After claiming their first victory of the season in Los Angeles, the Panthers will try to make it two in a row against the Cardinals in Week 4. Here are five things to watch for in the matchup.
CAN CAROLINA GENERATE MORE TAKEAWAYS?
The Panthers' defense did not record a turnover in Week 1, but the unit has registered six in the last two weeks. Carolina is now tied for No. 3 in the category, with four fumble recoveries and two interceptions. Only Cleveland and New England have more takeaways with seven.
Conversely, Arizona has been one of the league's most turnover-prone teams. Currently sitting at negative-3 in the turnover margin, the Cardinals have five giveaways, including three in last week's loss to the Lions. Quarterback Kyler Murray has committed all five with interceptions. He could have conceivably had additional picks last week if Detroit had caught a couple more passes thrown in harm's way.
Turnovers are often one of the best indicators of wins and losses. Last week the Panthers were plus-4 and won. If they can replicate that against the Cardinals, they'll have a good shot at making it two Ws in a row.
WILL THE RED ZONE OFFENSE IMPROVE?
The Panthers were just 1-of-6 in red zone efficiency against the Chargers. Their lone touchdown came after an L.A. penalty extended a drive. Kicker Joey Slye at least got points out of those possessions by kicking five field goals. But the Panthers know they must be better inside the 20.
"We have to continue to put drives together and punch touchdowns in the red zone because that's what's going to win football games," offensive coordinator Joe Brady said.
The Panthers currently rank No. 30 with a 38.5 percent red-zone touchdown rate. But the club is tied for No. 6 with 13 red-zone possessions. That means they've moved the ball, but the offense needs to finish the job.
That will be a challenge against the Cardinals, who are No. 2 in red-zone defense. They've allowed just four touchdowns in 13 opponent trips inside the 20.
CAN CAROLINA'S DEFENSE GET BETTER ON THIRD DOWN?
After last week's performance, defensive coordinator Phil Snow put it plainly:
"You just can't give up 10 of 15 on third down," he said.
While hte Panthers allowed only 16 points last week, the Chargers recorded 436 total yards — 319 passing and 117 rushing. A big part of that was Los Angeles' ability to convert 66 percent of their third-down opportunities.
The Panthers have struggled in the category through their first three games, allowing a 56.8 percent conversion rate. Only the Giants have been worse, allowing 58.1 percent.
Part of Carolina's struggle has been letting opponents get into favorable down-and-distance situations. So the Panthers need to keep quarterback Kyler Murray in as many third-and-longs as possible. But that's not going to happen on every drive. Carolina must be better on the third-and-medium and third-and-short situations to have a better chance to win.
WILL THE TIGHT ENDS GET MORE INVOLVED?
During training camp, tight ends Ian Thomas and Chris Manhertz both received praise for their performance in the new offense. But through three games, they've combined for just six targets and five receptions.
Thomas has caught three of his four targets for 25 yards. Manhertz reeled in both of his targets for 12 yards.
Manhertz is more known for his blocking skills than his receiving ability. He's been in the league since 2014, and his next catch will mark a single-season career-high.
But given Carolina's red zone woes, Manhertz and Thomas both have a chance to make a difference inside the 20. Manhertz is listed at 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds, Thomas at 6-foot-4 and 260 pounds. Both can present matchup problems within scoring distance.
IF HE PLAYS, CAN ANYONE LIMIT HOPKINS?
DeAndre Hopkins has been the league's best wide receiver through three weeks of the season, leading the NFL in receptions (32) and receiving yards (356). Plus, Hopkins has caught 32 of his 37 targets for an 86.5 percent catch rate — well above the 60.3 percent rate from his first seven seasons.
But there's a chance Hopkins won't see the field on Sunday, as he's listed as questionable with an ankle injury. Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury said whether Hopkins plays will be a game-time decision on Sunday.
If he's not out there, the Cardinals' offense will look dramatically different. Hopkins has registered games with 151, 68, and 137 yards receiving so far. If there's one possible criticism of the wideout with his new team, it's that he's gotten in the end zone only once.
The Clemson product is always a challenge, and that is sure to be the case on Sunday. Hopkins is going to get his, but if the Panthers can at least limit his production and stave off explosive plays, they may contain the three-time, first-team All-Pro.
Carolina is 12-5 all-time against the Cardinals, including a 2-1 record in the playoffs.