Panthers offensive line vastly improved with unexpected help

Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart rushed for 123 yards and a touchdown in the team's playoff opener against the Cardinals behind a retooled offensive line.

Bob Donnan/Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — As early as training camp, it was obvious to most observers that the offensive line of the Carolina Panthers was going to be a major weak spot. There were essentially four positions being held by new players.

The only mainstay was star center Ryan Kalil, but not even he, whom many consider to be the best center in the NFL, could prevent this offensive line from being one of the worst in the league. And so it was for the first two-thirds of the season.

But a funny thing happened on the way to one of the worst records in the NFL: two starters that had played poorly all season on the offensive line went down with injuries. With nothing to lose, Mike Remmers and Andrew Norwell were called to start at different points in the season, and what transpired was a relatively solidified line for the first time all season, which helped the Panthers piece together a winning streak and win the NFC South division.

After beating Arizona in the wild-card round with a new-found running game, Carolina now travels to take on the Seattle Seahawks, the defending NFL champions, on Saturday night.

For the first time all season, four of the five linemen actually have a positive grade in analytics. The lone exception is left tackle Byron Bell, who statistically speaking is having one of the worst years in the NFL for a tackle. But the other four are performing at a high level, helping spark the sudden emergence of a running game with tailback Jonathon Stewart.

"It’s taken a while, unfortunately, because of the mixing and matching, but I think they’re giving us an opportunity," Panthers coach Ron Rivera said of the offensive line earlier in the year.

However, when Remmers was called upon to start at right tackle it seemed as though the team had reached a low point and that there was no digging out of it. Norwell had been starting three weeks earlier at left guard and Carolina was 3-7-1 heading into the Minnesota game. In that game against the Vikings, Remmers played relatively well. The following week at New Orleans, with the season on the brink of catastrophe, Remmers, Norwell and the rest of the offensive line played very well.

The Panthers had found their line. Three of their starters went undrafted.

Remmers joined the team on Oct. 28, after being plucked off the Rams practice squad. He was one of the last players to get cut by Minnesota at the end of training camp. Before that, he played one game as a member of San Diego. He was with Denver and Tampa Bay at various times, too. To say Remmers, 25, was a journeyman would be an understatement. That may not be the case any longer.

"He played to his strengths," Rivera said following the Minnesota game. "He’s got good footwork, good hand placement and he moves well. He’s a smart, crafty guy. He understands what we’re doing. He did some good things. We did some things to help him as well, and as a whole I thought the unit did a nice job."

Then there’s Norwell, a 23-year-old rookie out of Ohio State. He’s taken over the left guard spot and has turned a weakness into a strength.

Now, the Panthers seemingly have a very strong middle for the foreseeable future with rookie Trai Turner holding down the spot at right guard. Instead of needing three new offensive linemen for next season, it appears as though Carolina only needs to find a new left tackle.

"If there is anything, I think the play of our inside guys — our center and our two guards — have been really physical at the point of attack," Rivera said. "And Mike Remmers coming in and solidifying the right side as of now for us."