The Panthers host the Titans on Sunday as Carolina looks to get back on track. Here are five things to watch in the Week 9 matchup.
How will the Panthers respond?
We all know what happened last year. After rolling to a 6-2 start, the Panthers suffered a devastating 52-21 Week 10 loss in Pittsburgh that began a seven-game losing skid.
Now, the Panthers are in a similar and equally critical position. After starting the season 4-2 and experiencing a comparably humbling loss to San Francisco last Sunday, this week's matchup with the Titans will be a huge indicator of how the remainder of the 2019 season will play out.
"I think the biggest thing more so than anything else is there's going to be comparisons to what happened last year and what potentially could happen this year. The key word there is potential," head coach Ron Rivera said. "I believe with some of the leadership we have and after having experienced it, I think the guys understand what it's going to take."
Rookie defensive end Brian Burns said there hasn't been any moping around in the Panthers locker room. Instead, everyone has already moved on from last week's loss, but they've taken a few lessons from it, too.
"I've just been hearing nothing but positivity," Burns said. "We're not going to act like last week didn't happen, but we can't let that deter or stop us from getting to our destination. We've got to put that behind us, learn from the film and keep it moving."
With four division games still on the schedule and some key NFC matchups looming, the Panthers are still very much in the playoff hunt, and it all starts with a rebound on Sunday against the Titans.
Stopping Derrick Henry
After giving up 232 rushing yards to the 49ers last week, the Panthers will have their work cut out for them again this Sunday in Titans running back Derrick Henry.
So far this season the former Heisman Trophy winner has racked up 581 rushing yards (9th) and six total touchdowns (T-8th). The Panthers have faced some sizable backs this year, like Jacksonville's Leonard Fournette, but none as tall as the six-foot-three Henry.
"He's a uniquely sized back, not so much in weight, but his ability to be tall and long and fall forward," linebacker Luke Kuechly said. "I think that's one of the best things he's able to do that I don't think people talk about enough. When guys get bottled up and they fall forward, a guy his size is able to fall forward for a significant amount of yards"
Luckily for the Panthers, facing Fournette earlier in the season has given them a bit of a blueprint for handling teams with such physical rushing attacks.
"Very similar to what we saw a few weeks ago with Jacksonville," defensive coordinator Eric Washington said. "We just have to do a really good job of making sure from one player to the next that we're in position and really attack this guy before he can get a head of steam against us."
But Henry's size isn't the only thing he has going for him, as evidenced by the running back's breakaway speed on his 75-yard touchdown dash after a screen pass in Week 1.
"He can play a physical brand of football, and he can also run by a defender if you're not in the right position," Washington said. "We have been exposed to that style of runner previously, and that'll help serve us as we continue to go forward with him."
Who will handle the returns?
It's safe to say the Panthers have struggled in the return game so far this season, and over the bye week the team seemed to be making moves to sure things up. Return man Ray-Ray McCloud was let go, and when Carolina brought in returner Greg Dortch it looked like the rookie would be the answer.
Instead, Dortch was inactive for last week's game in San Francisco, leaving wide receiver Brandon Zylstra to handle the punt return duties while running back Reggie Bonnafon and wide receiver DeAndrew White returned kickoffs. Zylstra and Bonnafon both muffed their first returns, a problem McCloud struggled with, so it seems like neither of them will end up being the long-term answer.
"We wanted to give him an opportunity to get his feet underneath him last week," Rivera said of the reasoning behind why Dortch was inactive. "This week with the way he's progressing, I think it's a great opportunity for him to return kicks for us."
Dortch fielded both punts and kickoffs during a week of practice that included a rainy Wednesday and an extremely windy Thursday. The weather didn't faze the rookie, though, and Dortch's sure hands drew praise from Rivera.
"Got a chance to watch Greg a little bit more," Rivera said. "We put him out there to catch some punts in the bad weather and he did actually a pretty good job. We're building confidence in his abilities as we go forward with him."
Can Kyle Allen get back on track?
After winning his first five games as a starter without throwing a single interception, Kyle Allen was brought back down to earth against the 49ers. The second-year quarterback threw the first three interceptions of his NFL career in what ended up being his worst performance of the season.
"He just said, 'I should have known better,'" Rivera said of Allen. "He took it out on himself, but in a very calm way. You know, 'I should have known better,' 'I saw this,' 'Hey, I learned from it, coach,' so that all I can appreciate. He is who he is."
Allen has always been described as the definition of cool – never getting too worked up, always staying calm. That wasn't the case last Sunday, as he was forced to play from a significant deficit for the first time in his career. If the Panthers hope to get back to their winning ways against the Titans, Allen will need to channel that inner peace once again.
Getting separation from Tennessee's physical secondary
An important part of getting Allen back in his groove will be having his wide receivers get open, which has proven to be quite challenging against the Titans' secondary.
Second-year head coach Mike Vrabel has instilled a physical brand of football in Tennessee, and it shows in the team's defense. The Titans' D only gives up an average of 16.9 points per game (4th) and the group has recorded 22 sacks (T-10th) and eight interceptions (T-5th).
"They're aggressive by nature," Rivera said. "They play a lot of man coverage. They're physical, they're touchy-handsy, they're always touchy, pushy, shoving. There's an element to that that I don't think people quite understand. When you're a physical team and you try to do things physically, you send a message, and he's (Vrabel) got an aggressive team."
Critics of the Panthers have said that wide receivers Curtis Samuel and DJ Moore have underperformed so far this season, but Rivera and offensive coordinator Norv Turner said they’re pleased with the duo’s progression.
An easy way for the two to silence the critics would be by turning in an explosive outing against the Titans.
Carolina is 2-3 all-time against the Titans franchise, winning in the last meeting in 2015.