The Carolina Panthers were red hot to start the year. Three straight wins to open the season sealed the Panthers as an ascending team led by Jets’ castaway Sam Darnold. Many were dubious about the Panthers’ offense, given their feeble schedule to start the season.
The Jets, Saints, and Texans were the first three games of the season, and the Panthers defeated the three teams by a combined score of 69-30. The Saints were missing multiple offensive coaches due to COVID-19 protocols during the week two matchup. Nevertheless, the Panthers were eager to prove their legitimacy in a week four matchup against the Dallas Cowboys.
Carolina’s Week 3 game was on Thursday Night Football, given the Panthers an extended week to prepare for Dallas. The extra time did not help as the Cowboys defeated the Panthers 36-28. Carolina preceded to lose the following two games and is now 3-3, with Darnold heading back to MetLife stadium for the first time since the trade.
Christian McCaffrey injured his hamstring in the Week 3 24-9 victory against the Texans. McCaffrey, one of the more dangerous playmakers in the NFL, was just put on Injured Reserve last week, meaning he’ll have to miss the next two games. Darnold and the Panthers’ offense have struggled to adapt without McCaffrey.
In this three-game losing streak, the Panthers have been out-scored 91-74. They currently rank 16th in scoring offense, 15th in passing offense, 17th in rushing offense, and 18th in yards per game. They’re also sixth in total offensive plays ran.
Panthers head coach Matt Rhule has acknowledged the recent offensive struggles. Rhule stated that Darnold “wasn’t playing well” and expressed his discontent with the current state of the offense. He said offensive coordinator Joe Brady and quarterbacks coach Sean Ryan have to help Darnold out and that the offense turns the football over entirely too much.
Rhule also added this quote to dilute direct criticism that may have been interpreted solely at Darnold:
“Everyone on offense, every receiver, every tight end, every back, every O-lineman, their job is to help our quarterback play well. We are not getting that done.”
The Giants are playing poor football, and it seems like the foundation of Joe Judge’s support is starting to crumble. The Panthers aren’t exactly a bastion of stability at the moment. If there was ever a time to rally and pull this despondent Giants’ team together, it’s in week seven at home against a Panthers team on a three-game losing streak with a turnover-prone Sam Darnold at quarterback.
Winning football games seems like an impractical result for the Giants at the moment. The depth of the hole dug for the 2021 season is approaching six feet, and the ground isn’t getting any harder. Joe Judge preaches that the team is getting better every week, but there is little to substantiate the claim.
A 1-5 start isn’t what Giants fans hoped for, and it’s certainly not the start the fans deserve. Let’s look at this Panthers offense and see what this 29th-ranked Giants defense is up against in Week 7.
Sam Darnold, the former third overall pick in the 2018 draft by the New York Jets, who was recently traded to the Panthers. Darnold had one interception through the first three games, but he’s thrown six in the last three. He’s always been a bit reckless with the football, and he can be baited into bad decisions. He has a 61 percent completion rate for 1,573-yards with seven touchdowns and seven interceptions.
At one point of the season, Darnold led the league in rushing touchdowns. He’s a threat near the goal line on read-option plays that put defenders into conflict. Darnold has five rushing touchdowns on the year, five fumbles, and 102 yards on the ground. The Giants defense has struggled to apply consistent pressure, and offensive coordinators have carved Patrick Graham’s coverages while exploiting mismatches in man coverage. Joe Brady will do his best to assist Darnold in finding the crevices in Graham’s coverage as he returns to MetLife Stadium.
With McCaffrey on IR, rookie Chuba Hubbard has been an adequate replacement. Hubbard was a fourth-round selection who had top-15 buzz heading into his senior season after an incredibly productive junior year for the Cowboys. Hubbard didn’t live up to the expectations, and his 2020 season wasn’t as productive, so he slid to the draft’s fourth round.
Hubbard is explosive, shifty, and can catch the ball out of the backfield. He’s not overly powerful, and he’s still learning the nuances of finding cut-back lanes. He has 72 carries for 281 yards (3.9 YPC), with one rushing touchdown. Hubbard also has 13 catches for 82 yards. Expect a heavy dose of Hubbard next week, as the Panthers look to establish their running game. He’s played north of 60 percent of the snaps in the last two games.
The Panthers also have former Denver Broncos’ running back Royce Freeman, who played 23 snaps against the Vikings. He doesn’t see much work in terms of production, but the Panthers used him in pass protection last week. He’s more reliable than Hubbard, and Freeman recently received an uptick when the Panthers released Rodney Smith from their practice squad early last week.
D.J. Moore is a top receiver in the NFL. He’s a 24-year-old with exceptional body control, athletic ability, and big playmaking skills. He’s effective at all three levels of the field and has caught 40 of his 62 targets for 513 yards and three touchdowns. Rhule and Joe Brady scheme a lot of their offense around Moore’s skillset. He did have three egregious drops against the Vikings last week.
Speaking of three drops, Robby Anderson had the trifecta last week as well. Anderson sees a lot of targets but hasn’t done much with the attention so far this season. He too will be returning to MetLife Stadium for the first time since leaving the Jets after the 2019 season. Anderson has 15 catches on 38-targets for 191-yards and two touchdowns.
Brady reunited with Terrace Marshall after the 2021 NFL Draft. Marshall was Brady’s big slot at LSU, where the duo was a part of the epic 2019 LSU Championship team led by Joe Burrow. Marshall is a big-bodied threat who moves very well for someone with his 6-foot-3, 200-pound frame. Marshall’s availability is in question as he’s dealing with a concussion suffered against the Vikings.
Small school (Concordia) 2017 UDFA Brandon Zylstra is the number four receiver on the team. He has caught all eight of his targets for 139 yards and a touchdown this season. Zylstra is on the roster primarily for his special teams’ ability but has done well in his limited role when asked to play offense.
Shi Smith is another receiver the Panthers selected in the 2021 NFL Draft. The former South Carolina Gamecock is an undersized sixth-round pick who saw his first action after Marshall’s injury last week. He caught two Darnold passes for 20 yards. He’s explosive and dangerous in space with the football in his hands.
Dan Arnold and Sam Darnold were the best alliteration tandem in the NFL, but the Panthers sent Arnold and some draft capital to the Jaguars for CJ Henderson. Arnold was an actual receiving threat for Darnold, and rookie Tommy Tremble also can be a good receiving asset from the tight-end position.
Tremble only has three catches on the season, but he is a bit more impactful as a receiver than Ian Thomas, the primary tight end on the roster. Thomas played 40 snaps and Tremble 38 on Sunday. Thomas is a thick 260-pound tight end who offers upside as a blocker. He’s not the greatest athlete, but he’s a quality asset in the trenches.
Colin Thompson is the third tight end who sees the field on the rare occasion when the Panthers align in 13 personnel or want to go in big personnel. Thompson doesn’t have a target on the season and has played in 58 snaps.
According to Pro Football Focus, the Panthers’ offensive line ranks 27th in pass-blocking grade and 21st in run blocking. Their best offensive lineman is right tackle Taylor Moton, a player who was just resigned by the Panthers - a second-round selection by Dave Gettleman. Moton is 6-5, 325 pounds, and he’s yet to allow a sack this season. When he’s healthy, he’s one of the top right tackles in the NFL.
Guard John Miller plays next to Moton on the right side. He’s not an agile guard, and this could be a mismatch with stunts coming from the offensive left side if Graham uses Leonard Williams or Dexter Lawrence as a diversion to penetrate the B-Gap. Miller doesn’t have the most fluid hips to turn back inside if a looping Ojulari, Coughlin, or Ximines find their way into a vacant A-Gap.
Center Matt Paradis is a quality veteran presence that anchors the offensive line. He hasn’t been the same player since signing with the Panthers in 2019, after being one of the better interior offensive linemen in the NFL with the Broncos before arriving in Carolina. However, Paradis is no slouch and shouldn’t be slept on - especially with the lack of consistent pressure from the Giants defense.
On the left side, the Panthers have a tandem of Michael Jordan, who they just brought back off the practice squad to play guard, and tackle Cameron Erving. Jordan was dinged up last week, and Dennis Daley was forced into action. Jordan was on the Bengals for a few seasons and struggled to compete. He is not a bright spot on this already questionable offensive line. Jordan has to play with Pat Elflien on IR with a hamstring injury.
Erving is a journeyman who never lived up to his 2015 first-round selection by the Cleveland Browns. The Giants have recently faced some of the better offensive lines in the NFL. The Cowboys are one of the best on paper, and the Rams are one of the better offensive lines in terms of cohesiveness. The Panthers are not one of the better lines.
If the Giants are going to win this football game, pressure from their front four resulting in Darnold mistakes is a primary recipe for the outcome. It won’t be easy - nothing is with this Giants team - but it could be possible.