Even without Christian McCaffrey, Panthers offense can't be overlooked

Although McCaffrey is the big name, nationally, the Panthers have quietly morphed into a good offense and the Falcons should be wary

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The Carolina Panthers may be without their most well-known offensive weapon, running back Christian McCaffrey, but they are still a unit that no defense can afford to overlook.

While they may not be the elite scoring offense that the Green Bay Packers are, the Panthers still present plenty of problems for an Atlanta Falcons defense looking to find its footing. We'll get to the players, themselves, momentarily, but this really starts with offensive coordinator Joe Brady.

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A first-time NFL offensive coordinator, Brady burst onto the scene and became a sought-after play caller when he helped lead LSU to a national championship in 2019. The Tigers led all FBS schools in scoring offense, averaging 48.4 points per game, and set an all-time record with 726 points scored. LSU had a 5,000-yard passer in Joe Burrow, a 1,000-yard rusher in Clyde Edwards-Helaire and two 1,000-yard receivers with Ja'Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson.

Upon arriving in Carolina, he's begun to get all of his talented players involved, which has kept the Panthers' offense dangerous even without McCaffrey.

Brady's offensive scheme utilizes many different personnel groupings and does an excellent job both attacking space and stressing various defensive schemes. He floods zones with multiple levels of routes and gets matchup advantages while manipulating defensive leverage. When looking to put together his offensive staff, Panthers head coach Matt Rhule admired what he saw from Brady at LSU and the background he had working with Sean Payton in New Orleans.

"He was trained in New Orleans, and I've always respected that offense and that type of offense," Rhule said. "I saw the way he tailored it to LSU and added more of a college-type feel. … I look only at production. Seeing what he did at LSU, I knew he knew how to produce and thought he would come here and help us."

The Panthers are on pace to finish as a top 10 passing offense for the first time since 2004, and they currently rank eighth with 274 passing yards per game. They are still a top-half rushing offense even without McCaffrey, and they average nearly 400 yards on offense per game. Carolina is currently middle of the pack with 24.8 points per game, but they have a lot of room to improve, especially inside of the red zone, where they have just a 50 percent conversion rate.

That figures to change because of the talent they have on the field at the skill positions. Robby Anderson, a smart offseason acquisition and major speed threat, currently ranks sixth among all receivers with 377 yards through four games. He has just one touchdown, but the ability to score from anywhere and the kind of savvy to better Brady's scheme.

Anderson is more than just a downfield sprinter, though. He's currently second among all NFL receivers in yards after the catch, and he does that from all over the field.

"I think he's playing really well," Rhule said of Anderson. "We have to continue to find way to get him the ball all over the field for him to take advantage of his run after the catch potential." 

Brady's play designs, coupled with the the threat of Anderson's speed also help create space for players like D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel. Moore entered the season as the team's No. 1 receiver, and he currently has 288 receiving yards, more than players like Tyreek Hill and Adam Thielen.

Moore is an effective route runner and tough to bring down after the catch. He takes advantage of the space created by Brady's schemes, but he also can handle lining up as the single receiver in the offense and beating man coverage on deeper routes.

Samuel's role in this offense has become apparent through four games. While he is still a threat as a downfield receiver, he's at his best in the short areas of the field and particularly behind the line of scrimmage.

With just a pedestrian 147 yards through four games, Samuel may not seem that threatening an offensive weapon. His usage in the offense, however, makes him someone defenses simply can't afford to ignore. In the same way Taylor Gabriel used to operate in Atlanta, Samuel is often the primary motion man for Carolina. The Panthers frequently use him to draw the attention of opposing defenders, but they also regularly hand the ball off to him on the sweeps around the edge. While he hasn't broken off a chunk play yet, he presents a threat that keeps defenses honest.

The man that makes everything run is quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. A highly touted quarterback coming out of Louisville, Bridgewater suffered a devastating injury that ended his chances of becoming a franchise player in Minnesota. After a brief stint in New Orleans, he once again has that chance operating in an offense run by someone who studied under Sean Payton and worked directly with him in 2018.

Despite being sacked eight times already this season, Bridgewater looks very comfortable in the pocket. That's in part due to the way Brady's scheme makes progressions easier on his quarterbacks, and Bridgewater has climbed up in the pocket well while keeping his eyes downfield to make big plays. Bridgewater ranks sixth in the NFL with 1,147 passing yards – just behind Aaron Rodgers – and has tossed four touchdown passes and three interceptions.

Bridgewater isn't as great a threat on the ground as some of the quarterbacks Atlanta faced to start the season, but, as he showed on an 18-yard touchdown run against the Arizona Cardinals, teams can't count him out as a runner.

The true runner of the group is Mike Davis, who has filled in admirably for McCaffrey. Atlanta may end up seeing Davis twice, as McCaffrey's timetable to return makes it unclear whether he will be back for the Falcons' Week 8 rematch with the Panthers.

Davis has carried the ball 30 times for 131 yards and a touchdown this season, with virtually all of that production coming in the last two games. As is the case with Brady's offenses, Davis has been plenty involved as a receiver out of the backfield. He's caught 21 passes for 146 yards and another score this season.

The Falcons have been fairly stout against the run so far this season, but they struggled to contain the Packers' running backs as receivers in their last action. That is a staple of Carolina's passing attack, and Atlanta must be better in that area.

Atlanta has never matched up against a Carolina team led by Rhule and an offense orchestrated by Brady, but that doesn't mean the Falcons have no idea what's coming. Given Brady's background with New Orleans, an offense the Falcons are incredibly familiar with, there is a template for Dan Quinn and his staff to start from.

"It's easy to see some of the similarities," Quinn said. "I think that's common, when you think about it, where somebody has a background in a certain spot. Knowing some of the concepts that have come up. Knowing some of the concepts that you've had a tough time with. Those are the ones that you generally look at. I would say, yeah, there's definitely a part of that that goes into their system that feels a lot of New Orleans' influence." 

Although McCaffrey is the big name, nationally, the Panthers have quietly morphed into a good offense with the potential to keep getting better. Atlanta is still searching for its defensive identity, and it can't afford to take this matchup lightly.

Safety Ricardo Allen was limited by the team's official injury report, but back on the field on Wednesday. Take a look at the best images of practice in this gallery, presented by Quikrete.

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