By all accounts, the Carolina Panthers were dead in the water 6 games into this 2016 season. Sitting at 1-5, with a dismal 0-3 record within the NFC South, the Panthers season looked to be lost. Since the NFL merger, only about 1% of teams that have started 1-5 have clinched a playoff spot. The odds still aren’t in the Panthers favor, but a convincing and much needed victory on Sunday over the Arizona Cardinals offers a sliver of hope that the Panthers still have a chance of reaching the playoffs for the fourth straight year.
Carolina’s win on Sunday was reminiscent of their magical 2015 season and an encouraging sign for the team moving forward. The Panthers pass rush, a complete non-factor for the first six games of the season, was able to pressure Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer all day and registered an astounding eight sacks, seemingly out of nowhere. It was Jonathan Stewart, not Cam Newton who carried the Panthers offense with 95 yards rushing and two touchdowns. Graham Gano was a perfect three for three on field goal tries. The win was the most complete team victory of the season, and the Panthers were able to show their patient fans they still had a pulse.
The generation of a pass rush will be crucial for Carolina moving forward, and the defensive line will need to carry their momentum into next week’s game against Los Angeles and beyond. The Panthers defense (which has still not yet held an opponent under 20 points this year) completely revolves around their defensive line. Luke Kuechley and Thomas Davis might be the best linebacker tandem in the league, but this year has proven that without contribution from the men up front, even they can’t get the job done. The Panthers defense has been throttled all season long, so this latest performance might seem like an anomaly. However, if the Panthers line is able to generate pressure on the quarterback with just four rushers, performances like this will soon become more common. As evidenced by the team’s success last year, this is an extremely talented group of players who have been stuck in a funk since the demoralizing second half breakdown against the Vikings in week 3. Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short have the potential to be the best interior duo of defensive linemen in the league, they simply haven’t played to their potential with consistency thus far. Their performances on Sunday, though, was nothing short of spectacular. Short pitched in one sack and was in Palmer’s face the entire game, and Lotulelei cleaned up with three sacks and a forced fumble in a dominating performance en route to his selection as NFC Defensive Player of the Week. It’s performances like this, whether it be from Short, Lotulelei, Charles Johnson, Kony Ealy, Wes Horton or Mario Addison, that need to happen more often for this defense to succeed, especially with the Panthers secondary as young and inexperienced as it is.
While Star Lotulelei was obviously the best player on the field for the Panthers in week eight, the most surprising and encouraging performance came from a member of the highly criticized Panthers secondary. Leonard Johnson, the Panthers new starter at nickel, had himself a game against Arizona. There was little talk surrounding the veteran cornerback, who had been injured through the Panthers first seven games. Boy, would Johnson have been a useful player for Carolina to have in the four straight losses they suffered. Rookie Zack Sanchez allowed a perfect passer rating when he was thrown at during his time as the Panthers starting nickelback. Sanchez is just too young and inexperienced to be an effective corner at this time in his career. The Oklahoma product often looked lost and confused, contrary to the cool and collected Johnson who seemed to have a very good understanding of the Panthers defense. Johnson was second on the team in tackles with eight, behind only fellow corner Daryl Worley who had eleven. He also contributed a sack and a pass defensed in his inaugural game as a member of the team. If this first game indicates anything, Johnson will be a valuable member of the Panthers moving forward and a crucial component to the success of the team.
Meanwhile, the Panthers offense had a good outing against a difficult opponent in the Cardinals defense. The coaching staff would surely like to see the offense punch it in for a few more touchdowns, as they were forced to settle for field goals on three separate occasions. All in all, however, the offense performed very well, especially considering the fact Cam Newton was not playing at his highest level. The offensive line had perhaps their best game of the season, as they paved the way for Jonathan Stewart on the ground and for the most part kept Newton’s jersey clean. Mike Remmers, the fill-in at left tackle in the absence of Michael Oher, has played admirably at his position and kept defenders off of his quarterback. This is the best the Panthers could have hoped for a man who was pressed into an extremely difficult position with very little experience. Meanwhile, Jonathan Stewart was brilliant for the second straight week, nearing 100 yards and scoring twice. Stewart is building his case for the most underrated players in the league. He ran with ferocious tenacity and was extremely hard to bring down, dealing out punishment for anyone who dared attempt to tackle him. Stewart was the centerpiece of the Carolina game plan and delivered beyond expectations.
The heart and soul of the Panthers, Cam Newton, was just good enough for his team to win. He didn’t account for either a touchdown or a turnover (he threw a pick that was called back because the defender was out of bounds) and missed about as many throws as he made. Newton was seemingly bothered by some of the hits that he was taking from the Cardinals that he believed were fouls. I’m sure you’ve seen the post game press conference in which he called out commissioner Roger Goodell and the NFL referees because he feels he’s taking hits that would warrant flags if it were another quarterback. Calias Campbell had a hit on Newton on Sunday that the NFL determined should have been called a foul. Campbell was fined over $18k for the hit below Newton’s waist. While Cam certainly has a case, as he takes many heavy hits from defenders in the pocket, he cannot let his emotions get the best of him. It is an inevitability in the future that Newton will be hit hard again and the defender won’t be called for a penalty. He can’t let this frustrate him too much and distract him from the game, and must remained tough and focused despite the big collisions, just like he’s done his entire career. If Cam can do this, and the Panthers defense play like they did against the Cardinals, Carolina has a shot at turning their season around and fighting their way into the playoffs.