After two weeks of reunions, the only distraction that surrounds the Panthers heading into Week 3 is the noise from the outside about how bad this team is/can be.
Last Sunday's road loss to the New York Giants pushed the Panthers' losing streak to nine games, the longest active streak in the NFL. There's been a lot of losing football here in the Queen City over the last few years and despite the 0-2 start to the season, head coach Matt Rhule believes this group has the resiliency to fight back and overcome all of the adversity.
"Until we win, no one wants to hear me talk about that," Rhule said Wednesday when asked about the identity of the team. "We want to win. I'm going to leave it at that. We want to play great defense. We want to be balanced on offense. We don't want to beat ourselves. We want to go win a football game. At the end of the day, we know they're going to come down to the end. We want to play great defense and I think we're trending in that direction. We want to play great special teams and I think we're trending in that direction. And on offense, we just have to put some drives together and get into a rhythm."
With what was expected to be the "easiest" part of the schedule now in the rearview mirror, the pressure is on to win this week's divisional matchup against the New Orleans Saints. Falling to 0-3 with a brutal stretch on deck could spell trouble for the third-year head coach.
Can the Panthers put an end to their losing streak and win their first game inside Bank of America Stadium since Week 2 of last year which happened to be against these very Saints?
Let's dive into it.
Carolina's offense hasn't quite hit its stride through the first two weeks of the season, much of which can be attributed to their third down efficiency converting just 6-of-23 (26%) opportunities.
"Obviously, we need to convert at a higher rate to stay on the field," offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo said. "That's something we already spent some time working on this week. We're still in the middle of figuring out who we are on offense and third down is a big part of it. I need to do a better job of putting guys in position to make plays. It was a rough afternoon last week, but we'll learn from it and grow from it."
Putting guys in better positions also involves getting them on the field, i.e. Rashard Higgins, Laviska Shenault, and Terrace Marshall Jr. So far, only three receivers (DJ Moore, Robbie Anderson, and Shi Smith) have seen the field. Some of that could be blamed on averaging only 52 offensive snaps per game but regardless, the staff is going to place an emphasis on expanding that rotation.
"I think we have to start playing more guys at the receiver position," said Rhule. "We want those guys out there. They're good players for us. Terrace [Marshall] is coming on. Rashard [Higgins] is a guy we know can play. We just have to get those guys on the field a little bit more."
"We worked a lot of guys in this week," McAdoo said Thursday morning. "We need to do a better job during the course of the game of getting them in there and that starts with me. We certainly have a lot of trust in our players, not just the three we've been throwing out there for the most part. We're looking to get more attempts at the plate. Converting on third down, staying on the field a little bit. We have trust in our guys to go out there and make plays for us."
To combat a challenging New Orleans secondary, Baker Mayfield is going to have do a good job of getting the ball out quickly and perhaps, checking the ball down to Christian McCaffrey more often.
"They're really good," McAdoo said of the Saints' defense. "They're really fast on all three levels. Tremendous instincts. They have guys that have played together a bunch and their new players in the back end have played a lot of football and are very bright instinctually. They're well-coached. They're well coordinated."
Carolina's defense took a big step forward in Week 2 after getting gashed on the ground in the season opener against Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt for a combined 187 yards. They did a much better job fitting the run and remaining gap disciplined, which limited the Giants to just one yard rushing at the half.
Like Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara presents an abundance of issues in both the pass game and run game. In last year's matchup in Charlotte, Phil Snow's unit had a lot of success containing the dynamic back as he rushed for just five yards on eight carries.
As much attention as Kamara will draw, the bigger problem will be all of the weapons on the outside. Whether it be Michael Thomas, Jarvis Landry, or the rookie Chris Olave, the Panthers secondary, who may be without Donte Jackson, will have its hands full.
"Jameis is an excellent football player. He has a lot of options on offense right now," Rhule stated. "[Chris] Olave has come in and provided a real deep threat. Michael Thomas is one of the best receivers in the game. [Alvin] Kamara and [Mark] Ingram two excellent backs. They do an excellent job of utilizing Taysom Hill in the run game, so we have to have a plan for that. There's a lot of different things that we have to plan for. To me, it's really simple. It comes down to if we can take the ball away and if we can protect the ball."
Phil Snow talked at length about how teams have not challenged their defense downfield much in the first two games of the season but with the guys that New Orleans has, he fully expects the secondary to be tested.
"They have a couple of receivers that can really get vertical. They tried to beat Tampa vertical and they'll continue to do that. And the quarterback can throw that deep ball. As the year goes on, they're going to challenge us downfield."
How much the Saints choose to throw the ball downfield will depend on if Jameis Winston will be in uniform come Sunday. He's currently nursing four fractures in his back along with an ankle injury that popped up Wednesday.
If Winston is able to go, this is a prime opportunity for the Panthers' defense to start creating turnovers. Winston has been known for putting the ball in harm's way and for a defense that has yet to record a single takeaway, this could be just what the doctor ordered.
"Philosophically we've changed a couple of the coverages and gone to more zone eyes than man eyes. We've evolved in seeing the quarterback and the more you see the quarterback, the better chance you have to intercept it," said Snow. "I do think we need to punch the ball a little more. But the interceptions I think will come as the season unfolds. You just got to be patient and just keep harping on it until it happens. Once it happens, it gets contagious. Hopefully, that'll happen here soon."
Kickoff between the Panthers and Saints is set for 1 p.m. EST and will be televised on FOX.
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