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Next Gen Stats: Panthers' woeful protection will stall resurgence

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The Carolina Panthers vanquished their division rival New Orleans Saints in Charlotte to improve to 4-6 on the year. Had they not inexplicably dropped their Week 10 game to the visiting Kansas City Chiefs, they would be riding high on a four-game win streak.

While it might be a stretch for them to catch the Atlanta Falcons with a hefty lead for the NFC South, there's some thought that a run could be brewing on way to securing a wild-card spot. After all, we've seen these Panthers do that just in the past. Back in 2014 Carolina won four of their last five games to win a weak NFC South after going into their Week 12 bye with a 3-7-1 record.

While that wishful run may well be buried somewhere within this team, they will need to overcome a glaring weakness that was apparent even to the most untrained eye tonight. The Panthers' offensive line is in complete disarray right now.

Who would have ever thought the words "this team really misses Michael Oher" would be the telling theme of an NFL club's season. It couldn't be more true, however. The Panthers' starting left tackle has been in the league's concussion protocol for just about 50 days. A frightening report came out from the Charlotte Observer this week revealing that Oher sought out a specialist due to "sensitivity to light, as well as issues involving his vestibular ocular system." It doesn't sound like he's in line to return anytime soon, though the team has yet to place him on injured reserve.

Oher's absence is a particularly painful one, as it weakens the line at two spots. To replace Oher, the Panthers shift right tackle Mike Remmers over to the left side while Daryl Williams takes over as the right tackle.

Making matters worse, the Panthers' Pro Bowl center left tonight's game with a shoulder injury and never returned. The same injury caused him to miss the two games leading up to this Thursday night. In his stead, 340-pound guard Chris Scott took his first snaps at center.

Next Gen Stats' pressure metric (average yards of distance from pass rush to quarterback at time of throw or sack) shows that Carolina's offensive line has been an issue for quite some time.

The Panthers' offensive line has allowed Cam Newton to be pressured at an above average rate in every game they've played since Week 6. Newton has to make several throws with bodies closing in on him or off balance tonight, so it was striking that this was one of the better nights for the offensive line by this pressure metric.

While we can certainly see a clear wart emerging for the Panthers here, it's also fair to point out that the Saints' defense is taking small steps toward improvement, especially at providing pressure. Once regarded as a pushover across the football world, and a defense you start everyone against in fantasy circles, the healthy return of first-round pick Sheldon Rankins among others is plugging holes in this front seven.

Cam Newton came into this game with poor statistics across the board against the blitz, and the Saints clearly took notice. New Orleans sent five or more pass rushers at Newton on 40 percent of his pass plays tonight. He registered a lowly 65.6 passer rating and averaged 5.25 yards per attempt on those plays. Outside of his sterling deep shot to Ted Ginn to conclude the first half, Newton was thwarted by his protection all night:

While the most visible victim, Cam Newton is not the only one suffering at the hands of a leaky offensive line. Jonathan Stewart had a productive first two games after coming off an early-season injury, but he and the entire team have been unable to establish a steady ground game the last three weeks.

Next Gen Stats' rushing efficiency metric measures the running backs' actual distance traveled per rush yard gained. It shows a relation to downhill power runners who find space to get downfield, and don't have to dance behind the line of scrimmage.

Jonathan Stewart's rushing efficiency:

3.6 - Week 6
7.3 - Week 7
4.0 - Week 8
6.1 - Week 9
5.3 - Week 10
8.5 - Week 11

The Panthers established an identity last season behind a power running game and their quarterback taking deep shots at an MVP level. With the offensive line in its current state, there is little chance they can recapture that form. While portions of Carolina's team show signs of being able to make a run at the postseason, the play of the front five on offense makes the odds of that coming to pass highly unlikely.

Matt Harmon a writer/editor for NFL.com, and the creator of #ReceptionPerception, who you can follow on Twitter @MattHarmon_BYB or like on Facebook.

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