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Know Your Opponent: An Insider's Looks At The Carolina Panthers


The Washington Redskins are back on the road to face off against the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Ahead of the Week 13 matchup, spoke to Panthers senior writer Max Henson about what to expect from this weekend. Here's what we learned:

Q: One of the biggest storylines this year has been the situation with quarterbacks Cam Newton and Kyle Allen. How has the team handled that in recent weeks?

Max Henson: It was more of a thing when Cam wasn't on IR. Once they put him on IR, that kind of brought some clarity to the situation. There weren't any more questions about would Cam be coming back? Would he be coming back soon? When would he be coming back? It kind of allowed for Kyle to just sort of take the reigns. So I think the players have really handled it well. It was much more of a media storm with a player of Cam's stature. It became a big deal. It was kind of what everyone was focused on and now it's kind of Cam is in the background trying to work his way back while Kyle has taken control of the team and his ups and certainly his downs.

He's going through essentially his rookie year. He's a second-year player, but he's only had 10 starts. So he's had games where he's been brilliant. He's had games where he's been pretty dreadful. The Falcons game, he had four interceptions, whereas this past Sunday in New Orleans, he played great. Three touchdowns, no interceptions and played just as well as Drew Brees. So it's been kind of up and down for Kyle, but when he's protecting the football, it gives this team a chance.

Christian McCaffrey is one of the best players in the league. He's been phenomenal this season. So if they can say rely on Christian, protect the ball and if the defense gets some takeaways, that's pretty much been their formula for when they've had success. Kyle's done a pretty good job, I think, all things considered. I think he's played well this year. I think you'd always expect a young quarterback to make mistakes, and he's made his mistakes, but he's also had some really, really good moments. So, I think the biggest thing, like all young players is just trying to get some consistency out of him.

When Kyle got his first few starts, he was the talk of the league, but lately it seems like he's come back down. What are some things he does well and some things he needs to work on?

Henson: I think the biggest thing, again, is ball security. He has had a bit of an issue. I think early on when they were winning games with him, they went off, he was unbeaten for a little while yet he had no interceptions. And then in the games where he's had interceptions, they've lost. So, I think there was a real key, first and foremost, is just making good decisions with the ball. And I think that's something that he's been kind of hit or miss with him at times this season. I think that's the first thing.

His pocket mobility and pocket awareness is something that he's also been kind of working through. Just knowing when to sense the pressure is coming and either get rid of it or escape and when to step into the pocket. All of those kinds of things that sort of come with experience, playing the position. It's just something that you can only really learn through the reps. So I think that's something that he's grown with as the season has gone on. But he's got a live arm, he can throw the deep ball, he throws a very catchable ball.

I think he's done a really good job of spreading the ball around, not locking in on one guy. And particularly last week in New Orleans, they were given a lot of stuff underneath and that allowed for Christian to have nine catches on nine targets, just kind of on simple check downplays. So he'll take what the defense gives him when he's playing well, that's been something he knows he's got to take advantage of. It's just this, just do the simple things.

Kyle's a smart player. He knows what he has to do to be successful. He's not a gifted athlete by any means, especially in comparison to someone like Cam Newton. He doesn't have the ability, the strength to run through people or do too much on the ground, but he's got some escape ability and he's got a good arm. I think he's got enough savvy to make some things happen. Even when the play breaks down, we've seen that as well. So for a young guy who went undrafted, he brings a lot more to the table than I think a lot of people really expected.

Q: And it certainly helps having Christian McCaffrey in the backfield. It seems like he's progressively gotten better each year to the point where's one of, if not the best running back in the league.

Henson: I think it'd be hard to argue against him being the best back in the league, certainly this year. As you kind of alluded to when he came out, everybody was doubtful about whether or not he could handle the load between the tackles. Was he big enough? Could he handle that kind of workload? And he has been the best running back in the league between the tackles this year. He's got so much strength and power for a guy his size.

And of course, everybody made a big deal this offseason when they saw just photos of his arms. The guy is not a small dude. He has put a lot of work into transforming his body over the years from Stanford to now. And he's a freak. The guy is just an absolute monster. And what he does in the passing game is second to none. The guy runs routes as well as receivers. He doesn't have a single drop this year. He's been absolutely automatic just as a receiver out of the backfield. They do so much with him, lining him up in a whole bunch of different places.

So his ability to do that sort of stuff puts him in a category all his own. If this team had a better record, kind of like where they were earlier in the season, he was a legitimate MVP candidate. Unfortunately, the team's success has not been there to allow for that to really continue. But nobody is playing the running back position better than him right now. And obviously for the Panthers, it's been a matter of keeping the score close enough or having a lead to where they can really lean on him in the run game. When the game has gotten out of reach, they've been forced to put it on Kyle and obviously that's taken it away from your best player in Christian.

So the more they manage the game, the more effective Christian is when they can literally just turn it and hand it to them. That's obviously never a bad thing.

Q: Switching to defense, they're able to get a lot of sacks but struggle in the run game. Why is that?

Henson: That has been the case for them. They have struggled against the run really all year. And it's been very uncharacteristic of Ron Rivera's defenses for them to have those issues. It's been really damaging for the defense because if you can't stop the run, you're going to have a hard time getting people into obvious passing downs. And in which case they could really get after the passer, which they can do really well.

Their sack total is right up there with the league's best. Sure. But to get sacks, you've got to get team in third and long, and that's hard to do when you're not stopping the run. So the issues on defense really have started there with not being able to get the run game contained, but certainly if they have an opportunity to get after the passer, they could do it. I mean, they've got a lot of talent off the edge. Those guys have been very successful this year at winning their one-on-ones and getting to the quarterback.

The goal for Carolina's defense going forward is trying to try to shore up the run game and hopefully that can set the table for them to do what they do best. And the big thing has been takeaways. That's a huge thing for every team in the NFL, but when this defense getting takeaways, it has been the great equalizer. When they're not getting takeaways they've had some long afternoons, so those kind of tend to come in bunches and it's been the case for them this year. If takeaways and sacks are coming, their issues kind of get mitigated. If those things aren't happening, then those issues kind of get exposed.

Q: Who are some players on defense that have really stood out to you?

Henson: The first-round pick, Brian Burns, dealt with a hand injury for the past few weeks, but he's kind of back to himself again. He's a dynamic young edge rusher. He's got five-and-a-half sacks now.

At the cornerback position, a lot of people don't know James Bradbury, but he has been really outstanding for them this year. The guy is a former second-round pick in a contract season who's been playing the best football of his career. And again, just not a big name across the NFL, but has certainly put himself in position to get a really nice payday this offseason. He's been terrific. So I would look to Bradbury as probably the guy that people should be more aware of that they aren't.

Along the defensive line, they suffered a big hit when Dontari Poe suffered an injury against the Saints this past weekend. So that certainly hurts their D-line depth. At the linebacker position, everybody knows Luke Kuechly. He's one of the best players in the NFL. But the other starting linebacker, Shaq Thompson, is another one who's really sort of come into a zone here in his fifth season. He's a really athletic, explosive linebacker. So Shaq and Bradbury are two that I would say are players who probably don't get enough credit for how talented they are.

Q: Lastly, the team has been wildly inconsistent this season. What has been the cause of that?

Henson: I think that's just the nature of this league. You never know what's going to happen on any Sunday. And that's been painfully true for this Panthers team. The Atlanta game at home was one game. The Falcons had two wins at that point, and they just got outplayed in all facets by the Falcons. That was a really, really tough loss. And then I think most people expected them to have a really tough time in new Orleans and they play one of their better games of the year and were in a position to win it until kind of faltering at the end.

I think every team in the league is trying to find consistency. That's the goal. It's so hard to do because of how competitive this league is and how much parody exists. But with the amount of young players, especially that they have on this team right now playing in so many crucial roles, I think it's kind of to be expected that consistency has been a little hard to come by.

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