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Panthers vs Washington: Five questions with Hogs Haven

It’s a week of familiar foes, come learn about just how much has and hasn’t changed for our old pal Ron.

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Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Washington Football Team Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Folks, this is a long one. I had a lot to ask and Andrew York of Hogs Haven had a lot to say about Ron Rivera’s first return to Bank of America Stadium for Week 11’s Washington Football Team at Carolina Panthers match up. Come for the intel on Taylor Heinicke and a Tyler Larsen sighting, stay to count how many times we say ‘missed opportunities.’ Without further adieu:

A lot is being made of familiarity between these two teams, between a handful of players left in Charlotte from Rivera’s tenure to the host of athletes and staff that migrated up to Washington with him. The biggest story, obviously, is the relationship between Rivera and Newton. What isn’t talked about as much is the fact that Rivera’s current defensive coordinator, Jack Del Rio, never coached for the Panthers while either Rivera or Newton were there. Injuries aside, what are the Panthers likely to see from the Football Team defense and what might be new or surprising instead of familiar?

(Note that our special teams coordinator, Nate Kaczor, also never coached with Rivera before his time in Washington) The base defensive scheme is probably one that Panthers fans will recognize: a 4-3 front with primarily off-zone coverage. This is a base defense that Ron Rivera primarily ran in Carolina and Jack Del Rio ran as DC of the Broncos years ago. However, Del Rio ran a higher percent of man coverage as DC of the Broncos than Rivera did as HC of the Panthers and we’ve seen a shift to more man coverage this year as (on paper) our CBs are better able to play man coverage with the addition of William Jackson III (who admittedly hasn’t lived up to expectations, but is certainly a man cover corner). We still play primarily zone coverage, but have switched to more man than last year. We’ve also had a lot of fans complaining about the defense being too vanilla and not featuring enough blitzes or exotic looks, which I know Broncos’ fans complained was a hallmark of JDR’s defenses in Denver, but I’m not sure if it was also a criticism of Ron’s defenses in Carolina.

Another wrinkle compared to Rivera’s Panthers years is that the defense has been playing a lot of 5-2 fronts (5 DL, 2 LB). This is partly due to the strength and depth of our DL, but also partly due to the shallowness of our LB group. It remains to be seen if this will continue now that Chase Young and Montez Sweat are injured, but it very well may continue, because we still only have 2 startable LBs (Cole Holcomb and Jamin Davis).

Now let’s bring those injuries into the conversation. Washington’s injury report is lengthy this week and features a number of offensive linemen and defensive backs. That’s not to mention their top two defensive ends, Montez Sweat and Chase Young,being on injured reserve. Outside looking in, this could look like open season on Taylor Heinicke for the Panthers defense and a soft landing for what is trending towards Cam Newton’s first 2021 start. What is the inside view of these injuries and how they might affect Sunday’s game?

I think the most devastating injury is the loss of our center Chase Roullier for the season. This has been terrible for two reasons: 1) he is really good, with an 81.4 PFF grade on the season (for those who care about PFF) and the highest run block win rate amongst all NFL centers (we really rely on the run), and 2) he was responsible for calling protections at the line (important when you are starting a backup QB with little starting experience). Our backup center Tyler Larsen played reasonably well last week, but losing Roullier still hurts the overall OL. We may or may not have All Pro RG Brandon Scherff for this matchup, but that’s not as big a problem because his backup, journeyman Wes Schweitzer, has been playing about as well this season. Really, the entire OL has been playing way above expectations this season. Fans are crediting OL coach John Matsko (formerly of the Panthers) as being a miracle worker at coaching his unit above their talent level, as they have been performing as one of the NFL’s best offensive lines this season (#4 in pass block win rate and #1 in run block win rate) despite only having one player (RG Brandon Scherff) who has even made a Pro Bowl before.

There have been many other injuries, so I’ll only go over the other highlights. Losing starting QB Ryan Fitzpatrick hurts, but he looked pretty bad in his preseason action and 1.5 quarters of regular season play, so there’s no guarantee he’d be any better than backup QB Taylor Heinicke (more on him in the next answer). Losing Chase Young and Montez Sweat hurts as well, but they’ve honestly been underperforming so far this season and most of the power of the DL has come from the interior, so I’m not sure how much losing them will hurt the overall defense. Young and Sweat have been criticized for abandoning their assignments to try to make a play, whereas their backups have been better at maintaining their assignments and helping other players make the play. DT Jonathan Allen is the real star of the DL, with 6 sacks in 9 games (2nd amongst all DTs) despite drawing the most double teams and he is still healthy. There have been some injuries in the secondary, but the secondary doesn’t seem to have a huge difference in ability between the starters and the backups (partly due to the starters being disappointing and partly due to the backups being good), so I’m not sure how much that will impact the game.

Taylor Heinicke has been consistently OK this season. Over the last five games he has averaged about 24 completions on 38 completions for 245 yards, a touchdown, an interception, and threeish sacks. He hasn’t ever been a quarterback to lift a team on his shoulders and drag them to a victory in the NFL and now he is set to face a Carolina defense that is top five in sacks and pressures. What is the Football Team expecting /hoping for from him on Sunday?

I think we’re primarily hoping that he can have an efficient game, limiting turnovers while the team leans on the run game (and the Panthers are ranked 19th against the run according to Football Outsiders DVOA). Otherwise, we’re hoping someone can trick him into thinking Tom Brady is playing QB for the Panthers, because Heinicke’s best games have been against the Tom Brady led Bucs (in last year’s playoffs and in last week’s victory). Otherwise, I think we’re realistic about him being a career backup until now, but one who has flashed in a few games. He has flaws, like a weak arm, a tendency to float balls high, and trying too hard to make big plays, but he has also played well enough in some games that we won’t count him out.

How many times a week does Rivera say “missed opportunities” these days?

Whenever we lose, which has been too often this season. Fans are already a bit sick of his press conferences, but I’m not sure there’s anything the head coach of a 3-6 team could say to endear himself. We want to see results and we’re hoping the way the team played last week against the Bucs will carry through to future games.

Rivera spoke about last week’s win against the Bucs as a building block. Win or lose this week, what is one thing you are hoping to learn about Washington from how they play the Panthers?

I think there are two main things for me: 1) I want Heinicke to play another efficient game, moving the offense while limiting turnovers, and 2) I want our defensive secondary to show another solid all-around effort with few blown coverages and points allowed. Regarding Heinicke, he has shown flashes, but most of those flashes were in his early games and he has seemed to fall apart with more starts as teams may have “figured him out” (though I think it’s as much about his mindset and confidence as anything). Putting together a solid performance against a top pass defense like the Panthers after a good game against the Bucs would do a lot for Washington fan confidence. Regarding the defensive secondary, pretty much the entire blame for our poor defensive performance this year is due to the defensive secondary. Even the DL looked worse than it was because blown coverages would allow quick passes for easy completions and prevent the DL from getting home with a sack. The last few weeks, the secondary has shown signs of beginning to stiffen up, with fewer blown coverages and more turnovers. Last week against the Bucs was their best performance this year, so we’re hoping this is a trend. Another solid showing limiting the Panthers’ pass offense would mean a lot in that regard.