was lacking. Nothing worked.
But the Cowboys are tough. They might finish the season with the best offense in the NFL. Sunday’s opponent, the Philadelphia Eagles, aren’t in the same class offensively. The Panthers have a chance to reclaim some of that mojo that made them the toughest defense in the NFL for three weeks.
Jalen Hurts is the Eagles offense. The Eagles have been very pass heavy this season, especially in recent weeks, and their quarterback is also just three carries off the team-high in that category, and he leads the team in rushing yardage (Panthers fans should be familiar with this sort of situation). They’re averaging a healthy 6.5 yards per play, good for fifth best in the league, but their scoring has been lagging behind, and that brings us to our keys for the Panthers defense.
- Bending is okay, but breaking is not. The Eagles have moved the ball well, but they haven’t scored with the same sort of efficiency. In the last three weeks, they’ve converted just 60% of their red zone trips into touchdowns, tied for 20th in the league. With how efficient their offense has been, it’s expected that they’ll put some nice drives together. However, the Panthers will be okay as long as they can keep them out of the end zone and hold up situationally.
To go along with this, the Eagles have gone for it on 4th down within field goal range four times this season, and they’ve failed all four times. They’ll be aggressive chasing touchdowns, but good short yardage defense can turn that aggression against them.
- Contain Jalen Hurts the scrambler. Jalen Hurts has been a difference maker as a runner this season. He’s averaging 6.6 yards per carry and 14 of his 34 carries have gone for first downs. 19 of those carries have been classified as scrambles, and he’s averaged 7.9 yards per scramble. The Panthers like to be exotic with their pressure packages, but they need to make sure they’re sound with their rush lanes and prevent easy escape routes for Hurts. He’s been good as a passer this season too, but the Eagles wide receiver corps is probably the unit the defense wants to put the onus on.
- Guard against the short passing game. Jalen Hurts has a -3 yard difference between his average intended air yards and his average completed air yards, the third lowest number in the league. His 4.7 yard average air yards per completion is fifth lowest in the league. He’s had a lot more success throwing short than long, and that’s been especially true after you take out Week 1 against the hapless Falcons. The backs and tight ends have gotten exactly half of Hurts’ targets, so expect them to play a major part in that. The Eagles are perfectly capable of hitting big shots, but they’re likely going to do most of their damage getting the ball out around the line of scrimmage.
- Bounce back. Last week was bad, but it’s not a death knell. The Panthers need to continue to trust what they’re doing, and they should be able to keep the Eagles in check.