Carolina Cruisin’

North Carolina. Known for barbecue, country music and hard-nosed football. Don’t look now, but the Carolina Panthers are bringing back an old-school style of play and they are really good at it.

Everything you hear about NFL offenses these days revolves around passing. In fact, the league is on pace to beat the record set in 2013 for most pass attempts per game across the entire league. At the same time, NFL teams are running the ball at a record-low rate. 2015 is on pace to be the fewest rushing attempts per game, breaking the previous low set in 2014, which beat the low mark set in 2013 before that. In short, passing is trending upwards and running is trending downwards.

Panthers logoThat doesn’t seem to bother the Panthers though, who are determined to win by running the football. They have more rush attempts per game than anyone else in the league through the first eight weeks of the season. And they are pretty successful too as they lead the league in ground yards per game. This team has the look of the 2013 Seahawks, with a mobile quarterback and strong defense, except they rely even more heavily on the run.

On the other hand, Carolina seems pretty adverse to throwing the ball. The Panthers are attempting the fifth fewest passes per game and have the third fewest passing yards per game. Usually that is a recipe for disaster but these boys from Charlotte seem intent on bucking the trend.

Oh and did I mention that Carolina is undefeated. This is a winning brand of football.

Newton and the Panthers already have the same number of wins they did a season ago.

At the helm of the offense is Cam Newton. The Auburn product has taken a little while to get to this point. Not so long ago, pundits criticized his maturity and questioned if he had the right tools to be an NFL quarterback. “Super Cam” is far from conventional but he is effective nonetheless.

Strictly looking at Newton’s stats without taking into consideration all sides of his game limits the understanding of how important a piece he has been this year for the Carolina offense. His completion percentage ranks second to last among qualified passers, only above Ryan Mallet’s. However, the Panthers rank seventh in the league in drop percentage, which certainly hurts Newton’s completion percentage.

Newton also ranks 28th out of 33 quarterbacks in yards per game average, which is far from stellar. However, his total yardage per game is much better. Cam has always been good with his legs and he leads all quarterbacks with 40.9 rushing yards per game. He also ranks 13th in the league in terms of rushing first downs. That’s right. In the league.

When you factor in Newton’s ability to use his athleticism to extend plays and drives, his short comings as a passer become a little more excusable, especially when he is punching in points. Newton has 11 touchdown passes on the year so far. He also has four rushing touchdowns, which ranks him fourth among all players. For passing and running touchdowns, Newton ranks tied for sixth in combined scores among quarterbacks. Clearly, the Panthers are doing something right because they are scoring the fourth most points per game.

Luke Kuechly
Kuechly lead the NFL in tackles in 2014.

While Carolina might be denying convention on offense, the defense is truly the unit to watch. They rank ninth in yards per game allowed and tenth in points per game allowed. They have played three games though without captain Luke Kuechly, who is still somehow in the top 50 for tackles, even though he has only played four games. Mario Addison, Shaq Thompson and Dwon Edwards have all missed time as well. Carolina has been one of the better defensive teams in the league despite all the injuries to its front seven. For a pass rush that already stacks up well with 20 sacks in seven games, getting healthy is bound to make it even better.

That defense is good at giving the ball back to the offense. Carolina is third in turnovers generated per game. This Panthers defensive unit is gritty and seems to be getting better as the year goes on.

It is far from perfect but it has worked thus far. It is scary to think that the Panthers have room to improve as well if Cam can improve on his accuracy and the receivers stop dropping the ball. With all of that room to improve, it is ridiculous that the Panthers have won 12 of their last 13 games dating back to last year without being seen as a complete team. This team has the mental toughness to be a true contender, as shown in a fourth quarter road comeback victory against Seattle and a tense overtime win against the Colts.

Carolina has officially put the rest of the league on alert with their gritty and old fashioned play so far. The question now is can anyone stop them.


NFL Cornerstones: Middle Linebacker

Cornerstone players will be a recurring theme on Second Look Sports where I look at each position in a certain sport and I choose a cornerstone player to build my franchise around. I have a couple of parameters for this selection though. I will factor in age, potential, injury history, experience, reputation and production. I think this should be a fun and interesting topic to discuss on here. I hope you all agree.

The selection: Luke Kuechley, Carolina Panthers Honorable mentions: Paul Worrilow, C.J. Mosley, Chris Borland, Curtis Lofton, Bobby Wagner

Hard to argue with probably the most productive linebacker over the last three years. Luke Kuechley since entering the NFL in 2012 has been a stalwart on a very good Carolina defense. He began his blossoming career with a Defensive Rookie of the Year Award and he continues to impress. Kuechley has set himself apart from his peers by simply dominating the position. The most talented middle linebacker the league has seen since Ray Lewis is rolling through his career. There are a number of young up and coming linebackers in the NFL but Kuechley is the cream of the crop.

For starters, the Panthers defensive mainstay has never missed a game in his three years; he also started every single one of them. He has youth, at the ripe age of 23, potential, as a former first round draft pick, and talent, based on his incredible production. Kuechley is also an all-around stud. He has the ability to play the run or the pass better than just about any linebacker does in the league. It all starts with his tackling. Kuechley has led the league in tackling in two of his three seasons; he finished fourth in 2013. He has registered at least 150 tackles in every season. He also demonstrates an ability to make both open field and gang tackles on the field. He is one of the best tacklers in the league and at middle linebacker, fundamental tackling is the backbone of success.

To his ability as a run stuffer, Kuechley has proven to be an asset over a liability. Kuechley has 29 run stuffs in his career, with some solid consistency in recording them. He has tallied at least eight in each of his three seasons. For a comparison, Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner only has 16 in his three-year career. Kuechley’s totals have marginally declined each year, which is mildly concerning but assuming her continues to produces with consistency, he will be a piece of a great rush defense.

Kuechley is even more prolific as a cover man. His numbers in pass coverage are impressive in general. The former Boston College All-American has 26 pass deflections since 2012. Again, Kuechley has never tallied any fewer than 8 in a season. His 26 total disrupted throws is only one less than Curtis Lofton has in his entire 7-year career. Wagner only 14 pass deflections over the same span as Kuechley. The Panthers’ defensive quarterback was only one of three linebackers to record 10 or more pass deflections in 2014, and the only middle linebacker. That coupled with his tackling ability makes him ideal to drag down players down in open space as is usually required of coverage linebackers.

Linebackers often thrive on big plays and Kuechley has also been an elite source of turnovers and impact plays in career. In his 3 years, Kuechley has accounted for four forced fumbles, seven interceptions and a forced fumble as well. He has proven that he can force turnovers in multiple ways. He is a dynamic player that makes plays all over the field. Winning the turnover battle is the most crucial part a football game. Having a game changer like Kuechley makes a huge difference.

Kuechley is playing at a Pro Bowl level already as a 23-year old. If that is indication of how talented he is, he will likely be a Hall of Famer one day. He is the unparalleled best middle linebacker in the NFL, at any age. He is an elite tackler, top pass defender and excellent run defender. No one is capable of putting up the same numbers with any form of consistency. The one thing that would likely put Kuechley into the category as one of the best defensive players of all-time would be if he was a more prolific pass rusher. However, Kuechley is still an iconic player who will dominant the league for the next dozen years. He is easily the best to make as a cornerstone linebacker in the NFL.