5 Things to Watch: Panthers vs. Jaguars

The Panthers host the Jaguars at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday for a Week 5 battle between the 2-2 teams. Here are five things to watch.

The ground game

Sunday will feature two of the league’s best running backs when Christian McCaffrey squares off against the Jags' Leonard Fournette – and they're both on a roll.

After leading all NFL players with 629 scrimmage yards this season, McCaffrey was just named NFC Offensive Player of the Month, and Fournette is coming off a career-high 225 rushing yards last week. Though four weeks, the running backs are neck and neck, with McCaffrey leading the NFL in rushing yards (411) and Fournette not far behind in third place (404).

The two were selected just four picks apart in the 2017 NFL Draft, and since then have each become the core of their offenses. While CMC has dazzled the Carolinas with his speed and versatility, Fournette has proved himself as one of the league's best downhill runners, something head coach Ron Rivera said perfectly matches Jacksonville's offensive mindset.

"He fits their style of football exactly," Rivera said. "They're guys that believe in physical, pounding football."

While coaches try to approach every opposing team the same way, it's hard for defensive coordinator Eric Washington not to take No. 27 into account when game planning.

"You talk about a player like Leonard Fournette," Washington said. "He has some unique qualities that you have to be aware of in order to not allow what should be a one-yard gain to turn into a five-yard gain, a 15-yard gain or an explosive run."

"There are fundamental things that we would address, and we would emphasize regardless of who the tailback would be, and then there are some things that are unique to this player that we have to be aware of, because he can hurt you."

Minshew Mania has arrived

The handlebar mustache.

The aviator sunglasses.

The trademark red bandana.

It's all anyone in Jacksonville can talk about. Outside of Jacksonville, too, and now Minshew Mania is invading Charlotte.

The Jags' quarterback may not have the same explosiveness the Panthers saw against Kyler Murray or Deshaun Watson, but he's proven to be just as elusive.

Washington said Minshew's success all boils down to one thing: poise. According to the defensive coordinator, the rookie has a level of it that's rarely found in first-year players.

"He feels the rush, but he's not staring at it. His eyes are fixed downfield and he's trying to put himself in position to deliver the football all the way up until the last second," Washington said. "A lot of young quarterbacks, as soon as the first read's not there, they start looking and staring to see where the rushers are coming from, and that helps us. I have not seen that with him."

Washington said Minshew's veteran level of awareness in the pocket allows him to buy time for his receivers to get deeper into their routes. As a result, Minshew is five-for-five on passes greater than 25 yards downfield this season.

"He does some nifty and instinctive things in the pocket to extend the play in the pocket," Washington said. "He's extended some plays outside of the pocket, and as a result they've made some big plays. The poise is the thing that really stands out about him."

The Sack Street Boys vs Sacksonville

It's been a few years since Sacksonville was really in full effect, but if the first four weeks of the season are any indicator, it looks like the city might be back on the map.

The Jaguars' defense is tied for sixth in the league with 13 sacks on the season, while the Panthers rank first with 18. Jags' defensive end Calais Campbell leads the team with three sacks compared to Panthers' sack leader Mario Addison's 5.5.

Although the Panthers have been without Kawann Short for two weeks now, the defensive tackle was officially placed on injured reserve this week. The loss of Short has left a sizable hole on the defensive line, both literally and figuratively, and one that Rivera hopes veterans like defensive tackle Gerald McCoy can help fill.

"You can see his veteran leadership step up, and that's one of the fortunate things about having a guy like that in the locker room. He steps up into that role and he's done a nice job with it," Rivera said, also citing the impact of defensive end Bruce Irvin. "We're fortunate to have those kinds of veteran guys that are helping to offset the loss of KK."

If the Panthers hope to continue tallying up sacks this Sunday, they'll need another big contribution from rookie sensation Brian Burns. Just this week, Burns earned two Defensive Rookie of the Month awards – but Burns is focused on getting after Minshew.

"He's a little savvy. He's elusive and able to think fast on his feet and trust his instincts," Burns said. "That being said, I know he's going to hold the ball. He has a cannon, so I know he's going to look for that deep throw, it's going to take a little more time."

If Minshew makes the mistake of holding onto the ball for too long against a defense like Carolina's, it could be another big day for the D-line.

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Depth along the Panthers O-line

It's one step forward and two steps back for the Panthers' offensive line.

All signs point to rookie sixth-round pick Dennis Daley filling in at the left tackle spot this week with fellow rookie Greg Little back in the concussion protocol. If that's the case, Daryl Williams will end up staying put in place of injured right guard Trai Turner.

Daley has the support of his teammates, and Williams said he believes the rookie will be good to go come Sunday.

"He's ready," Williams said. "We drill a lot of certain things, walk through a lot of things, every look we can possibly see by them. He'll be ready. Great potential."

The return to Bank of America Stadium

After picking up two much-needed wins on the road to get back to .500, the Panthers will be back in front of the hometown crowd against the Jaguars.

Following the loss to the Buccaneers in the most recent home game, quarterback Cam Newton emphasized the need to bring back the standard of excellence the team has set in Bank of America Stadium, calling the home turf "sacred ground."

Well, it's been quite a while since it's been that way. The Panthers haven't won at home since a Week 9 victory over the Bucs on Nov. 4, 2018.

Sunday will also mark Allen's first start under center in front of the home crowd. Allen appeared for a few plays in a Week 16 loss to the Falcons last season, but most of his time in the spotlight has occurred on the road.

"I'm really excited to play in front of the home fans for a regular season game, in a game that really matters," Allen said. "I'm excited that we're on a two-game winning streak, we can come home and play in front of our fans, hopefully they pack the stadium."

Sunday will also mark the celebration of four Panthers legends being inducted into the team's Hall of Honor. Steve Smith, Sr., Jake Delhomme, Jordan Gross and Wesley Walls will all be honored at halftime, becoming the first players to be added to the Hall of Honor since Sam Mills in 1998.

If the Panthers can pull out their first home victory in nearly a year on top of the celebration of four fan favorites, it will certainly be a special day at Bank of America Stadium.

Carolina is 3-3 against Jacksonville all-time.

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