With several playmakers on all levels of the defense, the Panthers present a challenging task on the road for the Redskins Sunday in Charlotte, N.C.
The Redskins offense has had its fair share of success against NFC South opponents this season. It scored 97 combined points against the Falcons, Buccaneers and Saints -- and quarterback Kirk Cousins won NFC Offensive Player of the Week after the latter two games.
But the Panthers, sitting undefeated at the top of the division through nine games, have a different breed of defense thanks to several playmakers at each level.
In the secondary, cornerback Josh Norman is having a Pro Bowl year with 34 tackles, six sacks, four interceptions and two of those returned for touchdowns. At linebacker, specifically up the middle, Luke Kuechly (who led the NFL in tackles last season) has 63 tackles while his neighbor Thomas Davis has 65 along with three sacks. In the trenches, Kawann Short has been one of the most productive defensive linemen in the league with 35 tackles and a team-high six sacks.
What you see is a lot of athleticism, speed and tackling ability, three factors that give them favorable advantages against any opposing offense.
"Their pass rush is effective," head coach Jay Gruden said. "They've got a great combination where they can mix in their man coverage with their zone coverage and play a lot of different kind of zones — variations off of it — keep a quarterback guessing. It gives their defensive line time to get home. They have enough*nuisance *blitzes to keep you honest and bring pressure, but for the most part, they have linebackers that can run and cover and they have excellent corners on the outside."
The Panthers have given up an average of 19.6 points per game to opponents, good for sixth in the league and are only allowing 4.8 yards per play, second best in the league.
At this point in the season, opponents have only rushed the ball just more than 35 percent of the time. When the Redskins are imposing their style of play, they're running the ball for half of their snaps, as they did against the Saints last week.
"I think you always want to try to be balanced," offensive coordinator Sean McVay said. "I think being able to run the football like we were last week allowed us to be a little more balanced where we had some run-pass options up on second down, where you keep defenses a little bit more honest with some of those things and you're a little bit more regulated with the looks that you do see."
But due to the Panthers' ability to jump out to quick leads – something the Redskins have struggled mightily with this season on the road – they're able to force their opponents into more passing situations, and in effect close down the brunt of the run game.
Still, the issues on the road have slowed down some of that progress. The Redskins average 146.6 rush yards per game at home compared to 52.5 on the road and turnovers have increased by more than double on average away from FedExField.
"We have a lot of games that we can look back on and say, 'Why did this happen on the road?'" said Gruden. "But we have to treat this as another game. We're a developing football team."
As the Redskins look for solutions on offense, they'll rely on an offensive line that's only conceded 13 sacks on the year as well as wide receiver DeSean Jackson, who has appeared his most explosive this week in practice and provided a 42-yard burst vs. the Saints. His deep threat, if at full speed, should be able to provide more windows for Cousins to find receivers underneath the coverage.
That might be all Jackson provides if Norman continues to play the way he has to start the year.
"You definitely need to be aware of great players like that, understand where they are, try to study them the best you can through film as to what their style of play is," Cousins said of Norman. "He's been very, very productive."
"It's always a challenge to just cover any receiver, but him especially," Norman said of Jackson. "He's a guy that likes to take it over the top and then he breaks his route off. We just have got to know and understand that and welcome that challenge."
McVay hopes a few big gainers can stretch things out and make the offense a little more electric and not so predictable.
"Based on the way these guys decide they want to defend us, hopefully we'll have some answers," McVay said. "But any time that you're able to make some big plays down the field, that definitely makes it a little bit easier when you don't have to go 15 plays to score."