The Cincinnati Bengals have a good opportunity to get to 5-4 before the bye and equal their standing at the same point as last year. Standing in their way of that achievement is the struggling, yet pesky Carolina Panthers who come to Paycor Stadium this Sunday.
We had a chat with Walker Clement over at SB Nation’s Cat Scratch Reader (great blog name, by the way) to chat about a number of items heading into the Week 9 clash.
1.) AC: I reside in Southern California and watched a TON of Sam Darnold. I never thought he got a fair shake throughout his NFL career for a variety of reasons. Baker Mayfield has been benched for P.J. Walker, who has impressed, as Darnold is on I.R. The former USC Trojan may be coming back to the lineup in the near future. Is Walker a guy they want to develop long-term, or might they try Darnold again and rebuild around the former top-five pick?
There is not a quarterback on this roster that Steve Wilks or any other competent head coach would willingly build around as of right now. PJ has the best shot at changing that opinion over the coming season, but Darnold’s wildly inconsistent performance under good offensive coaching last season has effectively sealed his fate.
To be clear, the good coaching I was referring to came from quarterbacks coach Sean Ryan and former offensive coordinator Joe Brady. Brady is now the quarterbacks coach with the Buffalo Bills.
Even Walker’s chances at establishing a career for himself as a franchise cornerstone are slim and slimmer still with the Panthers. Walker is on a one-year contract and the Panthers have a tight cap situation heading into 2023.
Either he plays his way into the conversation as a journeyman starter, at which point the Panthers can’t afford him over a rookie contract/top draft pick, or he gives us middling, chaotic results for the rest of the season, at which point the Panthers would see him as no more than a backup guy.
2.) WC: Carolina sold off a number of its major assets recently (Christian McCaffrey, Robby Anderson), committing to a long-term plan. Who are some of the guys who could break out this week with the slew of new faces featured on the team?
Offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo loves his tight ends, so look for a few featured targets for guys like Ian Thomas and Tommy Tremble. The coach does more to get the ball into the hands of these guys in space than he does for actual threats like DJ Moore or Laviska Shenault.
Shenault and Terrace Marshall Jr are the two wide receivers you’ll want to keep your eyes on. He is a big, weirdly shifty guy who is a threat to turn little gains into big plays.
Marshall is a third year, former second round pick that Panthers fans had given up for dead under former head coach Matt Rhule. Now, however, he has come on in the last three weeks as an actually consistent threat to pick up big chunks when the team needs them most. There is a chance that he is playing his way into the long term #2 conversation next to Moore.
3.) AC: The interior of the Panthers’ defense has been a nice complement to Brian Burns on the outside. Matt Ioannidis and Derrick Brown have brought a presence inside. Cincinnati has revamped its offensive line—particularly the interior—in an effort to disallow stunts and twists to derail drives. Are those schemes the ones those two have most benefited from on defense, or are they just winning more one-on-one?
WC: It’s a little column A, a little column B. Brown is growing into a force to be reckoned with and the Panthers are thrilled that they don’t have to do the reckoning. One play last week, above all, gives you an idea of who Brown is growing into. On a quick option play, Brown beat the center one on one, forcing Falcons quarterback Marcus Mariota to keep the football and try to dive right.
Brown tackled the running back who was taking dive/blocking responsibilities on the play and then also tackled Mariota. He effectively tackled both options on the play for a loss of yardage and did it all single-handedly. It would have been the Panthers’ best play from Week 8 if not for Moore’s insane 62-yard touchdown.
4.) AC: What’s the long-term vision for the Panthers? Is Wilks auditioning for the head coaching job? Is Darnold in the running for the starting quarterback job, or is Matt Corral the long-term project? In a way, I admire their collection of draft picks in a frenzied trade deadline, but they also seem like they’ve had talent recently and haven’t capitalized.
WC: Wilks is operating under the public belief that he is auditioning for the job and I hope that he is right. Owner David Tepper said that Wilks would have to do “an incredible job” to even be considered for the role, but I think he has met that standard so far, even with a 1-2 record.
The long-term vision for this team is to find a way to draft one of the top rookie quarterbacks next season and ride their assumed success back to relevancy. The current Panthers are the closest thing I have seen to a team that is “just a quarterback away,” but we’ll have to see if that holds true when a new head coach brings his systems in and tries to apply them to these guys.
They have had talent recently, as you astutely pointed out. They have not capitalized for two reasons, which are actually just one reason wearing two hats. The first is that former head coach Matt Rhule was shambling bag of excuses and platitudes who, by all accounts, had no idea what he was actually doing on a professional level. The amount of “used car salesman” that oozed off of him at press conferences makes it seem impossible that he held the job for as long as he did.
The second reason is that the team never found a viable replacement for Cam Newton at quarterback. They have cycled through three “the guys” at quarterback, each of which was handpicked by Rhule and sold to the fans as the savior they had been waiting for. Each of them has been a Captain Check Down or chaos generator of the most disappointing order.
5.) AC: This line is unexpectedly at 7.5, in favor of the Bengals, per DraftKings. Cincinnati is wildly inconsistent, but Carolina is showing signs of being in rebuild mode. Is this a fair line? What is your prediction in this one?
WC: I honestly have no idea. I wouldn’t bet money on this Panthers team if it were free.The Panthers are chaos incarnate and are just the kind of team who will lose all the games they shouldn’t and win a few of the ones that they had no business playing in the first place. The one thing I would consider putting money on is that they’re going to play themselves out of the top three in the draft and leave themselves in an awkward spot for next season.
As for this season, this game? Flip a coin, then ignore the results and go with your gut. The actual result will come down to how quickly Walker gets settled under center—last year that took a whole half—and how well the Bengals offensive line holds up against a Panthers defense that is finally starting to get healthy again.
Our thanks to Walker Clement over at Cat Scratch Reader! Go check out their site for information this week, including our five questions with them!