After losing a thrilling Super Bowl after the 2015 season, Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers stumbled out of the gate in 2016. Hitting their bye week at 1-5, they recovered somewhat afterwards, but still ended the season 6-10. The biggest tumble – statistically – came on the defensive end. The 2015 team had finished sixth in both points and yards allowed. They closed 2016 ranked #21 in yards and #26 in points allowed. Their top ranked scoring offense also fell to #15.
The NFL, it seems, is more than just a week-to-week league. It’s also a year-to-year league.
Shaking off the memory of last year as though it was a bad dream that never happened, the Carolina Panthers have re-emerged this season. They sit at 4-1 heading into tonight’s intriguing matchup with the also 4-1 Philadelphia Eagles. We’ve chatted about the Eagles a few times already this season. Perhaps we should take a few minutes to get to know the 2017 Carolina Panthers.
The personnel is pretty much the same that took the field for Super Bowl 50. It’s still Cam Newton at quarterback. He is coming back from off-season shoulder surgery, and has been particularly sharp his last two times out. Against the Patriots and Lions he completed 48 of 62 passes (77.4%) for 671 yards, 6 touchdowns and 1 interception. That should be enough to keep the Eagles concerned.
Behind him is running back Jonathan Stewart (who has been playing through his own little injury – a badish ankle). His top target in 2015 – tight end Greg Olsen – is still with Carolina, but not on the field these days – he is sidelined temporarily by a broken foot. In his absence, the offense has gotten more balanced, as Newton has spread the ball around more evenly.
Cam has four receivers who have between 237 and 272 passing yards. Of the four, only Devin Funchess figured prominently for the 2015 team (he caught 31 passes that year for 473 yards). He already has 24 this year for 269 yards. Leading the team in receiving yards so far this season is Kelvin Benjamin with 272 yards. He was injured for all of 2015. Behind him at 271 yards is venerable Ed Dickson, who began the year as Olsen’s backup. His numbers jumped precipitously after his career afternoon in Detroit.
Until Sunday, Dickson’s career best had been only 79 yards – and he hadn’t done that since 2011. He collected almost that many yards on one play Sunday. With 6:14 left in the first quarter, Carolina faced a second-and-14 from their own 32. Newton tossed the ball to Dickson between two defenders about seven yards beyond the line of scrimmage. The supposed dump off pass turned into a 64-yard dash as several would-be tacklers failed to get the rumbling Dickson to the ground until he had brought the ball to the Detroit 4 yard line.
This was the centerpiece in a dynamic first half for both Newton and Dickson. Although Carolina went into the locker room ahead just 17-10, Cam had lit up the Detroit defense to the tune of 15 for 17 for 237 yards. Ed had caught 4 of those passes for 152 yards. For a little context, in three full seasons in Carolina, Ed had never had more than 134 receiving yards in any of those seasons.
Both players had a bit more pedestrian second half. Newton was a solid 11 for 16 for 118 yards, with just one of those passes going to Dickson for 23 yards.
Fourth Quarter Detroit
Once again, the fourth quarter belonged to Detroit. Trailing 27-10 with just 8:58 left in the game, the Lions drove for 122 of the 133 total yards they would gain in the second half on their last two drives – both resulting in touchdowns.
Detroit had used two of its timeouts on defense during the Carolina possession in between the Lion touchdowns. Holding the one last timeout, and with 3:32 still on the clock, Detroit elected to kickoff and try to hold the Panthers again. It almost worked. With 2:30 left in the game, Carolina faced a third-and-9 on its 24. One more defensive play would give the ball back to Matthew Stafford with nearly two minutes left, needing just a field goal for a tie. But one final completion from Newton to Benjamin down the left sideline for 17 yards sealed the deal (gamebook).
The Lions now sit at 3-2. Both losses have been at home, but both have been razor-thin losses to two teams (Atlanta and Carolina) who are a combined 7-2 and look like they will be January heavyweights. Next for them is a very dangerous New Orleans team.
Both teams leave this contest with questions to answer.
Detroit has been excellent in almost all considerations, but a persistently non-existent running game threatens to derail their season. In week two, they racked up 138 rushing yards against the Giants (in a 24-10 win). In their other 4 games they have totaled 300 yards. In the second half of Sunday’s game, their running line was 4 attempts for 5 yards. That’s even more distressing when you realize that those rushes included one 12-yarder from Ameer Abdullah. Detroit’s other 3 running plays in that half netted a loss of 7 yards. This is an area that needs to be fixed if Detroit is ever going to compete with the big boys.
Carolina’s running game also ranks in the lower half of the league (they rank nineteenth, averaging 98.6 yards per game), but they haven’t typically struggled here. In fact, they took the field Sunday having racked up 465 rushing yards through their first 4 games – a fine 116.3 per game. They had gained 272 rushing yards in their previous two games.
But Detroit’s surprising run defense did an impressive number on them. Carolina struggled to end the game with 28 yards on 28 rushes. Even though Newton’s final three kneel-downs surrendered 6 yards, Carolina’s second half rushing totals of 13 yards on 17 carries is more than a little surprising. In fact the two teams combined for only 18 rushing yards in 21 attempts – uncommonly low, even in this passing era.
More concerning for Carolina is the pass defense. After a slow start, Stafford became the latest quarterback to enjoy a big afternoon at the Panther’s expense. Stafford was 14 of 19 (73.7%) after intermission for 158 yards and the 2 closing touchdown passes – a 133.2 rating. For the season, opposing QBs are completing 69.8% of their passes against the Panthers, tossing 7 touchdowns while Carolina has collected just 1 interception through its first 5 games. The QB rating against them so far this season is an elevated 98.1.
In their defense, the last three quarterbacks they have lined up against are all pretty good – Stafford follows Drew Brees and Tom Brady. But they need to come up with some answers. They face another real good one tonight in Carson Wentz.
The beginning of every new season brings with it a few September dandies. These are the teams that take the league by surprise. Usually, they are teams that have been bad recently – Jacksonville, for example. Sometimes, they are teams that have been pretty good, but are suddenly playing at an other-worldly level – like Kansas City. It’s usually about this time of the season that these teams start coming back to earth.
Two of these dandies got a little splash of reality last Sunday. Buffalo – off to a surprising 3-1 start – fell to Cincinnati. The surprising Rams of Los Angeles (who had also been 3-1) had scored 142 points through their first four games. But that gaudy offense came to a crashing halt Sunday at home to a still vulnerable Seattle team in a 16-10 loss (gamebook).
Saddled with an offensive line that has yet to come together, the Seahawks have exploited San Francisco and Indianapolis for 325 rushing yards in those two games, and only 221 yards combined rushing yards in the other three. Against Los Angeles’ leaky run defense (which had surrendered 531 yards over their previous 3 games), Seattle managed just 62 yards on 25 carries. Quarterback Russell Wilson has also been running for his life entirely too much.
On the defensive side of the ball, Sunday’s game was not dissimilar to most of the other games Seattle has played this year – significant yards given up, but few points. Seattle ranks just seventeenth in yardage allowed, but they are the fifth hardest team to put points on the board against so far this season. On Sunday, the Rams had several opportunities to spin the scoreboard in what ended up as a frustrating loss.
Los Angeles turned the ball over 5 times, including an uncommon lost opportunity on their first drive.
Beginning on their own 38, the Rams marched smartly to the Seahawk 12 in just 6 plays – facing no third downs on the drive. Then running back Todd Gurley broke around left end heading for the end zone, where safety Earl Thomas closed quickly on him. Gurley was in the act of stretching the ball toward the end zone (and, in fact, the play was originally ruled a touchdown), but before it could get there, Thomas batted it lose. On its way out of bounds, the loose ball struck the pylon and rolled through the end zone. Ruled a touchback, the Rams couldn’t even get a field goal chance out of their impressive opening drive.
And so it went. In addition to the turnovers, usually automatic kicker Greg Zuerlein shanked a 36-yard field goal to open the second half. And, in a final indignity, with 8 seconds left and the Rams facing a fourth-and-10 from the Seahawk 20, quarterback Jared Goff found rookie third-round draft choice Cooper Kupp breaking clean over the middle in the end zone. But Jared’s potential game-winning toss was agonizingly too high and wide and only grazed off of Kupp’s fingertips. The Rams finished the game outgaining Seattle 375-241, but only had 10 points to show for it.
In what was, perhaps, the first high-stakes game of his career (first-place in the division was on the line), Goff finished 22 of 47 (46.8%) including just 14 of 32 in the second half (43.8%). In many of those instances, Jared had receivers as open as you can expect to get against Seattle, but he couldn’t get the ball on target.
Whether this loss signals the beginning of the end for the Rams remains to be seen. Los Angeles will get its chance to respond Sunday when they line up against Jacksonville in an early-season “Dandy” bowl. When the schedule came out, not too many would have circled this Week Six game between Jacksonville (3-13 last season) and the Rams (4-12 last season) as a game of interest. But so it is.
As I mentioned earlier, the NFL is a year-to-year league.