Preview: Panthers a shell of 2013 success

The Panthers might still make the playoffs, but it isn’t likely to come with a winning record. They have lost players on offense and in the secondary.

There were a lot of people around the NFL who looked with a skeptical eye when the Carolina Panthers came out of nowhere to finish 12-4 last season and lock down one of the two byes in the NFC playoffs – only to get bounced in the divisional round at home by San Francisco.

A year later, the Panthers have a very different look and outlook on both sides of the ball.

After losing just four games last season, Carolina has won just three of their first 11 games, losing seven and tying one. A major contributor to that has been franchise quarterback Cam Newton. Once viewed as the prototype of quarterbacks to come, Newton has been largely nondescript, throwing for 2,392 yards with 12 touchdowns, 10 interceptions with a passer of rating of 80.2 – better only than Josh McCown, Geno Smith and rookies Blake Bortles, Derek Carr and Teddy Bridgewater. To say he has struggled would be understating the case for a former No. 1 overall draft choice.

At times, Newton has looked lost, dejected, uninvolved and emotionless on the field. In previous years, he has been an emotional leader – complete with pretending to pull his jersey open to show a Superman costume underneath. This year, there has been very little of that because Newton has lost his most dangerous weapon. In his first three seasons, Newton ran for more than 2,000 yards and 28 rushing touchdowns. To date this season, he has averaged less than 30 yards rushing a game and has just two rushing TDs.

Newton’s drop in production has hurt a running game that has become sadly accustomed to having players miss time. The Panthers have invested heavily in running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, giving both of them lucrative free agent contracts, but they’ve rarely been on the field together since signing the deals. In 2012, the two of them combined to miss seven games. In 2013, that number jumped to 11 games. Through 11 games this season, the two of them have missed a combined nine games. Between the two of them, they have just two rushing games of more than 50 yards. There are some teams that make the combination backfield work, but the Panthers haven’t been one of them. Carolina is averaging just 3.7 yards a carry as a team and hasn’t had a run longer than 22 yards all season.

Compounding their problems on offense, which has resulted in the Panthers scoring 21 points or fewer in eight of 11 games, is that the receiver corps has gone through a monumental overhaul in the offseason. Carolina’s three leading wide receivers from a year ago – Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn Jr. – are gone and they’ve had to be replaced without a significant dip into free agency.

The biggest impact player has been rookie Kelvin Benjamin. He has averaged almost 15 yards a catch and has caught 52 passes for 768 yards and a team-high eight touchdowns. He has showed big-play ability – posting at least one catch of more than 20 yards in eight of 11 games, has scored a touchdown in seven games and has 70 or more yards in six games. He and tight end Greg Olsen, who leads the team with 56 receptions and has five or more catches in eight of 11 games, have been the receiving leaders.

Beyond their big two, the Panthers try to make it work with veteran journeyman retreads who are more role players that move the chains than ones that impact the game – former Jet and Steeler Jerricho Cotchery and former Eagle Jason Avant. They get the job done but can be single-covered. Aside from Benjamin, the Panthers offense doesn’t have an explosive threat, so in order the succeed Carolina has to string together long drives that involve converting third downs, which is rarely a recipe for success in the NFL.

The biggest disparity between the 2013 Panthers and this year’s team has been the precipitous drop in the defensive production. Last year, the Panthers were dominant. They ranked behind only Super Bowl champion Seattle and were second vs. the run and sixth vs. the pass. This season, Carolina is 25th in defense – 22nd against the run and 26th against the pass.

Since starting the season 2-0, when the Panthers allowed just 21 points in two games, they’ve allowed 37 or more points in five of their last nine games – and haven’t won any of them. Since winning their road opener against Tampa Bay, Carolina is 0-3-1 on the road and the three losses have been by totals of 18, 28 and 24 points. When the Panthers lose, they lose big, despite having talent on the defensive side of the ball.

The Panthers have some star power in the front seven but have missed defensive end Greg Hardy, who has been on the Commissioner’s Exempt List along with Adrian Peterson since the Ray Rice fallout took center stage in September. The team still has talent, especially at defensive tackle with high draft picks Star Lotulelei and Kawaan Short, but the loss of Hardy has left a void and Lotulelei isn’t expected to play Sunday.

It can be argued Luke Kuechly is the best middle linebacker in the game today. He’s a tackling machine who chases every play to the sideline and has improved in coverage. Ten-year veteran Thomas Davis is one of the toughest players in the league and has overcome torn ACLs in both knees to remain one of the premier outside linebackers in the league. Depth is razor thin, but Kuechly and Davis provide enough firepower to be difference-makers. They’re not the problem. The back end of the defense is.

The secondary was the weakness of the Carolina defense even when they had Captain Munnerlyn and Mike Mitchell, both of whom left via free agency. They were replaced by journeyman veterans Roman Harper, who played his way out of New Orleans (no small feat considering how poor the Saints defense is) and former Falcon Thomas Decoud. Former Charger Antoine Cason and third-year pro Josh Norman aren’t lockdown cornerbacks and depth is a concern at both positions.

The Panthers have clear weaknesses that were able to be masked in 2013 when they were making enough plays to consistently win on offense, defense and special teams. They haven’t been doing that this year, which is why they’re 3-7-1 instead of 8-3 – where they were at this point a year ago. Yet, with 4-7 being good enough for first place in the NFC South, the Panthers are in the thick of the playoff chase.

Will they step forward against the Vikings? It’s possible, but given their road struggles, this should be another game like the ones the Vikings have won this season – beating the teams they should beat. This year, Carolina qualifies as one of those teams.

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