Behind Enemy Lines: Inside the Carolina Panthers

Brandon Croce, who covers the Panthers for, tells you why Carolina is a surprising 7-0.

Brandon Croce covers the Panthers for

I’ll ask you specifically about Cam Newton in a moment, but how on Earth are the Panthers 7-0? They’ve gained two more first downs than their opponents. Their advantage in total yards is negligible. They’ve been outplayed on third down. Somehow, that’s added up to an undefeated record.

The Panthers have gotten to this point thanks to their defense and being able to control the clock with their run game. On defense, that they have been forcing turnovers at an incredibly high rate. Through the first seven games, they have forced 16 turnovers, just slightly more than two a game. This has resulted in the Panthers getting a short field and they have been able to capitalize on that.

This is not an explosive offensive team but they wear opponents down with their run game, which ranks first in the NFL with 144 yards per game. They are averaging more than 33 carries a game, with the bulk of the work being done by Jonathan Stewart, who is seventh in the NFL in rushing attempts, and Cam Newton.

Statistically, Newton is toward the bottom of the pecking order among quarterbacks. As Packers coach Mike McCarthy likes to say, “Statistics are for losers.” Since the Panthers are winning, I’m suspecting Newton is playing better than the numbers would indicate. How has his season gone, and is he a better player than the one who visited Lambeau Field last season?

Many will say Newton is a better player, but I think it comes down to the fact that he is healthy. Last year, Newton suffered through a long list of injuries from ankle surgery prior to 2014, then a rib injury in the preseason and the back injury at the end of the year from the car accident.

The Panthers’ franchise quarterback entered this year completely healthy, which means he got to participate in all the OTAs, training camp and preseason games. This type of preparation, I believe, has gone a long way in improving his play so far this season.

Beyond the quarterback, what have the Panthers done to be ranked No. 4 in scoring? I’m not sure anyone outside of the Carolinas could have named one member of their receiving corps before Monday night, for instance.

As I mentioned above, the run game has been tremendous to this point with Stewart and Newton. This, combined with the short field thanks to turnovers by the defense, has allowed them to put points on the board even though they don’t have huge yardage numbers (they rank 19th in total yards per game).

The Panthers have really missed wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin this year, who is out with the knee injury, but tight end Greg Olsen has given the team enough of a threat in the passing game to keep defenses honest. The wide receiver position has been this offense’s biggest weakness though but the coaching staff has been done a great job to minimize it so far this season.

No doubt you and your readers watched the Packers lay an offensive egg on Sunday night at Denver. Just looking at the passing stats, it’s not going to be a whole lot easier against the Carolina defense. What makes the Panthers’ pass defense so impressive?

It starts with Josh Norman, who is playing at an incredibly high level to start the year. After four interceptions, two returned for touchdowns, through the first four games opposing quarterbacks have really stopped looking his way. He isn’t quite at the same level as say a Richard Sherman or Darrelle Revis, but it is getting to the point that Norman’s presence takes away that part of the field.

The other reason it has been as strong as it has is this group has a ton of experience with the additions of Charles Tillman and Kurt Coleman this offseason. Packers’ fans have seen plenty of Tillman, who played the first 12 year of his career in Chicago, but he has seen a bit of a career revival in Carolina playing for Ron Rivera again and able to stay healthy.

From a big-picture perspective, what did that comeback win at Seattle mean? Was it anything more than just a win? And, semi-related question, but what is the vibe around the team after Monday night’s thrilling win? Is there a feeling of “hey, maybe this is our year” or “wow, we dodged a bullet.”

The win in Seattle has meant a tremendous amount to this group as this was the one team that has had Carolina’s number. The Seahawks have been one of the best teams in the NFL the past few years and the Panthers always seemed to come up just short when playing them (they had lost the last five meetings prior to this year).

Meanwhile, many questioned if this team was for real with what was a weak four-game stretch to the start the season. That win over Seattle helped legitimize the way they started the season. This was the final hurdle the Panthers had to jump to really stake a claim as one of the top teams in the NFC.

The one thing I keep coming back to watching this Panthers team, and it dates back to last year, is how resilient they are. Last year, Ron Rivera did an excellent job of keeping this group focused and motivated as they struggled through that 1-8-1 stretch the middle of the season to end up winning the division as well as a playoff game.

The thing that is very surprising from this group is they have a workman’s mentality of one game at a time and not necessarily looking at the big picture of is this our year. There is a level of grittiness with this team, a grind it out type approach that has really bode well for them, like when they were behind to Seattle or blowing that lead to the Colts.

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