Sep 8, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) reacts in pain after suffering an injury in the third quarter against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
A 1-5 start has the Carolina Panthers at the bottom of the league and wondering what has gone wrong after such a promising 2015.
What’s wrong with the Carolina Panthers?
To answer that question it might be easier to list the things that are going right as those are few and far between.
This 2016 Panthers team was expected to build off of their incredible, out of the blue 15-1 season and become a perennial NFC powerhouse. But clearly, through six games, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
At 1-5, Carolina is not only one of the bottom dwellers of the NFC South but also has of the entire conference and league.
So what is wrong with the Panthers and why are they record-wise one of the NFL’s worst team’s this season?
That answers lies on one particular side of the ball and that’s the defense.
From top to bottom this unit, which ranked in the top 10 for the last four years, has completely dropped off to an astounding degree currently ranking 21st overall and tied for second worst in the league allowing 176 points per game.
Sep 8, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Carolina Panthers cornerback Daryl Worley (26) and cornerback James Bradberry (24) against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The Broncos defeated the Panthers 21-20. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
The Carolina secondary is an obvious spot to look at for this decline. After the questionable move to rescind the franchise tag on All-Pro Josh Norman, the Panthers gambled that they could replace him with a slew of untested rookies. And as evidenced by the groups repeated beat downs at the hands of opposing team’s passing attacks, that gamble did not pay off.
The Panthers currently rank as the 25th passing defense in the league in terms of yards allowed (282). A surprisingly high rank considering the team allowed Matt Ryan to throw for over 500 yards and followed it up two weeks later by giving up 465 yards to Drew Brees; the two highest passing totals ever allowed in franchise history.
In fairness to the group, Ryan and Brees are two established, veteran QBs who have been known to light up the stat sheet and they did so without the Panthers top cornerback, second rounder James Bradberry who has performed solidly so far this season before being sidelined with a foot injury the past three weeks.
With Bradberry on the lam and the odd release of Bene Benwikere that left the main cornerback duties to fall to fellow rookies Daryl Worley and Zack Sanchez as well as special teamer Teddy Williams. A trio that simply doesn’t have the talent or experience to compete with such dynamic passing attacks.
What also isn’t helping this cornerback group is the almost equally poor play of their safeties.
Coming off of a career year in which he corralled eight interceptions, Kurt Coleman has had issues both in coverage and in tackling; an area where he’s usually sound. To add to the misery, third year pro Tre Boston has been dreadful in his first year as a starter and has proven to be a disaster in coverage even forcing the team to play newly signed veteran, Michael Griffin, over him.
Sep 8, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Broncos quarterback Trevor Siemian (13) throws a pass under pressure from Carolina Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson (95) during the first half at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The Broncos defeated the Panthers 21-20. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
The Pass Rush
One of the reasons General Manager Dave Gettleman believed he could take the gamble with his secondary was because of the pass rush he thought he had, which might be in worse shape than the secondary if you can believe it.
All offseason long the Panthers D was touted as having one of the league’s premiere front sevens and while the linebacker trio of Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Shaq Thompson remain possibly the NFL’s best, the four defensive linemen in front of them have been a major disappointment.
Third year defensive end Kony Ealy has been a complete non-factor while the man opposite him on the line, Charles Johnson, has continued his decline in play aside from a few plays here and there. Combined, the two have just a half sack through six games. And the two top defensive tackles haven’t been much better. Kawann Short has been the best performer but still hasn’t done much to help out the rest of the defense while Star Lotulelei, normally an under the radar contributor, has certainly stayed that way thus far.
Throwing in Short’s one sack so far, the starting four for Carolina has a combined one and a half sacks; needless to say, an unacceptable number for a group that was supposed to be one of the NFL’s best.
Sep 25, 2016; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) sits on the ground after being sacked for a safety in the first quarter against the Minnesota Vikings at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports
The Panthers offense was supposed to be even better with the return of receiver Kelvin Benjamin. And technically it has.
Carolina currently ranks as the fourth best offense in terms of yards per game (394.3) and sixth in points per game (26.8). But in context with the rest of the season, you’d never think this offense was a top 10 one.
Quarterback Cam Newton has been great for the most part but there have still be instances where he has been unable to get his team moving or has turned the ball over in critical situations like in the red zone against the Saints. And his questionable let up as he crossed the goal line against Atlanta led to a concussion which likely cost Carolina a winnable game against Tampa Bay the following week.
Part of this though isn’t Newton’s fault as his offensive line has come back down to earth after their terrific 2015 season and has had their QB running for his life.
The unit, particularly at tackle, has been inconsistent and allowed Newton to be hit far too often. Not only has it led to 15 sacks already, but it has forced the Panthers QB to become much more erratic and uncomfortable in the pocket as he’s been in a while and also put his health in jeopardy.
Oct 2, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Falcons defensive end Dwight Freeney (93) sacks Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) in the second quarter of their game at the Georgia Dome. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports
The Big Issue
To say that this season means 2015 was a fluke year is flat out wrong. But to say that this 2016 Panthers team lacks the talent at key positions isn’t outlandish.
Career years from players like Coleman and Michael Oher were huge in giving Carolina the season they had last year but it wasn’t everything. The breaks that the Panthers got, like their massive turnover differential, just aren’t going the same way this year. A lot went right in 2015 and those same things appear to be going terribly wrong this year.
The big takeaway from all of this, whether it be the downright regression of the defense or the inconsistency of the offense, is that Carolina is currently incapable of masking their issue.
In previous years, if one unit had a poor game the other would rise up and usually keep the team in it. This year that’s just not the case. The defense hasn’t done much to help this team at all and the offense, for all the good it has shown, simply can’t keep up and overcome it.
At 1-5, the Panthers are teetering on a failed season, if they aren’t already at that point, and they’ll need a lot to go right for them and around them if they hope to crawl back into the playoff picture.