Behind enemy lines: Previewing Week 8 with Panthers Wire

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The Atlanta Falcons sputtered out of the gate this season but have since won three of four games to get to a 3-3 record. This week’s opponent, the Carolina Panthers, appear be trending in the opposite direction. The Panthers started 3-0 before losing four straight games.

To help us get some inside information for this Sunday’s NFC South showdown, we went behind enemy lines with Anthony Rizzuti, the managing editor of Panthers Wire.

What has happened to the Panthers since their 3-0 start?

Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

This sudden slide is a product of a few concerning issues. You don’t go from 3-0 to 3-4 because of a minor flaw or two. For one, the absence of star running back Christian McCaffrey has derailed this offense and left them without any type of solid identity. Remember, McCaffrey isn’t just a problem for defenses when he has the ball in his hands. His versatility as a rusher and a pass catcher commands constant surveillance, making his teammates’ jobs much easier to catch the opposition slipping.

McCaffrey’s injury has also morphed quarterback Sam Darnold back into the pumpkin we figured he was all along. Having a safety blanket, and a premier one at that, helped hide a lot of his poor timing and inability to allow plays to develop downfield. Without a home-run threat to simply dump off to, he’s been forced to try and see more of the field—which he isn’t particularly good at.

The offense’s struggles, in turn, have served as repetitive body shots to what’s been an otherwise solid defensive unit. Football is a complementary game. So when one end isn’t holding up their side of the deal, the other will likely eventually give.

That’s what’s happened. Although they could be a tad more productive in terms of sacks and takeaways, the Panthers’ defense has certainly been good enough to chalk up wins against not-so-great competition. They can’t, however, do it all.

How has Haason Reddick performed this season?

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There was a sense that Carolina got themselves an incredible steal when they signed Reddick to a one-year, $6 million deal this offseason. And that sense was spot on. The former 13th overall pick has looked exactly like, well, a former 13th overall pick. He’s been a consistent disruption, having now totaled 16 pressures over seven games (per Pro Football Focus) with a team-leading nine tackles for a loss.

Even though, again, the defense as a whole could muster up some more production, Reddick has made the game easier for Burns and the rest of the Panthers’ front seven.

Is Sam Darnold the long-term answer at QB?

Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Darnold, quite frankly, shouldn’t even be the Week 8 answer, let along a long-term one. Look, fair play to Sam. He’s a stand-up guy, a respected leader and has never shied away from taking the blame. But he’s just not been able to match the physical talents he possesses with the mental aspect of football.

Despite his above-average arm strength and solid athleticism, something still isn’t clicking for him. His footwork remains inefficient, his timing on routes remains off, his reliance on that arm strength remains too prominent and his composure in the pocket remains thin. Those problems have always been there, even in the three-game win streak to the season. We’re just seeing more of it unfold as the Panthers’ problems continue to snowball.

How has Chuba Hubbard looked filling in for Christian McCaffrey?

AP Photo/Bill Kostroun

Unless you have Alvin Kamara or Dalvin Cook as a your backup, there’s no way to replace what McCaffrey brings to the field. With that being said, Hubbard has been very good in his role. The rookie seems to be learning on the job, as he’s appeared sharper with his feet and more confident in his decision making through open holes . . . whenever he gets them.

The production doesn’t scream out “Wow, look at this kid!” We can mostly thank an abysmal, battered and ever-changing offensive line for that. But he’s certainly been impressive in this high-pressure relief spot.

Who wins on Sunday/score prediction?

Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

A team who just lost 25-3 to the New York Giants (who were missing about half of their starting offense) shouldn’t get the benefit of the doubt. Plus, the Falcons seem to have a lil’ something brewing on their two-game win streak.

But, this could very well be the put-up or shut-up game for Carolina. Losing to Atlanta would extend the losing skid to five and knock them even further down the basement in the NFC South. The Panthers dig deep and find a way to take it, 23-20.

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