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Breakout game?: What to watch for on offense against the Panthers

The Cardinals’ offense has been playing well enough, but we all know it has yet to really get going. Is Sunday the day Kyler and the boys finally break out?

NFL: Carolina Panthers at Arizona Cardinals
Can Kyler and the Cardinals fare better against the Panthers this season?
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The 2-1 Cardinals travel to Carolina this weekend as 3-point road favorites against the 1-2 Panthers. This should be an interesting matchup of young, offensive-minded former college coaches. Kliff Kingsbury and Matt Rhule both run wide-open offenses, but neither has yet to really take off at the NFL level.

The Redbirds’ offense is improved, but it’s been more solid than spectacular so far. We’re #10 in YPG (406.3), yes, but that ranking falls to #17 in PPG (25.7), which matches our DVOA ranking. Could this week’s game be a breakout spot? The Panthers defense hasn’t provided much resistance to opposing offenses through three games—they’re ranked #22 in YPG (382.3) and #18 in PPG (27.0). Those rankings are slightly deceiving, as offenses have had the upper hand in the early season. This is not a good, or even mediocre, defense. DVOA agrees—they’re all the way down at #30.

Can Kingsbury out–Air Raid Rhule this week and get the Redbirds’ offense playing like it’s capable of? Here’s what to watch for on Sunday.

A Big Game from Kyler… Running the Football

I expect Kyler Murray to have a good-not-great day passing the ball. The Panthers do give up 258.3 YPG through the air (#24), but only 6.9 YPA (#7)—right in line with Kyler’s 7.0 YPA mark this season. The deep balls will come in this offense, but probably not this week. He’ll be more quantity than quality as a passer this week. But I think he’s primed for a big game as a rusher. I don’t really have a stat to back this up, but look at the QBs the Panthers have faced thus far: Derek Carr, Tom Brady, and Justin Herbert. Carr and Brady are statues in the pocket, and while Herbert has some mobility, he’s nowhere near the same class as Kyler. Not even the same school. You can bet the Panthers will be watching tons of film, but that can’t prepare you for his speed. Look for another 10+ attempts and close to 100 yards.

Hopkins Will Have a Monster Game

While I don’t think Kyler will have an overly impressive day as a passer, I do think DeAndre Hopkins will blow up this week. Opposing #1 WRs (Henry Ruggs III, Mike Evans, Keenan Allen) have averaged 8/97/1 against the Panthers this season—and that includes a 3/55/0 line from the rookie Ruggs. Hopkins should blow those numbers away and put up close to what Allen did last week (13/132/1). The Panthers just haven’t had an answer for alpha WRs this season—and they won’t find any on Sunday against PFF’s top-rated WR.

Another Quiet Game from Secondary WRs

We might want to put a hold on the Andy Isabella breakout talk. While #1 WRs have had their way with the Panthers’ secondary so far, they’ve done a good job against secondary targets. Raiders WRs not named Ruggs combined for 4/53/1 in Week 1; non-Evans WRs went for 4/59/0 in Week 2 (granted, an injured Chris Godwin did not play); and Chargers WRs other than Allen only managed 4/55/0. (Wow, nothing if not consistent, right?) It’s worth noting that the Panthers have done relatively well against TEs as well, holding both Darren Waller and Hunter Henry to 50 yards or fewer—although the Cardinals don’t really feature their TEs in the passing game anyway. So with Christian Kirk nicked up and Larry Fitzgerald MIA, the Redbirds’ passing game will likely be the Hopkins show…

The RBs Will Be Involved in the Passing Game

…with special guest stars Kenyan Drake and, especially, Chase Edmonds. The Panthers have given up a whopping 32 receptions to RBs through three games, with those runners averaging 11 receptions and 74 YPG. I wrote earlier this week about Drake’s lack of production as a receiver so far, so this could be a prime spot to get that facet of his game going. If that’s not in the, ahem, cards, then this could be a nice PPR week for the Cardinals RB who has been involved in the passing game. Edmonds is actually third on the Cardinals in receptions (albeit with just 8, on 11 targets), which he’s turned into 49 yards and 1 TD. Could he equal those totals on Sunday? I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he did.

Kyler Will Keep His Unique Streak Going

I’m sure some stathead out there knows for sure, but there can’t be too many QBs who have thrown for an INT and rushed for a TD in three straight games. Call it a hunch, but I think that streak continues for Kyler on Sunday. The Panthers only have 2 INTs on the year, but this is an East Coast 10:00 a.m. body clock game… easy to imagine Kyler throwing another pick. And the Panthers have allowed a league-high 7 rushing TDs, so Kyler scoring on the ground seems almost guaranteed.

Final Thoughts

Looking at all the stats and trends and matchups… I think we put up 30 this week as Kingsbury finally gets the offense clicking. The Panthers gave up 30+ in each of the first two weeks before holding the Chargers to 16 last week. I don’t think they can contain Kyler like they did the rookie Herbert, and the defense will do enough. I’ll stick to my preseason prediction for this one: a 31-21 Cardinals win.

Any predictions, Redbirds fans? What are you keeping an eye out for on offense? Let’s discuss this matchup down in those comments.