CHARLOTTE — As the Panthers enter the second half of the season with a Week 9 matchup against the Chiefs, they'll be looking for improvement in pass protection.
Carolina has been inconsistent in the area throughout 2020. There was a two-game stretch of excellence where quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was not sacked at all. But when the offense hasn't kept Bridgewater upright, it's usually coincided with a loss.
Currently, the Panthers are No. 17 in allowing 16 sacks and tied at No. 14 by surrendering 2.0 sacks per game. But they're also No. 10 in allowing just 51 pressures, which is defined as sacks, hurries, or knockdowns.
In the three-game winning streak from Week 3 to Week 5, Bridgewater sacked only two times, both of which came against the Chargers. Carolina allowed only 13 pressures in those three games combined.
But in the losses to the Raiders and Buccaneers in Weeks 1 and 2, Bridgewater was sacked a combined six times, and the Panthers allowed 15 pressures. In the current three-game losing streak, the Panthers have allowed eight sacks and 23 pressures.
"When we protect the quarterback, we've been really good. When the quarterback's been under duress, we haven't been the offense that we want to be," head coach Matt Rhule said. "It's not one of those things that I can say it's improved or it's not improved. It's just been up by game."
There are myriad factors in this, starting with the offensive line. The unit isn't the only one involved in pass protection, but it clearly has a significant effect. Carolina has started four different offensive line combinations in eight games, including a different group of five in each of the last three contests.
"You want to trust all your players, but you want to have continuity on the offensive line," Rhule said. "So much of it is not just physical, it's mental, it's communication, it's passing things off. And to me, to have that level of consistency, you need to have tremendous communication and a feel for each other. And that hasn't quite shown up at the level we'd like it to show up at."
"If it was that, we would've fixed it already," Paradis said. "The recipe is there, and no matter what defenses are going to throw at us ... we need to be able to adjust and protect. And that starts with myself and the O-line."
"One of our keys to victory each week is win the line of scrimmage. And that includes burning the blitzes that teams may bring and just protecting the quarterback. So if we can just do those things, like coach said, the games will be much smoother."
That will likely be a challenge against the Chiefs. While the reigning Super Bowl champs are tied for No. 15 with 17.0 sacks and tied for No. 18 with 2.13 sacks per game, they're tied for No. 7 with 10.1 pressures per game. The Chiefs have totaled 41 QB hits, 38 hurries, and 26 knockdowns, and their 10.1 pressures per game are tied with the Buccaneers, who sacked Bridgewater five times in Week 2.
But Carolina beat two teams higher than Tampa Bay and Kansas City in the pressure-rate rankings: the Chargers (No. 4, 10.6 per game) and the Cardinals (tied for No. 5, 10.4 per game). Bridgewater wasn't sacked against the Cardinals, who had only four pressures in Carolina's Week 4 victory.
On the other hand, the Panthers struggled mightily against the Bears' pass rush, allowing four sacks and eight pressures. Chicago is tied for No. 25, generating 7.9 pressures per game.
Those numbers suggest the Panthers are fully capable of being a solid pass-protecting team. But there has to be execution from all 11 offensive players. Plus the team needs good play calls from offensive coordinator Joe Brady paired with a suitable protection plan from offensive line coach Pat Meyer.
"Make no mistake, the other night, there's people running open on third downs, and we're getting sacked," Rhule said. "Some of those are just a great job by them. And some of those are missed assignments or mental errors, all those different things.
"When we've been a good team — and we've been a good team in stretches this year — we've protected the quarterback. So it's just got to go to the forefront of our thinking. It can't be an afterthought."
Based on Bridgewater and Paradis' comments, keeping the QB well protected will be an area of focus this week. And Bridgewater will need it to help keep up with Kansas City's explosive offense.
Carolina is 2-4 all-time in six meetings with Kansas City through the years.