Coach Matt Rhule and the Carolina Panthers are in the middle of a critical three-game home stand.
Carolina won its first game of the season last week, beating New Orleans 22-14 behind an opportunistic defense, disruptive special teams and one game-breaking Laviska Shenault Jr. catch.
On Sunday, the Panthers (1-2) host the Arizona Cardinals (1-2). While the game could eventually carry important NFC wild-card implications, multiple sources confirmed to The Charlotte Observer that Panthers owner David Tepper wants to be patient with Rhule as the first quarter of the Panthers season concludes.
Carolina starting October with a .500 record — considering it lost consecutive games on late fourth-quarter go-ahead field goals of 55-plus yards — would be a success.
But for the Panthers to capture their first winning streak since Week 3 of last season, the team must find a way to contain Pro-Bowl quarterback Kyler Murray while kick-starting Baker Mayfield and its offense.
Historically, the Panthers have had success against Arizona. The Cardinals have not beaten Carolina since Week 4 of the 2013 season. The Panthers are 6-0 against Arizona over that stretch.
Let’s break down some key matchups:
Stopping Kyler Murray
The Cardinals’ offense starts and ends with Murray. He is as unique a talent as there is in the NFL.
“What Kyler did at the end of the Raiders game was magical,” Rhule said. “Kyler is one of the rarest athletic players I’ve seen in my life.”
In Week 2, Murray led Arizona back from a 20-point halftime deficit to defeat the Las Vegas Raiders. Murray and the Cardinals scored 16 unanswered points in the fourth quarter, including a highlight-reel, two-point conversion during which Murray covered 85 yards behind the line of scrimmage before eventually scrambling across the goal line.
The 5-foot-9 speed demon dip, dodged and ducked nearly every Raiders defender to push Arizona to overtime.
He’s just as deadly with his arm as he is with his feet. Expect Carolina to deploy a lot of zone coverage in hopes of consistently keeping 11 pairs of eyes on Murray.
The Panthers’ defensive ends must be extremely disciplined rushing Murray. He’ll gash Carolina for chunk runs if Brian Burns, Yetur Gross-Matos and Marquis Haynes rush too aggressive upfield, ignoring their rush-lane integrity.
Defensive end Henry Anderson played 18 snaps against New Orleans (26% of defensive plays). He blocked a second-quarter field-goal try that swung the game. Anderson should see an increased role Sunday. His disciplined run defense (edge setting) and long frame (Anderson is 6 feet, 6 inches tall) are ideal for combating Murray.
Panthers defensive coordinator Phil Snow should know what to expect from Murray. In 2020, Snow’s defense limited Murray to 133 yards passing in a 31-21 win. Murray gained 78 rushing yards on six carries.
The 2022 Cardinals are far from unpredictable. Coach Kliff Kingsbury uses 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end and three receivers) on most plays and operates in the shotgun 95% of the time.
Last week, Cardinals No. 1 wide receiver Marquise Brown earned 17 targets. Only once did Murray throw at Brown while he was lined up on the right sideline. Cornerbacks Jaycee Horn, C.J. Henderson and Donte Jackson should expect Brown to see most (if not all) of his production come from Murray when he’s throwing left.
Brown popped up on the Cardinals’ Friday injury report with a foot injury. He is questionable but is expected to play.
Arizona could gain explosive slot receiver Rondale Moore. He has not played yet this year with hamstring injury but is trending toward playing. Veteran receiver A.J. Green is out with a knee injury.
Despite having Murray, a plethora of explosive pass catchers and a bruising running back in James Conner, the Cardinals offense averages 4.9 yards per passing play. Only the Chicago Bears average less.
Arizona is struggling to sustain drives. Arizona ranks 19.4% in third-down conversion rate, which ranks 31st in the league. Only the Panthers (19.3% third-down rate) rank lower. The league average is 35.5%.
Can the Panthers find their passing offense?
Through three weeks Carolina has proven it can run the football.
Running back Christian McCaffrey (who is questionable but expected to play Sunday) is the only running back with consecutive 100-yard games. But if he is unable to play (or leaves early due to injury) the team is ready to increase both D’Onta Foreman and Chuba Hubbard’s roles.
All three backs are capable of running behind the lanes interior linemen Brady Christensen, Austin Corbett and Pat Elflein are creating. The Panthers are the ninth-best rushing offense, according Football Outsiders DVOA metric. (DVOA measures a team’s efficiency by comparing success on every single play to a league average based on situation and opponent.)
But the Panthers passing offense ranks 30th in the same metric. There are a lot of potential reasons for that.
Mayfield is not practicing disciplined footwork on Sundays. On several third-down misses against the Saints his eyes, shoulders and feet are not working in unison when he releases the ball. Mayfield is not Patrick Mahomes or Aaron Rodgers. He cannot get away with throwing off-platform with discombobulated mechanics and still expect his throws to be accurate.
Mayfield has taken nine sacks (sixth most in the NFL). He ranks 28th out of 34 qualified quarterbacks in completions and yards. Mayfield is getting blitzed 38.5% of the time, the highest rate in the NFL.
The Saints were second in blitz rate versus Carolina despite entering Sunday as the 30th-ranked blitzing team.
Saints coach Dennis Allen (a former defensive coordinator) likely watched Giants defensive coordinator Wink Martindale blitz Mayfield with the fourth-highest Week 2 rate and copied his game plan.
Through three weeks, teams are not respecting Mayfield. The plan is to send five defenders and bet he becomes overwhelmed or cannot figure it out.
His receivers are not getting open consistently enough, either. Rhule challenged his receiving room to have its “best week of practice.” DJ Moore, Robbie Anderson and Shi Smith must run more consistent routes, predicted on game-speed tempo and precise depth, in order to help Mayfield regain his accuracy.
Offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo can help by adding more pre-snap motion to the Panthers offense. Through three weeks Carolina ranks 28th in pre-snap motion frequency.
The team is hopeful McCaffrey will play, but Shenault will likely be a game-time decision. If he cannot play then Hubbard would return kicks. Shenault being inactive could also lead to receiver Rashard Higgins earning more red-zone opportunities.
Arizona provides a fruitful opportunity for Carolina to discover a consistent passing game. The Cardinals’ defense is allowing a league-high 8 yards per pass play.