The Carolina Panthers in 2019: Scouting the Non-division Opponents

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Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

In addition to playing each of the teams in the division twice, in 2019 the Panthers will play the NFC West and the AFC South as part of the regular intra-conference and inter-conference rotation. Per the usual schedule format, Carolina will play Washington and Green Bay as the teams who had the same rank in their respective divisions within the NFC, aside from the NFC West which they were already playing.

Note: Records and rankings all from 2018 season.

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Los Angeles Rams

Record: 13-3-0 (1st in NFC West, lost in Super Bowl LIII to New England Patriots 3-13)

Offense rank by yards: 2nd (421.1 ypg)

Offense rank by points: 2nd (32.9 ppg)

Defense rank by yards: 19th (358.6 ypg)

Defense rank by points: 20th (24.0 ppg)

In 2018, the Los Angeles Rams were aggressive in the offseason and dynamic in the regular season. They signed a number of big name free agents and were the second highest scoring offense after the Kansas City Chiefs. The performance of the Rams was such that Sean McVay’s coaching tree was picked for a number of coaching vacancies going into 2019. The Rams scraped by the Saints to make it to their first Super Bowl since their Greatest Show on Turf days, only to have their high octane offense stonewalled by the New England Patriots.

Despite being the defending NFC champions, the Rams face a number of questions in the new year. Some of their recent free agents might already be moving on, especially on defense. Losing talent on defense would be a problem, as the Rams defense was only good enough to rank in the bottom half of the league last season. Some of the bigger questions are more intangible and concern the offense and fallout from their Super Bowl loss to the Patriots. Will the Rams fade as other Super Bowl losers have? Did the Patriots provide some elements that other teams can use to stymie the Rams offense? Will there be disgruntlement in the locker room over reports that part of the Patriots’ success was due to McVay failing to change his calls or signals and being predictable on offense? Unless and until these questions are answered in the affirmative, the Rams still loom as a potent team in the NFC, and while it helps that the Panthers will play them at home, it likely won’t help enough.

Seattle Seahawks

Record: 10-6-0 (2nd in NFC West, lost in Wild Card Round away to Dallas Cowboys 22-24)

Offense rank by yards: 18th (353.3 ypg)

Offense rank by points: Tied for 6th (26.8 ppg)

Defense rank by yards: 16th (353.3 ypg)

Defense rank by points: 11th (21.7 ppg)

The Seattle Seahawks are a puzzle. They have gradually morphed from a daunting defensive monster to an offensive-led team that does just enough to get by. The Seahawks were reportedly plagued by tension due to head coach Pete Carroll’s favorable treatment of quarterback Russell Wilson, yet were able to pull it together enough to make into the playoffs despite not being particularly impressive at anything in 2018. They were then arguably the authors of their own demise with some odd coaching decisions to end their Wild Card Round game with a loss to the similarly unimpressive Dallas Cowboys. Carroll’s leadership has become increasingly uneven over the last few years and the Seahawks have questions at a number of positions. They have beaten the Panthers in six of the eight games they have played in the Ron Rivera era, however, including last year’s game in Carolina, so they will likely be a problem for the Panthers again.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Record: 5-11-0 (4th in AFC South, missed playoffs)

Offense rank by yards: 27th (302.0 ypg)

Offense rank by points: 31st (15.3 ppg)

Defense rank by yards: 5th (311.4 ypg)

Defense rank by points: Tied for 4th (19.8 ppg)

The Jacksonville Jaguars were arguably the most disappointing team in the NFL last season. After almost beating the Patriots in New England in the AFC Championship Game after the 2017 season, the Jaguars fell apart in 2018. Despite the stern presence of Tom Coughlin overseeing football operations, the Jaguars lacked discipline both in execution and emotion, resulting in failures and fights on the field. The team appears to be finally moving on from Blake Bortles as their starting quarterback and figures to be in the mix for free agent Nick Foles. Foles won’t fix all of their problems, however, and it remains to be seen how effective they will be in 2019.

Tennessee Titans

Record: 9-7-0 (3rd in AFC South, missed playoffs)

Offense rank by yards: 25th (312.4 ypg)

Offense rank by points: 27th (19.4 ppg)

Defense rank by yards: 8th (333.4 ypg)

Defense rank by points: 3rd (18.9 ppg)

Much like their division mates the Jaguars, the 2018 Tennessee Titans were a team that regressed mightily from a strong showing in 2017. Despite improving markedly on defense, Tennessee went from a Wild Card spot in 2017 to missing the playoffs after an underwhelming 2018 season. Perhaps even odder, they lost offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur to a head coaching position in Green Bay, even though the Titans offense ranked near the bottom of the league in both yards and points in 2018. LaFleur’s experience under McVay at the Rams was evidently enough to get him the top job at the Packers.

LaFleur’s successor Arthur Smith will face the perennial challenge of keeping quarterback Marcus Mariota healthy and increasing his effectiveness. Second-year head coach Mike Vrabel will face an NFC South division that got significantly more competitive last season. At this point, the Titans figure to be a middle of the road team, but that could change in either direction. In an unfortunate bit of football trivia, the Titans are the only NFL team that the Panthers have not beaten at home.

Washington Redskins

Record: 7-9-0 (3rd in NFC East, missed playoffs)

Offense rank by yards: 28th (299.7 ypg)

Offense rank by points: 29th (17.6 ppg)

Defense rank by yards: 17th (353.4 ypg)

Defense rank by points: 15th (22.4 ppg)

Washington was perhaps the team hardest hit by injuries last season. They lost their quarterback Alex Smith to a gruesome injury that was eerily reminiscent of the injury that retired Washington’s star quarterback of the 1980s, Joe Theismann. Even though Smith was injured in Week 11, he is still doubtful to play in 2019. In addition to Smith, Washington suffered a number of injuries to their offensive line, and ended the season with 25 players on injured reserve, the highest amount in the NFL. What made the injuries particularly bitter was that the team had its best start since 2008, going 6-3, and was leading its division. With Smith out and no clear option at quarterback for the season, and perhaps their best offensive talent – wide receiver Jamison Crowder – likely departing as a free agent, 2019 does not look good for the national capital’s team.

AWAY

Arizona Cardinals

Record: 3-13-0 (4th in NFC West, missed playoffs)

Offense rank by yards: 32nd (241.6 ypg)

Offense rank by points: 32nd (14.1 ppg)

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Defense rank by yards: 20th (358.8 ypg)

Defense rank by points: 26th (26.6 ppg)

Putting it bluntly, the Cardinals were abysmal in 2018, and things won’t necessarily get better in 2019. There is a new head coach in Arizona, Kliff Kingsbury, who comes to the position after posting three losing seasons as head coach of Texas Tech. In addition to doubts about Kingsbury, there is substantial discussion about the Cardinals already moving on from quarterback Josh Rosen, who they drafted tenth overall last season, in favor of selecting Kyler Murray with the first overall pick in this year’s draft. Aside from draft speculation, a number of pieces on the Cardinals – including stars in the recent past such as running back David Johnson and cornerback Patrick Peterson – failed to have much of an impact in 2018. Kingsbury faces a tough challenge to get Arizona back in contention, and the Cardinals shouldn’t be a test for the Panthers.

San Francisco 49ers

Record: 4-12-0 (3rd in NFC West, missed playoffs)

Offense rank by yards: 16th (360.6 ypg)

Offense rank by points: 21st (21.4 ppg)

Defense rank by yards: 13th (346.6 ypg)

Defense rank by points: 28th (27.2 ppg)

The San Francisco 49ers have not finished above .500 in the last five seasons, and have gone 6-10 and 4-12 under present head coach Kyle Shanahan. Shanahan arguably gets a pass for last year given that his starting quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo, went on injured reserve in Week 3 of 2018 after the Niners lost their starting running back and key offensive piece Jerick McKinnon in the preseason. Despite not having a lot of help on offense, second-year tight end George Kittle had a breakout season, setting the NFL record for receiving yard by a tight end in a season. Apart from Kittle, however, the 49ers don’t seem to have much of an identity on either offense or defense. The return of Garoppolo might change things on offense in 2019, but the defense has a long way to go after a mediocre season that saw them set new NFL records for fewest interceptions and fewest total takeaways.

Houston Texans

Record: 11-5-0 (1st in AFC South, lost in Wild Card Round at home to Indianapolis Colts 7-21)

Offense rank by yards: 15th (362.6 ypg)

Offense rank by points: 11th (25.1 ppg)

Defense rank by yards: 12th (343.1 ypg)

Defense rank by points: Tied for 4th (19.8 ppg)

The Houston Texans have been the AFC’s equivalent of the Atlanta Falcons – a team with a lot of talent that hasn’t produced to its potential, especially in the postseason. At times, this has been due to the lack of an able quarterback. Those days looked to be behind the Texans when they drafted Deshaun Watson in 2017, but Watson tore his ACL in practice that November. Even though he returned in time to start the 2018 season and performed well enough to be a Pro Bowl alternate, Watson wasn’t as dynamic as before his injury. This played some part in Houston losing three straight games to start the season, before going on a nine-game winning streak and finishing the season 11-5 and on top of the AFC South. The Texans couldn’t carry that form into the playoffs, however, and lost by a large margin at home in the Wild Card round. Yet there aren’t any significant changes for the Texans in players or coaches going into 2019, and playing them in the regular season in Houston will be a challenge for the Panthers.

Indianapolis Colts

Record: 10-6-0 (2nd in AFC South, lost in Divisional Round away to Kansas City Chiefs 13-31)

Offense rank by yards: 7th (386.2 ypg)

Offense rank by points: 5th (27.1 ppg)

Defense rank by yards: 11th (339.4 ypg)

Defense rank by points: 10th (21.5 ppg)

2018 was a comeback year for the Colts in general and their quarterback, Andrew Luck, in particular. After the mismanaged mess of the latter part of the Pagano-Grigson era, second-year general manager Chris Ballard and his first-year coach Frank Reich put together the Colts’ first season above .500 in four years. Reich and Ballard did a much better job of protecting Luck, although they still occasionally exposed him to unnecessary hits. Enabling better quarterback play wasn’t Reich and Ballard’s only success, as the Colts improved significantly, going from the bottom of the league in key measures on both offense and defense in 2017 to top ten or near top ten in those measures in 2018.

The Colts have a number of players entering free agency in 2019 but there are no significant names set to depart and Indianapolis is estimated to have the most cap space going into the new season. A very good team could get even better, as Reich and Ballard seem to be fairly effective and evenhanded in their roles and they have a lot of salary cap to go after players. Playing them on the road will likely be a difficult game for Carolina.

Green Bay Packers

Record: 6-9-1 (3rd in NFC North, missed playoffs)

Offense rank by yards: 12th (369.1 ypg)

Offense rank by points: Tied for 14th (23.5 ppg)

Defense rank by yards: 18th (354.4 ypg)

Defense rank by points: 22nd (25.0 ppg)

The Green Bay Packers were dysfunction on the field and drama off the field in 2019. Even with quarterback Aaron Rodgers back from injury, the Packers ended up with a slightly worse record than the year before, when Rodgers missed nine games of the season. Reports of tension between Rodgers and head coach Mike McCarthy persisted throughout the year, and McCarthy was fired after the Packers lost at home in a snowstorm to the Arizona Cardinals – who eventually went 3-13 – in Week 13.

It should not be expected that the Packers will perform poorly for the third season in a row, although it is difficult to estimate how well they will play in 2019. Their new head coach, Matt LaFleur, led the Titans’ offense as coordinator to rankings of 25th in yards and 27th in points in 2017, but he did have more success in his previous postings with the Atlanta Falcons and the Los Angeles Rams. LaFleur has retained Mike Pettine, the Packers’ defensive coordinator from 2017, although Green Bay has not been strong on that side of the football for some time. Until it is demonstrated otherwise, playing the Rodgers-led Packers in Green Bay should be expected to be a tough game.

In 2019 the Panthers play six games against 2018 playoff teams, but they also play some teams that were at the bottom of the league. It helps that the Panthers play the two best teams in the NFC West in Carolina, but that is balanced out by playing the two best teams from the AFC South on the road. It is also risky to judge the schedule based on the 2018 records of the opponents, as teams like the Jaguars and the Packers have been strong in seasons prior. In addition to playing the other teams of the NFC South, the Panthers will face at least five other potent offenses, possibly six if 49er quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo bounces back successfully from injury and fulfills the potential he showed in New England. This reinforces the need for Carolina to improve their pass rush and secondary in the offseason.

Coming up next – What this all means for the Panthers in free agency and the draft.

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