The 2019 regular season opener feels very similar to 2015 for Panthers head coach Ron Rivera.
During the latter campaign, Carolina faced defending NFC Champion Seattle in Week 5 and won 27-23. It helped spark the Panthers to an eventual franchise-best 15-1 regular season record.
Thus, from Rivera’s perspective, Sunday’s home game against Los Angeles presents itself as an identical opportunity to see how his team measures up to the NFC’s best.
“The way I’ve always approached it, and the way we’ve talked about it with our players, going into the 2015 season, it was about being able to play with Seattle,” Rivera told reporters this week. “This is a test now to see if we can play with the Rams.”
According to Rivera, the best chance of doing that will come down to how well the Panthers adapt to the Rams’ schemes on offense, defense and special teams.
Head coach Sean McVay has helped the Rams produce top-10 offenses in each of his last two seasons, most recently finishing second in both total offense with 421.1 yards per game and scoring offense with 32.3 points per contest in 2018. Given that success, it's understandable that Rivera said he studied some Rams film from McVay’s first season in 2017 as part of his preparation for this weekend’s game.
McVay has accomplished those feats largely with the same personnel grouping, too: the NFL’s Next Gen Stats shared on Twitter earlier this summer that L.A. used 11 personnel – 1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR – on at least 90 percent of their offensive snaps last year. Furthermore, the Rams have only used five personnel packages on offense over the last two seasons, according to the same account.
“I think it’s a big chess match, more so than anything else, in all three phases, just because of who they are and who they’ve been the last couple of years,” Rivera said. “When Coach McVay got there, you really got a sense as to what they were becoming and last year you knew what they are, but he’s one of those guys that’s constantly evolving and changing and looking at different ways to do things.”
Defensively, Rivera expressed appreciation for Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and the success he’s had heading into his 50thseason coaching in the NFL.
Smart, athletic safeties, physical cornerbacks, interior and edge pressure and a smart inside linebacker are what Rivera described as the hallmarks of a Phillips-led unit.
“He’s always had really quality players at the key positions,” Rivera said. “If you can get those six elements, I think you can be successful and he’s been able to do that.”
When the Panthers defeated the Seahawks in the regular season four years ago, it contributed to a 14-game win streak and eventual trip to Super Bowl 50.
Games like this have been a good indicator of future success for the Panthers. On Sunday, they’ll find out if they can recreate some of their 2015 prosperity.
“It’s definitely a challenge, and it’s a good opportunity to find out where we are as a football team,” Rivera said.