We’re three days away from a crucial Week 6 matchup between the Minnesota Vikings and Carolina Panthers. In order to learn more about the 3-2 Panthers, I enlisted the help of Walker Clement of Cat Scratch Reader for our weekly Five Good Questions segment. Our Q&A is below.
1. While the Vikings won last week and the Panthers lost, both fan bases came away saying the same thing after losing double-digit leads at home: “What the hell was that?!” Was Carolina’s Week 5 loss just one of those dumb games that would have you made you throw down your controller if it happened in Madden, or did it expose some long-term problems with the team going forward?
Why can’t it be both? The ultimate takeaway from that game was that Sam Darnold is not ready to be a quarterback under pressure. He is an OK quarterback who has very good moments when he is not pressured. He is an agent of chaos otherwise. The bad news for him—and for Panthers fans—is that he is likely to be under pressure early and often for the rest of the season. The Panthers offensive line is bad. It is also hurt, which frequently makes it worse.
There is some hope of original starting left tackle and left guard Cam Erving and Pat Elflein returning this week. That may yield mild improvements across the offense, or it may reveal that the Panthers need more help than they can currently find.
2. The first three games of Sam Darnold as a Panther were all sunshine and rainbows. The last two were extremely Adam Gase-y, with Darnold taking eight sacks and throwing five interceptions. Can Joe Brady and Matt Rhule get Darnold back on track going forward, or are these peaks and valleys simply part of the Darnold-coaster?
It’s early yet, I guess, but optimism is definitely waning across the Carolinas. Darnold has the ability to be accurate with the football and he has the ability to push the ball down the field. Those are both good abilities to have as a quarterback. I would categorize him as a good thrower. His problem comes in processing the field and making decisions. He doesn’t see defenders that are outside of his tunnel vision and he often locks onto favorite targets. Think DJ Moore and Christian McCaffrey, when healthy. This is what sets him apart from being a good passer.
Whether or not Rhule and Brady can coach him above those limitations or lower their gameplans beneath them is a matter that is still being determined. The Panthers being 3-2 isn’t as simple as McCaffrey being out, but it may be as simple as opposing coaches having time to study the ‘new’ Darnold.
3. Like Laney Boggs in She’s All That, nobody expected much from the Panthers defense, but they suddenly look incredible. Carolina is second in yards allowed, third in points allowed, and second in defensive DVOA. Who and what is making the defense perform so well early in the season?
Speed. Not amphetamines or the Keanu Reeves/Sandra Bullock classic, but pure, physical, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other-more-quickly-than-seems-reasonable speed. Haason Reddick and Brian Burns are insanely fast off the edges and defensive coordinator Phil Snow has been having the time of his life using that to set them and their teammates up for success. Look for a lot of pressure packages that bring extra rushers from every position and every gap—though not always at the same time. Half of this defense’s reputation has been built on the ability of Snow to overwhelm an offensive line’s communication to the point that a speedy Panther is allowed an unhindered path to the quarterback.
The other half of their reputation has come from a secondary playing at an elite level. The synergy between pass rush and coverage has made it extremely hard for quarterbacks not named Dak Prescott to find any consistent success through the air.
4. Name one Panthers player on offense and one player on defense that Vikings fans may not be familiar with, but could have a big impact on the outcome of Sunday’s game.
On offense you are looking at rookie tight end Tommy Tremble, whose early season success left the team feeling comfortable enough to trade away starting tight end Dan Arnold to the Jacksonville Jaguars. He’s technically a tight end, but offensive coordinator Joe Brady sees him as much more. You’ll see him line up as a full back, a running back, and a wide receiver. Imagine if the Saints ever used and paid Taysom Hill responsibly (though Tremble has yet to be considered for passing duties) and you’ll get an idea of what the Panthers hope he can be.
Jermaine Carter is your unsung hero on defense. He is the starting middle linebacker and, with Shaq Thompson missing a second straight week due to injury, he will be their chief enforcer in the running game. Carter was a fifth round pick three years ago who toiled as a roster bubble guy, but ultimately grew into the heir of Luke Kuechly’s role. Nobody is Kuechly, but Carter has definitely eased the fans into the idea that he’s never coming back.
5. Prediction time! This one’s a two-parter. First: who wins on Sunday? (You can give “if McCaffrey plays” and “if McCaffrey doesn’t play” answers if you want.) Second: do you think the Carolina Panthers will make the playoffs this season?
I think the Vikings win. I was confident last week of a win over the Eagles, but that was because I was too optimistic about Darnold’s progression and the ability of the coaching staff to mask their offensive line issues. Now it is time for me to overreact based on last week’s result and assume doom and gloom.
As for the playoffs, I think anything is actually possible. The offensive line performance of the last two weeks could be an Achilles heel or an aberration due to injuries. We’ll find out with time. If they can protect Darnold and get him to calm down when pressured then I think the sky’s the limit for this team. But they’ll never accomplish the latter goal without making great strides against the challenges preventing the former. It’s a lot to ask and, as a Panthers fan who has never seen consecutive winning seasons, I’ll believe it when I see it.
Thanks again to Walker for all of the great information and what to watch for on Sunday. It should be a fascinating matchup at Bank of America Stadium. Stay tuned for much more as we approach kickoff.