Carolina Panthers: 3 Improvements the Must Make During the Bye Week
The Carolina Panthers entered the 2012 season with lofty goals and an optimistic fanbase. After five games, their preseason goals appear unreachable, and the fanbase has grown more pessimistic with each loss.
Cam Newton, who won the Rookie of the Year award last year, has looked lost in three of the team's losses and is in the midst of a sophomore slump.
Injuries have slowed Jonathan Stewart, Jon Beason and Chris Gamble at various points, and their absences have hurt the team.
Head coach on Rivera was supposed to lead the Panthers to relevance this season, but thus far the team hasn't even scratched the surface of mediocrity.
With four losses already, the Panthers find themselves four games behind the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC South. In the blink of an eye, the Panthers have lost any realistic chance of winning the division.
While Carolina faces an uphill battle if it hopes to contend for a playoff spot, it is possible if everything from this point on goes off without a hitch.
Finding a Way to Stop the Run
Grant Halverson/Getty Images
Through five games, the Carolina Panthers have allowed an average of 127.3 rushing yards per game, which is ranked 23rd in the NFL.
Coming into the season, one of the keys to the team's success was an improvement against the run. After roughly a third of the season, the run defense has been bad, and the team is 1-4. The lackluster run defense has been a key factor in the team's horrid start, as Ron Edwards hasn't made much of a difference in the middle.
There is some good news to report in regards to the defensive line: The Panthers likely will have Andre Neblett back following his four-game suspension.
Jon Beason missed the Panthers' game against the Seattle Seahawks, which forced the team to start Luke Kuechly at middle linebacker. The ninth pick in April's draft didn't disappoint, as he recorded 11 tackles and the first interception of his career.
As the Panthers enter their bye week in a state of desperation, the idea of keeping Kuechly at middle linebacker in hopes of improving the run defense is certain to circulate.
With Kuechly in the middle, the Panthers held Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch to just 85 yards on the ground, which has been his least-productive performance thus far this season. If the Carolina run defense can slow down opposing running backs as well as it did Lynch, then the rushing defense will no longer be a weakness.
The inability of Rivera's team to stop the run over his tenure suggests the opposite, though, but we will know what the run defense is made of shortly after the bye week.
There are other things that must be improved as well, but the rushing defense must continue to improve to make things easier on the secondary.
Getting the Passing Game Going
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Cam Newton captivated NFL audiences with his record-setting rookie campaign in 2011, but he hasn't found the same success through this season's first five games.
According to Pat Yasinskis of ESPN.com, Newton posted the Week 5's worst QBR in with a score of 15.1. For the season, Newton is 25th in the league with a score of 42.4.
If the Panthers are going to become somewhat relevant this season, Newton will have to be among the top quarterbacks in the league—not the worst.
So far this season, the offense has been erratic, and Newton hasn't been able to find a consistent rhythm. Also according to Yasinskis, head coach Ron Rivera recently said the following about Newton:
He wants to make things happen so much. . It's all part of him developing as a football player.
While it is great that Newton is developing as a football player, it would be a lot better if he was progressing and producing at the same time. It isn't like he wasn't learning last season while he was setting the world on fire.
When the Panthers are unable to run the ball consistently, Newton has struggled because he is still learning as a pocket passer. The subpar play of the offensive line hasn't helped, either, as Newton was forced to run for his life against the Bucs and Giants.
Steve Smith has yet to find the end zone, while Brandon LaFell has been wildly inconsistent. Outside of Smith and LaFell, tight end Greg Olsen is the only other skill player aiding in the very limited success that the passing game has been able to generate.
Improve the Rushing Attack to Take Pressure off Newton's Arm
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images
The Panthers' rushing offense was among the league's best in 2011; Carolina averaged 5.4 yards per carry and was a three-headed monster. With Cam Newton, DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart all contributing, the Panthers were able to compile an average of 150.5 rushing yards per contest.
It was assumed by most that the Panthers' rushing attack would be even more potent this year due to the signing of Mike Tolbert. Unfortunately for everyone involved, Tolbert hasn't added much thus far this season.
Through five games, Williams has averaged 3.6 yards per carry, and he failed to carry the load when Stewart was absent from the lineup in Weeks 1 and 3.
When Stewart has been able to play, he has averaged 4.3 yards per rush, which is a little better than what Williams has been able to do.
The backfield will only be as good as the offensive line allows it to be, but it is imperative that the backs hit the holes that the offensive line opens up moving forward.
While the Panthers are currently ranked 14th in the NFL in rushing yards, they need to get better as the season progresses. When opposing defenses are forced to deal with a potent Carolina rushing attack, it makes it a lot easier for Newton to find open receivers.