Deciphering the Carolina Panthers Defense Through Week Six

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 13: Brian Burns of Carolina Panthers celebrates a touchdown during the NFL match between the Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on October 13, 2019 in London, England. (Photo by Alex Burstow/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 13: Brian Burns of Carolina Panthers celebrates a touchdown during the NFL match between the Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on October 13, 2019 in London, England. (Photo by Alex Burstow/Getty Images) /

Breaking down the Panthers defense after six weeks

After Sunday’s 37-26 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in London, the Carolina Panthers enter their bye week sitting 4-2 after reeling off four consecutive wins under backup quarterback Kyle Allen. Christian McCaffrey has emerged as a legitimate MVP candidate, compiling stat totals individually that have put entire teams to shame collectively. Ron Rivera’s squad has shaken off their rocky 0-2 start to vault back into contention in the crowded NFC playoff picture.

Yet while the debate rages on over the dilemma over whether to insert starting quarterback Cam Newton into the lineup when he heals from his Lisfranc injury over his undefeated replacement Allen, a new discussion is beginning to emerge regarding the identity of the Carolina Panthers defense.

A Tale of Two Defenses

On paper, Carolina’s defense is a study in contradictions. They enter the bye week 23rd in rushing yards allowed in the league and have fallen to 15th in total passing yards allowed. With 22.2 points allowed per game, Rivera’s unit rests 14th among the league, several spots below division-leading New Orleans. At the same time, the team currently leads the NFL in sacks with 27 and sits second in interceptions behind the New England Patriots with 9 – not bad for a unit that has spent the first six weeks of the season missing key contributors left and right at every level.

This dichotomy leads itself to fans perceiving the defense of having a ‘bend, do not break’ philosophy. Case in point: they managed to pick off Buccaneers QB Jameis Winston five times yesterday, adding seven sacks, two fumbles and one fumble recovery (the final turnover came on a Tampa Bay muffed punt). They also gave up 400 yards passing to the Buccaneers.

If anything, Panthers fans are accustomed to this sort of inconsistency. The penchant for close, sweat-it-out nail-biters is a hallmark of the Ron Rivera era. The Cardiac Cats have been known to give the fans a scare or two late in ballgames. At this point, most fans expect to hold their breath over the final fifteen minutes of a ballgame.

Nonetheless, trying to decipher how good this defensive unit is will be an important task as the team enters their bye week. After the slow start, predictions of doom and gloom over the future of the season have morphed into talk over the Panthers as a potential playoff team. Indeed, Carolina sits just one game behind New Orleans for the NFC South division lead and carry the sixth-best recover overall in the conference.

Looking Ahead on the Panthers’ Schedule

The road ahead only gets tougher for Rivera’s crew: Carolina emerges from the bye to take on the undefeated San Francisco 49ers on the road, and will also be making a trip to Lambeau to take on the Green Bay Packers in Week 10. The Indianapolis Colts and Seattle Seahawks are also on the back-half of the schedule, along with both of the team’s games against the Saints (Carolina and New Orleans will wrap up their regular season on December 29th in Charlotte). Despite their woes, both games with the Atlanta Falcons also remain, and these match-ups are always hotly contested rivalry games.

With uncertainty abounding over the starting quarterback role and whether McCaffrey can hold up for a full season under the enormity of his workload, establishing the identity of the Panthers defense will become crucial to gauging just how far this squad can go. Even during the early-season struggles, Carolina put itself in a position to contend. The home opener against the Los Angeles Rams was contested through the game, and their Thursday night loss to the Bucs at Bank of America Stadium came down to the wire with a goal-line stand made by Tampa Bay. A few breaks and the Panthers are sitting at 6-0 atop the NFC playoff picture.

Getting everyone healthy will be a boon to the team: Bruce Irvin, Dontari Poe, Donte Jackson, and Ross Cockrell have all missed time early on this year; star defensive lineman Kawann Short will spend the rest of his 2019 campaign on the Injured Reserve list. Despite having to adjust to injuries, the team continues to thrive as ballhawks out on the field, helping the Panthers post a +6 turnover differential through Week 6 – tied for fourth league-wide.

Finding consistency on the other side of the ball would also be a big help. Carolina’s offense has proven hit-or-miss under both Allen and Newton, struggling at times to move the ball down the field. Through six games, Carolina’s defense has spent more time on the field than its offense; losing the time of possession battle can wreak havoc on a team already leaning heavily on its depth to account for injuries on the defensive side of the ball.

All told, it is hard to know where we stand with the 2019 Carolina Panthers, to say nothing of their defense. At this point, the jury remains out on whether the early success of Kyle Allen will carry on through the tougher back-end of the season, or whether Cam Newton’s impending return could reignite an offense that leans very heavily on its stud halfback in McCaffery. If the offense manages to find a consistent rhythm balancing the passing and running attacks, Carolina’s defense should reap the rewards when it emerges on the field.

Until then, the Panther’s defense will need to gobble up every fumble, interception, and sack that they can to stymie a slew of offensive behemoths waiting on the schedule. This team has all the trappings of a legitimate playoff contender once the pieces fall into place. Now, Panthers fans wait to see if this 2019 puzzle will finally come together.