Wed, 08 Dec 2021

5 Things to Watch: Offensive line working to cancel "noise"

Carolina Panthers
17 Oct 2021, 04:44 GMT+10

Darin Gantt

CHARLOTTE - The Panthers can't do anything about the Eagles game now, other than use it as motivation.

And that's been in plentiful supply, as they try to put a disappointing week behind them and move into this week's specific challenge - the Vikings.

Like the 3-2 Panthers, the 2-3 Vikings have been up and down this season, and they're playing a lot of close games which could go either way late.

There are things the Vikings do that present specific issues for the Panthers, which will be interesting to monitor as they move forward.

So here are five things to watch as Sunday's game unfolds.

Week 6 Final Injury Report: Christian McCaffrey out Pickin' It: Carolina vs. Minnesota in Week 6 Week 6 Game Preview: Panthers vs. Vikings

SHORING UP THE LINE

The members of the Panthers offensive line are not in denial. They know the play of the line as a whole hasn't been what they need, especially in the absence of running back Christian McCaffrey.

And they know that Sunday against the Vikings, they have to protect better than they have for quarterback Sam Darnold to have a chance to run a McCaffrey-less offense. That's not a simple task against a team with two talented pass-rushers in Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen (10.0 sacks between them).

But they also believe it's not nearly as bad as it has looked at times, and that they're capable of doing what needs to be done.

Veteran left tackle Cameron Erving, back this week after a neck injury kept him out against the Eagles, said they know they have to play better, but they're also working to eliminate the distractions of "noise" from the outside. Erving said he avoids social media during the season, where so much of the negativity resides.

"People get a lot of this stuff confused, and they think football is real life," Erving said. "But they don't understand who we are in real life. So they can say whatever they want on a screen or on a monitor or whatever, but nine times out of 10, if those people saw us out in public they'd ask for a picture or an autograph. That's just how you put things in perspective.

"Everybody in this locker room understands we have to go out with a sense of urgency. We have to go out and perform better than we have. And everything else that comes from the outside in, that's hearsay. It is what it is. You disregard it."

The 29-year-old Erving said it has taken him years to develop a thicker skin about such things. He used to read the comments online for motivation, but realized that wasn't productive.

"But you see one thing, and a hundred people responded to this, and then 50 people responded to that. It kind of gets out of hand," he said. "You have to have laser focus. Things happen out there. This is a hard game to play. A lot of people don't get that. They just want to look at it and see touchdowns, 60 and 70-yard runs. That's not the game.

"When you're on good teams, you understand what style of play you have to play with. We understand what style of play we have to play with. And we haven't done it the last couple weeks and we've seen our production drop. But we've seen good things within it. It's not all bad. We just have to take and learn."

Getting Erving back on the field this week at least allows them to get back to their preferred lineup, with Taylor Moton back on his familiar (and better) right tackle spot. Moton admitted recently that it was difficult that the line hadn't played to expectations.

"It's disappointing," Moton said. "A lot to learn from and make sure that we're at our best. More than anything I like to come in here and just speak for myself. I just look at the film to see what I can do so Sam has the best opportunity he can. i want him to feel like it's 7-on-7 when he drops back. I feel like that's what my job is, is to help with that. Ultimately i just want to do my job one day at a time in practice and one play at a time in the game.

"I feel like I could do better. I always feel like I can do better. I need to play better and just ultimately figure out my mistakes, and fine tune my game, so I can get closer and closer to where I want to be at. It's a long journey, but it's about trusting the process."

STOPPING THE RUN

The Panthers struggled in Dallas, with a physical offensive line and one of the league's top running backs. So this week got more complicated with the return of Vikings running back Dalvin Cook from an ankle injury.

Of course, they have another outstanding back in Alexander Mattison. In his two starts when Cook was out, Mattison topped 100 yards rushing in each game and had 324 combined yards from scrimmage.

Defensive coordinator Phil Snow said it was a more similar set-up to Dallas in terms of the way they run at you, and he has to hope for a better result. The Cowboys hit them for 245 yards on the ground that day.

The Panthers will also be without linebacker Shaq Thompson, out for another week with his foot injury.

QUARTERBACK TRENDS

Neither Darnold nor Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins has been particularly sharp lately.

Darnold's thrown five interceptions the last two games, while taking a lot of hits.

And after throwing eight touchdowns and no interceptions in the first three weeks, Cousins has come back to Earth, with two touchdowns and two picks and a 79.5 passer rating in the last two.

As reductive as it may sound, the one who can avoid mistakes will give his team the best chance to win. The Panthers are hoping to create more pressure of their own, and they still lead the league in pass defense (184.5 yards per game).

But some of them remember last year's crushing loss, and how quickly Cousins can recover.

Despite a two-touchdown day from Panthers then-linebacker Jeremy Chinn, Cousins engineered a comeback, with two fourth-quarter touchdown drives (the clincher in the final minute) in a 28-27 win there.

REDDICK ON A HOT STREAK

With a pair of sacks last week against the Eagles, Panthers outside linebacker Haason Reddick continued his playmaking pace.

He's the only player in the NFL with four games of 1.5 sacks or more, and he's tied for second in the league with 6.5 for the season.

Only Cleveland's Myles Garrett (7.0) has more, and Garrett had 4.5 of his in one game against the Bears.

And since the start of last season (when he was with the Cardinals), Reddick has 19.5 sacks, a number second only to Pittsburgh's T.J. Watt over that span.

WAITING FOR NEWS

As mentioned above, McCaffrey will miss his third straight game with a hamstring injury. He was ruled out Friday, and Panthers head coach Matt Rhule said the hope is that he can return next week against the Giants.

McCaffrey has now missed 16 of the 22 games Rhule has coached here, but Rhule disputed the idea that they're rushing him back, either last season or this season. McCaffrey missed 13 games last year with a collection of different injuries.

"I don't think we brought him back too early. We didn't bring him back at the end of the year (in 2020)," Rhule said. "I think Christian, we take everything like every player. We're never going to rush anyone back. When the doctors clear him and the player feels like they can play, we'll go with them.

"I don't think one thing relates to another. Christian had a foot, then he had a shoulder and then a quad. So it wasn't like it's any one thing. And now it's the hamstring. Whenever he's ready, we'll put him out there."

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