By Zach Goins
October 1, 2020
For the first time in nearly a year, the Carolina Panthers are riding a win streak. It may only be one game, but after 10-straight losses, Panthers fans have to take what they can get.
Last week’s victory over the Chargers proved that Carolina is capable of getting the job done– even when it’s ugly. Head coach Matt Rhule knows that a performance like that won’t cut it this week against the 2-1 Arizona Cardinals, though.
“Our only goal this week is to be a better football team this Sunday leading into the game than we were last week,” Rhule said. “We’ll try to do the things that we did last week and do them better.”
The Cardinals suffered their first loss of the season to Detroit last week after the Lions drilled a last-second field goal. Arizona features a stout defense that ranks in the league’s top 10 in nearly every statistical category, and the team’s offense is led by the dynamic Rookie of the Year quarterback, Kyler Murray. Carolina notched its first win of the season against the same Cardinals team last year, but since then, Arizona has added a few major weapons, namely All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins.
Here’s what to watch for this week against the Cardinals:
Riding high off last week’s victory, the Panthers are fully expecting the positive momentum to carry over into their matchup with Arizona.
“It definitely gives us momentum because that Charger team we beat wasn’t a bad team at all,” cornerback Donte Jackson said. “We took care of the ball, we took the ball away, and that could carry over huge, because that was our big thing Week 2 and Week 3. We were able to do both against the Chargers, so I can see that carrying over to Arizona.”
Carolina has always been a streaky team, from last year’s four-game win streak prior to the eight straight losses, and even dating back to the 14 consecutive wins in 2015.
Capitalizing in the red zone
It’s no secret the Panthers struggled to finish in the red zone last week. Kicker Joey Slye was the team’s leading scorer after knocking through five field goals thanks to stalled drives as the team neared the end zone. Only once did Carolina manage to reach pay dirt on a 13-yard screen pass to running back Mike Davis.
So, what’s the key to executing in the red zone? Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater said it lies in another area the Panthers struggled last week: third down.
“You look at the third down numbers from Sunday, most of those times that we failed were in the red zone,” Bridgewater said. “We talk about third down in the red zone being a four point play. If you get stopped on third down, you’re settling for field goals. If you can convert third downs, you get more chances to score touchdowns.”
Bridgewater is right. The Panthers were 3-of-12 on third down last week, and that was barely enough to squeak out a victory in L.A. Against the Cardinals, who rank first in the league allowing conversions on just 28.6% of third downs, it certainly won’t be enough.
“Those guys do a great job of closing the pocket, getting around the quarterback, sacking the quarterback, they play tight coverage, things like that,” Bridgewater said. “We understand that once we get to third downs, it’s going to be a challenge.”
According to Rhule, the Panthers need to be better on the ground to keep the chains moving.
“I think it all just goes back to continuing to build upon and sustain the run game,” Rhule said of the offense’s woes. “I think when you’re able to run the football, you make the other team play a certain way, and that opens you up potentially for more one-on-one opportunities. That’s something that both up the field and in the red zone, we have to continue to do.”
On the flip side, it’s worth noting Carolina’s defense is second-worst in the NFL, allowing a 56.8% conversion rate on third down.
Containing Kyler Murray
In last year’s matchup, the Panthers’ defense held Murray to just 173 yards and two touchdowns through the air, while also forcing two interceptions. Mind you, that was only Murray’s third career start in the NFL. Since then, he’s improved tremendously– just take it from the guy who picked him off twice last season.
“He’s that same dynamic playmaker with the ball in his hands but I can see he makes better decisions with the ball,” cornerback Donte Jackson said. “For the most part he’s very, very careful with the ball this year. He’s seeing his running lanes a little bit earlier, knowing when he can have a crease to get out. I think he’s just a smarter scrambler. He’s getting down fairly quick, he’s not really getting hit a lot. He’s just an overall smarter player year two.”
Through three games, Murray has passed for 786 yards and four touchdowns, but he’s also tossed five interceptions. Where he’s done the most damage, though, has been on the ground, tallying up 187 rushing yards and four touchdowns, both league-highs among quarterbacks.
“He’s playing at a really high level,” Rhule said. “He adds an element to their offense to have the ability to scramble and run the football. Not a lot of designed runs for him, though they do do it. He’s able to add you know, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70 yards rushing to what is already a really good rushing offense.”
DeAndre Hopkins vs. Donte Jackson
Beyond worrying about Murray, Jackson will have his work cut out for himself on Sunday when he lines up across from one of the league’s best wide receivers.
Hopkins leads the NFL in both receptions (32) and yards (356), and has also hauled in a touchdown. After being traded from the Texans to the Cardinals in the offseason, it’s safe to say Hopkins is meshing well in Arizona head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s “air raid” offense.
“He catches everything. He gets a lot of targets for that reason, because he rarely puts anything on the ground,” Jackson said of Hopkins. “All the quarterbacks he’s had in the past, they just trust him. He’s a savvy vet, he knows how to use his hands, he’s just competitive.”
As Carolina’s No. 1 cornerback, it’s likely Jackson will follow Hopkins all over the field Sunday – a job that belonged to former Panther James Bradberry last season. But Jackson has been plagued by injuries early this year, missing part of Week 1 due to an ankle injury and leaving last week’s game early with a nagging toe injury. When he’s been available, Jackson has proven effective, picking off two passes already this season.
“I’m looking forward to it, because I’m competitive,” Jackson said. “It’s going to be one of those matchups that you’ve got to be ready for. You can’t come in here not locked in for a practice day, not locked in for a film day, because you know that guy’s going to be locked in every single play and he’s going to compete.”
Carolina will need Jackson to be a full-go all game long on Sunday if they want to slow down Hopkins.
The return of fans in the stands
Along with that positive momentum from Week 3, the Panthers will get another boost from approximately 5,240 fans in the stands.
As North Carolina moves into Phase 3 of Governor Roy Cooper’s Safer at Home plan, outdoor venues like Bank of America Stadium will be able to operate at 7% capacity, and while that may seem like a small crowd, it’s enough to make the Panthers happy.
“I’m not going to approach it any differently,” Bridgewater said. “Hopefully, having a couple fans at the game does add some type of sound effect to our opponents, but we’re just going to just go out there and play the game the way we know how to play it.”
While players and coaches alike will certainly appreciate the die hard Panthers fans in the stadium, they’re even more excited about finally having their loved ones able to watch the games in person.
“I told the team I moved my family from Texas to Charlotte, moved my daughters away from their friends and their classes in the middle of a pandemic, all for an opportunity to coach the Carolina Panthers,” Rhule said. “They haven’t had a chance to see it, so to have my daughters be able to go to the game, to have fans be there, people that love this team. The only thing that’s hard for me and sad for me is that everyone can’t come. We wish the place was packed and all the people who love the Carolina Panthers were there.”
The Carolina Panthers host the Arizona Cardinals at 1 p.m. Sunday on FOX.