CHARLOTTE — It doesn't take a long look around the NFL at the moment to realize everyone's dealing with injuries.
Sunday's Panthers-Giants game will largely be a matter of which team is better equipped to overcome their particular issue.
Instead of a battle of two of the game's most dynamic backs, both Christian McCaffrey and Saquon Barkley are out, leaving offenses searching for identities.
But the schedule doesn't stop, and the 3-3 Panthers aren't going to feel sorry for anyone after losing three in a row.
Here's a look at five things to watch in Sunday's game against the 1-5 Giants:
TIME TO BE SHI
Rookie wide receiver Shi Smith was nearly an afterthought for the early part of the season. As the sixth receiver on a team deep in them, he didn't get much of a chance to show himself. He got a uniform for the first time last week because of injuries stacking up at other spots, and it was a good thing he did.
When fellow rookie wideout Terrace Marshall Jr. was left the game with a concussion, and fourth receiver/special teamer Brandon Zylstra suffered a hamstring injury, and returner Alex Erickson suffered a concussion, Smith quickly became a necessity.
But even before those injuries piled up, he made a mark on the game. After a turnover, Smith took a quick Sam Darnold pass for a 16-yard gain which set up a score a play later, showing the kind of burst he is capable of.
The Panthers had a small package of plays for Smith, something head coach Matt Rhule referred to as almost a "gimmick," but Smith has quickly had to prepare himself for a bigger role this week (Zylstra's on IR, and Marshall has been ruled out).
"It's been a grind," Smith said with a grin of his last few days of more intense studying. "Early mornings, long nights. Getting here early in the morning, going over my plays, so when I go out there, I can play fast."
He can certainly do that. Darnold said the sixth-rounder from South Carolina made an immediate impression this offseason as someone who might turn into a playmaker, which is why he has no problems incorporating him into a more prominent role in the offense.
"Yeah, Shi's a really, really good player," Darnold said. "He's explosive when he gets the ball in his hands; he can do some good things with the football. Right when Shi got here in OTAs, we knew what kind of player he was, and what kind of player he can be. I'm excited to see him, not necessarily do anything crazy or special, but excited to watch him play. And if he does get the ball in his hands, I know he can do something special with it.
"He's just an explosive athlete. He can go up at the highest point and get the football, and he can outrun almost anyone. So he's a really good player."
The Panthers saw the tape from his college days, but got a clearer view of him during Senior Bowl practices in January. Even though offensive coordinator Joe Brady was home sick for that trip, he watched the tape of each practice (as well as the televised coverage on NFL Network, which played on a loop during the slow days of the offseason) and was intrigued by Smith's potential.
"I was sitting there in isolation watching it on TV," Brady said. "It was actually interesting from my perspective, to see the flash. You're watching the one-on-ones, and during that time, the NFL Network plays the Senior Bowl on reruns, so you watch the one-on-ones over and over, and then you watch in the staff meetings. But he popped on tape as it was. So I wasn't even there, and I was able to notice that."
Now, he'll get to call plays for him, and need the contribution.
As mentioned up top, the Panthers have plenty of injury issues of their own.
But the Giants may be having a more acute problem at the moment, especially on offense.
They've already ruled out Barkely, and wide receivers Kenny Golladay and Ladarius Toney. Receivers Darius Slayton and Sterling Shepard are questionable, along with tight end Evan Engram. That doesn't leave a lot for Charlotte-native Giants quarterback Daniel Jones to work with. The Giants also put left tackle Andrew Thomas on IR this week, further complicating Jones' task.
So even if there was a natural temptation for Panthers players to look at the news and underestimate their opponent, veteran defensive coordinator Phi Snow said at a look at their own film should keep them from overlooking anyone.
"I'm hopeful that the way we've played the last couple weeks and not won will help with that, that we come in focused and ready to play," Snow said. "They still have a lot of good players on their team."
The message was received by team captain and cornerback Donte Jackson, who emphasized that the Panthers are still suffering from too many self-inflicted wounds.
"Just to fix us," Jackson said of this week's atmosphere around the locker room. "That's been the main thing. If you watch the film, it's not anything fancy the other team is doing to us. It's been all us, keying in on details, not really going out and locking in on situations. Everything's happening because we're not being us.
"We've got to be us better. That's been the key point through this three-game losing streak. When we get to places of adversity, we forget how to be us. Not nothing pretty, not nothing extravagant, but just us, our brand of ball, and what we know we're successful at.
"We're not in a position to overlook anybody. We've been trying to chase our standard."
Panthers outside linebacker Haason Reddick is third in the league with 6.5 sacks, and has a chance to add to that total against New York.
With the Giants offensive line on the unsteady side at the moment, it could present a favorable matchup.
That's what he found the last time he saw the Giants.
Playing for the Cardinals last December, Reddick had 5.0 sacks (the Cardinals had 8.0 that day).
The Panthers could certainly use the boost. After registering 14.0 sacks the first three weeks, they've been limited to the pair Reddick had against the Eagles over the last three. That's why the motivation for Reddick this week has been internal, and he's not worried about the Giants' long injury list.
"It's the same with us; we're in Week 7 lot of injuries on a lot of teams," Reddick said. "It's about going out there trying to dominate the opponent no matter who's in the game. Everybody out there is NFL-caliber athletes. If they weren't they wouldn't be here. So it's go out and dominate whoever they put in front of us."
As the Panthers struggle with their own issues, the absence of veteran linebacker Shaq Thompson has been glaring.
Thompson was playing some of his best football when he suffered a foot injury at Dallas in Week 4, and he won't play this week. There's a hope he could return for the Falcons game next week.
The Panthers have a few vocal leaders on that side of the ball, but Thompson has a presence beyond his play.
"Just his voice, looking over and not seeing 7 out there," Jackson said. "His presence, really, his voice, his leadership. When you lose what he can do physically, from sideline to sideline, you kind of miss that voice, and hearing him in times of adversity, and we need to hear Shaq."
SENDING A MESSAGE
Neither Brady nor Darnold took any visible offense at Rhule's desire to run the ball more this week.
While that's largely because they've had problems in the passing game (from protection to interceptions, to receivers dropping passes), the Panthers also need to shorten the game, after their defense was exhausted after playing 89 snaps last week.
"It's important to do that," Darnold said. "It's important to run the ball; it sets everything up. That's one thing we just continue to work in practice. . . .
"We just have to stay consistent and do our jobs. I know it's kind of repetitive and redundant that I come up here and say that every single time, but it really is as simple as that. It's taking one play at a time and doing your job every single play."
BONUS GAMEDAY RECIPE
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Take a look at some pictures from past matchups between the Panthers and Giants. Carolina leads the all-time series 7-4.