Analysis: Are the Panthers’ problems fixable? A look at what’s gone wrong recently

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Perhaps Jay-Z said it best.

“It was all good just a week ago.”

That was before the Carolina Panthers lost to the Philadelphia Eagles 21-18 on Oct. 10. Since then, the optimism behind Sam Darnold’s surprising start this season has begun to wane among Panthers’ Twitter followers.

The loss to the Cowboys, who are widely viewed as a playoff-caliber team, on Oct. 3 was one thing.

But the Eagles, who were 1-3 at the time? Well, the Panthers should have won that one.

After Week 3, the Panthers were one of only five undefeated teams in the NFL, and they led the league in most defensive categories. They looked like a team capable of making a splash in the playoffs.

Now, all of that is in doubt, as the Panthers (3-2) head into their Week 6 matchup with the Vikings (2-3) on a two-game skid.

What caused this slide is not hard to recognize.

The competition has gotten better. Their offensive line has been below average, and Darnold is starting to struggle. He has thrown five interceptions in the past two games.

But one of the biggest factors has been Christian McCaffrey’s injury.

McCaffrey’s injury

This season, the Panthers are 3-0 with McCaffrey in the lineup and 0-2 without him. Third downs have been tougher to convert, and defenses have had one less problem to worry about.

“When you’re playing off schedule, when you’re in third-and-long distances, I don’t think for any offense that’s a recipe for success,” Panthers offensive coordinator Joe Brady said. ”Statistics always tell you, if you’re in third-and-10, third-and-11’s, it’s not an easy down to convert, no matter who you have.”

Eight of the Panthers’ 15 third-downs attempts against the Eagles were third-and-7 or longer. The Panthers converted only two of those third-and-long situations.

Having McCaffrey, who is a threat to run and catch the ball, would certainly make that easier. He’s Darnold’s safety blanket when there’s no one open. And there isn’t a linebacker who can guard him one-on-one in open space.

The Panthers expected to get McCaffrey back this weekend, but have since placed him on the injured reserve list. He missed practice Thursday and Friday while dealing with a hamstring injury he suffered against the Texans in their Thursday night football game on Sept. 23.

Sunday’s game will be the 16th game he has missed out of 22 games in the past two years. The play in which McCaffrey suffered an injury didn’t look out of the ordinary. He received a handoff, ran left and pulled up before running out of bounds. McCaffrey blamed the injury on playing on short rest from Sunday to Thursday.

“I don’t prefer Thursday night games, you know what I mean?” McCaffrey said last week. “You go through a lot in a football game and you really get two days to recover, and then one of those days is a travel day (for a road game, as the 24-9 win over Houston was) ... It’s tough. But it is what it is. It’s part of the game — but obviously frustrating.”

Chuba Hubbard played well in McCaffrey’s absence. He ran for 101 yards on 24 carries and almost broke a few long runs. However, he’s not the same threat as a receiver. He dropped an easy pass in Sunday’s loss.

A struggling offensive line

The Panthers’ offensive line has also struggled mightily. It has allowed 19 quarterback hits in the past two weeks and eight sacks. Last week, because of Cameron Erving’s injury, the Panthers moved right tackle Taylor Moton to left tackle and started rookie Brady Christensen at right tackle. Both players had their struggles. Moton had two false-start penalties and allowed three pressures.

Christensen had a holding penalty and allowed six pressures. As a team, the Panthers allowed 21 pressures, which led to Darnold’s mistakes and three interceptions.

“A lot of quarterbacks, if they can’t step into their throws, they are not very effective,” said Brian Baldinger, an NFL analyst for NFL Network and former NFL offensive lineman. “If you start hitting quarterbacks, they’ll never admit it, but they’ll start getting jumpy, and they’ll bail (from the pocket) quicker.

“That’s not just Sam.”

That was the scouting report on Darnold in his three years with the New York Jets. He tended to make bad decisions when under pressure.

But the Panthers haven’t done the best job of making Darnold feel comfortable in the pocket. According to Pro Football Focus, the Panthers have allowed 77 quarterback pressures, which are among the most in the NFL.

That has limited the Panthers’ playbook and ability to take shots downfield. Longer routes haven’t had time to develop.

“Third-and-12, throwing 3-yard pass routes isn’t going to help you at all,” Baldinger said.

Offensive line was perhaps the biggest question mark heading into the 2021 season. Left tackle was once again a position the Panthers needed to fill this season, as well as left guard, and the Panthers expected free agents Erving and Pat Elflein to be starters.

Both players had struggled at their previous stops, whether that was because of injuries or bad play.

Coach Matt Rhule said he saw them as players who were versatile and could play multiple positions. Elflein is the Panthers’ backup center. Erving has played nearly every position on the offensive line.

But both players have had their struggles in Carolina, too. Elflein was put on the injured reserve after Week 2 when he suffered a groin injury. And Erving was out last week with a neck injury.

There’s little the Panthers can do at offensive line other than to play and coach better. Few teams, if any, have been willing to part ways with their offensive linemen. And most of the free agents, have a history of injuries or declining play.

Erving is expected to start Sunday against the Vikings.

Fixing their mistakes

Then there’s the defense, which played lights out in the team’s first three games, and through the first three quarters against the Eagles.

In that final quarter, the Eagles took advantage of the Panthers’ offensive miscues. They trailed 18-13, and scored a game-winning touchdown four plays after coming up with a blocked punt deep in Carolina territory.

“If you have the lead in the fourth quarter, with the players we have on defense, you should never lose,” Rhule said Monday.

Defensive end Brian Burns said he agreed.

“I feel like our defense should go out there and do our job,” Burns said. “Our job is to go out there and hold them to field goals or whatever the case may be. I feel like he hit the nail on the head.”

The Panthers’ mistakes are fixable, Baldinger said. When Baldinger watches film on the Panthers, he sees an offense that can become better with better protection. That’s up to the offensive line.

He also sees a talented defense that wants to play more man-to-man and send pressure.

“They have the personnel to do that when they get healthy, and they have some reinforcements coming,” Baldinger said.

The reinforcements Baldinger was referring to were Stephon Gilmore, who can be activated off the team’s PUP (Physically Unable to Peform) list after Sunday’s game, and linebacker Shaq Thompson, who should return from a foot injury within the next two weeks.

The Panthers traded for Gilmore earlier this month and expect him to step in immediately as a starter.

Rhule said the Panthers have had a good week of practice ahead of Sunday’s game against the Vikings. It’s a game they must win. The back end of the Panthers schedule is loaded with Super Bowl contenders.

The Panthers still have to play the Buccaneers twice, the Cardinals and the Bills, who combined have a 19-3 record (counting Bucs twice).

“It’s been a good week,” Rhule said. “And I’m sure it’s been a good week for the Vikings, too. But in terms of the things we can control ... practicing long and hard the last couple of days — I like the frame of mind our team has had, now we just have to take the teamwork and take it to the game.”

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