Each week the Carolina Panthers play in 2018, the Observer will choose a potential game changer — the player most likely to make a huge impact on the game. This week’s choice:
The Cleveland Browns defense
The technicality: A cop out, you say? Eh, maybe.
But it’s the truth. Yes, usually this space is reserved for one Carolina Panther with the week’s particularly troubling or appetizing matchup. Only ... what if there isn’t necessarily one matchup that matters most this Sunday?
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The Cleveland Browns (4-7-1), as their record indicates, are a middle-of-the-pack football team. Their offense is ranked 18th in yards per game and 20th in points per game, despite the stellar play of two rookies, quarterback Baker Mayfield and running back Nick Chubb. Their defense is rated even lower, standing as the NFL’s third-worst team in yards allowed per game and ninth-worst in points allowed per game.
The hidden gem: Within that porous defense is one exceptional stat, something that gives the Browns a chance to win week-in, week-out — and it’s something the Carolina Panthers need be very aware of:
The Browns have forced 27 takeaways so far this season, second-most in the NFL.
What Ron Rivera said: “A lot of it is they have a very aggressive nature. You look at the pressures that they bring, that’s one thing. But then you also look at some of the stuff they do, which is very sound in terms of some of their basic coverages.”
Explaining the stat: Of those 27 turnovers, 14 are interceptions and 13 are fumble recoveries, the most of any team. But really digging into those numbers shows why it’s difficult to credit any one player for Cleveland’s proficiency in forcing turnovers.
Defensive end Myles Garrett, whose 11.5 sacks are tied for fourth-most of any player in the league, has forced three of those fumbles but recovered none. Safety Jabrill Peppers has recovered two fumbles, but forced none. All total, 11 different Browns defensive players have collected at least one fumble, while 12 different players have forced them.
The Browns’ interceptions fall under the same pattern. Rookie corner Denzel Ward and safety Damarious Randall are tied for the team lead with three interceptions apiece, but nine different Browns have registered at least one.
Sort of hard to pencil in a single gamechanger with that dispersion, right?
Why it pertains to Carolina: While the Browns’ propensity for forcing turnovers would absolutely be impressive in its own right, it should be particularly worrisome for a Panthers offense — and quarterback Cam Newton in particular — coming off one of its worst games of the season.
In the team’s loss to Tampa Bay in Week 13, Newton threw four interceptions, his most in any game this season.
What Cam Newton said: “I think I had my one game this year where I was reckless with the ball. I don’t need multiple games.”
Newton’s history: Unfortunately for the Panthers, mired in a four-game losing streak after beginning the season 6-2, Newton’s history suggests the Tampa game may be indicative of more to come.
During the team’s skid, Newton has thrown seven interceptions, tied for the most of any four-game stretch in his career. And while those sorts of turnovers haven’t been as common for Newton this season in offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s more efficient system, he just lost starting tight end Greg Olsen for the rest of the season and admitted this week that his surgically repaired shoulder is still giving him troubles.
Not exactly the best time to be facing an aggressive, turnover-hungry defense.