In the preseason, I initially had the Panthers projected to be the worst team in the NFL and picking first in the 2021 draft, but eventually moved them to 2nd worst behind Jacksonville. I had the Bengals picking at #3 in my mind.
It’s fair to say that the Panthers have far exceeded my expectations in compiling a 4-10 record. Together with the Texans and Falcons they comprise the trio that would pick 4th, 5th & 6th in the draft if the season ended today.
The season will not end today, and, while the Panthers have already been eliminated from playoff contention, they’ve had enough things go right for them this season that they could very well play spoiler for the Washington Football Team in its bid to win the NFC East championship and get to the playoffs for the third time in nine years.
Who are these Carolina Panthers?
After opening the season 0-2, the Panthers put together a 3-game winning streak, beating the Chargers, Cardinals and Falcons to get to 3-2 before hitting a 5-game skid that ended with a win against the Detroit Lions in Week 11. Since then, they have lost three in a row. in other words, Carolina is 1-8 in their last 9 games, which doesn’t sound too scary.
Here’s how NFL.com’s Dan Hanzus described the Panthers in his Week 16 Power Rankings, in which Carolina was ranked 27th (Washington was #15):
The Panthers have now lost eight games this season by one possession. That sustained level of competitive play shows fighting spirit, sure, but also exposes the inability to close out games and make the big play in critical situations. Which takes us to Saturday night, a 24-16 loss to the Packers, in which Teddy Bridgewater’s goal-line fumble acted as Carolina’s latest “What if?” moment. “I told him from Day 1, we don’t reach the ball across the goal line,” Matt Rhule told NFL Network’s Melissa Stark at halftime. It was a frustrated lament from a head coach who believes his team is better than its 4-10 record indicates.
So, are the Panthers a team that has suffered 8 brutal losses in games it could have won, or are they a team that just doesn’t have the toughness to close out games? In the end, of course, as Bill Parcells said, “You are what your record says you are”. Right now, the Panthers are a 4-10 team, but it’s still possible for Carolina and Washington to finish with identical 6-10 season records if Carolina can get the win this afternoon.
However, with a win this week against Carolina, Washington can eliminate both Philly and Dallas from the playoffs, and, depending on the outcome of the Giants-Ravens game, could clinch the NFC East title somewhere around 7:30 p.m. EST.
To get a better sense of what the Football Team is up against, I watched the Panthers last three games this week on Game Pass and I came away with a feeling very similar to what I felt about Jay Gruden’s Redskins with Case Keenum at quarterback. The Panthers looked to me to be a team that has talent but is playing out of sync. It struck me as a team that beats itself through things like penalties and turnovers as much as it gets beat by its opponent. To me, that is the most dangerous kind of 4-10 team you can face, because, if the players eliminate a few mistakes and don’t beat themselves, then they can compete with anybody. Any given Sunday.
Head Coach Matt Rhule
Let me say that I was a proponent of hiring Matt Rhule as the coach here in Washington before it was announced that Rivera got the job. At the college level, Rhule turned around two programs that needed a lot of help (Temple and Baylor). At Temple, his teams went 2-10, 6-6, 10-4 in his first three seasons. At Baylor it was 1-11, 7-6, 11-3.
I feel confident that he’ll have success in Carolina as well, but his history says that it’s likely that 2022 will be the team’s breakthrough season. Right now, they are vulnerable, and Washington needs to take this opportunity to show it can deliver a kill shot when needed.
Injury status for key players
Reports over the past few days indicate that Carolina RB Christian McCaffery, OT Russell Okung and DE Brian Burns are all likely to miss the game. This may be crucial as Washington, the team that needs the win to help seal the division championship and a playoff berth, is not at peak health at the moment.
Washington’s quarterback situation is up in the air; head coach Ron Rivera this week said it was “jumbled up”. Coaches are waiting to see how Alex Smith feels after he experienced soreness in his injured calf on Saturday. Dwayne Haskins would start in his stead if Smith is unable to go, but Ron Rivera once upon a time benched Cam Newton for the first quarter of a game for failing to wear a necktie on the team plane; is there any possibility that Haskins could watch from the sideline for a series or a quarter as part of his penalty for flaunting COVID protocols this week?
Further, WR Terry McLaurin is doubtful for the game with an ankle injury; he didn’t practice at all this week. As Washington’s only consistent threat at the wide receiver position, his absence could have a huge impact on the effectiveness of the offense, which has limped badly for much of the season, even when Terry was healthy and playing in the game.
Among the players who were not healthy enough to play a week ago, Antonio Gibson has been limited in practice all week, and is listed as questionable for the Panthers game, but seems likely to make his return after missing most of the past three games with a turf toe injury. Washington needs his strong running and the diversity his presence adds to the WFt offense, especially if F1 is sidelined, as expected.
Linebacker Cole Holcomb practiced fully on Thursday and Friday and seems ready to return to the field on Sunday. Fellow linebacker Kevin Piere-Louis was limited all week and seems a bit less certain than Holcomb, but reports about his availability have mostly been optimistic.
Two offensive linemen appeared to get nicked up in the Seahawks game. Morgan Moses practiced fully on Friday and seems to be fine: Wes Schweitzer was limited all week but has no injury designation for the game and is expected to play. An intact OL would go a long way towards giving Washington what it needs to get this important win.
So, in a situation that is not at all unusual for late December, both teams will enter the game with some key injuries and question marks. With both teams at full health, Washington would probably be firm favorites, but within the context of the injuries to the respective teams, and with particular emphasis on the quarterback situation, WFT opened the week as 2.5-point favorites, but the spread had narrowed to just 1 point by Saturday.
With this in mind, what are the four keys for Washington in this game, which betting lines indicate is likely to be very closely contested?
Key No. 1 - Consistent quarterback play needed for Washington
The single most important factor for the Washington Football Team this week will be to get positive and consistent play from whoever lines up behind center, whether it is Alex Smith, Dwayne Haskins or Taylor Heinicke.
If Smith is hampered by his calf injury; if Haskins is hampered by insecurity or inconsistency; if Heinicke sees the field and is hampered by inexperience, then it could be a long day for WFT fans.
The offense without Terry McLaurin will be limited, much as it was limited for the past three games by the absence of RB Antonio Gibson. The coaches can game-plan around an absent McLaurin, as they did for the absent running back, but you can’t game-plan for poor quarterback play.
Whoever is the signal-caller for the Washington offense needs to be mentally and physically sharp, show leadership and decisiveness, and find ways to keep offensive drives alive and consistently finish with a score.
Carolina is ranked 19th in Total Defense (yards allowed) and 20th in points allowed, at 25.4 per game, though they have given up 28 ppg over the past 3 weeks, which still ranks 20th overall.
The Panthers, in fact, are pretty consistent in every major defensive measure, ranking 18th in rushing yards allowed per game (119.4) and 19th in passing yards allowed per game (239.7).
Attacking the defense will likely be more about what the Washington offense can do well as opposed to exploiting a particular defensive weakness, though it may be possible to scheme to exploit specific opportunities.
In particular, if Carolina’s DE Brian Burns does, in fact, miss this week’s game, that will take a bit of the pressure off the Washington offensive line, especially in terms of limiting Carolina’s ability to rush the passer. Burns has played in all 30 games since the Panthers selected him in the first round in the 2019 draft. He has a team-high 8.0 sacks this season and is the only Panther with at least 5.0 sacks. Washington, meanwhile, has four players with at least that many (Montez Sweat - 7.0, Ryan Kerrigan - 5.5, Chase Young - 5.5, Tim Settle - 5.0). Washington’s quarterback du jour may enjoy the most comfortable pocket of the season. Carolina is tied for 23rd in the league in sacks (though they managed 5 last week in their loss to Green Bay). Burns had 2 of Carolina’s sacks against Aaron Rodgers (40%) and has had 33% of the team’s sacks for the season as a whole. The Panthers should find it challenging to get pressure on the passer against a seemingly healthy Washington offensive line without him in the lineup, though DT Derrick Brown, Carolina’s talented rookie 1st rounder, got 2 sacks (the first of his career) a week ago.
Key No. 2 - Take away the slants and crossing routes across the middle of the field and force Bridgewater to throw to his right
Bridgewater has thrown for 3,360 yards this season. Per PFF (see the chart below), 1,021 of those yards (30.3%) have come in the middle of the field within 10 yards in front of the line of scrimmage. His 119 attempts thrown to this area represent 27% of all his pass attempts in 2020. First and foremost, the defensive scheme should work to take this part of the field away from Bridgewater to take away his other most-comfortable throws.
Consider this description from Cat Scratch Reader of a key play from the Packers game last week:
The Panthers trailed 24-13 and had the ball with 2:17 left in the game. On third-and-1 DJ Moore ran a quick slant, caught the ball between three defenders, got sandwiched by a trio of Packers, and bounced off all of them. DJ then sprinted 40 yards down to the Green Bay 15.
This is the Panthers’ bread and butter in the passing game that Washington needs to take away.
You will notice from the chart below that, while Bridgewater prefers to throw to the middle of the field and close to the line of scrimmage, if he throws outside the hash marks, he prefers the left side of the field at every depth. He has thrown 106 times to the left versus 87 attempts to the right.
The second priority for the defensive backs should be to take away the left side of the field from Teddy, forcing him to move to his second or third option in the passing game on the right side of the field.
When he throws behind the line of scrimmage, then throwing left or right doesn’t make much difference to his completion percentage; he is a cumulative 33/34 throwing outside the hash marks behind the LOS. However, the effectiveness of those throws is significantly different. Bridgewater averages 8.4 yards per completion throwing left behind the LOS, but only 2.1 ypc throwing right.
Similarly, when he has thrown the ball beyond the line of scrimmage, Bridgewater has completed 72.7% of his passes to the left (64/88) versus just 64% of passes to his right (46/71).
To recap, then, the defensive scheme should aim to take away the center of the field within 10 or 12 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, and then try to enhance coverage to Bridgewater’s left in order to force him to throw to his right, where he is less comfortable and less effective.
This probably should include rushing Bridgewater effectively from the left side as well (forcing him to look right for check down passes) which may be a bit easier than normal if Okung doesn’t play.
Key No. 3 - don’t blitz when defending in the red zone
Like most quarterbacks, Bridgewater is negatively affected by pressure; per PFF, he completes 73.6% of his passes with a grade of 74.8 when not under pressure, with 13 total touchdowns, compared to 58.9% completion rate, grade of 51.7 and a single touchdown when pressured. This argues for rushing Bridgewater heavily with 4 or 5 pass rushers — but also for avoiding the blitz when the Panthers are in the red zone.
Why do I say this?
Firstly, because PFF says that while Teddy has completed 81 passes against the blitz, 9 of those completions (11.1%) have been for touchdowns. Given his 8.1 ypa average and aggregate total of less than 1,000 yards on these passes, the TDs against the blitz aren’t coming from long distance. Teddy has been burning blitzing defenses in the red zone.
His pass chart above shows where those outlet passes are going. Teddy has thrown 10 touchdown passes to three areas:
- center of field behind LOS (4 TDs)
- middle of field <10 yards from LOS (2 TDs)
- right of field <10 yards from LOS (4 TDs)
When blitzed, Teddy will hit his receiver in the L-shaped area defined by these three areas of the field, and he’s very effective at it. Although he’s being blitzed, the numbers say he’s getting rid of the ball quickly and is not actually under pressure from the blitz.
Hopefully, the Washington defense won’t allow the Panthers inside the 25 yard line very much in this game, but when they do, they should avoid blitzing, as Bridgewater’s likelihood of completing a quick touchdown pass if they do is surprisingly high.
Key No. 4 - Limit penalties
I mentioned in the introductory section that, watching the Panthers last three games, I noticed a propensity to shoot themselves in the foot with mistakes. Last week against the Packers, Carolina drew two defensive penalties on Green Bay’s first touchdown drive. Down 14-3 and trying to get back in the game, they had a holding penalty and two fumbles on their drive — the second fumble costing them possession and a likely 7 points, coming as it did on 1st & goal from the 1-yard line. Trailing 21-10 in the 4th quarter and needing two scores, the Panthers quarterback Teddy Bridgewater scrambled on a 3rd & goal play, fumbling at the 2-yard line, with a recovery in the end zone by a Carolina player. The play was negated by a holding penalty against the right guard and Carolina ended up kicking a field goal. Trailing by 8 points with less than a minute to play, Bridgewater was called for an intentional grounding penalty on first down, creating a 2nd & 21 situation. The Panthers did not gain another yard on that drive, effectively ending the game.
This Carolina Panthers team will make mistakes. In a ranking that will sound familiar, they are 20th in the league in penalty yards for the season (and 28th over the last three games). A key for Washington is to play disciplined ball, and avoid penalties that can kill the Football Team’s offensive drives or extend Carolina’s. Washington has improved markedly in its penalties under Ron Rivera. The Football Team ranks tenth-best in penalty yards assessed this season, and there have been no troubling patterns such as Morgan Moses’ two-year stretch among the league’s most penalized players under Jay Gruden.
Penalties are often “invisible yards” that most fans and media analysts don’t pay much attention to from week to week, but Washington’s position as a top-ten team (in a good way) with regard to penalty yardage in 2020 has been part of the good defense & field position formula that has allowed Rivera’s squad to win 4 of its last 5 (and 5 of last 8) games.
Typically, my keys to the game involve winning the turnover battle as one of the keys, but Carolina and Washington are very similar in their takeaway and giveaway numbers this season — in fact, the Panthers have a slight edge. I would expect both teams to turn the ball over once or twice in the game, and wouldn’t be surprised if the differential is zero, or even +1 in Carolina’s favor.
The advantage is more likely to come from Washington getting flagged less often and for fewer yards, making offensive drives more sustainable for Scott Turner’s offense and defensive stands more effective for Jack Del Rio’s defense. A long DPI call or a couple of offensive holding penalties could end up being difference makers in this game.