The difference makers of the panthers
In this week’s edition of the Panthers’ Differential Maker list of standouts, these headliners are making waves on both sides of football. Multiple players could have made the compilation; However, these five could help sway the outcome in Sunday afternoon’s NFC South duel in Carolina’s favor:
Christian McCaffrey is the offensive catalyst for the Panthers. He leads Carolina through six games in rushing yards (393), rushing touchdowns (2), receptions (33), and receiving yards (277). McCaffery takes on-screen play and the Panthers’ perimeter-based attack to a new level. With a revolving door at the quarterback position, McCaffrey remains the go-to place for the apartment for the Panthers. Week after week, opponents know the Panthers will relentlessly hand the ball to No. 22, yet defenses struggle to stop it – the ultimate sign of a rare player. McCaffrey is the Panthers’ swiss army knife, with the ability to go the distance from anywhere on the field. He’s a linebacker’s nightmare in the open field with impressive directional switching abilities. As a runner, McCaffrey possesses suddenness, patience, vision, quickness at the first step, and excellent cutting ability. He’s elusive, with the ability to hit second gear almost instantly. As a receiver, McCaffrey is a nuanced routerunner, effectively creating separation. He is only the third running back in NFL history to rake in 1,000 receiving yards and 1,000 rushing yards in a single season (2020) — a sweeping statistic that encompasses his dynamic ability. The Buccaneers defense must be disciplined in terms of escape fits, pursuit angles and setting the edge to try to contain McCaffrey.
Despite inconsistent play under center for the Panthers, DJ Moore has eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark for the past three seasons at Carolina. Moore has many alluring traits, including elusive ability, high point ability, suddenness from breaks and the ability to adapt to the ball, and he’s adept at finding weak spots in the zone. He enhances the Panthers’ on-screen game with his ability to generate yards after catches. The Panthers’ offense has struggled to maintain drives in 2022, but Moore remains a gritty receiver who can challenge defense in downfield and intermediate stretches. The Bucs defense need to be aware of where he is set up on the field. The Cardinals traded for Robbie Anderson and after his departure, Moore will play a bigger role in trying to rejuvenate Carolina’s air attack.
Brian Burns currently leads the Panthers in sacks with 4.0. The runabout from the edge made his first Pro Bowl in 2021 and has maintained an impressive resume in Carolina. He had 25.5 sacks in 48 games leading up to the start of the 2022 season — the second-fastest start in franchise history in as many games (only behind Julius Peppers). Burns, the team’s top pass rusher, will command more doubles teams this season with the departure of former teammate Haason Reddick. A pass rusher, Burns can quickly turn corners and run past tackles at elite speed. It has a nice curve around the edge and a low pad height and has explosive speed from the first step. As a running defender, Burns is able to agilely navigate traffic to reach ball carriers. His counter-move from inside to outside is special and consistently prepares offensive duels. Burns, nicknamed “Spiderman,” has a deadly spin move that finishes tackles and elite closing speed. On Sunday, Tristan Wirfs will have a great day against a first class – albeit underrated – defensive end. Winning the battle in the trenches will be crucial.
Picked in the top 10 of the 2022 NFL Draft, Derrick Brown has continued to develop on the field for Carolina. He’s made progress in his sophomore year, evidenced by a sensational one-handed interception against the Saints that took the NFL by storm. His stat line may not be convincing, but Brown influences the pocket and puts opposing quarterbacks out of their place. If he can’t disrupt the game by knocking down the quarterback, he can come in with batted passes (six). He plays with good leverage and breaks out of his stance quickly. Brown has the power to work off blocks, has a strong bull rush, can set the edge, and is fast in the short range with redirection skills. He’s still a young development player but has huge assets for the Panthers. Brown creates a challenge in the trenches for Tampa Bay. He disrupts more than the numbers dictate, creating negative plays for opposing attacks.
Shaq Thompson is one of the Panthers’ leading playmakers and dominates midfield. He currently leads the Panthers in tackles with 39 in six games and bolsters the defensive lineup. Thompson is a top-notch pursuit defender who can cover ground in the zone. He breaks the ball with instinctive play and has the ability to help with pass coverage as a three-down linebacker. He’s not overly physical, but has the athleticism to hunt down running backs. Thompson has the versatility to play inside linebackers, outside linebackers, and heavy safety in dime packages. He’s a bright spot for the Panthers on defense and will look to have a big day against Tom Brady and company on Sunday.
Here are some ways the Panthers have excelled in 2022:
- Christian McCaffrey had a season-high 158 scrimmage yards in week six. He totaled 89 receiving yards, which was his most since the first week of the 2021 season. Overall, his 670 scrimmage yards ranks fourth in the NFL in 2022, third among running backs.
- The Panthers rank first in the league when they gain more than four yards on first downs. On first downs, 55.6 percent of the Panthers’ rushes won over four yards (30 rushes). This is largely due to Christian McCaffrey’s no-nonsense running style and inconsistency in space.
- The Panthers’ defense ranks fourth in the league for forcing three-and-off drives and crushing opposition momentum. In 70 defensive streaks in 2022, Carolina has forced 17 three-and-off drives (24.3 percent), trailing only the 49ers, Packers and the Colts.
Negative factors hindering ball games result for Carolina, most notable in 2022:
- The Panthers have lost 25 straight games in which they have conceded more than 17 points — the longest such streak by a team since the 1990-1994 Seahawks had 40.
- Baker Mayfield has career lows in 2022 in completion percentage (54.9), touchdown interception ratio (4-4), and passer rating (71.9). His passer rating of 71.9 is the lowest in the NFL.
- The Panthers currently rank bottom in the league in nearly every offensive category, including total offense (32nd), rush offense (26th), and pass offense (29th). Carolina struggles to maintain drives or push the ball down, which has contributed to the club’s anemic unity.
New faces in 2022
The Browns agreed to trade quarterback Baker Mayfield to the Panthers for a 2024 conditional draft pick, pending Mayfield’s stint at Carolina. Mayfield, the #1 pick overall in the 2018 NFL draft, joined a quarterback room with Sam Darnold and Matt Corral selected for the third round of the 2022 draft. Mayfield and Darnold fought for the starting role and offensive command of the Panthers in training camp. The Mayfield trade came after Cleveland’s blockbuster deal with the Texans to acquire Deshaun Watson. Mayfield won the starting role and backup Darnold suffered a severe ankle sprain in the last game of the preseason that put him on injured reserve. Mayfield also suffered a severe ankle sprain in week five, earning PJ Walker the under-center duties against the defending Super Bowl champions. Steve Wilks confirmed Walker will face the Buccaneers on Sunday.
The Panthers added depth to a variety of spots on the roster with a plethora of offseason acquisitions during free agency, including center Bradley Bozeman, wide receiver Rashard Higgins, defensive tackle Matt Ioannidis, linebacker Cory Littleton, linebacker Damien Wilson and safety Xavier woods Improving the offensive line became the club’s top priority, as evidenced by a multitude of moves. Bozeman ended up in Carolina after he and the Ravens failed to agree on an overtime and the Panthers took on Ikem Ekwonu on the first night of the draft. The top five teams in the draft chose defensive tone-sets, giving the Panthers the optimal selection of top tackles on the board. Ekwonu has a violent mentality and bullies defenders across North Carolina State, setting players back. He can mirror edge rushers with agility from his stance and has gone through the learning curve process of acclimating to pro level. Ekwonu has the ability to become a franchise left tackle. Woods, a prototypical free safety and arguably Carolina’s biggest signing, has given Carolina flexibility in secondary school.