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Monday Morning Optimist: A spark of offense amidst a deluge of injuries

The Panthers are inching closer to success while being weighed down with injuries.

Carolina Panthers v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

For the third week in a row, the Carolina Panthers are licking their wounds following a close-in-the-first-half loss while hoping for good news on the injury front. So far, that hope has not been rewarded. Yesterday’s loss to the Seattle Seahawks featured potentially significant injuries to cornerback C.J. Henderson (ankle), safety Xavier Woods (hanstring), linebacker and new team captain Frankie Luvu (hip), and wide receiver Jonathan Mingo (concussion). None of these players returned to the game after leaving it.

The long and short of this game is that it was close and may have remained so if the team’s depth, thin as it already was, wasn’t stretched that much further. The losses of Henderson, Woods, and Luvu in particular certainly were felt as the remaining defenders allowed three second half touchdowns, including two on the ground, after forcing three red zone field goals in the first half.

Penalties and a nascent spark of production from the offense rounded out the takeaways from the game. There was more good than bad in this game, or at least I’ll say that until we hear about any of the above injured players are placed on injured reserve.

Oh, right. Uh, optimism. Here’s what I liked:

What I liked

D.J. Chark - Extremely Optimistic

The speedy veteran brought a much needed infusion of talent and athletic ability to the Panthers receiver corps this week. His presence required the Seahawks to look beyond Adam Thielen and thus opened up the field for him and the rest of the offense. His skills make for a more balanced offense and it is clear that he does not yet have a capable replacement behind him on the depth chart.

The offense put together four scoring drives of eight or more plays and had a seven play drive that resulted in a missed field goal. Chark was targeted on each of those drives and caught a pass in all but one of them, including a 47-yard touchdown in the second quarter.

Andy Dalton - Somewhat Optimistic

Dalton clearly isn’t the quarterback of the future for the Panthers, but he proved to be more than capable as the quarterback of the now. I have zero worries about him playing in relief of Bryce Young for as long as Young’s ankle takes to heal.

Now, he shouldn’t get full credit for all of yesterday’s successes on offense when compared to weeks past. The Seattle Seahawks came into this game allowing the 4th most passing yards in the league and the second most first downs through the air. This was a prime opportunity for the Panthers receivers to improve on their performances against the stouter defenses of weeks’ past.

They did that, sort of. Dalton still had to make a lot of tight throws and got sacked three times with nowhere to go with the ball. Dalton took a middling situation, which was a huge upgrade over Weeks 1 and 2, and made it better. I’ll take that.

Play clock - Somewhat Optimistic

It bears notation that the Panthers offense lined up, ready to snap the ball, with more than three seconds on the play clock in one of the loudest stadiums in the NFL on a nearly consistent basis. They have not accomplished such a feat in living memory, so kudos to them for this massive moral victory. Let’s all raise a glass to this becoming a habit instead of having been an isolated phenomenon.

Please, for the benefit of this praise, ignore the incredible number of false starts along the offensive line. Thank you.

Yetur Gross-Matos -Somewhat Optimistic

It may have taken until the final year on his rookie contract, but Gross-Matos may have finally found a role he can produce in for the Panthers. The linebacker lined up both outside as a traditional 3-4 edge rusher and inside as a defensive end and produced three tackles, one sack, one tackle for loss, and one other quarterback hit.

That puts him at 1.5 sacks on the season through three games. He posted 2.5 sacks in 2020, 3.5 in 2021, and 2.5 again in 2022.

What I didn’t like

Penalties and Injuries

We’ll leave everything else aside for now and focus on the two things that had, perhaps, the biggest effect on this game.

The penalties, mostly false starts on the offensive line are as explainable—for a team on a short week, on the road, in one of the loudest stadiums in the league—as they are unacceptable. Ickem Ekwonu in particular, with four false start penalties, cost the team points. He has appeared unfocused at times since the preseason and has a lot of work to do to regain his stellar form from his rookie year.

The injuries are harder to explain. It was raining, the team was coming off of short rest, and they were playing on artificial turf. Those all sound like possible reasons, but we can’t really know for certain why injuries piled up yesterday as much as they did.

Regardless of why the injury bug has bitten this team so hard in the opening weeks of the season, the effect is that a team struggling to pull itself together is, instead, being torn apart on a weekly basis. Every game so far has been close before sliding off the rails. The Panthers have held a lead in the first half against each of their opponents so far. It’s hard to see them truly improving if they continue to lose some of their best players every week. Conversely, it is very easy to see this team actually hitting its stride against the teeth of their schedule if they can just start to get some of these guys back on the field.

What’s next

The 0-3 Minnesota Vikings are coming to Charlotte to prove that not all 0-3 teams are built the same. The Vikings have a top five passer and a top five receiver by yardage and have lost three games by a combined 13 points. Their largest margin of loss has been six points.

What the Panthers are setting out to prove remains to be seen. We don’t know who on the roster is actually playing yet. So much of this week will remain uncertain until the team starts releasing injury reports. Stay tuned for word on that in the coming days.