Magic numbers are referred to the amount of either wins a winning, front-running team must achieve or losses by another team in order to clinch a playoff berth, a top seed, or a divisional title.
When it comes to the Carolina Panthers, their magic number is a bit different. Their magic number refers to the factors of losing. Carolina’s magic number is three. There is something about this odd number that’s been giving the Panthers fits this season.
Carolina struggles in third down efficiency on offense and can’t stop a nose bleed on third down defense. Those struggles were magnified in week 10’s 23-46 loss to the Buccaneers-in which they were 1-9 in third downs and struggled to stop the Bucs defensively.
“We have to get better at them (third down completions), “ says Panthers Head Coach Matt Rhule after the Tampa loss. “ No one feels sorry for us and as much as I hate losing by that many points, It’s the same as losing by one. You come back next week and we have to continue to improve them. We made some key stops late in the game. We blitzed them .We hit them. We just have to be better .”
The Panthers responded to Rhule’s assessment with a 20-0 week 11 shut-out of the Detroit Lions. Their third down efficiency at 5-15 (33 percent) wasn’t there. However, the Panthers’ defense did more than make up for the lack. They dominated the Lions’ offense-holding them to 21 percent completions on third down and only 185 net yards for the entire game. The Panthers also scored 10 points in the third as well.
Granted, this was the Lions and it was only one game, but this performance could be a pivotal point for the rest of the year if they take away lessons from this much needed win.
In addition to only holding Detroit to 185 yards, Carolina’s defense also treated Matthew Stafford like a piñata. They racked up a season high five sacks and 11 QB hits. For coach Rhule, this change had little to do with scheme and more to do with effort.
“I don’t think it was necessary scheme, I just think we just played better,” Rhule said. I think we’ve been a position to make a lot of players on third downs and we haven’t quite made them. I think today our guys went in with a real focus.”
Rhule has a point, because for the first time all season the defense was engaged for the entire game instead of spurts.
Schematically, the Panthers stoped the run and also showed blitzes. If they could replicate that same intensity, disciplined focus, along with timely blitzes and changes in coverage, the third down defense could begin to improve.
While the Panthers did most of their damage offensively on first and second down against Detroit, there were some takeaways from week 11 that the offense can use moving forward. One of those takeaways is getting DJ Moore involved, and involved often, in the offense. The third-year receiver finished with a season high 127 yards on 7 catches and a touchdown. Despite having a slow start, Moore is currently fourth in the league in receiving yards with 863. Rhule cited Moore’s performance as a huge key in their week 11 win as well.
“DJ has been a deep ball threat the last couple of weeks, “ Rhule said. “ We were able to hand him the ball one time. Able to get him some intermediate catches. I think that’s just the way the game broke.” While a Moore takeover may be a product of the flow of the game, it could also be a clue as to what Carolina might need to consider offensively on third down
In addition to running quick and sharp routes, Moore is also versatile enough to run trick plays in Joe Brady’s system. Late in the second quarter, Moore attempted a pass to PJ Walker that was incomplete. The willingness of Brady to use trick plays like this is potentially a clue as what they should try on third to keep the defense off balance.
Even if they don’t use the trick plays, getting Moore involved should be enough. Moore has proven he could catch the deep ball. He is also an option on a few underneath passes as well in third and short situations.