Week 2 Observations

For the first time in what seems like way too long, Carolina was able to flex its muscles offensively without fear of getting pounded by Von Miller. Defensively the team wasn’t great, but they didn’t have to be, as 46 points should always be enough (unless you’re the Saints). Elsewhere in the league (and including the Panthers for that matter), the past week has been dominated by injuries, while talking heads overreacted to miniscule samples even though there are still 14 games left in the season. Anyway, here is what I took away from the past week of football.

Carolina 46, San Francisco 27

No Jonathan Stewart? No problem

Entering Week 2, Fozzy Whittaker had never had 10 or more carries in a game in his professional career, but looking at the games where he got close to double digits, you could understand why. Since his rookie year in 2013, his carries and yards when getting at least 5 carries were as follows: 5 (carries) for 11 (yards), 6 for 16, 7 for 15, 9 for 25, 6 for 29, 7 for 41, 8 for 34, and 5 for 32. That resume has amounted to 4 games with less than 3 yards per carry, and of the 4 games where he had more, 3 came against the paltry defenses of the 2014 and 2015 Atlanta Falcons. Needless to say, when Jonathan Stewart went down Sunday with usual backup Cameron Artis-Payne not dressed, I was weary for Carolina’s run game prospects.

In spite of my worry, the Panthers were just fine. In fact, Carolina gained more yards on the ground than any team in Week 2, led by Fozzy’s 16 carries for 100 yards. While having a good game against the 49ers defense doesn’t nearly mean what it did just a couple of years ago, it still should give Panthers fans plenty of optimism that the team will be fine running the ball the next few weeks while Jonathan Stewart nurses his hamstring back to health.

Along with the return of Artis-Payne, the ever-dependable Mike Tolbert, and obviously Cam Newton, Whittaker should be able to keep up a strong running threat. As a silver lining for Stewart’s injury, this allows for a very diverse 4-pronged running attack with Artis-Payne as a traditional between the tackles back, Tolbert on a few surprise carries as a fullback, Cam’s utterly irreplicable power sets as a quarterback, and now Whittaker keeping defenses guessing from the shotgun(where he got half of his carries on Sunday). Coming from all those angles, facing Minnesota’s defense this week feels a little less daunting, and if Fozzy’s production in the coming weeks at all resembles his play against San Francisco, we might be seeing a more diverse running gameplan even when Jonathan Stewart gets back.

2016: Carolina’s First Offensive Powerhouse?

My entire life as a Panther fan (spanning just about the entire John Fox and Ron Rivera tenures), every single good Panthers team has been successful primarily as a result of its defense. Teambuilding for this organization has always revolved around its front seven, and relying on two-back systems to propel the offense. Even as the NFL has gotten more pass-heavy for the last decade, Carolina has been one of the few teams that stuck with a smashmouth offense that could never quite amass the proper talent at the quarterback and receiving positions to catch up to the rest of the league. That sentiment has changed over the last two years as a result of Cam Newton developing more as a leader and decision-maker, but in 2014 his constant injuries and 2015’s lacklustre receiving corps prevented the Panthers from being able to shine as an elite team offensively.

This year is the year all that changes. With Kelvin Benjamin returning from his torn ACL with a vengeance, an improved Devin Funchess, and Greg Olsen able to be a more positionally traditional checkdown option, seeing Cam throw for 350 yards like he did on Sunday will be a common occurrence, rather than an outlier. While he has only thrown for 4,000 yards once in his career (in his rookie year), I don’t see why, with his current confidence, poise, and throwing options, 4,500 yards shouldn’t be expected of him.

Through 2 games, Benjamin has looked nearly unstoppable in single-coverage, Olsen has done nothing but reaffirm his status as the best Tight End in the NFL not named Gronkowski, and when given enough time to throw, Newton has been able to assess and eviscerate whatever defense has been in front of him. This unit is the offense that General Manager Dave Gettleman has been creating piece-by-piece throughout his tenure in Carolina, with a superstar quarterback with a rocket arm tossing jump balls between 3 talented receivers 6'4" or taller being able to outreach any opposing cornerback. Coupling that scary passing with a dependable and unique rushing attack, it’s no wonder that Carolina currently ranks first in the NFL in Offensive SRS

The Kids are Learning

With rookies James Bradberry and Daryl Worley taking over as starting corneback and nickelback, respectively, the secondary will constantly be tested throughout the season to try to take advantage of some rookie mistakes. In Week 1, with Worley not playing and Bradberry not being a trainwreck against the likes of Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, I thought the Panthers would be average in the secondary, but a clear step back from last year’s Josh Norman-led unit. This is fine as an expectation, as this defense will always be defined by the front seven wreaking havoc and the secondary just not screwing up.

However, after seeing San Francisco’s top receiver Torrey Smith bounce around to a tune of a measly 3 receptions on 10 targets, it’s clear that Bradberry has much more potential than anyone expected, and could be better than any opposing offense is comfortable with. Bradberry played so well that not only did Pro Football Focus award him with the top grade of anyone on his team, he was actually given the top grade of any defensive player on Sunday. He was individually targeted 7 times, rendering only 1 recption for 6 yards, and tallied a pass deflection and his first career interception; if that doesn’t remind you of peak Josh Norman, I’m not sure what will. As for Worley’s debut, he gave up 2 receptions, deflected a pass of his own, and received PFF’s 4th best grade of the entire Panther’s defense.

Bradberry and Worley, like most rookies, will have some weeks when they look like budding stars and other weeks when it feels like they shouldn’t be on the field. Teams will get the better of them in future games, and they will be frustrating, butif their good weeks look like how they were against the 49ers, it will be pretty hard to complain about losing Norman last spring.

Elsewhere Around the League

The NFC East is Mediocre… Again

Here’s something that never gets talked about enough: the NFC East just isn’t good anymore. Sure, with historically relevant teams like the Cowboys, Giants and R*dsk*ns, rabid fanbases like the Eagles, huge markets for all 4 teams, and a pretty feisty 4-way rivalry these teams will take up a ton of airtime and page views, but the simple reality is this division rarely, if ever, produces contenders anymore. In the last 6 Playoffs, the NFC East has produced 0 Wild Card teams, the division winner has held the least amount of wins of any playoff team 3 times in that same span, and no NFC East team has held a top-2 spot in the NFC since 2008.

With a 2–0 record, there seems to be a lot of hype surrounding the Giants, but frankly it’s way too early to give them the credit they’re getting. There’s nothing wrong with being 2–0, but is beating a Dallas team starting both a rookie quarterback and running back in their NFL debuts by 1 point that much reason to celebrate? Does scoring 13 points on a notoriously horrible Saints defense in a 3-point win at all resemble the trademark of a contender? The Giants squeaking out wins against mediocre teams shouldn’t be seen as any more impressive than the Eagles blowing out horrible teams, which is to say neither is all that noteworthy.

In fact, I still believe that the Cowboys are still the team to beat, as their rookies will get better as the season goes on, while they should have Tony Romo back for the second half of the season. Along with the aforementioned 20–19 loss to the Giants, they spent last week beating Washington by 4, making their average 1–1 record match their average +3 point differential against fairly average teams that both belong in the same decidedly average division.

NFC East-ridicule aside, it should also be mentioned that if Dak Prescott played anywhere close to his Week 2 performance, the Cowboys would have won against the Giants as well. Prescott’s Week 1 stats (55.6% completion percentage and 227 yards) don’t seem too bad, but when you notice that he was averaging 5.0 yards per attempt, and that over half of his pass attempts were to Jason Witten and Cole Beasley, it becomes pretty obvious that either Dallas’ coaching staff or Prescott himself was afraid to look downfield. Maybe this was the right move for a rookie QB who only knew he’d be starting 2 weeks in advance, but when the Roethlisbergers and Palmers and Newtons of the world are showing that big play offenses are how to win in today’s NFL, it becomes surprising that Dallas was even able to keep the game within a point.

Against D.C. however, Prescott’s kid gloves were off, as he threw for a hair under 300 yards on 9.7 yards per attempt. Obviously, no one on New York’s secondary was as easy to pick on as Washington cornerback Bashaud Breeland, but Dez Bryant’s increase in targets from 5 to 12 is telling enough that Prescott was much more comfortable throwing downfield as he was in his debut. That, along with the fact that he was able to play better in spite of getting sacked by Washington 4 times (compared to the Giants not sacking him at all), it leads me to believe Dallas could have easily handled New York had it not been Prescott’s debut.

To be fair, I can see why the media is jumping on the Giants bandwagon. They have a considerably improved receiving core with the Victor Cruz and Sterling Shepherd taking some attention away from Odell Beckham Jr., and the pass rush should certainly improve with Olivier Vernon and a healthier Jason Pierre-Paul than last year. But those same improvements are not significant enough (nor have they shown enough results) to justify believing this team going from 6–10 to 10–6 is a mere formality.

Meanwhile, in the nation’s capital the sky seems to be falling directly onto their football stadium. The defense has been a wreck, no one can stop blaming Josh Norman for everything, and Kirk Cousins hasn’t looked this bad since before “YOU LIKE THAT?!” turned him into a player worth giving the franchise tag. It has only been two games and Cousins teammates are already doubting him, while the defense is in a tie for the 29th scoring defense.

This situation, not unlike the Giants, could just be the product of jumping to conclusions too early. Despite most headlines surrounding Josh Norman not shadowing star receivers Antonio Brown and Dez Bryant (something that Norman has never done in the NFL, and a strategy that is hardly practiced by any team in the last 5 years by teams that don’t employ Darrelle Revis), Norman’s play has been elite. So much so, that Pro Football Focus has noted him as the highest graded cornerback in the NFL so far, and is having the best start of Norman’s career. While Norman is reportedly going to follow Odell Beckham this week for the entire game, I wouldn’t expect that to become his new role going forward, but rather that R*dsk*ns defensive coordinator eventually find a happy medium of sorts to let Norman keep offensive formations honest, but also letting him do what he does best: blanket a third of the field on the left side.

As for Cousins, things might not be so simple. Not to get all into football-cliches, but having a quarterback lack the respect of his offense can’t be anything but troubling. Even if he’s going to improve, little things like that can knock on one’s confidence, which only leads to downward spirals in his profession.

But if the locker room gossip is just a blip on the radar, there is a very telling statistic that sheds light on why Cousins should be able to improve from his first two games: passing attempts. There is simply no way in any universe that Kirk Cousins should be leading the NFL in passing attempts. In fact, if there’s any quarterback who needs to focus on quality over quantity, it’s him. The main reason Cousins was able to break out last season was his ability to throw from play action. Cousins was able to lead the league in both passer rating (129.1) and yards per attempt (11.3) in those situations, and logically play action should be the focal point of Washington’s offense.

You know what needs to happen to properly sell the play action? ESTABLISHING THE RUN! Yet in spite of this mundane fact, Washington has for some reason run less than any other team in the NFL, and even has less than half of the rushing attempts of 10 different teams. It might have made since for a low rushing number in Week 1, as Washington was playing from behind for a good portion of the game, but in a close game like Week 2, there was simply no excuse. In starting running back Matt Jones’ anemic 20 carries this season, he’s managed 4.3 yards per carry, so it’s not like Washington has had trouble on the ground.

If they can get Jones the ball more (along with Chris Thompson), then Cousins can get back into his bread and butter play action sets, which lets Jordan Reed reel in a ton of open plays, and should even make it easier for DeSean Jackson to take the top off of defenses.

In total, the NFC East seems like it will have the same type of season it usually has: all four teams never straying too far from 8–8, with one team separating itself with a 9–7 or 10–6 record that promptly gets eliminated by either of Arizona or Seattle that gets stuck in a wild card game. If they can’t be consequential to the season, at least these teams are interesting, right?

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