There’s the concept of the “mirror match” in video games, and fighting games in particular.
The basic concept is that you get matched up against an opponent controlling the same character you’re playing, but with an alternative color scheme. In many ways, the Giants and Panthers were the same teams in Week 1, though they had dramatically different outcomes.
Both teams started their respective games with poor offensive showings. Neither offense was in sync to start the game, struggling to consistently move the ball through the air or pick up first downs. They played hard on defense, but both teams found themselves in two-possession holes by halftime. Both staged furious comebacks in the second half and the game came down to field goals in the closing seconds.
But where Titans’ veteran kicker missed a routine 47-yard field goal to secure the Giants’ win, the Panthers lost when Browns’ rookie kicker Cade York drilled a massive 58-yard kick.
Can the Panthers’ offense get in sync?
The Panthers offense was downright ugly in the first half of their game against the Browns. Baker Mayfield and the receivers weren’t on the same page early, struggling in scramble drills in particular. The offensive line struggled with the Browns’ defensive front early on (more on that later), leading to frustrations in the running game, batted passes, and missed blocks on screens.
Carolina’s first five drives were three-and-outs, and their first 19 plays generated just 13 yards of offense.
The Panthers’ offense did flash the potential to be dangerous once it gained traction in the second half. They have offensive linemen with the ability to open holes in running game, and the passing game has the ability to pick up yards in catch-and-run situations as well as strike deep.
Overall, the Panthers’ offense wasn’t bad against the Browns, and it speaks to their potential that they were able to be merely “average” after their horrid start to the game.
Overall, the Panther’s graded out as the 14th team in the NFL in offensive EPA per play last week. Their passing game was the 14th in EPA while their running game was 10th in the NFL.
The Panthers’ offense is called by former Giants’ head coach Ben McAdoo, and aspects of it are familiar from 2014 through 2016. However, it’s also clear that McAdoo’s philosophies have evolved somewhat since then. The Panthers’ offense made frequent use of both 21 and 12 personnel in their game against the Browns. But contrary to expectations, they used those formations to throw, causing the Browns to field base or heavy defensive packages and then forcing those players into coverage.
The Panthers also made use of spacing, using screens and quick passes to stretch the defense horizontally. They also made use of play-action and deep crossing routes to attack the defense vertically.
Baker Mayfield struggled early in the game, but he played better than his stats may suggest. He had several batted passes early in the game and the Panthers struggled with drops and penalties at bad times. We should probably expect more rollouts from Baker, both to change the launch point and avoid batted balls, but also to stress the second level of the Giants’ defense.
We should also expect the Panthers to open up with quick passes and to challenge whoever starts opposite of Adoree’ Jackson. Aaron Robinson’s appendectomy presents an opportunity for the Panthers and McAdoo will want to get his offense in rhythm early. Whether or not they are able to get in sync at the start of the game is another matter.
A dynamic trio
The Carolina Panthers have three potentially dangerous weapons on their offense for Mayfield.
The first, and most obvious is running back Christian McCaffrey, who has played just 10 games in the last two seasons. McCaffrey is one of the premier offensive weapons in the NFL when he’s healthy. He is a remarkably quick and fluid runner with great vision, contact balance, and agility. McCaffrey can change direction and acceleration, allowing him to quickly pick up additional yardage after forcing a missed tackle. He’s also a natural receiver and who’s comfortable running routes, catching the ball, and playing in space. McCaffrey’s versatility and quickness makes him a very different threat than Derrick Henry. Henry has great open-field speed for his size, but needs a bit of a runway to get going, which allowed the Giants to rally to the ball after the initial hit. McCaffrey’s quickness and agility make that more difficult.
The Panthers top receivers are Robbie Anderson and D.J. Moore who provide differing skill sets. Anderson is the Panthers’ “number one” receiver and topped 100 yards (with a touchdown) a week ago, a nice rebound after getting just 519 yards and five touchdowns in all of 2021. While Anderson had a (very) down season with Sam Darnold in 2021, he was a 1,000-yard receiver in each of the two prior years. Anderson isn’t particularly thick, but he has good length and his long stride eat up turf in the open field.
Moore is a stout receiver at 6-foot, 210 pounds and is an explosive athlete. He has an explosive lower body, quick feet, and good long speed. Moore topped 1,000 yards in each of the last three seasons, and averaged an impressive 18.1 yards per reception in 2020. Moore wasn’t a major factor against the Browns and was targeted six times, making three catches for 43 yards, in Week 1.
The Giants are weak at linebacker and we’ll likely see a fair amount of returning rookie Dane Belton at the second level. The Giants struggled with receiving back Dontrell Hilliard’s speed and receiving ability in Week 1, and the Panthers were surely watching.
We might see the Panthers try to use Moore in the intermediate area of the field, pitting his speed and acceleration against the Giants’ safeties and linebackers — particularly if the defense is keying on McCaffrey.
The Panthers also use tight ends Tommy Tremble and Ian Thomas, as well as running backs D’Onta Foreman and Chuba Hubbard to balance their primary offensive players.
The battle in the trenches
As with both the Giants’ and Panthers’ opening day games, this game will likely be won (or lost) in the trenches.
The Panthers’ offensive line struggled against a good Cleveland defensive front, ranking 30th in pass block win rate and 17th in run block win rate. Those win rates correspond with some ugly play on tape, but there’s talent on Carolina’s offensive front.
The Panthers’ offensive line is lead by right tackle, and team captain, Taylor Moton. Moton is a former second-round pick who has become one of the better offensive tackles in the NFL. Moton surrendered just one sack (and 27 pressures) in 713 pass blocking snaps, despite the Panthers’ offensive line being poor as a whole last year. He’s a smooth mover who plays with impressive power in both pass protection and run blocking. The Panthers are also obviously excited about rookie offensive tackle Ikem Ekwonu, who they drafted at sixth overall. Ekwonu is still a work in progress and struggled mightily with the unenviable task of blocking defensive ends Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney.
We don’t know whether the Giants will have Kayvon Thibodeaux or Azeez Ojulari available for the game as of this writing. If both players miss the game, the duo of Jihad Ward and Oshane Ximines don’t present nearly the same kind of challenge as the Cleveland defenders.
The matchup between the Panthers’ interior offensive line and Giants’ defensive tackle likely tilts more in the Giants’ favor.
Right guard Austin Corbett is a tough and reliable lineman who came to the Panthers since started 40 of 41 games for the Los Angeles Rams after being traded by the Cleveland Browns mid-way through the 2019 season.
Left guard Brady Christensen is transitioning inside from left tackle after struggling at the position in 2021 and the acquisition of Ekwonu in this year’s draft. Christensen is athletic but relatively lean for a guard at 6-foot-6, 305 pounds. He is still adjusting to his new position, and Wink Martindale will likely try to target him with Dexter Lawrence and Leonard Williams. Compounding the Panthers’ issues on the inside, center Pat Elflein was an okay blocker in the first game but had several botched snaps. Those snaps disrupted Panthers’ drives and we’ll almost certainly see Martindale test Elflein with stunts, twists, delayed blitzes, and all-out pressure up the middle.
How Elflein and Christensen handle the Giants’ pressure packages could go a long way toward determining the course of the game.