The Carolina Panthers, like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, have a new quarterback under center in 2020. However, the Panthers also have a new coaching staff, three rookies starting on defense, a Luke Kuechly-sized hole in the middle of that defense, two new starters on the offensive line and a new deep threat in the passing game. It's safe to say it's a season of change in Charlotte.
One thing remains the same, however: Christian McCaffrey is the engine of the Panthers' offense and he almost never leaves the field. The Panthers gave McCaffrey a new $64 million contract in the offseason, for good reason, and he celebrated by opening the season with a 134-yard, two-touchdown outing in Week One against Las Vegas, in a game in which he played 65 of a possible 67 offensive snaps.
How a team intends to slow down McCaffrey is the top storyline for any Carolina foe, and last year that story was a good one for Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers' top-ranked run defense held the dynamic Panthers back to 68 rushing yards in two meetings, and he got 110 yards from scrimmage overall. In his other 14 outings in 2019 McCaffrey averaged 94.2 rushing yards and 163.0 yards from scrimmage.
That still only bought the Buccaneers a split in the season series, with a thrilling 20-14 Thursday night win for the Bucs in Charlotte balanced by a dominant 37-26 decision for the Panthers in London four weeks later. The stakes in this year's series are high for the Buccaneers; having already dropped a Week One contest in New Orleans, the Bucs may need to sweep the Panthers in 2019 to have a chance to run down the Saints in the NFC South race.
Carolina also lost its season-opener, with Jon Gruden's Las Vegas Raiders leaving Charlotte with a 34-30 win that came down to the wire. That was the Panthers debut for new Head Coach Matt Rhule and Cam Newton's replacement, former Saint Teddy Bridgewater. Bridgewater, who was 5-0 in place of an injured Drew Brees last year, performed well in his first Panthers outing, with 270 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions, but Carolina's new-look defense gave up 372 yards, six of 11 third-down conversions and three touchdowns to Vegas back Josh Jacobs.
What Bridgewater and the Panthers did not do in their opener was turn the ball over, but neither did the Carolina defense create any takeaways. In contrast, the three turnovers committed by Tampa Bay in the Superdome on Sunday – not to mention the blocked field goal and nine penalties – were the difference in the Bucs' 34-23 loss to Brees and the Saints. The Bucs believe that having Tom Brady at quarterback in 2020 will greatly reduce their turnovers after they committed a league-high 41 in 2019 but the offense looked like a work in progress in the season opener. Tampa Bay's defense got off to a good start in New Orleans, allowing only 270 yards of offense, but is intent on creating more takeaways of their own.
Carolina's defense is starting first-round draft pick Derrick Brown at defensive tackle, second-round pick Jeremy Chinn at linebacker and fourth-round pick Troy Pride at cornerback. The team's other second-rounder, defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos, is expected to contribute heavily, as well. With Kuechly retired, linebacker Shaq Thompson is now at the heart of that Carolina defense. Just like Brady and the Bucs' offense is dealing with the struggle of creating continuity with some new parts and no offseason or preseason to work them in, the Panthers' defense could take some time to jell, as well.
View the top photos of Tampa Bay's Week 1 matchup against New Orleans.
The Panthers moved on from Head Coach Ron Rivera after a 5-11 season in 2019, bringing Rhule in from the college ranks and hoping he could turn their fortunes around quickly like he did at Temple and Baylor. The Buccaneers are in their second year under Bruce Arians, who also has a history of helping NFL franchises rebound in a hurry. Both the Buccaneers and Panthers want to become the primary threats to the Saints' division dominance, and soon. Here's a closer look at some of the challenges and opportunities the Bucs will encounter in New Orleans when the play their 2020 home opener at Raymond James Stadium:
Joe Brady, the coordinator behind LSU's record-breaking offense last year, joined Rhule in the move to Charlotte, and Brady's first game running the Panthers' show produced a balanced (30 runs, 34 passes) and productive (388 yards, 30 points) attack. Of course, Christian McCaffrey is a baked-in balanced attack; last year he became just the third player to top 1,000 yards on the ground and in the passing game in the same season. Phil Snow came with Rhule from Baylor, where he was the defensive coordinator, and he takes over a unit that should be quite stout in the middle with the rookie Brown joining Kawann Short at defensive tackle. In addition to the three rookie starters, that Panthers' defense also has newcomers at linebacker in Tahir Whitehead and safety with Juston Burris. We don't need to tell you that McCaffrey is the Panthers' number-one difference-maker; here are four more Carolina players who could make things difficult for the Buccaneers on Sunday;
1. WR Robby Anderson. Anderson, the former Jet burner who came to Charlotte as an unrestricted free agent in the offseason, led the Panthers in Week One with six catches for 115 yards. Most of those yards came on a 75-yard touchdown breakaway in the fourth quarter that temporarily gave Carolina a 30-27 lead. Big plays are Anderson's specialty and the reason the Panthers targeted him in free agency. His career average of 14.9 yards per reception is a testament to his speed and he has scored a touchdown on nearly 10% of his NFL receptions (21 TDs on 213 catches). For his part, Anderson may have been motivated to head down to North Carolina after the arrival of Rhule, who was his coach at Temple. Anderson has not yet recorded a 1,000-yard season and he has been criticized for inconsistency at times in his career, but there's no denying that he can change a game quickly by getting behind the defense for a big play.
2. LB Shaq Thompson. Former Raider Tahir Whitehead takes over for the retired Kuechly at middle linebacker but it's Thompson who may take on the mantle as the biggest playmaker in Panthers' defense. In 14 games last year, the speedy Thompson recorded 3.0 sacks, four quarterback hits, three passes defensed and 11 tackles for loss to go with his 109 stops. As that mix of stats suggest, Thompson – who was thought to be something of a "tweener" coming out of Washington – is the kind of versatile linebacker who can hold up in coverage and also rush the passer on occasion. His lateral quickness and good instincts allow him to be around the ball on many plays, and in Week One that resulted in a team-high 12 tackles against the Raiders. Thompson is also being asked to step up as a leader in his sixth season after the departure of Kuechly, which will be an important role with so many rookies and young players being mixed into the defense.
3. T Russell Okung. The Panthers pulled off one of the more interesting trades of the 2020 offseason when they shipped Pro Bowl guard Trai Turner to the Chargers for Okung, who is five years older but plays a more valuable position at left tackle. Carolina has been searching for stability at tackle for several years and to this point are still not starting their 2019 second-round pick Greg Little. Okung, who is considered one of the NFL's steadiest left tackles when healthy, has stepped right in on Teddy Bridgewater's blind side, and in the opener he and the Panthers' front line only allowed one sack. Okung missed 10 games last season with the Chargers due to a pulmonary embolism but prior to that he had started 46 of a possible 48 games from 2016-18 with the Broncos and Chargers. Overall, Okung has 125 career NFL starts at left tackle and is expected to be a stabilizing influence on a young team. The 6-5, 310-pound blocker represents a big obstacle for Tampa Bay's edge rushers on Sunday.
4. DE Brian Burns. The 2019 draft was loaded with impressive edge rushers, which is how Carolina was able to land Burns with the 16th overall pick. The tall (6-5) and long-limbed Burns has speed to burn and can quickly get around the edge on offensive tackles who don't react in time. As a rookie, the former Florida State star contributed 7.5 sacks even though he was on the field for only 43% of the Panthers' defensive snaps. Now starting on a line that saw multiple departures in the offseason, Burns should see a lot more action, which should lead to even more sacks. Burns was on the field for 68% of Carolina's defensive snaps in the Week One game against Las Vegas. He has an explosive first step and get up to top speed quickly, and he also has the ability to bend and dip to get around blockers. Burns is still working on widening his arsenal of pass-rush moves, which if he succeeds will only making him a more of a concern for opposing blockers. According to the NFL's Next Gen stats, Burns needed an average of just 0.75 seconds to cross the line of scrimmage in 2019, the fastest among all edge rushers with at least 200 rush attempts).
Given the new pieces being worked into the attack, particularly at quarterback, the Panthers had an encouraging start to 2020 with 388 total yards, 30 points, no turnovers and only one sack allowed. Last year, Carolina was near the middle of the pack in yards per game and points scored, though the rushing attack centered around McCaffrey did rank sixth with an average of 4.71 yards per carry. Carolina's defense was lacking in big plays and didn't get much pressure on Derek Carr in the opener but in 2019 they were second in sacks per pass play (9.74%) and ninth in interception rate (2.57%). Here are some more specific areas in which the Panthers may excel in 2020, based on last year's performance and the season opener:
· The Panthers were a disciplined team under Rivera in 2019, ranking second in both fewest penalties drawn (87) and fewest penalty yards assessed against them (754). The league averages per team in that category last year were 107.8 and 915.8. Obviously, this could change under a new coaching staff, but Rhule's crew got off to a decent start in that regard, committing just five penalties for 65 yards in the opener.
· Because McCaffrey is a little undersized for an every-down back (5-11, 205) and so quick and elusive in the open field, he might not strike some as a powerful inside runner. That's a misconception, as McCaffrey has found great results running between the tackles in his young career. Last year, he averaged 5.0 yards per carry on inside runs, which was second-best in the NFL (minimum 75 attempts) and his 10 touchdowns on inside runs tied for the league high.
· Buccaneers return man Jaydon Mickens shouldn't expect much work on kickoffs Sunday. That's because Panthers kicker Joey Slye is a touchback machine. The only player with a higher percentage of touchbacks on his kickoffs than Bucs punter Bradley Pinion in 2019 was Slye, who came in at 95.7%. That was 66 touchbacks on 69 kickoffs. No change in 2020 – Slye was six-for-six on kickoff touchbacks in the Panthers' opener.
· With Bridgewater now under center, the Panthers may have gone a long way towards fixing their turnover problem from 2019. Carolina coughed it up 35 times last year, more than any team other than the Buccaneers. Meanwhile, in the five starts he made in place of Brees last year, Bridgewater only threw two interceptions and did not fumble once. Bridgewater's career interception rate is 2.3%; last year, Carolina threw picks at a 3.3% clip. In his first Carolina start, Bridgewater directed an offense that did not commit a single turnover.
Last year, with Kyle Allen primarily at quarterback, the Panthers had a hard time generating downfield plays in their passing attack. They ranked 31st in the league with an average of 5.77 yards per pass play. The Panthers' defense in 2019 was very susceptible to the run, allowing 143.5 rushing yards per game (29th in the NFL) and a league-worst 5.16 yards per carry. Despite the additions of Brown to the middle of the front line, that problem could continue in 2020; the Raiders racked up 133 yards and three touchdowns on the ground Sunday and averaged 4.3 yards per carry. In addition:
· The Panthers sometimes had trouble finishing drives in 2018. They're 78.0% scoring percentage on drives that invaded the opposing red zone was second-lowest in the NFL. That wasn't a problem in the 2020 opener, as Carolina went three-for-three in the red zone, with two touchdowns and one field goal. One game doesn't prove that issue has been resolved, but it's certainly a good start for Rhule's team.
· Similarly, Carolina's defense was not particularly successful in the red zone in 2019. The Panthers allowed a score on 90.6% of red zone drives last year, the sixth-worst mark in the league, and a touchdown on 64.1% of those possessions, which was fourth-worst. That trend did continue into the 2020 opener, as Las Vegas scored on all four its red zone drive, with three touchdowns including the game-winner with four minutes to play.
· The Panthers' defense did not get a lot of stops on medium-range third downs last year. While their numbers on third-and-one were among the league's best, they ranked low in terms of first downs allowed on third downs of every distance from two to six yards. The Panthers' yards allowed on those specific third-down lengths from two to six yards were, respectively, 22nd, 28th, 29th, 30th and 26th. Las Vegas converted six of 11 third downs against Carolina in Week One.
· The Panthers tried six different punt returners in 2019 but didn't find much success with any of them. Overall, Carolina averaged 6.8 yards per punt return on 25 attempts, with 16 fair catches. In contrast, Panthers' opponents averaged 12.2 yards per punt return on 40 attempts, with 16 fair catches. They may have found an answer for 2020 in free agency, as they signed former Cardinal wide receiver Pharoh Cooper. In his first crack at the job on Sunday, Cooper averaged 14.5 yards on two punt returns.
NEW FACES IN 2020
As we noted above, there are a lot of these in Carolina this year, starting with the head coach. In terms of the player roster, the most impactful addition was Bridgewater at quarterback. We've also noted first-round defensive tackle Derrick Brown, veteran left tackle Russell Okung and big-play wide receiver Robby Anderson, plus the impact that Pharoh Cooper has had on the return game. Here are three other Panthers newcomers who have stepped into significant roles.
1. CB Troy Pride. The Panthers waited until the first round to select a replacement for the departed James Bradberry but Pride, a Notre Dame product, wasted no time grabbing a starting spot opposite Donte Jackson. Pride played all but five defensive snaps in the opener and finished with seven tackles. The Panthers will need Pride to play like a seasoned vet in an NFC South loaded with explosive receivers.
2. G John Miller. As mentioned earlier, the Panthers had to give up their Pro Bowl right guard in order to get their left tackle solution in Russell Okung. Stepping into Trai Turner's spot is sixth-year veteran John Miller, whom the Panthers scooped up almost immediately after he was released by Cincinnati in March. Miller has 61 career starts, including 13 at right guard for the Bengals last year. He joined Okung on a line that allowed just one sack in Week One.
3. LB Tahir Whitehead. If Miller has big shoes to fill on the Panthers' line, Whitehead has an even tougher act to follow in the middle of the team's defense. After Kuechly elected to retire after the 2019 season, the Panthers turned to ninth-year veteran Tahir Whitehead, who had been cut by the Raiders. Whitehead, who just missed intersecting with Rhule at Temple, was a four-year starter for the Lions before opening all 32 games in 2018-19 in Oakland. He's topped 100 tackles in each of the last four seasons.
1. Mario Addison/Dontari Poe/Gerald McCoy/Brue Irvin. Those four veterans were among the seven members of the Panthers' defensive front to depart after the 2019 season as the defense went into a deep rebuild. All seven players the Panthers drafted in April were defenders.
2. G Dennis Daley. Daley started nine games at guard for the Panthers last year and was slated to man left guard to open the 2020 season. However, he sat out in Week One due to an ankle injury that could keep him in doubt in Week Two. Daley was replaced by Michael Schofield, who had started all 32 games for the Chargers in 2018 and 2019.
3. CB Eli Apple. The Buccaneers saw Apple twice last year in their games with the Saints but will not have to face him in his new Panthers uniform in Week Two. The Panthers didn't sign Apple until the end of May this offseason but he still might have been the choice to start opposite Donte Jackson instead of the rookie Pride. However, Apple missed time with a hamstring injury during camp and later sustained foot and ankle injuries that caused the Panthers to put him on injured reserve last Monday. Players can come off I.R. in as little as three weeks in 2020, but that won't be in time to face the Buccaneers. Carolina signed CB Rasul Douglas after putting Apple on the reserve list.