The Carolina Panthers have shown us a lot of what they are — and what they aren’t — heading into Sunday’s huge home game against the Seattle Seahawks.
At 6-4, the Panthers look far more fragile than they did two weeks ago at 6-2. Still, they would qualify for the NFC playoffs as the No. 5 seed if the postseason started today.
Here are 16 thoughts on the team, based on my own observations and conversations with several people who know football and watch the Panthers closely.
1. Defensive identity: This is the Panthers’ biggest problem. Simply put, the Panthers don’t have one. For years, this was a team with an excellent front seven that could dictate a game’s tempo with that group and stop the run with impunity. Not anymore.
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2. Offensive firepower: On offense, the Panthers don’t have the same identity problem. Carolina has surrounded Cam Newton with a group of players who can run after the catch and at least have a chance of getting the Panthers to 31 or more points a week — which in these strange NFL days is usually a winning number to shoot for.
3. Playing particularly well: Cam Newton (20 touchdown passes, six interceptions, 68.4 completion percentage); right-side offensive linemen Trai Turner and Taylor Moton; rookie wide receiver DJ Moore; running back Christian McCaffrey.
4. Needs to improve: Cornerback James Bradberry (inconsistent and must make more plays on the ball); the entire linebacking corps (simply not creating enough turnovers); the interior pass rush in particular (opposing quarterbacks are finding it too easy to step up in the pocket).
5. Devin Funchess: He’s a free agent after this season, and I think he’ll be gone in 2019. Carolina looks like it wants to make its bed with “run-after-the-catch” receivers, even if they are small. That isn’t Funchess’s strength, and the Panthers already showed their hand in 2017 on what they think of big, relatively slow targets by trading away Kelvin Benjamin.
I can’t imagine they will offer Funchess — who has a back injury and probably won’t play Sunday — as much money as he can find elsewhere.
6. Smoke and mirrors: The Panthers are managing to get it done on the left side of the offensive line despite starting two unlikely players (offensive guard Greg Van Roten and left tackle Chris Clark, signed off the street before Week 2).
Watch how often Carolina tries to run to the right side when it does run — it’s pretty predictable. Matt Kalil still isn’t ready to come back off knee surgery, and that slow recovery has been frustrating for all involved. Both left guard and left tackle will likely be addressed in the offseason. The Panthers also don’t have a great deal of confidence that the offensive line is going to blow anyone off the ball, which is why they throw so much in short-yardage situations. (I’d use Newton more on quarterback sneaks, but that’s just me.)
7. Thomas Davis: While the 35-year-old linebacker hasn’t said for sure that this will be his last NFL season, I think it will be with the Panthers. Same with Julius Peppers. Ryan Kalil has already said this is his last season. Next year’s team will definitely be younger.
8. Luke Kuechly: I feel like he’s missed more tackles this season than any I can remember. We are so used to consistently standout performances from No. 59 that it has been startling. Still, Carolina is way better with Kuechly on the field than without him. He’s not playing badly by any means; he’s just not been vintage “L-u-u-u-ke.” Kuechly has to come up big in these last six games.
9. The blitz: I don’t think new defensive coordinator Eric Washington is using it enough. So what if the Panthers get burned occasionally while doing it? They are getting burned regardless. Old defensive coordinator Steve Wilks blitzed more often and created more havoc while doing so.
10. Scoring in bunches: The NFL is a pass-first league, with rules designed to help crowd-pleasing offenses. It’s no coincidence that the three best NFL teams by record (New Orleans, the L.A. Rams and Kansas City) also are the three teams who have scored the most points. Each averages over 35 points per game.
The Panthers have to continue to surround Newton with talent — and that includes better blockers. The Panthers average 26 points per game right now, which is 10th in the league. That’s good, but not good enough to be elite. Carolina needs to average in the 30s if it is going to catch New Orleans anytime in the next couple of years.
11. Most underrated Panthers: Slot receiver Jarius Wright doesn’t have a lot of catches, but the ones he does make seem to mostly come on third down and are invaluable. Moton, at right tackle, has quietly had a tremendous year. Curtis Samuel absolutely should be getting more snaps.
12. Christian McCaffrey: He’s playing exceptionally well and has really made a leap in his second season. With that said, I don’t like McCaffrey playing 96.7 percent of the offensive snaps. I know he wants to, but that’s too much. I think releasing C.J. Anderson — who was understandably frustrated with his lack of playing time and not shy about letting people know — was risky.
13. David Tepper: Carolina’s new owner has been hands-on and refreshingly progressive on a number of fronts. He’s squarely in the honeymoon period right now, but Tepper has been very hard not to like so far.
14. Torrey Smith: I hope he comes back soon from his knee injury — ideally Sunday vs. the Seahawks — and that he’s effective. His salary is $5 million again next season and not guaranteed. He needs to make sure the Panthers have no qualms about paying it.
15. The importance of Seattle: The Panthers haven’t lost at home yet this season. If they lose to the Seahawks, this two-game slide will turn into a three-game freefall.
16. Odds: Win Sunday’s game against Seattle and I think the Panthers will have a 70 percent chance of making the playoffs. Lose it, and I believe that postseason chance drops to 30 percent.