At 3-2, Panthers' next five games will be crucial

Tre Boston

CHARLOTTE — After their first five weeks of play, the Panthers find themselves in a three-way tie atop the NFC South at 3-2.

It's a solid place to be with 11 games left in the season. But for many, it's also a surprise.

"I routinely made the case this past offseason that Carolina has the right guys in place, but that the Panthers' 'success' shouldn't be judged by wins and losses. Well, looks like I was selling this upstart group short,"'s Adam Schein wrote on Monday. "I LOVE where these Panthers are going."

But riding a three-game winning streak this early won't mean much when the season ends. Not to look too far ahead, but even though Carolina is above .500 now, the next five game will reveal a lot about this 2020 team.

Three of the five matchups will be against divisional opponents, with four of the five in the NFC. It starts with a stretch of three games in 11 days against the Bears, Saints, and Falcons on Thursday Night Football. Then the Buccaneers come to town in Week 10 after the Nov. 8 trip to Kansas City.

The Panthers may feel good now about their last three Sundays. But to keep that going, they have to continue making steady progress.

During this successful stretch, Carolina has publicly targeted areas for improvement and executed that plan.

Following the Week 3 victory over the Chargers, the Panthers called out offensive red-zone efficiency, along with offensive and defensive execution on third down. All of those categories improved in the Week 4 win against Arizona.

For Week 5, head coach Matt Rhule wanted to cut down on penalties and improve defensive red-zone efficiency. The Panthers reduced their flags from 10 to four in the win over the Falcons and did not allow a red zone touchdown on two attempts.

When building a team, those outcomes are important.

"It's good to see our hard work resulting in victories these past couple weeks," quarterback Teddy Bridgewater said.

But even as the Panthers have displayed plenty of good over the last three weeks, they have significant improvements to make to solidify themselves as contenders.

Carolina's run defense has been up and down this season, but Sunday's performance was its worst. Atlanta finished with 166 yards on the ground, averaging 6.6 yards per carry. Running back Todd Gurley rushed for 121 yards — his first time over 100 since December 2018. He finished with 8.6 yards per attempt, and that number stays at 6.6 even without his 35-yard touchdown. Backup Brian Hill averaged 6.5 yards on his six carries.

Todd Gurley

"We knew that they were going to come in and run the football," Rhule said. "That's who they are, and they do it really well."

Sunday's performance feeds into a larger issue. Carolina ranks No. 25 in rushing yards allowed (667) and No. 31 in yards per carry allowed (5.4).

"You just have to keep fighting to make 5-yard runs 3-yard runs," Rhule said. "I think it really starts up front with us being more disciplined about being in our gap.

"It's not optional. We're not playing optional one-gap football. That's something that we have to address this week."

Offensively, the Panthers have moved the ball well, currently ranking No. 6 in total yards. But they're 20th in points scored, which points out the need to improve at finishing drives.

Plus, there's the statistical anomaly that is the team's lack of tight end production.

Bridgewater has targeted tight ends only 13 times on his 178 passes. Chris Manhertz has three of them, catching each one. Ian Thomas has received the rest, but had just one target against Falcons, who came in giving up loads of catches, yards and touchdowns to tight ends.

"I think there are a lot of plays that were called where the tight end could've gotten the ball, and with the nature of how they covered, it just wasn't open," Rhule said.

Overall, Carolina has gotten just eight receptions for 59 yards and a touchdown out of the position. The Panthers are No. 31 in targeting tight ends just 7.3 percent of the time, with the league average at 19.8 percent. Only the Patriots (6.3 percent) have targeted the group at a lower rate.

"I don't ever worry about where the production comes from, but I do think you want to be balanced in the way that you approach things," Rhule said.

Because Carolina ranks No. 5 in passing yards, tight end production is a nitpick. No quarterback, including Bridgewater, should force a pass simply to create the illusion of balance. Still, opponents should at least feel a tight end can be a threat as an eligible receiver. Otherwise, defenses can use a heavier hand in rolling coverages.

So yes, despite winning three games in a row, the Panthers have plenty to work on. But they've shown when they attack something during the week, it usually pays off in the game. Plus, as cliché as it is, players have bought into the one-week-at-a-time mentality that's been proven to work in all sports.

"We're not worried about our record, we're not worried about the division," linebacker Shaq Thompson said. "We're controlling what we can control, and that's us playing each and every week going 1-0."

If the Panthers accomplish that over these critical next five games, "progress" might start getting replaced by another word that begins with "p" in conversations about this team.

View the best photos from behind the scenes at Mercedes-Benz Stadium for Carolina's 23-16 win over Atlanta.

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