The Carolina Panthers scored a 34-27 victory over the defending Super Bowl champions on Thursday night on the strength of incredible work by the defense and special teams. The two units directly accounted for four touchdowns -- two pick sixes, a fumble recovery and a punt return by Ted Ginn, Jr. -- while generally making life miserable for a Baltimore Ravens offense that struggled to regain traction after an opening-drive touchdown.
Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly was the Panthers' star attraction, but even an impressive stat line of seven tackles, a forced fumble and an interception doesn't fully explain how dominant he was. Kuechly made the play of the game when he flashed through the Ravens' offensive line in the second quarter, knocking the ball loose from Bernard Pierce before teammate Thomas Davis scooped the ball up and ran into the end zone.
Getting two elite defensive tackles was the catalyst to turn the entire defense around. Kuechly was great in his own right (more on him later), but putting Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short in the middle allows the middle linebacker to roam, something he couldn't do in 2012. Getting a consistent push, and clogging those running lanes allows Kuechly read and react more. The end result might be a 2013 season that has less overall tackles (eaten up by the defensive tackles), but it gives the second-year linebacker more opportunities to be a playmaker.
The Panthers' offense was an entirely different story, however. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula's unit contributed just six points to the Panthers' score and was outgained by nearly 200 yards. Panthers fans aren't under any illusion that they have the best offensive talent in the league -- particularly along the offensive line -- but they expect more than two offensive touchdowns in three games:
Running DeAngelo Williams at a wall with no blocking fullback nets 2.4 yards per carry. Having Cam throw from under center without deep routes leads to 5.2 YPA. The blame can be placed on the offensive line, but it's also easy to overlook that this group is at least as talented as the unit who finished 2012, as they went on a late run. The bill of sale on Shula sold the idea of offensive continuity, but nothing resembles what Rob Chudzinski did on offense, and so far it's all for the worst.