CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Ideally, bye weeks come in the middle of the season when NFL teams are battered and bruised and need time to get everybody back on the mend.
Not the case for the 1-2 Panthers. Their bye came at about the worst time possible — a week after a 38-0 thrashing of the Giants and only four weeks into the season.
That momentum may have partially subsided, leading up to Carolina’s road clash with Arizona (2-2). But the Panthers are still excited to get back on track.
“I think [our confidence is] good. I don’t think we feel great right now. We’re 1-2, and we beat a team who is now 0-4,” tight end Greg Olsen said. “So do we feel good that we won? Yeah. Are we ready to crown ourselves as anything more than a 1-2 team that is looking to get better? No.”
That’s the question heading into this game: Who are these Panthers?
The team that faced the Giants was dominant at the point of attack when running the ball, and had a defensive front four that made New York’s offensive line look more like a sift than an obstruction. Even the back four, which had been mediocre at best early on, was locked in.
“We’ve been confident since the first game. It’s just taking the steps necessary to go out there and play successful,” linebacker Luke Kuechly said. “We’ve done well in parts of games, and the confidence needs to continue for a whole game.”
That mojo, especially offensively, won’t be as easy to regain. The Cardinals boast the No. 2 rushing defense in the league and held Doug Martin to just 45 yards on 27 carries last week — behind a stout front three of Calais Campbell, Dan Williams and Darnell Dockett.
Arizona’s passing defense is more vulnerable, giving up 242 yards through the air. But the Cardinals still have an array of playmakers in the secondary, starting with Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu.
Cam Newton lit the Cardinals up for 422 yards in his NFL debut two years ago at University of Phoenix Stadium — a game the Panthers still lost, 28-21. Both squads have undergone changes since that September 2011 outing.
For one, Newton currently ranks last in the league in passing yards at 170 per game (numbers skewed by the bye), and the Panthers have relied on the NFL’s No. 3 rushing game (anchored by DeAngelo Williams).
Simply put, the Panthers and Cardinals provide a strength-vs.-strength breakdown, pitting Carolina’s offense against Arizona’s defense.
“Those guys have a nice little front seven. We’ve been running the ball really well, so we just have to execute, come out and stay focused,” right tackle Byron Bell said. “Our defense has been giving us a good look, and those guys are top against the run also. You just have to go out there and execute and continue doing what we’ve been doing.”
That’s the key to this game for the Panthers — being able to stick with the identity they’ve established offensively … and not fall into a one-dimensional passing attack.
“When it comes to us, it can’t be any different than what we’ve been doing,” Newton said. “We can’t let those guys dictate to us, we have to do the dictating. Just play Panther football. If we go in there and execute I feel as if we’ll have a great chance to be good in this game.”
Newton’s passing attack can go a long way toward preventing the Cardinals’ 3-4 defense from stacking the proverbial box against the run.
Newton’s teammates have praised his leadership and decision-making, in terms of not forcing the action. But like the rest of the offense, the passing attack has been inconsistent at times; Newton said the bye week allowed him to go back and self-critique the season, to date.
“Just consistency, ball location, and just the things that I feel like I can control like leadership,” Newton said of his targeted improvements. “My percentage down field can be better.”
That’s the overarching theme from the bye week for the offense: There’s been progress but not close to where they can be.
The offensive line, for example, gave up six sacks against the Bills but held the Giants to just one sack and blew open holes for a 194-yard rushing effort.
Center Ryan Kalil attributes that to having continuity with the same starting lineup for the second week in a row, with left guard Amini Silatolu back healthy.
“Anytime you can have continuity and guys you’ve played with before it always helps. I think the thing that’s been great for us. Even though some of those guys have been down, we’ve gotten a lot of guys reps, a lot of guys have gotten some experience,” Kalil said.
“And that will just help us down the road with our depth because I can attest after my injury last year you don’t know what’s going to happen. Fortunately for us, we have some really incredible depth now.”
That’s a far cry from where the Panthers were heading into the first week of the season, forced to sign Travelle Wharton just to have eight healthy offensive lineman.
“We try to improve every week. I think we’ve done that. From week to week I’ve seen (the offensive line) grow and gel as a unit,” Williams said.