The Panthers are back at home and looking to end a three-game losing skid on Sunday against the Redskins. Here are five things to watch.
Dwayne Haskins' inexperience
This time last year, Dwayne Haskins was carving up defenses in the Big 10 at Ohio State.
Now, it's a bit of a different story. Haskins is quarterbacking the 2-9 Redskins and is still working to find his footing in the NFL. Haskins took things over under center in Week 9 for Washington and has only appeared in five games with just three starts under his belt this season.
That inexperience presents an opportunity for the Panthers defense. So far this season the Panthers have fared well against rookie quarterbacks with wins over Kyler Murray and the Cardinals and Gardner Minshew and the Jaguars.
In his five appearances, Haskins is completing 54.6 percent of his passes with two passing touchdowns against six interceptions.
"The kid is young. Got a lot of talent, big arm," defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. "He's struggled at times, but there's also times like last week when they needed him to make plays, he went like 6-for-7, something like that. So, he can make all the throws, we've just got to do our best to make him uncomfortable."
If the stat book is any indicator, Haskins has been uncomfortable quite a bit this season. The rookie quarterback has been sacked 17 times in his limited experience. For a Panthers team that's second in the league in sacks (41), that number presents a huge opportunity to get Haskins out of synch early.
A thin offensive line
When it comes to protecting their own quarterback, there's a lot up in the air for the Panthers.
All season long the Panthers offensive line has been a carousel of injuries – and center Matt Paradis has been the only constant. Of the seven different players to start along the O-line this season, Paradis is the only one who has yet to miss a snap.
Last week against the Saints was particularly costly for the unit. The game in New Orleans resulted in left guard Greg Van Roten heading to the injured reserve list with a foot injury, and tackles Taylor Moton and Greg Little suffered knee and ankle injuries, respectively.
Since the game, Moton has seen limited action in practice, while Little missed all three practices this week. On Friday's injury report, Little was listed as doubtful while Moton was questionable.
"It's tough, because the progress he makes is visible on tape," Rivera said of Little. "When you watch him on tape you see him making the progress, doing the things that you saw on tape from his college days."
Little, the rookie left tackle, has only appeared in four games this season after suffering a preseason concussion and then reentering the protocol following Week 4 of the regular season. Now, the ankle injury looks like it could be a further setback.
"You know he's an athletic, physical guy that moves very well with good quickness, good footwork, but when you miss out like this it does set you back," Rivera added. "I think he's a smart young man. He understands the game, he knows the game, so picking back up the mental aspect is not as bad, it's just again, getting the physical reps."
Solidifying things on special teams
After an ending like the one the Panthers suffered last week in New Orleans, questions were bound to arise regarding the kicking game this week.
With kicker Joey Slye missing three critical kicks against the Saints, the Panthers made a few minor adjustments this week signing kicker Greg Joseph to the practice squad. However, it doesn't seem like the Panthers are ready to move on from Slye just yet.
"For a young guy, you do want to be patient, because it's all part of the developmental process," Rivera explained. "Very few kickers come in and from their rookie year on they're great."
Rivera said Slye kicked the ball well in practice this week, and part of that may come from the increased competition knowing another kicker is present.
"I told you guys since training camp when Graham (Gano) was here, I'm not competing against Graham, I'm competing against myself," Slye said. "He's (Joseph) in here to compete for a position, but for me I'm just competing against myself trying to get better each week. For me, it's not selfish, but this is about me."
On the season, Slye has made of 19-of-26 field goal attempts and 22-of-26 PATs.
So, what's the biggest key to getting back on track against the Redskins?
"Not try to make up for the kicks last week, can't get them back," Slye said. "Just move forward and put my best foot forward on Sunday."
Stopping the run
He may not be the dominant runner he once was, but Redskins' running back Adrian Peterson is still an opponent defenses are forced to game plan against.
"He still can make people miss. He still makes it hard on the back end to tackle him," McCoy said of Peterson. "One person ain't going to get him on the ground, so we're going to have to have all hats to the ball and make sure we rally around him."
Peterson has totaled 543 rushing yards this season and one touchdown on 134 carries. That may not seem like much compared to some of the league's top backs, but it's still enough to potentially cause problems for a Panthers defense that has had issues against the run.
The Panthers defense ranks sixth in the league in rushing yards allowed per game, giving up an average of 127.5 yards. Only twice has Carolina's defense held its opponent under 100 yards rushing this season.
This week could present another opportunity for the unit to do that, though, as Washington ranks 27th in the league in rushing yards per game, averaging just 85.9 yards.
"I'm always a little biased towards him because he's a Sooner and he's a good friend of mine," McCoy added of Peterson, "but it's always an honor to play against him."
Will the Panthers end the losing skid?
It's been nearly a month since the Panthers last victory in Week 9 against the Titans. Since then, they've dropped three straight – two of which came in heartbreaking fashion.
Now sitting at 5-6, Carolina's back is essentially against the wall. With five games left on the schedule, every game is a must-win if the Panthers want any hope of making the post season. Even then, they'd likely need a bit of help around the league.
"We're still in it, believe it or not," Rivera said. "The biggest thing that we have to do is we have a Washington team that's coming off of a victory, so we've got to get ready for them. We've got to go out and play to our abilities and play some good football."
As Rivera noted, the Redskins pulled off their second win of the season last week against the Lions, but the Panthers are still an overwhelming favorite. With a holiday weekend, the Panthers should have a strong home field advantage in Bank of America Stadium, making Sunday a prime opportunity to get things back on track to kick off the last month of the regular season.
Carolina is 6-8 against Washington all-time.