Carolina Panthers: 5 Keys to Win vs. Washington Redskins
That gust of wind you felt if you were driving on I-77 through Charlotte, North Carolina around 4:15 Sunday afternoon was a collective sigh of relief emanating from Carolina Panthers fans streaming out of Bank of America Stadium, giddy from their team’s 33-20 victory over the visiting Washington Redskins.
The Carolina Panthers finally put all the pieces together and earned their second win of the season in impressive fashion to improve to 2-5.
Carolina won the turnover battle, they played great on special teams, and Cam Newton had his most efficient and impressive performance yet. Not to mention the Panthers defense which protected a lead almost the entire game for the first time all season.
The following slides will examine five key factors that contributed to the Panthers win over the Redskins on Sunday.
Scoring in the Red Zone
Entering Sunday’s game against the Redskins, the Carolina Panthers were among the league’s best at moving the ball between the twenties, but they were among the worst at converting Red Zone opportunities.
That trend changed Sunday as the Panthers scored three touchdowns from inside the scoring area, all of which came in the second half.
Carolina visited the Red Zone twice in the first half but had to settle for Olindo Mare field goals each time after marching down the field on drives starting at their own twenty-yard line.
The Panthers were much more efficient in the second half and took advantage of every scoring opportunity as Cam Newton picked apart the Redskins defense on three consecutive touchdown scoring drives.
Newton, who carried the ball ten times for 59 yards, was effective with his legs once again, running in for the score from 16-yards out on the opening drive of the third quarter.
Later in the third, Jonathan Stewart ran off right tackle and followed mammoth pulling left guard Travelle Wharton’s lead block into the end zone for a three-yard touchdown run that I could have scored on.
Finally, Cam Newton capped an impressive fourth quarter Panthers drive with a three-yard touchdown pass to Brandon LaFell. The pass that got Carolina into scoring range, a 36-yard, over the shoulder toss to Steve Smith down to the 1-yard line, was a thing of beauty and one of several gorgeous deep throws by Cam Newton on the day.
Winning the Turnover Battle
Everyone knows that winning the turnover battle is paramount to winning games in the NFL.
For the first time this season, the Panthers won the turnover battle by a sizeable 3-0 margin as cornerback Captain Munnerlyn and recently acquired defensive end Antwan Applewhite each caused a Redskins fumble while cornerback Chris Gamble intercepted a John Beck pass.
Applewhite was a relative unknown among Panthers fans entering the game, but he may start selling some jerseys if he continues to be the disruptive force that he was on Sunday.
On the offensive side, Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart coughed the ball up once near the goalline but Panthers' tight end Ben Hartsock somehow recovered the ball amidst a swarm of Washington defenders.
Most importantly, Cam Newton protected the ball well all afternoon and had just his second game without throwing an interception. Not coincidentally, that came in the Panthers' only other victory of the season against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
If Carolina can continue to win the turnover battle in its next few games, they may very well continue to improve their record and gain momentum towards .500 after starting the season 1-5.
Cam Newton's Accuracy
Cam Newton had his most efficient passing game of the season, completing 18/23 for 256 yards and a touchdown without turning the ball over.
Newton and Steve Smith continue to build a special rapport and they hooked up seven times for 143 yards, including a beautiful 33-yard completion down the left sideline to start the Panthers’ second touchdown drive and a 36-yarder to the 1-yard line to set up the Panthers final touchdown of the day.
It was not Newton's biggest day in terms of yardage, but he completed several deep throws, including three passes over 30 yards, and his 78.3% completion rate was easily his best of the season.
Newton also averaged an off-the-charts 11.13 yards-per-completion while attempting fewer than 31 passes for the first time all season as the Panthers carried the ball 37 times for 175 yards.
Though the Panthers will not be able to run the ball 60% of the time in most games, their more balanced offensive attack against the Redskins is a good look for Carolina, especially as it keeps Newton involved in the run game and keeps defenders guessing as to whether he's going to run or throw.
This is a special and welcome surprise as the Panthers have been burned on special teams several times this season, most notably in the punt game where their poor coverage and return teams have given up three touchdowns and failed to provide the offensive with good field position all season.
The Panthers failed to get anything out of the return game once again, though they did cause Washington to lose four yards on its only attempted punt return thanks to a brilliant tackle by the Panthers often-picked on cornerback, Captain Munnerlyn.
Carolina's biggest advantage came in the kicking game as Olindo Mare connected on four field goals (20, 45, 45, 40) and consistently kicked the ball into the end zone, effectively nullifying the Redskins’ kickoff returners who managed only 25 yards on two returns.
In one frustrating stretch (see: Penalties), the Panthers were called for a holding penalty and a false start on consecutive Mare field goal attempts, each of which he nailed, causing him to attempt a nullified 30- and 40-yarder before successfully connecting on a penalty-free 45-yard kick.
Mare may have made a few converts today out of Carolina fans who are rooting for a Panthers kicker not named John Kasay for the first time in the team’s 17 year existence.
First off, Ron Rivera made it through an entire game without making any serious coaching gaffes and he displayed greater restraint in time-management decisions than he has in several previous games. Then again, this game was not close at the end, so he had fewer opportunities to make a mistake. Over all, Rivera coached the best game of his rookie season to date.
Rivera and his staff put together an effective offensive game plan that included a more run-oriented offensive attack than the pass-happy Panthers have used all season.
Special kudos also go out to the Panthers offensive coordinator, Rob Chudzinski, who made the necessary halftime adjustments and called the plays that got Carolina into the end zone three times in the second half, en route to their highest scoring half of the season with 24-points.
Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott also deserves mention for helping his unit hold the Redskins to just 20 points on the day despite working with a patchwork lineup that has been decimated by injury and has started eight different linebackers already this season.
Room for Improvement and Room to Build
The Carolina Panthers played well in all facets of the game--offense, defense, special teams--to earn their biggest win of the season, so far, against the Washington Redskins.
Carolina's second victory of the year matches the total number of wins the franchise had in all of 2010; however, the Panthers still have room for improvement.
The Panthers defense continues to give up too many yards on the ground, and the Redskins were well on their way to a big day running the ball until running back Tim Hightower injured his knee and had to be carted into the locker room after gaining 88 yards on 17 carries.
The team also continues to commit way too many unnecessary penalties. The Panthers beat the Redskins despite committing 13 penalties for 105 yards, but they are not going to win many games giving away more than the length of a football field in fouls.
It was an important win for the Panthers, who entered the contest on a three-game skid.
After the game, Ron Rivera told Panthers.com TV that the win feels wonderful and that the Panthers are “developing as a football team and to win a game like this against [the Redskins] gives [the Panthers] an opportunity to build on something.”
“This was a big win,” said Rivera.
“We needed a win like this.”
Panthers fan are hopeful there will be many more to come.