The Panthers have lost three straight and the needle is pointing down after such a promising start. How do they get that needle back up?
The Good: Among all of the low moments over the last three weeks (and there have been many), let's remember that Carolina is still a .500 team. They also get an MVP-caliber player in cornerback Stephon Gilmore suiting up in a Panthers uniform this week for what is hopefully the first of many games in black and blue. Gilmore's presence will likely give Carolina a stronger, tougher defense to crack. Perhaps we'll see more of the blitzing nature that Phil Snow unleashed in weeks 1-3 when coverage was strong enough to win in man coverage? Gilmore's experience and leadership are a welcomed addition to a team that needs to win more battles before winning the war. Gilmore's presence will allow the defense to get creative. Being an immovable wall on defense will set the stage for the offense to carve out an identity of controlling the clock. Carolina led the time of possession battle in every game in the first three weeks and was among the top two in the league in plays allowed and time of possession. The stage is set for a return to defensive glory. Win on defense, control the clock, control the game. This should be the new identity beginning Week 7 at New York. If Carolina can learn to win and win well without Christian McCaffrey, getting him back will prove to be an extra boost that could ultimately lead this team to a point where they are winning games handily regardless of the opponent.
The Bad: While it's important to not dwell on what happened in the past, it's also good to know what areas to work on in order to improve. What needs to improve? Carolina can't drop back to pass 41 times and expect to dominate the game. Not with this offensive line. Sam Darnold was continuously pressured and it led to inaccurate throws, rushed throws, quarterback hits, and of course, sacks. Receivers had too many drops (8), which either ended a drive or made it easier for the Vikings' defense to pin their ears back and execute on what they knew was coming - another pass. The team needs to find a balance between running and passing. Find a rhythm that keeps defenses guessing. Use play action when the ground game is functioning how it should. The offensive line is less of a concern when the team is running the ball effectively. Joe Brady's shallow cross offense can still be effective and more productive when the defense doesn't know if the play is a run or a pass. Sam Darnold can be a decent quarterback when he has time to run a play. Mixing up the run vs the pass is the key.
The Ugly: Sacks, pressures, hurries, and hits were not present in this game. The defense often looked like the 2020 version. The addition of Stephon Gilmore will set up more creativity on defense, where hopefully, the relentless pressure returns. We know it's possible because we've seen it. Haasan Reddick is playing great ball right now, but more is needed collectively from others. Storm the quarterback and make him force throws. Defensive plays happen as a result of uncertain passes and errant tendencies. Carolina must get back to that style of defense. Losing Jaycee Horn also meant foregoing tight, man coverage. That should change with Gilmore on the field.
The future is bright for this team. The offense and defense are heading in the right direction despite some shortcomings early in the season. Scott Fitterer has paved the road for future success. We've seen a glimpse of what that future holds and it is exciting. Once the pieces are in place, this team will exceed expectations, and winning will become the norm. The last three games are not indicative of what this team is. Success is built with teamwork, confidence, and execution. The fans have high expectations for what they want. This team can deliver but winning is a progressive process that has its ups and downs before the correct formula is set into motion. That formula for success is not far away.