CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WSPA) – The Panthers will be on the road for the second straight week as they take on the Washington Football Team Sunday afternoon, looking to snap a three-game losing streak. The game has been flexed from its original 1:00 p.m. start to 4:05 p.m.
The Panthers continued their trend of close, competitive games in which they lost by one possession last week as they fell to the Green Bay Packers, 24-16. Of their ten losses this season, eight have been by one possession. And those losses have come against quality opponents such as Kansas City, Green Bay, and Tampa Bay.
Receiver D.J. Moore had a fantastic return to the lineup posting a 6-131 line including a 40-yarder. But he was pretty much the lone producer on an otherwise overwhelmed offense. Green Bay got after Teddy Bridgewater, hitting the quarterback six times and recording three sacks in the contest. Bridgewater had some good moments, including a 13-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, but again despite his efficiency it wasn’t enough to propel Carolina to necessary scoring drives consistently, Bridgewater’s scoring run was their only touchdown of the day as the Packers hung on to win by eight.
Christian McCaffrey was out and so it was Mike Davis serving as the lead back. He posted a modest 15 carries for 59 yards, adding two catches. So far this season Davis has 614 yards rushing and five touchdowns to go along with 59 catches for 373 yards and two touchdowns receiving. He’s certainly outperformed expectations and proven to be a quality option behind their all-pro McCaffrey. McCaffrey’s status is still up in the air for this week. He was shut down after not logging a full participation at all last week. While McCaffrey has voiced his desire to return to action this season, many are calling for the team to shut it down in order to ensure his health going into 2021.
Reports on Wednesday were that McCaffrey, Russel Okung, Troy Pride Jr., and Brian Burns did not practice. Head Coach Matt Rhule said on Wednesday that McCaffrey was doubtful for Sunday. We should receive more clarity on the situation as the week unfolds.
And let’s not forget this will be a reunion of sorts as the Panthers will face off against their former coach Ron Rivera, who now leads Washington. Rhule discussed how it will feel to coach against someone who has been a big part of Carolina’s history:
Washington may be 6-8, but they’re not playing anything like their record suggests. Before narrowly falling to the Seahawks last Sunday, they had rattled off four consecutive wins including handing Pittsburgh its first loss of the season.
A big part of their resurgence has been the play of quarterback Alex Smith, who’s story has been shared numerous times this season given his improbable return to the gridiron. After suffering a severe injury to his right leg in 2018, doctors initially told Smith he may lose his leg due to an infection, and there was even risk of death. Two years and several surgeries later, Smith not only is walking again, but playing professional football at age 36. Truly incredible.
Smith missed last week, but is expected back against the Panthers, just in time for Washington to make its final push to become champions of the NFC East. After taking over as the starter in week five, Smith has completed 65% of his passes and led key drives to help the Football Team secure four straight victories. He hasn’t been flashy. In fact, he has yet to throw multiple touchdowns in a game this season, but he’s been exactly what Washington has needed him to be. If for some reason he’s not good to go, second-year quarterback Dwayne Haskins would be in line to get his second straight start, although he’s bene in the headlines for the wrong reasons this week and has come under scrutiny from the team.
They’ve relied on the run and to this point it’s worked well. Before departing with an injury in week 13, Antonio Gibson had emerged as a top threat in the backfield, both as a rusher and receiver. Gibson has 659 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns as well as 32 catches for 233 yards. At 6’2” 220 lbs, he’s one of the bigger backs this team will face this season and he can wear defenses down as the game goes on. It’s a tough matchup for Carolina, who has had its issues against the run this season. His outlook for return in week 16 seems promising as well, so the Panthers may very likely have to contend with the rookie sensation, among others.
J.D. McKissic has produced well as the team’s third down and change-of-pace back. He has 67 catches for 482 yards and a touchdown to go along with 350 yards and a score on the ground. They utilize both options pretty evenly, and are effective with check downs/screens. Peyton Barber is the other option at running back. He’s gotten some more significant time since Gibson’s injury, but will likely be downgraded to just a few touches if both Gibson and McKissic are healthy.
On the perimeter is second-year wideout Terry McLaurin, who is quickly establishing himself as one of the best young receivers in the league. McLaurin leads the team with 80 catches for 1,048 yards. He also has three touchdowns this season. He’s a big play threat, averaging 13.5 yards per reception and is great at getting yards after the catch. Logan Thomas has been a prolific tight end this season, and a primary red zone threat. The 6’6” 250-pounder has 570 yards this season and a team-leading five touchdown catches.
But the bread and butter of this team is the defensive line. Stacked with four first-round selections, the Washington front four is perhaps the best in the NFL. Leading the way is the front runner for Defensive Rookie of the Year, Chase Young. The rookie out of Ohio State is a nightmare for opposing tackles. He hasn’t lit up the stat sheet, but his impact from play to play cannot go unnoticed. His sheer power off the snap and intelligence against the run is rare for such a young player. He has 5.5 sacks to go along with three forced fumbles, a fumble return touchdown, and eight QB hits. Next up is their 2018 first round selection, Da’Ron Payne. Payne is a force on the interior and stellar against the run, plugging gaps and routinely throwing off blocking schemes. The 2017 first round selection, Johnathan Allen, is next. He, too, excels against the run similarly to Payne, but also provides a great power rush to push the pocket. His force against guards/centers has contributed to his 13 QB hits this season. And finally on the other end is Montez Sweat, the 2019 first-rounder. He leads the team with seven sacks, and 16 QB hits. Just a monster of a pass rusher who also adds a team-high ten tackles for loss. Perhaps an underrated aspect of his game is his ability to get his hands up and block passing lanes. He has six pass deflections, leading all linemen on the team. At 6’6” he has the most range along the line.
They invested heavily on their defensive line, and it shows. Cornerbacks Kendall Fuller and Ronald Darby, as well as safety Landon Collins, are quality veteran defensive backs who provide a solid element on the back end. And Ryan Kerrigan is a good situational pass rusher to add to the defense. But it still starts and ends with that line.
The Panthers will draw a highly motivated Washington team that’s fighting to hand onto its divisional standing, but Carolina has plenty to play for as well.
No, they’re not going to make the postseason, but this team has been working towards an understanding of what they are this season. Competitive seems to be a word that fits them well, which means they’re not a cake walk for any team no matter what kind of momentum they may be bringing into the contest. Carolina is still developing its cohesion both on offense and defense, and with two more games to do it, they’ll be motivated to end the year on the high note.
Obviously for the offense it’s going to be how they handle the front four. Can they establish the run and get the ball into the hands of their playmakers quickly? If so, they’ll be able to mitigate the damage that defensive line can inflict, thus giving them the best chance to win on Sunday.
For the defense, it comes back to the line again. Washington has utilized its running backs heavily this season, and so the Panthers can expect to see a lot of it. Carolina needs to get a push in the backfield, force the running backs to earn the big plays, and perhaps they can throw the Football Team off its original plan. If they can hold Washington to fewer than one hundred yards rushing while also producing a few splash plays on offense, they could very well walk away with a win going into the regular season finale.