Steve Wilks has turned the Carolina Panthers into a disciplined football team by highlighting gritty, young playmakers on both sides. Since taking over for a Matt Rhule-led, 1-4 Panthers, Wilks has coached Carolina to a 4-4 record to put them just one game back in the NFC South. If the Panthers win their remaining four games, they’ll be headed to the wildcard.
Since the long-time Panthers staffer has taken over as head coach, Carolina has committed to the run game without hesitation or apology. D’Onta Foreman is getting 20+ touches a game and Chuba Hubbard has been an electrifying change-of-pace back.
Carolina has now won three of their last four, with Sam Darnold under center the last two weeks – both victories. “Bearded Darnold,” as Panthers Twitter now calls him, has looked sharp and decisive over the past two weeks with zero turnovers.
Here’s how the Panthers took down the Seahawks 30-24 in their first road win of the season:
Defense leads to offense
Geno Smith rolled out of the pocket on Seattle’s first play from scrimmage. Carolina was in zone coverage and Jaycee Horn was underneath covering a short out over the top. But when he saw Smith looking deeper downfield in his direction, the second-year corner abandoned his second-level coverage to check on the deep third.
Smith never saw him undercut the corner post pass to Tyler Lockett, and he settled in front for the interception before taking it back 31 yards, zigzagging across the field before sliding down in the red zone. That set up a one-play TD drive from Sam Darnold to Shi Smith on a play-action crosser.
Although DK Metcalf finished with a fine fantasy performance, Horn was draped over him all game. He only caught five of 10 targets and Horn only allowed three for 49 yards against him, closing on outs and curls consistently. On one catch by DK, Horn stuck his arm between the receiver’s legs to start the tackle before Metcalf’s feet even hit the ground.
CJ Henderson, who was the No. 9 pick by the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2020, also got an interception where he abandoned his zone coverage. Reading the quarterback’s eyes, he cut across the field as soon as Smith cocked back to throw, jumping a seam route for the pick. He took it back 20 yards to set up a Carolina drive that ended in a field goal.
Both picks ended in points for the Panthers that they couldn’t have won without.
Offense embracing identity
Carolina didn’t throw the ball downfield once during their second TD drive. 12 plays and 74 yards, the Panthers ran the ball inside, pitched it outside, handed to receivers, threw swing passes and dropped off play-action rollouts. Wilks made life easy for Darnold, and it worked. They only faced one third down on the drive, and it ended with Chubba Hubbard reaching out over the goal line for the score, giving Carolina a 17-0 lead in the second quarter.
Steve Wilks has brought smash mouth football back to Carolina. The Panthers ran the ball 46 times and on 65% of their plays against Seattle on Sunday. The highest volume rushing team this season is Chicago with 35 attempts per game on 58.7% of plays.
But in the last three weeks, Carolina is first in the NFL in rush play percentage with 57.1%. That includes an embarrassment against the Ravens that saw only 17 rush attempts followed by a trouncing of the Broncos that featured 46. Even with the law of averages at play, Carolina still leads the league as of late.
Although Foreman wasn’t as efficient as he’s been (3.5 YPC), Hubbard picked up the slack with 5.3 YPC. Both totaled 74 rushing yards, but Hubbard did it on 14 while Foreman needed 21. Raheem Blackshear, the undrafted rookie, also provided a spark, using his fresh legs to rush for 32 yards and a late score on four carries. The variety in Carolina’s running back room is something it hasn’t seen since the Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams days.
Wilks is making a strong case for permanent head coach by giving the Panthers an offensive identity, something it has lacked since the original departure of Cam Newton.
Laviska Shenault motioned behind Darnold on a bubble screen as he had done several times already. The RPO play lets Darnold either hand the ball off or pass to Shenault with blockers in front. Up 20-17 in the third, Darnold let go of an awkward ball and Shenault had to readjust. He dove forward for the fingertip catch just behind the line of scrimmage, got up, broke two tackles, and got five yards to set up third-and-short.
Shenault ran this play during the second TD drive as well, picking up a vital first down with a physical finish in Seattle territory.
Wilks has also incorporated more designed runs for these receivers, giving DJ Moore two rushes and Shenault one on Sunday. He has even put tight ends in different formations and had them motion frequently on rushing plays to get more leverage on blocks.
All this motion has frozen defenses enough to give Carolina’s much-improved offensive line time to create rushing lanes. Carolina now has the sixth-highest average adjusted line yards in the NFL (4.74), per football outsiders, which calculates the rushing yards generated by the offensive line. Everyone and everything is more engaged in this new-look Panthers’ offense.
Luvu continues to wreak havoc
Frankie Luvu rushed hard up the middle on a screen pass. But he quickly recognized what the lack of blocking meant, stopped on a dime and leapt in the air. The ball went through his hands at the peak of his jump, and the screen pass from Smith fell incomplete. Seattle would punt two plays later.
Luvu quietly had a career day against the Seahawks with four solo tackles, a sack, two tackles for loss, a pass deflection and two QB hits. Luvu has continuously disrupted opposing defenses in the first and second level by ferociously attacking the line of scrimmage while still being diligent in coverage. On Sunday, he made an impact wherever he went.
A relatively small linebacker at 235 lbs, Luvu uses his speed to get around pass rushers at the line and cover a variety of positions. He has become an every-down player for the Carolina defense this season, leading to 78 tackles in 11 games as well as 12 tackles for loss, ranking 10th in the league.
Carolina has a chance to make a run at the division if they continue to play this way. As crazy as that sounds, the 5-8 Panthers are just one game back of the Buccaneers for the division lead. Also, before Brady and the Bucs got blown out in the bay on Sunday, the Falcons, who are also 5-8, announced the switch to rookie quarterback Desmond Ritter during the bye.
If Wilks sticks with Darnold and the current gameplan, Carolina has a good foundation for a playoff run. They play the Bucs once more in Week 17, a game that could decide the fate of the division if Carolina can keep pace.