Panthers look for first win of the season against the Chargers without Christian McCaffrey

 By Zach Goins

Photo: Brandon Todd / Carolina Panthers

September 25, 2020

Just two weeks into the NFL season, things are already looking gloomy for the 0-2 Panthers. 

Carolina’s defense is allowing 32.5 points per game (6th-most) and is the only team in the league that has yet to record a sack. On the other side of the ball, things aren’t much better. Outside of the fourth quarter, the offense has struggled to maintain drives and score points, plus the unit just coughed up four turnovers last week. To make matters worse, the face of the franchise was just placed on the injured reserve list. 

Still, despite all those setbacks, the Panthers have been competitive deep into each of the team’s two games, and Carolina will look to turn the page this week in Los Angeles against the 1-1 Chargers.

Christian McCaffrey will miss four to six weeks with a high ankle sprain. Photo by Brandon Todd via Carolina Panthers

Here’s what to watch for this week against the Chargers:

Missing McCaffrey

That’s right. For the first time since he entered the league, the Panthers will be without star running back Christian McCaffrey. CMC left last week’s game against the Bucs early in the fourth quarter, and it was later announced that he had suffered a high ankle sprain. The typical prognosis would expect McCaffrey to miss between four to six weeks, but he said he’ll be doing everything he can to get back sooner.

“I think the biggest thing you can do right now is stay strong, and fight through it,” McCaffrey said on Monday. “They (the doctors) say four to six weeks, well that’s a challenge to me. Hopefully I can get back a lot earlier than that, but I’m going to attack this just like I attack anything else.”

McCaffrey will have to miss at least three weeks, though, considering the Panthers opted to place him on the injured reserve list on Wednesday. The move prevents CMC from returning any earlier than the team’s Week 6 matchup with the Bears, but it allows the Panthers to sign a new player to fill McCaffrey’s spot on the roster while he’s out. 

Come Sunday, the Panthers offense will be relying heavily on backup running back Mike Davis for the first time this year. In the fourth quarter after McCaffrey’s exit last week, Davis showed flashes of his potential, hauling in seven of his eight receptions out of the backfield for 70 yards. This week, the Panthers are hoping he can keep that production up all game long.

“We expect Mike to just come in and be Mike,” quarterback Teddy Bridgewater said. “Just want to try to put ourselves and our guys in the best position to be the best version of themselves that they can be, whether it’s in the run game or the pass game.”

But with Davis seeing extended action for the first time with the Panthers, is the six-year veteran’s body ready for the workload?

“My body is ready for whatever,” Davis said. “Whatever he (coach) calls, I’m down for it. I don’t look at how many carriers I’m going to get, my attitude is whatever he calls, I’m going with it.”

Can the wideouts carry the offense?

With all that being said, McCaffrey’s absence will likely mean the Panthers depend more on Bridgewater and the passing game.

Through two weeks, Carolina’s aerial attack has come alive late in games, but without CMC, wide receivers DJ Moore, Robby Anderson and Curtis Samuel will need to step up earlier. 

Last week, Anderson and Moore became the first Panthers duo in 16 years to total over 100 yards each in the same game, as Anderson hauled in nine passes for 109 yards and Moore caught eight for 120 yards.

“Robby’s a guy who’s just been extremely good for us so far these past two games,” Bridgewater said. “He’s always in the right place, and he’s an easy target to throw to. We’re glad to have a guy like him on our team and a guy who can break the game open at any point.”

The Panthers will need that point to come sooner rather than later this Sunday.

Preparing for Justin Herbert

In April’s NFL Draft, the Chargers used the sixth-overall pick to select Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert. Now, just two weeks into the season, it looks like he could be their starter moving forward– due to both Herbert’s stellar play and a strange injury to veteran quarterback Tyrod Taylor.

In his NFL debut last week against the Chiefs, Herbert completed 22 of 33 passes for 311 yards, one touchdown and one interception, plus he ran for another score on the ground. Not bad for a rookie against the reigning Super Bowl champions. Herbert’s play led Los Angeles to the brink of an upset, taking the Chiefs all the way to overtime before ultimately falling short.

So how do you prepare for a quarterback with just one game of NFL film?

“I think we’re just going to have to base it off of what we see on the tape, what they’ve done the first two games, what they did with him when he got in there,” Rhule said. “They have their offense and it’s got a lot of things that you see in college football in it. It’s got a lot of speed sweeps, zone reads, speed options.”

Handling the Chargers’ defensive front

Through two games it’s been hard to tell just how effective Carolina’s offensive line is when it comes to protecting the quarterback. In the first week, the Panthers gave up just one sack to the Raiders, but last week Tampa Bay racked up five. 

This week the line is facing two new threats in defensive ends Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, who combined for 18.5 sacks last season. 

“They have multiple weapons. You just look at that defense as a whole,” Bridgewater said of the Chargers. “They have athletic linebackers, a couple veterans in the secondary and then, of course, up front you think of Bosa, but also Melvin Ingram as well. They have a solid defense who can get after the quarterback.”

Bosa has two of the team’s four sacks so far in 2020, as well as five quarterback hits. Beyond just banging up on the quarterback, though, the Chargers defense is allowing just 18 points per game, which is tied for third-best in the league.

“It all starts for them up front, man,” Davis said. “They’ve got a lot of guys that can rush the passer. We got to make sure we keep Teddy clean.”

Slowing down L.A.’s rushing attack

On the flip side of the ball, the Chargers have proven to be impressive in the run game. After two games, the team ranks sixth in the league with 338 total rushing yards, led by running back Austin Ekeler’s 177 yards. 

“Austin’s dynamic back. He’s quick, explosive, hard to tackle,” Rhule said of Ekeler. “They have a traditional run game, some outside zones, some duos, then they have all the college plays. They’ll try to stress you and get you in space, especially with quarterbacks who can run.”

So, what’s the key to stopping that? It’s not a new scheme or a fancy play. Rhule says the Panthers just have to execute in all levels of the defense.

“I think for us, the thing that we’re trying to do is we’ve just got to put everything together,” Rhule said. “We’ve had these great moments of pass defense, we’ve had these really good moments of run defense, but they haven’t been consistent enough to win. We’ve got to just put it all together.”

Panthers will take on the Chargers Sunday at 4:05 p.m. airing on CBS.

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