Panthers Remain Unbeaten in Conference, Still Look for First AFC Win

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Tight End Greg Olsen makes his first of two touchdown receptions [via panthers.com]

In week 4, the Panthers traveled to Baltimore for what would turn out to be an especially painful road loss. Not just because it sent the team home with unanswered questions about it’s Greg Hardy-less Defense, but because it came at the hands of their former wideout star – Steve Smith Sr. – who scored 2 highlight-reel touchdowns in the blowout.

To some, it confirmed what many had believed all offseason: That the 35 year-old, still explosive receiver should have never had to hang up his iconic Black and Blue uniform. But after returning home a disappointing 2-2, Carolina had far more tangible worries – Specifically, a Chicago Bears team that was undefeated on the road and as Offensively-loaded as any team in the league.

Facing a 14-point deficit with time winding down in the first half, the Panthers would find themselves on the other end of their haunting Steve Smith narrative from the week before. Former Bears tight end Greg Olsen, who was traded to Carolina for a third round pick, found the endzone twice on Sunday – including the go-ahead score – to fuel an exciting comeback. Earlier in the week, former Bears GM Jerry Angelo admitted on a local radio show that trading Olsen was ultimately a mistake, saying “I understand he wasn’t the ideal fit in the scheme, but we let our best receiver go.”

Just in case there was any leftover doubt after that statement, Olsen confirmed it in the most appropriate way on Sunday. He continued to build his case for a long-overdue trip to the Pro Bowl, while sending his former team back home on the darker side of .500.

Offensively, the Panthers were able to overcome a slew of injuries to their once-crowded backfield. With a practice squad call-up and a newly signed free agent splitting carries, they were able to run the ball effectively enough to open up the passing game.

After a slow start, and some help from a heads-up Special Teams play, the Panthers came alive late in the second quarter by sustaining back to back drives deep into Chicago territory. The first came to a halt on an unfortunate interception, after Newton’s pass was tipped by the defensive line.

But after a missed field goal by Robbie Gould, Newton responded with consecutive completions of 12, 20, and 22 yards – using the no-huddle offense to develop a rhythm and keep the defense on it’s heels. A few plays later, Newton and Olsen connected on a 9 yard touchdown pass, ending a 75 yard drive that took just 1 minute and 39 seconds. The score brought the Panthers within 7 just before halftime.

The momentum continued in the second half, as the Panthers put together a 10 play, 86 yard scoring drive after forcing a quick Chicago punt. After the Bears regained the lead with a third quarter field goal, the Panthers would go on to dominate the fourth.

3 forced turnovers on Chicago’s final 3 drives ultimately won the game for the Panthers, but it was Greg Olsen’s precise route-running and 2 late catches that would produce the go-ahead score.

Tied at 24, with 2:39 left on the clock, the Panthers faced a critical 3rd & 3 from the 16 yard line. It was a situation in which a struggling redzone offense would be tested with the game on the line, for good or for bad. As Newton dropped back, Olsen beat veteran cornerback Tim Jennings to the outside and made the reception on the 5 yard line. The conversion set up his 6 yard touchdown catch 3 plays later, giving the Panthers the 7 point lead they would hold on to win with.

Get the man to Hawaii already.

Defense: A Tale of Two Halves

Carolina was able to win the all-important turnover battle Sunday, something it hadn’t done since beating Detroit in week 2. The defense’s performance was a testament to it’s talent on the front seven, and Sean McDermott’s ability make adjustments throughout the game.

How important are adjustments in the game of football?
Chicago scored 21 points in the first half. They were held to just 3 in the second.

Since losing Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy, McDermott has had to mix it up with different looks to create pressure – something the Panthers didn’t do much of with two double-digit sack specialists opposite each other.

Hardy’s dominant presence has been missed this season, but Carolina still has Top-5 talent on their front seven. Not only has reigning DPOY Luke Kuechly been playing out of his mind thus far, but his counterpart Thomas Davis continues to round out one of the best linebacker duo’s in the league.

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Linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis [via panthers.com]

If you need reassurance, look at Jay Cutler’s first quarter interception from Sunday. It started with pressure from the defensive line, but the play was created by Davis:

A linebacker being asked to cover one of the most prolific receivers in the NFL, Brandon Marshall, is not something you’ll see very often. It’s a matchup Cutler, or any other quarterback, would take on paper 9 times out of 10. But Davis ran step-for-step with Marshall like a seasoned corner, and broke up the pass into the awaiting arms of Roman Harper. There aren’t many linebackers in the league who don’t get burned for a big gain there.

Luke Kuechly led yet another game in tackles, and the secondary held up – although the unit continued to struggle against the screen game, letting Alshon Jeffery and Matt Forte gash them for several big gains. And while the defensive line still has work to do against the run, they were able to come up with big stops when it mattered most, stuffing Forte on multiple 3rd down rushes late in the game. Their constant pressure on Cutler produced the turnovers, none bigger than the game-sealing strip sack by Kawann Short inside 2 minutes. The pass rush that hadn’t been seen in two weeks finally showed up against Chicago, and that is the morsel of hope that I needed to believe this Defense can be what it once was again.

Overall, the defense saw much improvement, but will need to channel it’s second half attitude against Gio Bernard and the Bengals this week. With AJ Green likely out, the Bengals will look to get their star running back the ball more both on the ground and through the air. If the Panthers can limit the run and contain the screen game in Cincinnati, they might be able to make a deep-threat-lacking team one-dimensional. But if they fail to stop the run early, it’s sure to be another ugly AFC North matchup for Carolina.

Stay tuned for a full Week 6 preview including match-ups to watch, injury updates, and more.

For breaking news, practice reports, and in-game tweets, Follow Austin on Twitter @Austallings

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