Matt Rhule: Late division games give Panthers chance to "grow"

CHARLOTTE — Panthers head coach Matt Rhule might have preferred division games later in the year last season.

This year made up for that.

After playing four of their first eight games in 2020 against NFC South foes, this year's schedule leaves four in the final five games of the season, all after their Week 13 bye.

"We knew we had a young team (in 2020) and we were hoping it would be later and we could grow into the division," Rhule said Wednesday night. "Obviously the Saints are Week 2, but playing Tampa Bay two of the last three games, with the great team that they have, hopefully we can grow as a team and improve, and hit the bye and then play our best football down the stretch."

Rhule also said the early Thursday game in Week 3 against Houston, and the 10-day break before their subsequent trip to Dallas "jumps out at you," and mentioned the parallel between this year's Week 15 trip to Buffalo and last season's late trip to Green Bay.

Rhule also spoke about recent comments by recently traded quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who mentioned a lack of emphasis on two-minute drill and red-zone work in practice when asked about problems during his one season in Carolina.

During an appearance on the "All Things Covered" podcast with longtime NFL defensive backs Bryant McFadden (retired) and Patrick Peterson (Vikings), Bridgewater mentioned "little things" he could have done better last season and the absence of running back Christian McCaffrey, but also brought Rhule and offensive coordinator Joe Brady into the mix.

"I'll just say this, for Joe Brady's growth, that organization, they'll have to practice different things in different ways," Bridgewater said. "One of the things we didn't do much of when I was there, we didn't practice two-minute, really. We didn't practice red zone."

McFadden reacted with surprise and mentioned that was a staple of Thursday practices in his past, and Bridgewater replied: "I guess the game is becoming about science and trying to keep guys healthy. You didn't practice on Fridays there, but you walk through the red-zone stuff and then Saturday you come out and practice red zone. But you'd only get like 15 live reps. Guys' reps would be limited."

Fridays are light days in the Panthers' work week, followed by a heavier practice on Saturday, as Rhule has tried to take steps to keep players fresh.

The Panthers finished last year 28th in the league in red zone efficiency, and the team's struggles late in games were well-documented.

Rhule didn't want to get into the details of Bridgewater's suggestion, saying several times he felt good about the team's methods. He also continued to express his admiration for his first NFL quarterback, calling Bridgewater an "ultimate professional" and a "great dude."

"I'm not going to delve into specifics about our process, some of that is specific to us," Rhule said. "But I feel really good about our preparation, and the amount of work our coaches put in and the amount of work our players put in. The amount of practice work, I think we push them in a really smart way.

"When you have 140 guys in a locker room, guys will disagree on some things sometimes. You can't ask everyone to agree with everything. . . . But I feel really good about what we do, I want to make sure to say I feel really good about the way we practice and our process. I'm disappointed to hear he didn't feel the same way."

After playing four of their first eight games in 2020 against NFC South foes, this year's Panthers schedule leaves four in the final five games of the season, all after their Week 13 bye.

View photos and matchup information for all of the Panthers' 17 games in 2021.

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