CHARLOTTE – The Panthers and defensive coordinator Eric Washington will go up against a new brand of offense this Sunday in Arizona.
After spending the last six seasons at Texas Tech University, first-year head coach Kliff Kingsbury is attempting to bring a college style run-and-gun offense to the professional game. So far, it's debuted to mixed results. Rookie quarterback Kyler Murray is averaging 328.5 passing yards per game (4th best) and the Cardinals are scoring 22 points per game (T-12th), but the team has an 0-1-1 record.
Still, Washington said the offense provides some unique challenges.
"We have to prepare for four wides, three wides, five wides every single week," Washington said. "We'll address it with the things within our package and just making sure we have the right personnel in place and just come up with a good solid plan for that particular look.
"They use it a lot, and it's a typical spread concept. Spread you out, get certain people, you have to address all of the different formations and receivers and still be solid if they decide to run the football, and the quarterback is a featured runner. Very similar to what we've seen with Russell Wilson over the years, similar concepts, so we'll have a good plan."
Just because the coach, quarterback and scheme are new, though, doesn't mean the Cardinals aren't utilizing their veterans on offense – namely wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald's numbers dropped a bit last year after posting three straight 1,000-yard seasons from 2015-17, but he appears to be back on track this season, averaging 108.5 yards per game.
"They're going to find a way to get Larry the football," Washington said. "They'll adapt what they're doing to make sure he's featured, which we've seen that so far. He's been able to get on the same page with the quarterback, especially on some of the plays that have broken down. He knows exactly where he's going, and so they'll feature Larry, and he can still make contested catches."
The Panthers are still working out the kinks in their new 3-4/hybrid/multiple look on defense, something Washington expects will come in due time. According to Washington, one of the biggest advantages with new scheme is the versatility it allows defensively, noting the play of DE/OLB hybrids Brian Burns and Marquis Haynes.
"They can align in multiple spots; they're not fixed on playing a defensive end or defensive tackle position," Washington said. "You can actually line those guys up in a number of positions and utilize them in cover, as rushers, as point of attack run defenders. The flexibility gives you some things that you can play with in terms of defensive designs."
Another area Washington expects to see improve with time is the defense's ability to finish – particularly relating to sacks. The Panthers have had tremendous success affecting opposing quarterbacks, tallying 15 QB hits (T-5th), but when it comes to actually bringing him down, they've struggled, with only four sacks (T-19th).
"I think it's just a matter of accumulating experiences, and just time on tasks, those kinds of things. That'll lead to more production," Washington said. "It's really rush by committee. We have to make sure we're organized and coordinated. The more we do it the better they're going to get with it, we've just got to keep going, but today's practice was a strong indicator of that progress."