Who needs to play better for the Panthers to win the division? – Jim in Cary, N.C.
One of the main reasons Carolina is undefeated is that even if one part of the team struggles to find consistency, individuals step up and make plays that make a difference. But to attain success over the long haul, the Panthers still need that consistency.
On offense, look no further than the receivers. Ted Ginn, Jr. has made a big impact in his return to Carolina, and the passing game as a whole – with a big boost from tight end Greg Olsen – is getting the job done. But the Panthers will need more from this group going forward, which is a realistic goal with Jerricho Cotchery nearing a return from an ankle injury and rookie Devin Funchess still getting up to speed.
"I've just been working to get better each week," Funchess said before the bye. "I'm just growing, getting comfortable with the offense."
On defense, recently acquired rookie Ryan Delaire sparkled in his NFL debut with two sacks and nearly a third, but as a whole the pass rush must create a push more consistently. It won't be easy with Charles Johnson out until Thanksgiving, but Delaire's debut combined with the addition of Jared Allen could help propel the rest of the group forward.
On special teams, Ginn has brought stability to the return game, and kicker Graham Gano, punter Brad Nortman and long snapper J.J. Jansen remain reliable contributors – especially important in the case of Gano given the kicking struggles around the league. But Gano has had two kicks blocked, and the coverage teams have given up some significant returns. The Panthers need to tighten things up a little bit.
I feel like our running game has taken a step back. What can we do to get it going? If look around the NFL, a lot of teams are doing well on the ground, I feel like we are going to need more from our backs to get over the hump. – Marion in Lynchburg, S.C.
This is an interesting one. The Panthers actually rank fourth in the NFL with 132.2 rushing yards per game, but it doesn't feel that way. Jonathan Stewart has accounted for nearly 70 percent of Carolina's rushing attempts by running backs, but he hasn't yet topped 62 yards in a game and hasn't scored. It feels almost like he's struggled, but in reality he's been solid – reaching 50 yards in all four games - and he has managed to stay healthy. Stewart averaged 97 yards over the final seven games of last season (including the postseason), but now quarterback Cam Newton is fully healthy and better able to contribute to the run game. He's done just that, averaging 48.8 yards a game on the ground – best in the NFL among quarterbacks - while scoring twice.
The Panthers, however, want to keep an eye on how much Newton runs, and the same can be said of Stewart. They want both to be in good shape for the stretch run, and when the time is right the Panthers won't hesitate to lean more on their running backs. The trick is keeping them healthy now so they'll be able to be workhorses down the stretch if need be.
Hi, Bryan. I grow up in Mt. Gilead, N.C., and have been a Panthers fan for years. What do you think is the best way to contain Jermaine Kearse? He seems to always be open near the end zone when Russell Wilson rolls out the pocket. And will Kevin Norwood be active this week? Keep pounding! – Todd in Atlanta
Wilson and Kearse did that exact thing Sunday against the Bengals, and in Carolina's playoff loss at Seattle last season, Kearse broke free for a 63-yard touchdown – though Wilson remained in the pocket for that one. Regardless of the receiver involved, Wilson seems to be at his most dangerous when he buys time by leaving the pocket – much like Newton. The solution is easy in theory but not in practice: Don't let him leave the pocket.
As for Norwood, it's too early to say if he'll be active for the game, but he'll surely be active in another way throughout the week. As a former Seahawk, he should be able to share some insight on Kearse, Wilson and the whole offense. Against a team like Seattle, every little edge helps.
How would you assess the play of Andrew Norwell, Mike Remmers and Trai Turner so far this year? Do they look like they're here for the long haul? – Kevin in Staten Island, N.Y.
The fact that the trio hasn't been talked about much this year is a good thing. When Remmers stepped in at right tackle late last year and Norwell and Turner - Carolina's then-rookie guards – found their footing, the Panthers were able to close with a flourish. They've picked up where they left off and have been particularly strong as pass blockers so far.
This time last year, Carolina's line was undergoing serious growing pains. Turner had just joined the starting lineup, but Norwell wasn't playing and Remmers wasn't on the roster. Turner soon was sidelined with a knee injury, opening the door for Norwell to get a look. On a dreadfully cold day Week 13 at Minnesota, Remmers joined Norwell and a finally healthy Turner in the lineup. The only area that enjoyed any semblance of success that day was the run game. The new lineup set in motion a 4-0 finish to the regular season and now a 4-0 start this season, with those three and center Ryan Kalil as constants and now with offseason acquisition Michael Oher at left tackle.