The Panthers will be hoping to rebound this weekend after suffering a tough home loss against the Cleveland Browns to open up the season. They will be facing off against the the New York Giants who are coming off of an impressive upset win over the Tennessee Titans. They fought hard, embracing the role of underdogs and gave Brian Daboll his first win as an NFL head coach.
Carolina could certainly use a win on Sunday. It is still early in the season, but losing against the Browns and Giants, two very beatable opponents, to open up the season could make it very difficult for a team that is hoping to make a push for the playoffs. It would also be a bad look for head coach Matt Rhule, who is on the hot seat due to an 8 game losing streak.
A number of players will have to step up if the Panthers want to come away with a win. Here are five storylines to pay attention to during Sunday's matchup:
Can the Run Defense Limit Saquon Barkley?
Giants running back Saquon Barkley put on a show last Sunday, rushing for 164 yards and a touchdown. The former #2 overall pick showed the explosiveness and playmaking ability that he had not shown since he tore his ACL in 2020.
If the old Saquon Barkley is back, then that could cause problems for a Panthers defense that struggled to contain Cleveland's rushing attack, allowing over 200 yards on the ground. The Panthers also missed a ridiculous 18 tackles against Cleveland.
Carolina is fortunate to go up against a Giant's offensive line that certainly has it's question marks. They have a stellar tackle duo consisting of Andrew Thomas and Eval Neal, but their interior offensive line leaves a lot to be desired. This could be an opportunity for defensive tackle Derrick Brown to step up. The development for the former first round pick has certainly been underwhelming. He will now have a chance against a suspect unit to justify his draft status.
Can the Offense find its Rhythm?
The Panther's offense was abysmal in the first half of last week's game. Baker Mayfield looked like he just joined the team a couple months ago and is still learning Ben McAdoo's offense. The playcalling by McAdoo was also questionable, with the offense going pass heavy out of the gate instead of running the ball.
The team was able to pick up the pace on offense in the second half, giving there reason to be optimistic about that side of the ball moving forward. Mayfield was superb in the second half, ending the day with 235 passing yards and 1 passing touchdown.
If this offense wants to build off of that 2nd half, it will be important for to establish the run game early against the Giants. They only ran 4 run plays in the first 2 quarters of last week's game which is obviously way lower than what they should be running. Being able to run the ball will lead to more manageable 2nd and 3rd downs. Passing the ball too much resulted in a lot of tough 3rd and long situation against the Browns. Getting Christian McCaffrey involved will also help the offense tremendously. He is the best player on the team, so he will have to play a big role if the offense wants to be able to find its footing.
If the run game is established, then that would help give Baker Mayfield a much easier time passing the football. Then there would be less pressure on a quarterback who is still getting to know his offense.
Can the Young Corners Step Up?
The Panthers have two former top 10 draft picks in their cornerback room, Jaycee Horn and CJ Henderson. Jaycee Horn had his ups and downs covering guys like Amari Cooper, CJ Henderson also had his struggles which included a pass interference penalty that nullified a Xavier Woods interception. With Horn, Henderson and veteran Donte Jackson, this cornerback group has the potential to be among the best in the league; It is all a matter of whether or not the young guys can reach the potential that made them top 10 picks.
The corners will be looking to have a strong performance against a group of Giants receivers that is not exactly the best in the league. New York does not have any star receivers that Phil Snow will be losing sleep over. They have Kenny Golladay, who has fallen off of the face of the planet after they gave him a big payday in free agency last year. They have last year's first round pick, Kadarius Toney, who has reportedly been taking reps with the third-string offense in practice. The Giants' other receivers include some good but not great players in Sterling Shepard, Darius Slayton and Richie James.
With the lack of star talent in the Giant's receiver room. this game produces a favorable matchup for the Panthers corners. Sunday will be a big chance for young players like Jaycee Horn and CJ Henderson to gain some confidence and momentum early in the season.
Can Ickey Ekwonu Bounce Back?
Rookie left tackle Ickey Ekwonu certainly had his struggles trying to block Myles Garrett last Sunday. He allowed 4 pressures and 2 sacks in his NFL debut. This was against one of the best edge rusher in the league though, so it was a tough ask for his in his very first game. Fortunately for him. he will get a much easier matchup against the Giants this weekend.
Both of New York's their edge rushers, Kayvon Thibodeaux and Azeez Ojulari, have been limited in practice this week. The two players missed the week 1 opener against the Titans and both are also listed as doubtful on Friday's injury report. Thibodeaux, however, is reportedly "really confident" that he can make his NFL debut on Sunday, per Adam Schefter.
Though Ekwonu might still be learning how to pass protect at the NFL level, he can still be a strength on the offensive line due to his run blocking ability. He was a nasty run blocker in college and should be able to continue run blocking at a high level now that he is in the NFL. This is a strength that the Panthers should lean into this weekend when trying to establish the run game.
Can Shi Smith Return Kicks?
With Andre Roberts going on injury reserve, Shi Smith is going to half to be the next man up when it comes to returning kicks. The former 6th round pick returned several kicks in the preseason, including one for 41 yards that set up the game winning drive against the Commanders. Smith, who has already flashed explosiveness as a returner, now has a chance to show his ability and take on a full workload. With at least 4 games as the primary returner, Smith could potentially overtake Roberts on the depth chart. It may be unlikely that that happens, but he could still show that he is more than capable of the job and can produce when called upon.
It is also important to note that Shi Smith's game status is listed as questionable. Matt Rhule stated on Friday that he was "on the positive side of questionable," so the expectation is that he will be available on gameday.
The Panthers head to New York as a team with playoff hopes that cannot afford to start 0-2. The Giants have shown to be a team that will not go down without a fight, making this far from a guaranteed victory for Carolina. The Panthers may have the more talented team, but New York playing the game in their own stadium after an exciting win on the road will definitely make it difficult for them to bring home the win.
This should be a competitive game from start to finish. Here's hoping the Panthers don't shoot themselves in the foot.