Blanket Coverage: What's wrong with the Panthers, and can it be fixed?

The Panthers don't look anything like the team that made the Super Bowl and nearly ran the table last season. What's changed?
Publish date:

Many were surprised to look at the standings after Week 4 and see the Panthers at the bottom of the NFC South standings at 1–3 after a 48–33 loss to the Falcons that wasn’t nearly that close.

After going over Carolina game film this season, it’s clear that we were the fools. We should have seen this coming. The Panthers certainly have their share of problems, but given time and the opportunity to get healthy, they are manageable. There is still time for the Panthers, and it would be a surprise if they’re not in the thick of the NFC playoff race, if not reasserting themselves at the top of the division, by the end of the season.

• Thursday Night Football will stream LIVE on—click here to watch Cardinals-49ers

A look at each of the Panthers’ problems and how they can get back on the right track:

General sloppiness: A year ago, when the Panthers went 15–1, they finished eighth in offense, second in defense, 23rd in special teams and fourth overall in Football Outsiders’ efficiency rankings. So far this season, the Panthers are 21st overall, 20th on offense, 15th on defense and 27th in special teams.

They have taken a step back in basically every area, some more than others. When you watch the Panthers, there seems to be some aspect of poor execution on every play. On one play, the tackles are allowing pressure; on another, the running back isn’t following the proper path; on another, Cam Newton is throwing a 100 mph pass high and incomplete on a shallow cross where two defenders fell down and the receiver could have scored a touchdown, turning a potential third-down conversion into a pun (that very specific situation came at 4:08 in the first quarter against the Falcons); on another, guard Trai Turner is overzealous in his blocking and fails to sustain; on another, Newton delivers the ball a beat too late. That’s just the offense.

After being so impressed with Carolina’s execution last season, some if not all of this newfound sloppiness has to be the product of a Super Bowl hangover. I visited the Panthers for a few days in June and in August, and I was not impressed, particularly with the offense, which was plodding and lacked intensity. That appears to have carried over into the season, and it’s up to the coaches to get it back on track. You’d think that a 1–3 start would help instill some urgency in the players.

Yes, the secondary is a problem: The storyline of the off-season, GM Dave Gettleman’s decision to release All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman and replace him with second-round pick James Bradberry, has certainly carried over into the season, but that’s not the only reason for the struggles in the back end. Before he was unceremoniously cut on Friday, Bené Benwikere had been a huge liability, especially against the Falcons and Julio Jones. He was freelancing way too much, perhaps in an effort to make more plays, and getting burned repeatedly. He needed to get his head out of the backfield and worry about solid positioning. Bradberry certainly is a work in progress and is playing overly cautious. At some point he’s going to gain confidence and be a better player.

Another major issue is that the safety play, and the secondary overall, doesn’t seem to be as cohesive without Roman Harper, who is now with Saints. He appeared to be the quarterback of the unit and had a calming effect on the secondary. Kurt Coleman is solid, but Tre Boston and Colin Jones have had issues against the pass. This could be a tough area to improve in the middle of the season. Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott may need to go more conservative in the back with two-deep safeties. The coverage calls early on against the Falcons were way too aggressive for where the players currently are.

But the problem is being compounded by the lack of a pass rush: In 2015, the Panthers’ defensive line was an awesome, swarming unit against both the run and the pass. The pass rush to this point hasn’t been abysmal, but it’s off last year’s pace and falls in line with the rest of the malaise. Last year the Panthers had 281.5 combined sacks, knockdowns and hurries for an average of 17.6 per game, according to STATS. This year they’re at 15 per game. Last year defensive tackle Kawann Short led the team with 57 combine presses (11 sacks, 19 knockdowns and 27 hurries). Through four games, he has a total of 5.5 (one sack, two knockdowns, 2.5 hurries). You have to wonder how much his stalemated contract extension talks are affecting him.

One of the reasons why the Panthers were O.K. going young in the secondary was their confidence that the pass rush would be as good or better this year. It hasn’t been, and the line has contributed in the Panthers’ defense falling from being No. 1 on yards allowed on first down (3.92) to 30th (6.86). That’s a big problem that has to be corrected.

The offensive line has taken a step back: The Panthers came in at No. 21 in Pro Football Focus’s offensive line rankings through four weeks after being ranked sixth in the preseason. Center Ryan Kalil is still one of the league’s best, but both guards—Pro Bowler Trai Turner and Andrew Norwell—have not been as sharp this season. There’s no reason why they can’t return to their normal level.

The same can’t be said for the tackles. The Panthers were below average with LT Michael Oher and RT Mike Remmers, but Carolina bottomed out against the Falcons when Remmers had to move to the left side and Daryl Williams played took his place after Oher sustained a concussion. If this goes on for an extended period of time, the Panthers could be in real trouble. They are extremely thin across the entire line.

Fantasy football Start 'Em, Sit 'Em: How to set your lineups for Week 5

Teams are catching up: Offensive coordinator Mike Shula’s blend of passing and running concepts, old-school principles mixed with new-school formations and alignments, were a marvel last season. It appears that the Panthers’ opponents—especially their NFC South rivals, if the Falcons are any indication—have figured out how to deal with some of the concepts they like to use. Atlanta was not falling for the reads, play-actions and misdirections the Panthers prefer, heading straight for Newton and/or the running back. Better execution would help a lot, but Shula may need to double down on his efforts to throw in some new wrinkles.

The schedule has been brutal, but there’s hope ahead: Despite all of the above, the Panthers were a field goal from knocking off the Broncos in Denver in the opener, had trouble against a Vikings defense that we now know is one of the league’s best and were beaten soundly on the road by an improved Falcons team in perhaps Carolina’s worst performance since 2014. The Panthers haven’t been that bad going up against what Football Outsiders ranked as the second-hardest schedule so far.

The Panthers will face the 17th-most difficult slate in the final 12 games. The Panthers have come out of the gate slow, but most of the problems are correctable, or at least manageable by a fully capable and experienced coaching staff. If they can beat the Buccaneers and Saints in the next two weeks, the Panthers will head into their bye 3–3 with a chance to get back on the right track. They’re far from finished.

How the NFL could benefit from adopting the CFL's expanded replay rules

Defensive pass interference, continued

My column last week on DPI being out of control this season generated a lot of interest and a lot of emails.

Here are the results of the polls that I conducted on Twitter and on my Facebook pageabout what should be done about it, with over 1,100 votes:

47% want to eliminate the spot foul.

34% want to allow replay challenges.

11% want the rule enforced as written, with “significant” contact on a “catchable” ball.

9% want to leave it be because there’s no great solution.

On to a sampling of your emails…

By far the most popular suggestion was to make PI a two-tiered penalty. Here’s an example of that proposal.

“My idea on pass interference is to treat it in a manner similar to kicker penalties. It's 5 yards for running into the kicker, and 15 for roughing.

The current rule is too severe, especially in iffy situations. I'd like to see two forms of PI penalties. A standard PI would be 15 yards (or spot of foul if less than 15 yards), as it is in college football. An overt or blatant PI would remain a spot of the foul penalty.

Obviously, this leaves some room for interpretation by the officials, but that can be said for many other types of penalties. In my example, at least there's a better chance of having the punishment fit the violation." — Rich T., Fountain Valley, CA

NFL Week 5 Power Rankings: Defensive dominance separates the league's elite

The second-most popular suggestion was to bring the NFL in line with the college penalty (15 yards), which seems to work just fine at that level.

“It is about time that someone addressed this issue. Yes, it is out of control. I am sick of watching PI calls being called on underthrown passes to receivers. A 15-yard penalty works fine in college, so why not the pros? A 66-yard penalty is totally ridiculous. It is pretty sad that college football is officiated better than the pros.” — Stewart

“As a 51 year old life long football fan, it is about time this was finally brought to the forefront. Hopefully an influential member of the rules committee is a reader of and your stories. College football has it right; make the penalty a maximum of 15 yards. The NFL's concern of a DB "tackling" a receiver after having been beat is not an issue in college.”— Mark P., Cleveland

A few more reader suggestions…

“My proposal is to bring a little more balance by increasing the penalty for offensive pass interference. Now it is a 10-yard penalty and repeat of down. It should be a 10-yard penalty and loss of down. Especially when one considers that in at least a portion of the offensive pass interference calls, it is an incomplete pass, or the interference prevented an interception. If the pass is incomplete anyway, in many instances defense may prefer a loss of down to a ten-yard penalty and repeat of down. If defensive pass interference is an automatic first down, offensive should be automatic loss of down. Not sure if this cuts down on defensive pass interference, but would bring more balance between offensive and defensive penalty.” — Joshua A.

“Each game has one official ... that is either in a room at the stadium with TVs or in the league office in NYC that is in the ear of the head official. When a flag is thrown for DPI or really any penalty and this person sees what everyone else sees on TV (uncatchable, receiver tripped, was not a facemask, etc.) he quickly buzzes into the head officials ear to tell him no flag. This person cannot tell an official to call a penalty that was missed but it at least gives the officials on the field a break when something happens in a split second. It doesn’t take up any time like a challenge, it is quick and easy. It also keeps it out of the hands of the team because it is another official paid by the league.” — Will L.

Surprise awards: NFL's most unexpected storylines through the first quarter

“NFL refs are conditioned now to call virtually all contact and have forgotten the intent of the written rule in the same way that MLB umps forgot how to call a limited strike zone. The strike zone box now employed on all baseball broadcasts exposes pitches way off the plate and has improved umpiring noticeably; the NFL could do the same: instruct commentators to explain how the rule should be called, and allow in-booth experts to critique penalties that don't meet the standard. Maybe refs would be shamed into prudence. Of course the NFL hates admitting fallibility of any kind—and fans enjoy anything that stimulates offense.” — MP, San Diego

“My proposed rule change would be that there's no DPI on underthrown footballs. So many times you see a receiver beat the defender, the defender is in catch up mode running full speed, QB under throws the ball by 5-10 yards, and because the WR stops dead he gets hit by the defender who can't stop himself quick enough. I think of this similar to uncatchable. Yes you were hit, but you shouldn't be rewarded for your QB making a terrible throw. Aaron Rodgers does this on purpose sometimes (looks that way at least) without even trying to hit the receiver.” — Kevin F.

“Eliminate the unwritten rule that it's always pass interference when the DB doesn't turn around and look for the ball. Why should that matter? Let the DB read the body language of the receiver, if that works for him. Call PI if he significantly impedes the receiver, and don't if he doesn't—whether or not the DB looks back for the ball.” — Don B.

Blanket Report

Go crazy, folks

OBJ needs to grow up: Odell Beckham Jr., the uber-talented Giants receiver, has had trouble controlling his emotions the past two weeks, and it hasn’t helped the Giants in consecutive losses. I love that Beckham wants the ball, cares and is intense, but when you’re hurting your team because of your emotions, it’s time to stop blaming others and realize that you have the ultimate control in the situation. Beckham is going to be 24 in a month; youth is no longer an excuse. He needs to realize that he’s a target for opponents and officials, and he needs to find a way to deal with it or else the Giants need to bench him, because Beckham is hurting the team.

O.K., now I feel bad for Chargers fans: Not only are they faced with the possibility of losing their team to relocation and have watched the team blow three fourth-quarter leads this season, but they’ve just watched yet another starter go down to injury, and we’re only entering Week 5. The latest list: CB Jason Verrett (knee), RB Danny Woodhead (knee), WR Keenan Allen (knee), RB Branden Oliver (Achilles), LB Manti Te’o (Achilles) and WR Stevie Johnson (knee). That’s just brutal.

The dramatic highs and lows on the sidelines of Monday Night Football

Slow your roll

Don’t shoot the messenger: I didn’t like Josh Norman being penalized for the bow-and-arrow thing either (I mean, does anybody think shooting a bow is violent? Maybe he’s just a big cupid fan?) but the fact of the matter is the league office put teams on alert in the off-season that violent gestures, including shooting an arrow, would be penalized. And then when it went uncalled early in the season, both teams and officials were warned again that it would be called, according to a league source. If you’re warned twice, you can’t complain when it’s called, even if it’s a dumb rule in practice. I would be surprised to see Norman win the appeal of his $10,000 fine.

Fitzpatrick deserves more time: Sure, Jets QB Ryan Fitzpatrick has struggled to this point with 10 interceptions (nine in the past two losses to the Chiefs and Seahawks) and a 57.6 rating, but the reality is that the Jets at 1–3 are about where they would have been even if Fitzpatrick had played decently. With the Bengals, Bills, Chiefs and Seahawks on the schedule (not to mention road games against Pittsburgh and Arizona on deck), everyone knew the Jets were in for a rough start. Now is not the time for Geno Smith, as some have called for. Fitzpatrick deserves to be evaluated over the next two games, and then a decision can be made.

Joe Buck reveals that hair plug addiction nearly cost him his career

10 Thoughts On Week 5

1. The Texans have to feel good that they’re 3–1, but the reality is they’re far from clicking on offense. Offensive line woes have a lot do to with it (those may get fixed if left tackle Duane Brown ever returns), but the Texans will be held back unless Brock Osweiler starts to throw more accurately on a consistent basis. His 61.6% completion rate is 23rd in the league, right in line with his 61.8% effort last season in Denver. Much of it has to do with inconsistency with his feet and arm slot. That can’t be addressed until the off-season, but will it ever be fixed?

2. I discussed Osweiler’s inconsistency with the Texans during training camp and they pointed to Philip Rivers as someone who is unconventional, doesn’t have the greatest mechanics and has been a very good player. There may be something to that: Rivers completed 61.7% and 60.2% of his passes in his first two seasons as a starter in 2006 and ’07. But after that he jumped to over 65% for rest of his career. Can Osweiler make that jump? It’s possible. But if there’s any team that will exploit a QB’s accuracy issue, it’s the Vikings this week in Minneapolis.

3. Bills LB Zach Brown was every bit as good as his statistics (18 tackles, two forced fumbles, one sack) against the Patriots. Brown was all over the field in coverage and against the run. He’s been a lifesaver for the Bills’ defense and is a natural for Rex Ryan’s scheme.

4. The Patriots’ defense, which finished last season ranked 10th in points allowed and ninth in yards, is fourth in points and 19th in yards this season. According to STATS, New England ranks 25th in average length of scoring drive allowed (8.91), 32nd in red zone third-downs (100%) and 30th in overall third downs (46.2). While sloppy technique from cornerbacks Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan has contributed to the unit’s issues, the pass rush doesn’t seem to be as effective. DE Jabaal Sheard has battled an injury and Rob Ninkovich is set to return from suspension. The Patriots could use a little help in the interior rushing department.

5. Speaking of lacking pass rush, the Colts could be in for another long day against a Bears line that is coming together. Indianapolis better hope that Erik Walden generates something against right tackle Bobby Massie, the Bears’ weak link.

6. Spencer Long, a 2014 third-round pick for the Redskins, did a nice job in his first start at center against the Browns but will see a step up in competition against the Ravens this Sunday. Brandon Williams and Timmy Jernigan are very active up front for Baltimore.

7. Everyone knows the NFL’s leader in sacks, Von Miller of the Broncos (5.5). Anyone know who’s No. 2? That would be Kerry Hyder of the Lions, with five. Who? Hyder, 25, was an undrafted end out of Texas Tech in 2014. Originally signed by the Jets, he spent time on the practice squad for New York and Detroit in the previous two seasons. With Ziggy Ansah battling an ankle injury, Hyder has become a starter this year.

8. It doesn’t get much better than this: How often do you get the league’s leading receiver (Atlanta’s Julio Jones) going up against one of the league leaders in interceptions (Broncos’ Aqib Talib)? I'd have to imagine that given the similar builds of each player, Talib will shadow Jones all over the field on Sunday. This should be a treat.

9. Speaking of premier matchups, all eyes will be on Bengals DT Geno Atkins against Cowboys RG Zack Martin. Both are elite at their position and will go at each other all game.

10. This week in Football Outsiders brilliance: The four hardest remaining schedules belong to, in order, the Redskins, Eagles, Dallas and Giants. The four easiest: Jets, Steelers, Panthers and 49ers.