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Panthers vs Saints: 3 storylines to watch for Week 3

These are the things I am watching to learn who the 2022 Carolina Panthers are

Carolina Panthers v New York Giants Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

The 0-2 2022 Carolina Panthers may still be early in their season, but they have put enough on tape to give us an idea of who they might be. Part of that identity can be firmly attributed to the coaching staff, which is subject to change at ownership’s multi-million dollar whims. Much of it, however, is the result of the talent that exists on the roster. That should remain relatively constant throughout the season. While each of the two previous weeks was more about watching for nuggets of information that we could carry forward, I think we now know enough to start asking which of those data points is going to become part of a trend. From batted passes to a mysteriously utilized (I’m being kind here) running game, what are we going to keep seeing this season?

Of course, no game story is complete without also considering how the opposing team will affect the Panthers. The Saints are a hard team to read. Talented, with a newish coaching staff and a quarterback who is equal parts chaos and injured at the moment.

The weaknesses that the Panthers have displayed in their continued losing streak combined with the inherent uncertainty in Jameis Winston’s literally broken back have led to the spread on this game being kept as close toa coin flip as you are likely to find in the NFL. Our friends over at DraftKings Sportsbook have the line at -2.5 for the Saints. With all of that in mind, here is what I am watching for in Week 3:

How hard will McAdoo commit to what hasn’t been working?

The Panthers have relatively abandoned the run in favor of trying to get Mayfield in rhythm early in each game. That would be fine if they were good enough to actually accomplish that task, but early results suggest they are not. The Panthers offensive line is better at run blocking than pass blocking. Combine that with the fact that Christian McCaffrey is a better running back than Mayfield is a quarterback and you are confronted with the obvious conclusion that the Panthers are built to be a run-first team at the moment.

We are working with incomplete data when analyzing the current offense, as well. Mayfield has had so many balls batted down that we don’t really know who he has been targeting on each play. Between potentially skewed data and the team’s baffling over-reliance on Shi Smith as their only third option in the passing game we end up with an offense that has technically targeted McCaffrey (10) only one more time than Smith (9) through two games.

I’m all for restricting McCaffrey’s usage for his own health, but at a certain point it does seem like leaning away from the offense’s strengths is a feature of this team’s planning and not a bug.

The coaches can complain all they want about needing more plays in each game to really show what they can do, but it is their play calling and game plans that are keeping them from such opportunities. At this point they should have an idea of what plays actually gain yards on first down and can use that knowledge to generate fewer second or third and long situations.

Will the defense get a turnover?

The arrival of Steve Wilks as secondary coach was supposed to herald a shift to a zone-heavier pass defense for the Carolina Panthers. With more defenders eyes on the quarterback at the snap, the logic went, more opportunities for interceptions should follow. While a lot of turnovers are purely based on luck, three games without a turnover would start to become remarkable.

Combining that with the streak being continued while facing none other than the interception Santa that is Jameis Winston and the streak would almost become suspicious. The final straw is that the Panthers, regardless of defensive pass game coordinator, haven’t forced a turnover since Jeremy Chinn picked off Josh Allen in the second quarter of a December 19, 2021 game against the Buffalo Bills and the idea of turnovers being luck starts to feel more like turnovers being part of a curse against the Carolina Panthers.

Where’s the beef?

After letting the Cleveland Browns run roughshod over a lighter-than-you’d-like Panthers front seven, Rhule and defensive coordinator activated 6-3, 345 pound defensive tackle Marquan McCall to the gameday roster for Week 2. McCall is a rookie out of Kentucky whose stout presence helped solidify a rotation on the Panthers defensive line that held Saquon Barkley to five carries for three yards at half time against the Giants. While the rest of the game unraveled from there, McCall’s presence proved a point. The Panthers needed more strength up front in lieu of the speed that they have otherwise sacrificed for.

The New Orleans Saints aren’t nearly as stout of a rushing team as either the Browns or the Giants. Watch for who is active on gameday along the defensive line to get an idea of what kind of defense they are trying to run that day. Then keep an eye on how that defense performs. They might miss McCall. They could regret having him active as Alvin Kamara regains his rookie-season form against a slower Panthers front seven.

This is less a question of talent and more an assessment of coaching acumen. The bodies are there to go in either direction. Can this team adequately scout their opponent and bring the right players to match strengths or take advantages of weakness. A simple look at the success of New Orleans rushing attack on Sunday could be telling one way or another.