By Zach Goins
October 22, 2020
Photo: Brandon Todd / Carolina Panthers
If any fan had been told Carolina would be sitting at 3-2 in mid-October and that all three wins would come without star running back Christian McCaffrey, they likely wouldn’t believe it, but they gladly would have accepted it. Following those victories, it seemed all realistic expectations for the team were discarded in exchange for premature playoff dreams, but now, after a humbling Week 6 loss to the Bears, those low-set expectations may be back.
The fact of the matter is the Panthers still have a long way to go. Their wins have shown promise and the team may already be further along than anyone thought, but with an entirely new regime comes growing pains. It’s time to temper those expectations a bit and remember the Panthers are only six games in with this new-look team.
“We’re in a place probably where not many people predicted us to be,” head coach Matt Rhule said Wednesday. “That’s a credit to the people here.”
With Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints up next, Carolina has a chance to secure a signature win for Rhule in his first year. Brees isn’t the superstar he once was and the Saints have a 3-2 record, but Carolina hasn’t had a meaningful win against New Orleans since 2016. The Saints have won three straight NFC South titles, and a victory on Sunday would not only bring the team above .500, but it could bring the Panthers back atop the division if Tampa Bay were to lose.
Here’s what to watch out for this week against the Saints:
Who’s going to kick?
Last week, the Panthers entered the NFL’s intensive protocol, and this week the team’s Covid-19 woes have only gotten worse. The team closed the facility to players, coaches and staff on Monday and Tuesday after an “unconfirmed Covid-19 test result,” before returning to practice on Wednesday.
Throughout the week, offensive linemen Michael Schofield and Trent Scott, as well as kicker Joey Slye were all placed on the reserve/Covid-19 list, meaning they either tested positive themselves or were in close contact with another individual who has tested positive.
“I think the protocols and the contact tracing provide us a scientific way of looking at anybody that could potentially be affected by coronavirus,” Rhule said. “[The protocol] provides some context as to how we can best make sure we block the chain and keep any cases that happen isolated to those people.”
Slye’s situation provides a tricky problem for Carolina to work through, since they don’t have another place kicker currently on the roster. New additions to the team are required to take five negative Covid-19 PCR tests at least 24 hours apart before joining the team for in-person activities, and Carolina currently has a number of free agent kickers going through that process. There’s also the option of using punter Joseph Charlton for all kicking duties.
“We have a couple things lined up as possibilities,” Rhule said. “We’re just going to wait through Friday and monitor it and see what the best option is.”
Officially, Slye has not been ruled out yet for Sunday’s game, so pending a series of negative results, he may still be available.
The Teddy Bridgewater Revenge Game
It’s always a big deal when a player faces his former team, so naturally, this matchup has been dubbed a Teddy Bridgewater revenge game.
Last season, Bridgewater led the Saints to five straight wins while he was starting in place of an injured Brees. However, according to Bridgewater there’s no ill will towards anyone down in New Orleans, especially since it was with the Saints that Bridgewater reignited both his career, and his passion for the game.
“When I was down there, at first I thought as a young guy you had to be all serious. There’s a time where you have fun, and a time when you turn it on, be able to turn a switch. I think just being there, I found that joy again in just playing the game,” Bridgewater said. “I had the opportunity to just be around that culture, just see guys have fun playing football as opposed to making it a job. That really did a lot for me.”
The Saints connections go beyond just Bridgewater, though. Panthers offensive coordinator Joe Brady was an offensive assistant with the Saints from 2017-2018, and cornerback Eli Apple played for New Orleans from 2018-2019.
Fixing the red zone dilemma
It seemed as if the Panthers’ offense had finally gotten past its red zone and third-down troubles, but the struggles returned last week against the Bears. Carolina was just 3-of-13 on third-down against Chicago, and the team was just 1-of-3 scoring touchdowns in the red zone.
Bridgewater wasn’t able to put his finger on a specific issue the Panthers have had in the red zone, but instead a series of fundamental areas where the team needs to improve.
“I think history tells most of our guys that when they’re playing someone that they have a really strong connection to, they start doing different things and they don’t play their best,” Rhule cautioned. “I hope that they just lock in on the process and try to have a great week.”
Offensive coordinator Joe Brady speaks to the media https://t.co/poavu8DPRE
— Carolina Panthers (@Panthers) October 22, 2020
“Alignment, assignment, detail. That’s pretty much what it is,” Bridgewater said. “Just give ourselves a chance, whether it’s giving receivers a chance to make plays, tight ends, running backs. We just want to find different ways to get these guys going when we get in the red zone to score touchdowns.”
Carolina’s offense ranks 28th in the league in red zone efficiency, scoring touchdowns on just 47.8% of their trips, but the Panthers will have a chance to get back on track this week. The Saints rank 31st in red zone defense, allowing touchdowns 85% of the time when opponents enter the red zone, and they’re 26th in third-down defense, allowing a 48.6% conversion rate.
“If there was an easy answer, it’d be fixed already,” said center Matt Paradis. “There’re a lot of factors, and I think the main thing is, we just need to execute better on those downs in the red zone.”
One of the big issues last week on third down came from wide receiver Curtis Samuel’s absence. Samuel had become Bridgewater’s go-to target on third down, catching 11 passes to rank third in the league. Samuel has been limited in practice this week, and Rhule lists his availability as being day-to-day
Robby Anderson speaks to the media https://t.co/sVBUUKq8zO
— Carolina Panthers (@Panthers) October 21, 2020
Split down the middle
Lately it’s felt like New Orleans has dominated the Saints-Panthers rivalry, and they have. The Saints have won seven of the last nine meetings between the teams, including a Wildcard matchup in the 2018 playoffs.
However, it’s usually a surprise to learn the two teams are actually dead even at 25 wins a piece out of the 50 all-time regular season meetings. In fact, only 23 points separate the two teams, with New Orleans leading Carolina by an all-time score of 1,146 to 1,123.
Carolina will look to take the lead on Sunday and get back to its winning ways.
“Normally, if there’s some sort of a rivalry, you hear about it so much that that’s reinforced,” Rhule said. “I’m just trying to get our guys to play really good football this week versus a really good team.”
The Panthers take on the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, October 25 at 1 p.m. on Fox.