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Panthers vs Cardinals defensive preview: Defense tasked with slowing down one of the league’s most potent offenses.

This Cardinals team is very dangerous, injured or no.

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at San Francisco 49ers Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

It feels like opinions have cooled a bit on the Carolina Panthers defense in recent weeks. It’s understandable. The Panthers haven’t been winning and the defense hasn’t completely overwhelmed offensive lines and quarterbacks like it did in the first few weeks, but it’s still been one of the league’s stingiest units. They currently rank second in the league in yards per play allowed and their 4.5 yards per play allowed over the last three weeks is best in the league over that span. They rank sixth in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA ranks and have been particularly stingy against the pass.

The Panthers may be a bit hampered this weekend on the injury front. Brian Burns and Frankie Luvu have been limited in practice this week with injuries, though Burns logged a full practice today. Both are listed as questionable.

Those injuries pale in comparison to what the Cardinals are dealing with. The NFL’s best team had four key offensive players sit out practice this week (pending Friday’s injury report). That list consists of Kyler Murray, DeAndre Hopkins, Chase Edmonds, and Rondale Moore. Edmonds is out for sure while the other three are all game time decisions.

The Cardinals were without Murray and Hopkins last week, while Edmonds barely played before his injury. Still, they but up 31 points on the road against the 49ers with Colt McCoy leading the charge. This is not an offense to take lightly regardless of who suits up.

The Cardinals also have one of the league’s best defenses, so a Panthers offense led by PJ Walker probably won’t put up points. It’ll once again fall on the defense to give the Panthers a chance. Here’s what they need to do:

  • Contain the short passing game. This is important regardless of who is under center, though it’s probably a bigger deal for Colt McCoy. The Cardinals run a facsimile of a college spread offense and tend to throw short more often than not. Murray will push the ball down the field, but McCoy isn’t as liable to. Last week, just three of McCoy’s 26 pass attempts traveled more than 10 yards in the air, and he threw 12 passes behind the line of scrimmage. The Panthers need to be reliable tackling receivers after catch and communicate how they’ll handle the cross and wrinkled the Cardinals will throw at them.
  • Get creative with the pass rush. I don’t really know what I specifically mean by this, but I don’t think a regular four man rush straight at the guys in front of them is going to be effective for the Panthers. The Cardinals have one of the best pass protecting offensive lines in the league, and with Burns and Luvu both hampered, Phil Snow might need to manufacture some pressure.

This has the makings of a low scoring affair, so the Panthers defense will need to make some splash plays and force a couple of turnovers to support the Panthers struggling offense. If they can do that, the Panthers might be able to usher in the second Cam Newton era with a win.