Defense, running game instill confidence in Panthers

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A fleeting upswing in a floundering campaign or the moment everything flipped
in a playoff season?
That’s the question the Carolina Panthers are faced with following a dominant 38-0 win against the
Giants.

The next couples of weeks will tell the tale.

“I
think [the win] can be the catalyst, most certainly,” Panthers coach Ron
Rivera
said. “You look for something that can be a hallmark game, the game that
everyone points to and says, ‘Wow, that’s the one that really got
things rolling.’ But it will be no effect if we don’t do what we need to
do next week.”

The Panthers are on their bye week,
and sure, three of the next four games come on the road, but those four
opponents are a combined 2-11 on the season. That’s exactly the type of slate
the Panthers need to climb back into contention before a Week 8 home
date with the Falcons.

There
was an admitted annoyance from players with the bye week coming right after playing their best
football, but Rivera said it comes at a critical time because it allows
some of the veterans in the secondary to get back to full health. It would help if
they also return with the type of confidence they didn’t have earlier in the season — the late loss in Buffalo was about
as bad as it could get, but nothing could have wiped the slate clean
better than the largest margin of victory in franchise history.

“I
think the team feels very good about itself. It’s one of those things
if we
could have done it the week before we’d feel even better, but we didn’t,”
Rivera said. “This has to be something we have to build on, but we also
have to be realistic. … We have not arrived where we need to be by any
stretch of the imagination so we have to approach
each week as a developing, learning, growing situation and keep shooting
for the top of the mountain.”

After a 38-0 victory over a team that won the Super Bowl two years ago,
are
the Panthers really flying under the radar?

The bulk of the national talk seems
to center around “How Bad Are The Giants?’ headlines. So where’s the positive feedback for the Panthers?

“It’s
not fair. Again, you’d like to point at some of the things that
happened
in the game and say, ‘Wow, we’ve been doing it since we started in the
preseason. Our defense has played well in the preseason,’” Rivera said.
“You’d like to say, ‘Hey, we deserve a little bit more attention,’ but
that’s alright. Believe me I got no problem flying
under the radar.”

The
Panthers are mostly flying under the radar at this point because of
preseason
expectations and the fact that they’re 1-2. But the NFC as a whole is down. There’s only five teams in the conference holding a
better record than the Panthers. So the thought of them being a playoff
team isn’t unrealistic. The confidence around
the organization seems to stem from this team being built differently
than seasons prior. This team is built on defense and a
power running game so far.

Wide
receiver Ted Ginn came to Charlotte from the San Francisco 49ers, so he knows what a playoff
football team looks like after playing in last season’s Super Bowl
and believes this team has the right ingredients. The
running attack is similar with a dual-threat quarterback and a power
running game. So is the defense built around a stout
front seven — Ginn referenced the similarities between linebackers Luke Kuechly and Patrick Willis and quarterbacks Colin Kaepernick and Cam Newton.

“Very similar,” Ginn said of the two teams. “It’s the same type of deal.”

The
Panthers defense was great in the latter half of the season a year ago,
but
has played that way from the outset this year. They’re only allowing 12
points per game (fourth-best in the NFL) and are more physical at
the point of attack on both sides of the ball.

They
have also embraced a more physical style on the offensive side of the
ball
with new offensive coordinator Mike Shula, who has demanded to get back
to an enhanced emphasis on the ground-and-pound approach. There’s no arguing with
the results so far. DeAngelo Williams is fourth in the NFL in rushing
with 291 yards and the Panthers are third
in the NFL as a team with 151 yards per game on the ground.

“I don’t think there’s any difference [with me], we’re just a more balanced offense,”
Williams said. “I think the new offensive coordinator is establishing the identity of our offense.”

That
identity has reinvigorated Williams, who is averaging 4.7 yards per
carry
and leading the team in rushing after Newton did a season ago. He had
his best week yet against the Giants with 120 yards on 23 carries,
cracking the century mark for the first time since breaking off 210
yards in a season-finale win against the Saints last year.
Rivera said he didn’t think
it was a coincidence that Williams’ best week came the first week
they had all the starters back healthy on
the offensive line, either.

“He’s
just hitting the hole hard. When he’s going and he knows where he wants
to go, he hits that crease and it’s one cut and he lowers his shoulder
and go. There’s not a lot of dancing, he’s very decisive. He has great
vision right now and he knows when he needs to cut back,” Rivera said.
“He’s going to see a crease, stick that foot
in the ground and go vertical. He’s not going to go side to side. It’s,
‘I’m over here, I see the crease, I’m downhill, I go and I take my seven,
eight, nine yards in a chunk.’ If it becomes more, great.”

Probably
not a coincidence either that Williams best game comes on the heels
of Newton’s best game rushing, too. Williams says he notices defenses
accounting for Newton’s runs the more he gets free and as defenses
implement a linebacker spy on Newton, the running lanes open up.

“Sometimes
it’s just the threat, the possibility that may happen that could
help open up some other things. He starts that right read and that
defensive ends looking right at him. Now all the sudden he thinks Cam’s
gonna pull it but he steps outside to get cam and he hands it to
DeAngelo who makes one cut and is gone for 15 yards,”
Rivera said. “That’s the thing that I think that’s important about it
more than anything else – It’s the possibility of what could happen.”

If Panthers keep up what they’re doing at both lines of scrimmage, there’s a
good possibility they’ll be headed for the Playoffs. 

And that’s a long ways from Buffalo.