Panthers Defense: Record Setting Performance
It would be easy to point to the fact that Arizona Cardinals didn’t have their starting quarterback (Carson Palmer) or starting running back (Andre Ellington) as reasons for the Cardinals struggles. However, that would discredit just how good of a performance this was by the Panthers defense, a record setting performance. The Arizona Cardinals had 77 total yards, which is the fewest in playoff history.
This Panthers defense played fast, pressured Ryan Lindley (four sacks) and forced turnovers (two interceptions). They held the Cardinals offense to an average of only 1.6 yards per play, which was due to a total team effort at every level.
The defensive line was getting constant penetration and putting pressure on Lindley. Defensive end Charles Johnson had two sacks on consecutive plays, while defensive tackles Dwan Edward and Kawann Short had a sack a piece.
Linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis put together another one of their premier performances. Kuechly had an interception with the Cardinals offense in the red zone. He also had a pass breakup late in the game that led to Tre Boston’s interception, basically sealing the victory. Davis was quick to the ball carrier, playing sideline to sideline and finished with seven tackles, with two tackles for a loss.
The secondary has been the one group that has allowed this defense to take that step to the next level and even though they have two rookies starting they are playing like a veteran group. This group looks much faster with Bene Benwikere and Tre Boston on the field, which allows them to play tighter on their wide receivers. This has forced opposing quarterbacks to hold the ball slightly longer, giving the Panthers’ pass rush a chance to get to them.
Jonathan Stewart carries the offense
Against the Cardinals, the Panthers rushed for 188 yards as a team with Jonathan Stewart as the team’s featured back. There was questions with the return of DeAngelo Williams this week if Stewart would remain the main guy or if the carries would be more evenly split between the two backs. The game today should eliminate any questions (at least for the rest of the playoffs) as Stewart carried it 24 times for 123 yards and chipped in a touchdown in the first quarter.
The Panthers offense is at its best when Stewart has the ball in his hands. The seventh-year back had the third most rushing yards in the month of December behind only the Bengals’ Jeremy Hill and the Cowboys’ DeMarco Murray. With the win today, the Panthers are now set to face either the Seattle Seahawks or the Green Bay Packers next weekend. Whichever team they face they will need to have a strong performance from the run game to keep the opposing offense off the field.
What’s happened to Kelvin Benjamin?
Since the bye week, Kelvin Benjamin has somewhat disappeared even though he has had plenty of chances to produce. In five of the past six games he has had less than 60 receiving yards, caught only 25 of his 55 targets and had one touchdown over this stretch. Over the first 12 games, Benjamin caught eight touchdowns. Against the Cardinals he had another underwhelming performance with four receptions for 33 yards.
One of the issues that has plagued Benjamin all season has been dropped passes and he finished the regular season tied for the league lead with 10, according to SportingCharts.com. The rookie wide receiver had another bad drop on Saturday on a third down play in the second quarter, that was followed up by a Graham Gano missed field goal.
The rookie wide receiver has been put in a tough situation for most of the season being asked to be a number one wide receiver with not much around him. The good news for Benjamin is that he had solid games against both the Packers (3 receptions, 6 targets, 61 yards, 1 touchdown) and the Seahawks (4 receptions, 7 targets, 94 yards) earlier this year. This should give him confidence heading into next weekend.