Every week throughout the season, we’ll be bringing you the latest NFL news and rumors here in the PFN Insider Notebook. Today, we provide the latest updates on the Arizona Cardinals wide receivers, the pressure in Carolina surrounding Matt Rhule, the unfortunate injury to Denver Broncos offensive tackle Garett Bolles, and a promising young rookie class in Houston.
NFL News and Rumors Notebook: Carolina’s Offense Has Been Horrendous
It has been an extremely tense time for the Carolina Panthers. They’re mired in a 1-3 start, facing swirling questions about the shaky job security of coach Matt Rhule and dealing with a horrendous start for a last-ranked offense that had hoped for a resurgence with the arrival of quarterback Baker Mayfield in a trade.
New offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo hasn’t had the immediate impact the organization has been looking for. While the Panthers are averaging just 262.3 yards of offense per game, a league-low 53.5 plays per game, and a 32nd-ranked third-down conversion rate of 25.5% behind Mayfield, the pressure is heating up on McAdoo and Rhule as they search for answers.
There have been increasing communication issues between McAdoo and Rhule before and during games as McAdoo attempts to direct an offense that is struggling mightily, according to multiple league sources not authorized to speak publicly. McAdoo is working to fix what appears to be a dire situation for an ineffectual offense.
“Well, when you look at it, I was brought in here to make an impact, right? And it hasn’t happened yet,” McAdoo said during a press conference this week. “Now, that doesn’t mean we’re discouraged. We’re four games in, right? So, we got another game this week, and we’re excited at the opportunity we have this week, and we have a tremendous opponent coming in here this week.”
The prospects of improved production this week are rough. That’s because the Panthers are facing the San Francisco 49ers’ formidable defense headlined by defensive end Nick Bosa and linebacker Fred Warner. They’re ranked second in yards allowed (234.5 yards per game), pass defense (161.3 yards per game), run defense (73.3 yards), and sacks (15), while allowing the fewest points per game (11.5.).
Mayfield’s Batted Passes a Growing Issue
The Panthers have experienced a lot of batted balls with Mayfield throwing. Mayfield is averaging 6.4 yards per attempt and 5.9 air yards per attempt. He’s completed just 54.7% of his throws for 747 yards, four touchdowns, and three interceptions for a 75.0 passer rating. He’s also been sacked 11 times (8.6% of the time) and leads the NFL with 11 passes tipped.
“Yeah, we’ve been watching them as a staff and taking a look at them. And really, they happen for a variety of reasons,” McAdoo said. “When you look at them, each play tells its own story. You’d like to sit here and say it’s this one thing that’s showing that’s leading to a batted ball, but that’s not the case. So that’s something we’re diving into, we’re studying. Each one has its own reason for it happening.
“Obviously, we need to be better in the passing game. And the first thing I do is look at myself. I got to call it a little bit better. We’ve got to throw it a little bit better. We’ve got to catch it a little bit better. We’ve got to block them a little bit better. It’s not just one thing. When you’re struggling, you can look at it, and if we can keep from pointing fingers at each other and just point fingers at what we need to fix, we’ll be better.”
‘Matt Is the Head Coach’
McAdoo addressed Rhule’s impact on the offense and expressed no discord publicly, of course.
“Matt is the head coach of the football team,” McAdoo said. “He’s not per se an offensive guy or defensive guy or special-teams guy. He’s the head coach of the team. From my vantage point, I think he does a great job of making himself available to all three coordinators. We’re always communicating on things that we can do to help ourselves be successful. Whether it’s personnel or schematics.”
This week, Rhule weighed in on the offensive issues plaguing a team that averages just 186.8 passing yards per game. The most effective weapon has been standout running back Christian McCaffrey, who has rushed for 270 yards, one touchdown, and is averaging 4.9 yards per run.
“It’s about on offense every guy taking responsibility for themselves to (say), ‘I’m gonna be where I’m supposed to be. I’m gonna make the play that I’m supposed to make,’” Rhule said. “Christian McCaffrey’s really talented, but he also takes a lot of accountability. He’s where he’s supposed to be and he makes the plays he’s supposed to make. Just need a little bit more of that from a lot of guys.
“It’s time for our offense to actually play well, instead of just relying on our defense and special teams to save us and bail us out,” Mayfield said. “We have to play well. We have to execute. Handling the next punch is how I’d say adversity goes for me. Things are gonna happen. Some things within a game you can’t control. But some things, a lot that we’ve hurt ourselves, you can control.”
The Panthers rank 23rd in rushing offense, and Rhule is firmly in the hot seat with the temperature increasing, as owner David Tepper’s patience continues to wane with each setback.
McCaffrey, however, said it’s on the players, not on the coaches.
“The matter of the fact is we haven’t been good enough,” McCaffrey said. “I’m in the meetings. I know what’s being coached. Bad football’s not being coached. It’s up to us to go do it, though. As a leader on the team, it starts with me. It starts with all these guys. But we have to make the plays when our number is called. That’s not happening right now. We have extreme urgency to get it done.”
Rondale Moore Avoids Serious Injury, Antoine Wesley Having MRI
Arizona Cardinals Pro Bowl wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins’ suspension ends in two more games. The timing of his return should provide a major boost to a position that has been hit hard by injuries.
Rondale Moore avoided a serious knee injury suffered in practice Thursday and is expected to play Sunday, according to league sources. That’s the good news, considering he missed the first three games with a pulled hamstring and then had three catches for 11 yards on 65 snaps Sunday in his return.
MORE: NFL QB Rankings Week 5
Meanwhile, the news is not nearly as encouraging for Cardinals WR Antoine Wesley. Designated for return from groin and hip injuries sustained during training camp, Wesley has a new injury. It’s feared he tore his quadriceps and is undergoing a magnetic resonance imaging exam on Friday, per league sources.
Wesley (6-foot-5, 200 pounds) caught 19 passes for 208 yards and three touchdowns last season on 32 targets. Now, the remainder of this season is in doubt.
Garett Bolles Breaks His Leg
As bad as the outcome was for the Denver Broncos during an overtime loss to the Indianapolis Colts, they also lost their starting left tackle.
Veteran offensive lineman Garett Bolles broke his right leg against the Colts and is undergoing an MRI on Friday to determine how long he’ll be out and if he’ll need to undergo surgery to repair the damage. There is some hope that he could return before the end of the season, perhaps in a few months. Calvin Anderson will replace him on the left side.
“Garett, obviously, did not look very good there,” Broncos coach Nathaniel Hackett said. “So we’ll evaluate there a little more. We’ve got to get in there and see him.”
Bolles got hurt in the fourth quarter when a Colts player fell on his leg during a run by Mike Boone. He was carted off the field.
Meanwhile, linebacker Josey Jewell and cornerback Ronald Darby both injured their knees, and outside linebacker Baron Browning — who had a big game — suffered a wrist injury and left the game.
This just after the Broncos lost running back Javonte Williams to a torn ACL suffered in last week’s game against the Raiders. Outside linebacker Randy Gregory is also sidelined after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery for his meniscus.
Texans’ Rookie Class Contributing Heavily for Winless Team
Houston Texans general manager Nick Caserio didn’t get to draft until the third round a year ago when he was hired due to trades executed prior to his arrival by former coach and general manager Bill O’Brien. As the architect of a roster overhaul, Caserio got to make his imprint more this year with a full allotment of draft picks.
The Texans remain winless, but the early returns from their rookie draft class — cornerback Derek Stingley Jr., offensive guard Kenyon Green, safety Jalen Pitre, linebacker Christian Harris Jr., and running back Dameon Pierce — are encouraging.
“Nick is drafting football guys and he’s fitting pieces in their spots,” said former Atlanta Falcons pro and area scout Rodrik David, who owns and operates an advisory football business called Right Step Advising.
“He’s a football guy who’s building through the draft. He’s adding good football players with every pick he’s got. He’s a grinder, which most of the guys sitting in that seat are. He’s that type of guy.”
A former LSU consensus All-American selected third overall, Stingley has started every game, has flashed talent in every coverage situation, and has been a willing tackler. He has 23 tackles, three passes defensed, and one sack while playing 96% of the defensive snaps.
Stingley has not backed down from the challenge against top wide receivers, including the Colts’ Michael Pittman Jr., the Broncos’ Courtland Sutton, and the Chargers’ Mike Williams.
“Good corner, playing good football, clearly the No. 1 guy,” David said. “He’s getting some good matchups. He’s been as advertised from his freshman year. There was plenty of talk in draft rooms of a disappointing second and third year after maybe being the best corner in college football as a true freshman. He’s starting to show everything the teams hoped he would be.
“He’s a No. 1 corner on most teams. He is a little bit of a scheme guy. He’s a little bit longer. He can get tied up with quick, shifty slot receivers. He’s going to get good matchups. He will win his fair share. He’s a guy you would like to have out there for a long, long time. He’s not afraid to tackle. He looks like he belongs. That’s a very good sign in his rookie year.”
Green, meanwhile, has started all but one game this season. He’s dealt with some penalty issues and pass-protection breakdowns — including missing a key block against the Chargers’ Jerry Tillery — but, overall, has displayed power, quickness, and a nasty streak.
“He could be a top-five, top-10 left guard and be in that conversation at the end of the day as he continues to mature,” David said. “You’re going to feel great about having him as a starting guard for a long time. He’s not necessarily built for outside-zone plays, but he finds a way to get it done. In a downhill run game, he’s big enough to do that.
“He moves well enough. He’s big, strong, and powerful. He sees it well in protection. Some plays, Kenyon just survives in pass protection. Other times, he looks like a guy who’s going to be a quality good starter where you’re not looking to replace him. He’s going to be just fine.”
Jalen Pitre Showing Instincts, Aggressiveness
In Week 3, Pitre reacted instinctively, capitalizing on the inaccuracy of erratic Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields. In a losing cause, the Texans’ rookie safety provided opportunities for his teammates with a pair of interceptions and a key sack.
Pitre is the second rookie in franchise history to record two interceptions in a game, matching Dunta Robinson’s performance against the Raiders on Oct. 3, 2004. Fields sailed both of his throws that Pitre picked off. The former Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year and Stafford graduate said it wasn’t a case of reading Fields’ eyes as much as it was his deep understanding of the Texans’ Cover 2 scheme and relying upon the advice of older teammates and coaches.
Pitre has been as advertised so far as a ball-hawking presence in the secondary, and this marked his breakout performance.
Pitre models his game after New Orleans Saints safety Tyrann Mathieu, a former All-Pro selection and Texans defensive captain, along with Arizona Cardinals standout safety Budda Baker.
A former consensus All-American, Pitre led Baylor with 18 tackles for losses in his final college season. He finished with 76 tackles total, had three sacks, seven pass breakups, two interceptions, and three fumble recoveries. He’s already making an impact with the Texans.
In his first NFL regular-season game against Indianapolis, Pitre finished with 11 tackles overall, tying for the fifth-most by an NFL rookie in the first game of the regular season since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger and the second-most among rookies in their Texans debut behind linebacker DeMeco Ryans’ 13 tackles in 2006.
Pitre has one forced fumble, one fumble recovery, 30 tackles, and three for losses. Pitre has also missed some tackles and is accountable about the breakdowns.
“Jalen has been all over the place,” David said. “He’s highly active, highly urgent, all good things. He’s a young guy making a bunch of plays. When everything slows down for him, he’s going to be an even better play. He’s all over the field. He’s in the box. He’s in the nickel. He’s having a lot of success.
“I think teams are going to start scheming him a little bit. He’s jumping plays and being aggressive. At some point, he’s going to have to reset and play the game. He’s been well-coached. He’s off to a very productive start. He’s a very aggressive player. He’s been the best rookie safety. That Baylor defense, everybody, all the scouts, loved the way they’re coached and how they performed.”
Dameon Pierce Coming Off Breakout Game
Pierce trusted his teammates along with his speed and instincts, following them all with faith on his fast track to the end zone on a 75-yard touchdown run against the Chargers.
Pierce delivered the third-longest run in franchise history and the longest run by an NFL rookie since Kalen Ballage had an equally long run for the Miami Dolphins in 2018.
Pierce rushed for a season-high 131 yards on 14 carries. This marked the second consecutive game he’s scored a touchdown after rushing for 80 yards and a score against Chicago.
Pierce has rushed for 313 yards in four games and continues to grow in importance for the Texans’ inconsistent offense. He’s the third rookie in franchise history to rush for more than 130 yards in a single game — following Alfred Blue and Steve Slaton — and is on pace to rush for 1,330 yards on the season.
“He won the starting job and he’s doing a good job,” David said. “He’s got a physical, violent running style. There’s a lot of upside on Dameon. He’ll continue to get better and better as he gains more experience. He runs the ball well, catches the ball well. He checks off a lot of boxes. I like the way he runs the football.”
Christian Harris Set for Return
Harris is set to start contributing after being designated for return from injured reserve from a hamstring injury. Signed to a four-year, $5.34 million contract that includes a $1.069 million contract, the third-round draft pick from Alabama turned heads at training camp with his ability to run and diagnose plays.
The former blue-chip recruit from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, concluded his college career with three sacks, four tackles for losses, and a forced fumble in a loss to Georgia in the national championship.
Harris has speed to burn (4.44 in the 40-yard dash) as a versatile sideline-to-sideline defender. He aced the NFL Scouting Combine with a 9.06 Relative Athletic Score, had 80 tackles last season, 12 1/2 for losses, and 5 1/2 sacks. The former freshman All-American and freshman All-SEC selection also had two forced fumbles and was a semifinalist for the Butkus and Lombardi awards.
“It’s been good to get him back out there,” Texans linebackers coach Miles Smith said. “Obviously, it’s a process. Being a rookie, he hasn’t played a whole lot of professional football yet at this point. Got hurt so early in training camp. It’s been exciting to see him out there. I mean the guy can move.
“Pure athleticism, I don’t think anybody in the NFL questions the type of athlete that Christian is. As he becomes more and more familiar with our defense and gets a little more experience under his belt, he has a lot of potential. Obviously, it’s still potential at this point because he actually hasn’t gotten on the field, but we’ll see how that goes going forward.”