The Carolina Panthers have come a long way since trailing 17-0 in the fourth quarter at Lincoln Financial Field against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 6. Since then, the Panthers have outscored their opponents 99-49 in three consecutive winning efforts. Ron Rivera and company have struck a complete 180 in regards to aggressiveness, creativity, and player utilization on the offensive side of the ball. After stumbling quite a bit to open the season, this Carolina team has seemed to take on a whole new identity and really hit its stride. They’ll continue to fly under the radar as the New Orleans Saints pile on the points along their seven game winning streak, which is how the Panthers seem to like it.
The NFC Playoff picture is beginning to clear up as the Panthers, Saints, and Los Angeles Rams continue to separate themselves from the pack. The next five games will be crucial for Carolina, as they finish with one of the toughest three game stretches in the league.
Saints, Falcons, Saints, will be the farthest thing from a walk in the park to close out the year. This stretch could make or break playoff hopes and overall seeding in the NFC. The Panthers must pile on the wins while they can and create some cushioning for themselves heading into a gauntlet of a finish.
Norv Turner’s offensive renaissance has played a huge part in the team’s recent success. Panthers fans are finally witnessing the revered speed and playmaking ability of this offense being utilized to its potential and, boy, is it refreshing. If this group is able to continue scoring points with the best teams in the league, they’ll have an opportunity to make a deep run come January.
Norv Turner’s Player Utilization Has Supercharged the Carolina Panthers Offense
The days of Mike Shula are well behind us now. The constant mis-utilization of players and inability to scheme them open plagued Cam Newton and the Panthers for years. Now the problem on offense isn’t the worst one to have: too many mouths to feed. The Panthers made it a point over the last two off-seasons to add speed and playmaking ability to this offense, and we are finally starting to see the investment pay dividends in a major way. Turner’s offense seems to get better by the week, with new wrinkles on every possession. With all of these playmakers on the field at once, it’s impossible for a defense to know just where the ball may end up on any given play.
Not only is Norv utilizing his players to their highest potential, but he’s also been able to mask inefficiencies. Helping Newton to get the ball out quickly has done wonders for the productivity of the offensive line, especially as Cam nurses a sore shoulder. An injury that’s troubled his deep ball ever since off-season surgery in 2017. Seeing an offensive coordinator who understands getting the ball in space to his playmakers and keeping his quarterback clean has been refreshing. This team is finally matching the potential its personnel has promised over the years. A ton of the credit to Cam Newton having his best season as a pro (more on this later) goes to Norv. Hopefully, Turner realizes he’s best off as a coordinator and doesn’t go chasing any head coaching vacancies this offseason.
Hot scale: Atomic fireballs soaked in Tabasco.
It’s been a strange year in the NFL for defense. It seems that no one really has a dominant defense anymore, and this could be a direct result of rule changes combined with the advancement of the passing game across the league. The NFL is looking more and more like the Big 12, making it more difficult to find the bright spots in a defense from week to week. This secondary has gone from a disaster to a strength quickly in Carolina
Let’s start with the cornerbacks. James Bradberry played the best game of his career on Sunday, absolutely shutting down an elite wide receiver in Mike Evans. Bradberry is really coming into his own this year and looks like a really solid option to balance out what the Panthers now have on the opposite side of the hashes.
Mike Evans vs. James Bradberry: 1 catch on 10 targets for 16 yards
DeSean Jackson vs. Donte Jackson: 2 catches for 32 yards and one picked pass
— Max Henson (@PanthersMax) November 4, 2018
Rookie Donte Jackson has been unbelievable for the Panthers this season. After bringing down a game-clinching interception on Sunday, Jackson moved into a tie for a league-best four interceptions on the season. He’s a rookie. Not only does Jackson bring crazy speed and coverage ability to a defense that really needs it, but is also extremely underrated in the run game.
Jackson does a fantastic job of holding the edge and forcing the running back right into the meat of the defense where Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis await licking their chops. The kid has made a huge impact on this defense and looks to have pulled out ahead in the race for Defensive Rookie of the Year. The Panthers may have finally found their Josh Norman replacement.
The safeties have done an incredible job for the most part this season, positioning themselves extremely well for turnovers. Eric Reid came down with his first interception this week, earning him game ball honors from Ron Rivera. Reid seems to be getting better by the week and has been deadly on the occasional safety blitz. He could be the piece this team needed to become a legitimate threat in the NFC. With Mike Adams playing well at age 37, this defense has solid pieces across the board and should get better as the season goes on.
The Panthers are tied for fourth in the NFL this year with 11 interceptions, already surpassing their 2017 total of 10. Nine of the 11 interceptions this year have been made by players in the secondary. There has been tremendous improvement in this unit from last year, and it only looks to get better.
Hot scale: That first bite of a freshly microwaved Hot Pocket that renders your taste buds useless for the remainder of the week.
Greg Olsen/Curtis Samuel
The simultaneous returns of both Greg Olsen and Curtis Samuel excited Panthers fans for the prospects of the offense, but I don’t think anyone expected this outcome. Over the last three weeks, Olsen and Samuel have combined for a total of 248 yards and six touchdowns. There were question marks as to how Olsen would play returning from his second broken foot in as many seasons, but he has answered the bell and looks better every week doing it.
Greg Olsen with an OUTSTANDING TD grab!
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) November 4, 2018
Samuel also had question marks in his return. With all the hype surrounding him and nothing to show for it, fans were ready to throw in the towel on Samuel. Samuel has bounced back with a vengeance and looks like a legitimate weapon, scoring four touchdowns on just 11 touches this season. Samuel is scoring on 37 percent of his touches in 2018. Get this man the ball. He’s electric.
Oh my goodness @CurtisSamuel4__ 😳
— NFL (@NFL) November 4, 2018
Hot scale: Thor’s Lightning Strike.
Bonus: Weekly Cam Newton Shoutout
Cam Newton has been phenomenal this season, and there is really no other way to put it. Newton is putting together his best season efficiency-wise and it’s really not all that close. Through eight games, Newton has career highs in completion percentage (67.3 percent), touchdown to interception ratio (15:4), and passer rating (100.8).
Let’s compare Cam Newton’s MVP season to the projections based on the first half of this season.
Completion Percentage: 59.8 percent
Passer Rating: 99.4
Passing Yards: 3,837
Passing Touchdowns: 35
Rushing Yards: 636
Rushing Touchdowns: 10
2018 (16-game projection):
Completion Percentage: 67.3 percent
Passer Rating: 100.8
Passing Yards: 3,786
Passing Touchdowns: 30
Rushing Yards: 684
Rushing Touchdowns: 8
CaMVP is back with a vengeance. The sky’s the limit for a team that gets quarterback play like this.
Hot scale: Wax drip.
It’s tough to nitpick here after a great three-game stretch, but this defense isn’t what we are accustomed to seeing in Carolina. It feels like week-by-week Eric Washington is out-coached and the defense is forced to rely on sheer talent alone.
I don’t like to use fantasy football numbers when it comes to real-life projections, but these numbers are telling. In standard scoring leagues, the Panthers have given up an average of 19.2 points per game to tight ends this season, good for worst in the league by a wide margin. The league average stands at 12.2.
This can probably go hand-in-hand with the Panthers atrocious red zone defense this season. The Panthers rank second to last in the NFL (only to Tampa) in opponent red zone scoring percentage, where they give up a touchdown on 80 percent of opposing drives that reach their 20-yard line. That’s really, really bad. Hopefully in the coming weeks we see some positive regression, but Pittsburgh won’t be a great place to start. If this team wants to put itself in the clear-cut contender conversation, it’ll need to establish an identity on defense, and fast.