Game preview: Football Team at Panthers

Carolina Panthers

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WSPA) – The Football Team at Panthers game is previewed ahead of Sunday’s showdown at Bank of America Stadium.

This is part of a season-long preview series where we’ll break down both teams, primarily the opponent, ahead of the matchup and finish with some ‘keys of the game’ for the Panthers.

*All stats are provided by pro-football-reference.com

Washington Football Team

The Panthers get a Washington squad that is coming off of undoubtedly its signature win of the 2021 season with a 29-19 win over Tampa Bay. But the win was bittersweet for the Football Team as they lost All-Pro defensive end Chase Young for the season due to a torn ACL. But the defense seemed to have returned to form against the Bucs, and they’ll be bringing some momentum into Sunday’s contest in Charlotte.

Taylor Heinicke is the signal caller who was thrust into the role after Ryan Fitzpatrick went down with an injury in the season-opener. He’s not a star in the league by any means, but has flashed his mobility at times, and has a flair for the off-script backyard football approach. He’s playing with house money and that can sometimes be a dangerous thing for opposing defenses. That being said, when facing consistent pressure he can be prone to produce turnovers, something the Panthers will surely be hoping for this weekend. 

They have a solid backfield tandem in Antonio Gibson and J.D. McKissic. Gibson returned from injury last week and instantly produced and was given the heaviest workload of his young career. While he scored two touchdowns, he was held to under three yards per carry. He hasn’t necessarily been the epitome of explosive, but has the capability to wear down defenses over time. And he does possess really good speed when he gets out in space. He was expected to jump into a three down role heading into his second season, but McKissic has been valuable as a third down option and thus is included consistently in the gameplan. He’s one of the better pass catching backs in the league similar to that of James White in New England, and is often relied upon heavily on those possession downs. He’s second on the team in receptions (37) and yards (367), so that just about says it all in terms of his role and how they view him in Washington. 

Terry McLaurin is the primary weapon in the receiving corps and is an up and coming star (though he has had a down year by most standards). He’s elite at getting yards after the catch and his speed can take the top off of almost every defense. He’s both a deep threat and great short-to-medium route runner as well. Look for Carolina to bracket him and probably have Gilmore/Jackson shadow him throughout. 

ATLANTA, GEORGIA – OCTOBER 03: Terry McLaurin #17 of the Washington Football Team makes a touchdown reception in the fourth quarter against the Atlanta Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on October 03, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)

Brandon Scherff is a dominant guard and recently returned from injury. So despite their meager 3-6 record, they’re getting healthier and are a more formidable opponent that in past weeks. Scherff is particularly effective in the run game, so the interior of the Panthers defensive line will be tested. The WFT is likely one more week away from getting tight end Logan Thomas back which will be a huge boost as he is a matchup problem and capable of exploiting man coverage. But for this week it appears Carolina will avoid having to contend with him and even his backup, Ricky Seals-Jones.

On defense, we mentioned the unfortunate injury to the leader of the defensive line in Young, but they have others that create issues for offensive lines. Though it’s important to note they are also without exceptional end/edge rusher Montez Sweat. So this unit has really taken a blow this season. They still have Jonathan Allen, however, who wreaks havoc on the interior, often lined up just a shade inside the guard. At 6’3”, 300 pounds he’s nearly immovable against the run and bull rushes his way to the quarterback routinely. He leads the team in tackles for loss (8) and sacks (6). So while the others are missing, he still makes his presence known on a down by down basis. Their strength is definitely on the interior now, as he’s joined by Da’Ron Payne lined up next to him. Payne, while not as dynamic, is just about as stout in the run game. The matchups with Scherff should be fun to watch in this one. 

DENVER, COLORADO – OCTOBER 31: Jonathan Allen #93 of the Washington Football Team warms up before the game against the Denver Broncos at Empower Field At Mile High on October 31, 2021 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Justin Tafoya/Getty Images)

Below is the WFT injury report as of Friday (11/19)

Carolina Panthers

Following a 34-10 win over the Cardinals, the Panthers announced on Friday that Cam Newton will be the starter this Sunday against Washington. It was largely an inevitability when the team signed the former league MVP a couple weeks ago, and now it appears he will be the guy going forward as the team looks to make a playoff push in the second half of the season.

Cam undoubtedly provided a spark in the locker room and on the field, and that may be just what the Panthers needed after a disappointing start to the Sam Darnold tenure. Cam ran for a score and tossed another in the blowout win over Arizona and now will take full command of the offense that still runs through Christian McCaffrey.

McCaffrey has officially returned to providing his usual impact on the game. Despite playing fewer than 60% of the snaps last week, he still managed an incredible ten catches and 161 total yards. And although he only has one touchdown this season, that low number likely won’t be sustained as the weeks go on. And if the Panthers hope to stay in contention they’ll need to continue featuring him as the primary weapon that he is. So while we’ve seen him being eased into the games with fewer snaps, his usage will ramp up in the coming weeks and may even start this Sunday.

We’ve yet to see how much Cam will impact the passing game, particularly the production from the receivers, since he has just four attempts but it’s clear that his rushing threat could open up other opportunities that their other options at quarterback haven’t been able to do. Look for some big play opportunities to get D.J. Moore back into a rhythm and get Robby Anderson involved downfield.

Defensively, they’re as healthy as they’ve been all year and it’s coming together at the right time. They showed improvement against the run last week and look to build on that against a run-heavy unit in Washington. The front seven will have their chance to create the narrative early on.

GLENDALE, ARIZONA – NOVEMBER 14: Quarterback Cam Newton #1 of the Carolina Panthers reacts during the NFL game at State Farm Stadium on November 14, 2021 in Glendale, Arizona. The Panthers defeated the Cardinals 34-10. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Below is the Panthers injury report as of Friday (11/19)

Key to the game

Win the turnover battle: The Panthers’ defense has collected two takeaways in each of the past three games, but the offense hasn’t pulled its weight in that department. The biggest contribution they could ask from Cam and the offense this week is to avoid the crucial mistakes. The offense has turned the ball over three times on three occasions this season (team has a -7 turnover differential). All of those were losses.

Stick with CMC: It’s probably extremely tempting for fans, and perhaps even the staff to want to unleash Cam. And that’s understandable. But it’s also understandable that he hasn’t really played in about a year and may need a game or two to get back into the swing of things. This is still a McCaffrey-led unit, and they can take advantage of a weakened defensive line with his skillset. Ride the CMC train.

Take away McLaurin: Terry McLaurin is by far their most lethal weapon on offense. And while there are some decent playmakers surrounding him, he sets the tone. He’s been held to four or fewer catches five times this year, and they’re 0-5 in those games. There’s a formula to beating this team. If the Panthers take him out of the equation, they’ll force an inexperienced Heinicke and their run game to beat them. If you’re Carolina, you’ll like those odds .

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