CHARLOTTE – When Baker Mayfield takes the field as the Panthers' starting quarterback in Baltimore this week, he'll be part of a different-looking offense from the last time he started in Week 5.
Carolina's offense made some strides with PJ Walker at the helm, including last week's 25-15 victory over Atlanta on Thursday Night Football. The Panthers have become a more efficient running team and protected the quarterback better, taking steps toward establishing a personality.
"Our identity as an offense is physicality; that's what we want to do," left guard Brady Christensen said. "Physicality and finish is kind of what we really lean on."
Now Mayfield, who struggled for the first five games of the year, will get back the reins after Walker sustained a high ankle sprain against the Falcons. Sam Darnold, recently elevated back to the 53-man roster following a preseason high ankle sprain, will back up Mayfield while he adjusts back into the offense he hasn't run since the preseason.
And it looks a little different now.
For one, Steve Wilks is the interim coach in place of Matt Rhule. Running back D'Onta Foreman has succeeded after taking the bulk of carries following the Christian McCaffrey trade, and Bradley Bozeman has performed well at center since Pat Elflein underwent season-ending hip surgery. Wide receiver Robbie Anderson was traded to Arizona, so Laviska Shenault Jr. and Terrace Marshall Jr. have gotten more targets in his absence, and they've each delivered some big plays.
"I feel like a lot of the guys who weren't getting opportunities earlier in the year are getting opportunities, and I feel like those guys are really stepping up and showing that they have the ability to be good players in this league," veteran backup tackle Cameron Erving said. "The offensive line has been doing a really good job of just being physical, finishing blocks, finishing plays, and just winning the game up front. That's the biggest part."
Wilks has emphasized the line of scrimmage since taking over, and the Panthers have appeared to take that message to heart.
"Everything we do starts up front," Wilks said. "We've got to do a great job establishing the run game, getting Foreman, Chuba Hubbard, and all those guys running. Then when we do pass the football, (do a) great job of giving him a clean pocket, so he can go through his progressions and get the ball down the field."
Since Mayfield last started in Week 5, Carolina's offense has improved from 89.8 rush yards per game in the first five games to 146.2 in the last five. The Panthers' top three rushing games have all been recent contests – Week 10 against the Falcons (232 yards), Week 7 against the Buccaneers (173 yards), and Week 8 at the Falcons (169 yards).
Foreman has particularly made a splash, with three 100-yard games since Week 7.
And Mayfield is familiar with the current focus and personnel, as he has backed up Walker since returning from his high ankle sprain in Week 8 against the Falcons. Mayfield has also played meaningful snaps with the post-Week 5 offense, coming in for the second half of a blowout loss at the Bengals in Week 9 and playing better than he had in his first five games.
Mayfield had four touchdowns, four interceptions, and a 71.8 passer rating through his first five starts before throwing 155 yards and two touchdowns against a less-aggressive Cincinnati defense, which had the benefit of a 35-0 lead at halftime and still won by three touchdowns.
Walker and Mayfield have both started in five games, and their numbers were relatively similar. Mayfield has completed 56.6 percent of his passes (98-of-173) for 1,117 yards, six touchdowns, and four interceptions, while Walker completed 59.4 percent of passes (63-of-106) for 731 yards, three touchdowns, and three interceptions.
The Mayfield-led offense for the first five weeks turned the ball over seven times, while Walker's offense for the past five weeks totaled five turnovers.
"Across the board, number one, it starts with protecting the ball," Wilks said when asked about improvements heading into the Baltimore game. "We've got to do a great job of protecting the football, and that increases our chances of winning – when we don't turn the ball over."
Mayfield has also taken 15 sacks compared to Walker's seven, though that number could be a testament to improvements up front.
The Panthers offensive line has remained largely intact this season, with the Elflein-to-Bozeman change at center the only switch-up. Rookie left tackle Ikem Ekwonu, Christensen at left guard, right guard Austin Corbett, and right tackle Taylor Moton have remained steady and improving throughout the season.
"I think we're all super grateful that – knock on wood – we've all been healthy and playing together," Christensen said. "Boze jumped in, and it's Boze. He's doing a great job jumping in for Pat, and it was no drop-off. So just being able to have that continuity together, and playing those games together, so you know exactly what everyone's doing, is almost the biggest difference for us up front."
Between the marked improvement in the run game, a more diverse catalog of targets, and chemistry along the line, Mayfield will step into a slightly different offense in Baltimore – one with a stronger identity.
"The offense is getting to the point where it can spread the ball out a lot more – and more efficiently than we did earlier in the year," Erving said. "So the biggest thing I try to tell guys is to make sure you're always ready for your moment, ready for your opportunity, so when you get the opportunity, you take it, grab it by the horns, and make the best of it."
View the best in-game photos from Carolina's Week 10 game against the Atlanta Falcons on Thursday Night Football.