The Carolina Panthers have endured a tumultuous start to their 2013 season. Looking to avoid the same pitfalls that plagued the first two seasons of first-time head coach Ron Rivera’s tenure, the Panthers aimed to play consistent football for a full four quarters every game in order to change their trend of being unable to win close games.
So far, they have been unable to find any resemblance of consistency through the first six weeks of the NFL season.
After dropping the first two games of the season due to heartbreaking mistakes on both sides of the ball, the Panthers were able to pick up their first victory of the year with a 38-0 drubbing of the New York Giants, who appear to be one of the league’s worst teams so far.
Trying to build momentum off of the most lopsided victory in Panthers history and get to .500 for the first time since the 2008 playoffs and first time in Rivera’s tenure, Carolina visited the Cardinals. The goal was to put together a complete performance that would help it establish the winning streak Rivera has been unable to achieve in the early portions of the season during his time in charge of the Panthers.
Unfortunately, the Panthers' early-season woes continued, as the Cardinals put Cam Newton under duress all day. They sacked him seven times (once in the end zone for a key safety) and forced him into throwing three interceptions, one of which killed a drive that could’ve potentially given the Panthers the lead and changed the whole dynamic of the game.
Even with an extra week to prepare for the Arizona matchup, Rivera and his staff were still unable to put together a game plan to beat a team whose own coach had described its offense as “putrid,” per the team's official website.
This inability to put together a formidable plan to beat a team that is most likely not a playoff team, combined with positional group’s constant and maddening errors (i.e. WR Steve Smith’s drop in the end zone, Brandon LaFell’s fourth down red-zone drop, and the inability of the O-line to protect Newton) all adds up to a missed opportunity for Carolina. Simply put, these are the games the Panthers have to win if they are serious about contending for a playoff spot.
Fortunately, the Panthers made amends in Week 6 with a 35-10 victory over the seemingly helpless Minnesota Vikings. As the Vikings only had Matt Cassel to quarterback them in this matchup, the Panthers were able to put eight men in the box all day to limit star Vikings running back Adrian Peterson to only 62 rushing yards.
With Cassel at quarterback, the Vikings had no vertical element to their passing offense, as he averaged only 5.5 yards per completion, and the Panthers' monstrous front seven made him feel uncomfortable all day.
Headed into Week 7 against the Rams, Carolina will look to take advantage of another team whose defense is in the bottom 15 of points allowed per game. So far, the Panthers have scored double-digit points only against teams who rank in the bottom half of the league in points allowed per game (NY: 34.8, MIN: 31.6, BUF: 26.2).
Carolina’s high-powered rushing attack should be able to take advantage of St. Louis’s 30th-ranked rush defense (130.5 ypg) and 22nd-ranked scoring defense (25.7 ppg). If the Panthers have shown any positive signs so far this season, it’s been their ability to put points up against subpar defenses.
One of the Panthers' biggest concerns so far this season has been their ability to keep Cam Newton upright. Despite opening up holes consistently for the league’s seventh-ranked rushing offense, this unit has struggled to protect Newton, as it has allowed 16 sacks so far this season.
Already down a starter for the remainder of the season with the loss of right guard Garry Williams in the season opener, left guard Amini Silatolu was lost with a torn ACL for the year against the Cardinals. These injuries forced natural LG Chris Scott into Williams' spot at RG, and reserve lineman Travelle Wharton into the LG spot.
Scott has played reasonably well considering the low expectations, and Wharton is familiar with the system and his teammates given his eight-year history in Carolina prior to returning this offseason.
Despite the reasons for optimism, the Panthers O-line still remains a work in progress. This was evident in the Cardinals game, as it not only allowed seven sacks because of poor protection; it also allowed a momentum swinging safety.
These are the kind of mistakes the Panthers will have to cut out as they look to build a winning streak against a beatable St. Louis team. The offensive line will need to be top notch to protect Newton against a Rams defense that is tied for 15th in the league in sacks so far this year with 16.
Hopefully as the season progresses into its latter stages, the offensive line will identify and maintain the continuity needed to ensure the Panthers can keep their franchise quarterback upright. Undoubtedly, keeping Newton on his feet and giving him time to throw will help erase concerns about his inability to be a pocket passer.
Another key to defeating the Rams will be for Rivera and the Panthers to maintain the aggressive stance they established last week versus the Vikings, in which they went for and converted two 4th-and-1s on their opening drive (the second for a touchdown). In his first two seasons, Rivera displayed almost no ambition in going for fourth-down conversions, instead choosing to put his faith in a defense that clearly had no business being trusted (see Week 4 of last year vs. the Falcons).
When Rivera trusts his talented offensive personnel, the players tend to reward his faith, which leads to early momentum for his offense. This places the defense in a great position when the Panthers can get and maintain an early lead, as defensive coordinator Sean McDermott can unleash his talented front seven to go forth and put all kinds of pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
If a Panthers drive stalls early in Rams territory, look for Rivera to stay aggressive and place his faith in his team’s powerful run scheme. As Rivera said himself this week, “Field goals are obviously not good enough,” per NFL.com.
If the Panthers keep star quarterback Cam Newton upright in the pocket throughout Sunday’s game versus the Rams, the results should be great. It’s been proven that when Cam gets going, the Panthers can be nearly unstoppable. When he’s in a zone, the Panthers offense is one of the best in the league.
Combining his efficient passing with one of the league’s most dangerous running attacks will make any defensive coordinator have nightmares, so look for the Panthers to play aggressive early and often as they look to get to .500 for the first time in Rivera’s career against the Rams this Sunday.
Unless noted otherwise, all stats courtesy of NFL.com.