After a tumultuous run through most of the 2016 campaign, the Carolina Panthers have won two straight games. While eliminated from playoff contention, there are signs of life heading into next season. Last night, the Panthers beat the Redskins 26-15 on the road as a seven point underdog. This without Luke Kuechly, who sat out his fourth straight week even after clearing the concussion protocol.
Carolina Panthers Showing Signs of Life Late in the Season
Defense Taking a Step Forward
Even without Kuechly, the defense has started to resemble the defense that we saw for a large part of the 2015 Super Bowl run. The past two weeks, the defense has given up 16 and 15 points to the Chargers and Redskins respectively. Entering the Monday night game the Redskins were the fourth ranked total offense by DVOA. They were top five in both passing and rushing offense.
The Carolina defense held Kirk Cousins to his third worst QBR of the season (49.6) and only his second game of the season without a touchdown pass. In the week 14 matchup against San Diego, the defense held Philip Rivers to his season low QBR (23.1) and forced three interceptions. Rookie second round corner James Bradberry has seemingly been improving every week. According to Pro Football Focus, he’s been the best rookie corner on the season, and ranks directly above the much better known names of Josh Norman and Trumaine Johnson. Similar improvements by fellow rookie corner Daryl Worley in the offseason could reshape this secondary very quickly.
First round rookie defensive tackle Vernon Butler was another surprising contributor in the Monday night win. Butler had undoubtably his best performance of the year in the game. While not showing up much in the box score, he was credited with three quarterback hurries and batted down a pass. Playing under 20 percent of snaps so far this season, Butler will likely be asked to contribute much more in 2017, especially with Star Lotulelei playing as poorly as he has the past two years.
Can the Offense Turn Things Around?
It’s not a stretch to say Cam Newton and the Panthers offense has struggled this season. The offense that led the league in scoring at 31.3 last season is down to 24.1. The offense is currently ranked 23rd by DVOA. Last night, Newton had his best performance since week two, totaling over 300 yards passing and a passer rating over 100 for only the second time all season. He simply looked like the MVP-level Cam Newton – making accurate throws from the pocket and having fun playing football. Jonathan Stewart also had his best performance of 2016 last night. He totaled 132 yards on the ground on 25 carries. This was only his second game of 2016 averaging more than five yards per carry.
Some fans certainly aren’t thrilled about the recent turnaround. Sure winning two games in a row is great, if your team is in contention. Two weeks ago the Panthers had the projected seventh overall pick. Today they sit at 6-8 and have the projected 11th pick. However, even if they manage to win out, (the record of their next two opponents combined is 17-11) Carolina will still pick in the 14-17 range. Who did the Panthers select the last five times they had a top 15 pick in the draft? Star Lotulelei, Luke Kuechly, Cam Newton, Jonathan Stewart, and Thomas Davis. Fans shouldn’t be too concerned about draft position at this time.
There is obviously a lot of contributing factors, but if the Panthers can perform more like the team in Washington last night than the team in the first three quarters of the season, they’ll be positioning themselves to be in a good place entering 2017. The sample size is certainly small. Most of these noticeable improvements coming in two games against middle of the road teams. However, signs are pointing up for the Panthers. Two remaining games against division foes and playoff contenders with Atlanta and Tampa Bay could set Carolina back on an upward trajectory.