CHARLOTTE, S.C. (WSPA) – The Panthers are coming off of two straight losses to begin the season, and enter their week three contest without their star running back Christian McCaffrey. Mike Davis will step in as Carolina looks for its first win of 2020.
McCaffrey was sidelined last Sunday with an ankle injury, and his recent placement on IR means he will be out for at least three weeks. . McCaffrey touched the ball a team-high 48 times through two weeks of play, touches that will likely be distributed among a committee backfield led by veteran Mike Davis.
Despite being relatively efficient in week one versus Las Vegas, Carolina produced untimely turnovers in their week two tilt against the division rival Buccaneers. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater threw two interceptions, fumbled, while Robby Anderson contributed another fumble totaling four turnovers in a 31-17 loss. On the bright side, however, Bridgewater has completed over 70% of his passes and has been quite efficient over the course of his career. And the Panthers have converted over 54% of their third down attempts. But limiting the turnovers figures to be a major point of emphasis after a sloppy performance.
They’ll be facing a stingy Chargers defense that gave up just 23 points to the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs last week, a game that ended with the Chiefs winning in overtime, 23-20.
Los Angeles has only recorded four sacks so far this season, but their defensive front is a force to be reckoned with as they’ve hit the quarterback an additional fourteen times. And they present one of the league’s best pass rushing duos in Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa. But the Chargers placed Ingram on IR Saturday, leaving Bosa as the team’s clear top pass rusher this week. Since Bridgewater is very much a pocket passer, it will be imperative for the Panthers to not only set up the run to execute play action, but also for the offensive line to produce quality tackle play.
And although they lost promising young safety Derwin James for the season, the Chargers still have one of the better defensive back groups in the NFL in newly acquired all-pro cornerback Chris Harris Jr., along with pro bowler Casey Hayward and Desmond King. Carolina’s young group of receivers will surely be put to the test as they face one of the better secondary’s they’ll see this season.
Defensively, the Panthers will likely be going up against rookie quarterback Justin Herbert, who’s set to make his second NFL start in place of the injured Tyrod Taylor. All things considered, Herbert looked quite good in his debut last week against the Chiefs. Aside from an ill-advised throw resulting in an interception, Herbert led the Chargers to a 20-20 tie at the end of regulation, throwing for one touchdown and running for another. His mobility could present an issue for the Panthers. They’ll be relying heavily on outside contain and may need to implement a spy to avoid allowing big lanes for Herbert to exploit up the middle.
They have a one-two punch in the backfield with Joe Kelley and Austin Ekeler. Kelley has emerged as a quality two-down back while Ekeler is effective in a variety of ways, especially in the passing game as he’s established himself as one of the better receiving running backs in the NFL. The Panthers know how dangerous a threat like that can be. Both allow each other to stay fresh and can wear on a defense as the game goes on. They’re currently averaging 169 yards rushing per game as a team, and average just over three minutes per drive which ranks tenth in the league. If the Panthers can quell the Chargers’ run game early and force Herbert to beat them through the air, they’ll have a much better chance of winning on Sunday. Veteran defensive tackle Kawann Short has been ruled out due to a foot injury, however, which is a big hit to their front. His absence is a huge loss, and will require the rookie Derrick Brown and edge Brian Burns to shoulder more of the impact.
Carolina has had its issues in the secondary through the first couple weeks of the season, and although they’ll be going up against a rookie quarterback, they’ll have to face off against some quality receivers. Keenan Allen is one of the better route runners in the NFL, and Mike Williams is a consistent deep threat that often makes contest catches. The Panthers corners are going to need to be physical off the line, and re-route the Chargers receivers to slow their rhythm down thus creating more opportunities for the pass rush to get to Herbert. Carolina has yet to record a sack this season, so Brian Burns, Derrick Brown and company will be challenged this week to collapse that pocket.
If the Panthers can find consistency on the ground, win the turnover battle, and get to the quarterback this week, they may just be looking at their first win of the season.