The Carolina Panthers will have a short but important home stand before they head to their bye week.
Carolina can't rely on the same type of reception from the home crowd that they have received in the season’s first three home games. The Panthers are coming off of a 27-3 thumping at the hands of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a performance that has the city of Charlotte buzzing—and not in a good way.
The tremendous support the Panthers have received at home this year has come because they are winning. Panthers fans have long been known to be a somewhat ‘bandwagon’ group. Everybody loves the Panthers when they are on top, but those same ‘diehard’ fans are the first to rip into the team after a bad performance.
The harsh reality of the situation that the Panthers are in is very simple to explain: it's football. You aren’t going to win them all, no matter how much the New England Patriots would like you to believe otherwise.
There are going to be games during the season where your team lays eggs. Sunday was one of those games for the Panthers. The fact of the matter is that the team is still 4-2, relatively healthy, and tied for first place in their division. Even the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants ran into a brick wall this week, being handled by the struggling Cleveland Browns on Monday Night Football.
The Panthers need to stick to what has worked for them so far—running the ball. In their two losses, it has been evident that when the running game is going south, so too are the Panthers' chances of winning the game.
The Panthers need to open the playbook a little bit and find a way to earn production out of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. That will fix the problems in the passing game, seeing as how teams will have to stack more defenders in the box to try to prevent the run, leaving receivers open.
This is how the Panthers got to the place they are, and it’s the script they will have to read from if they want to see the final act of this production.
The Saints and Cardinals are two powerful offensive teams that will put defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac’s sometimes-spotty defensive tactics to use. The long ball has been the Saints' best friend so far this year, and the coverage for the Panthers has been average at best in key situations this season.
The linebackers will have their hands full containing the short passes to Reggie Bush, but as the Panthers know well, if you hit Bush hard a couple of times he will soften up. (No pun intended.)
The Cardinals, led by Kurt Warner under center, have also been putting up big offensive numbers, leading the NFC in points scored. However, their defense has struggled some this year, most notably against the New York Jets, to whom they surrendered 56 points , which included six touchdown passes by Brett Favre. They have allowed the most points of any division leader in the NFC outside of the 3-3 Green Bay Packers.
Special teams is another area in which the Panthers must improve if they want to pull the desired results out of these last two games before the bye.
Carolina had the wind taken out of their sails last Sunday in Tampa after the Bucs blocked a punt on their opening possession. They also had one blocked against the Chicago Bears that was returned for a touchdown. The punt coverage has to step up. Having punts blocked in the NFL should be a rarity, not a regular occurrence.
The Panthers also have to get a spark from someone returning kicks. Stewart had a lengthy return earlier in the season that was called back for an illegal block, providing the only excitement in the return game thus far. Mark Jones has been average at best, and it may be time to start experimenting with some other players back there returning kicks.
The rest of the NFC South has no easy ride for the next two weeks, either. The Buccaneers play at home against the Seattle Seahawks Monday night, then travel to play the (Romo-less?) Dallas Cowboys.
The road ahead is nothing to roll your eyes at, but it’s time the Panthers open theirs and seal up some leaks in their fundamentals. If the Panthers can take care of business before their bye, they will be sitting very pretty at 6-2 heading into the break.
However, if they cannot fight the demons from last Sunday, they could be staring at a .500 record and a path to another disappointing finish.
It is for this reason that they buckle the chin straps and play the games.