Five reasons the Panthers lead the NFL in scoring

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers lead the NFL in scoring for the first time in team history following Sunday’s 38-0 victory over Atlanta.

They are averaging 31.6 points per game after averaging 39 points over the past four.

The highest Carolina has finished in scoring was fourth in 1999 with an average of 26.3. That team scored 421 points in 16 games. This one already has 411 during a 13-0 start.

Last year's team ranked 19th in scoring with an average of 21.2 points.

How are the Panthers doing this without star wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin? Here are five reasons:

Mike Shula

You have to start with Carolina's offensive coordinator. Shula hasn't had all the pieces the past three years to have a unit this dynamic. Many thought he didn't this year after Benjamin suffered a season-ending knee injury in training camp. But Shula has been patient in the process, particularly as it pertains to quarterback Cam Newton. Shula has gone from basically no experience with the read-option to learning on the run from Newton, Newton's coaches at Auburn and other schools. He has then implemented that into his traditional pro-style attack, giving Newton more freedom each year to audible at the line of scrimmage.

Shula has been particularly adept at allowing Newton to use the no-huddle he used in college. He's also willing to stick with the running game longer than most might because that is the foundation of this offense, despite Newton's recent emergence as an elite passer. The Panthers rank second in the NFL in rushing with 141.9 yards per game. Shula has been criticized in the past for his lack of imagination offensively, but nobody is criticizing him now. Few if any in the NFL have been better at creating mismatches.

Cam Newton

What the fifth-year quarterback has done the past four games alone has been amazing. Newton has completed 65 percent of his passes for 1,035 yards and 13 touchdowns and only one interception. He has an average passer rating of 119.6 during that span. It seems like just yesterday critics were saying Newton's weakness was his inability to complete a high percentage of passes. Pro Football Focus gives Newton the highest accuracy percentage (51.7) on passes that travel 20 or more yards. But this goes beyond Newton's accuracy. It's his threat as a runner on every down that forces teams to keep extra defenders in the box and frees his receivers with single coverage.

Beyond that, Newton is making smarter decisions and going through his full progression of reads. There are many examples of when he has opted to dump off a pass to the running back or tight end instead of taking off and running when his first or second option was covered. Newton doesn't just dab. He has truly developed into one of the elite quarterbacks in the NFL.

Negative plays and big plays

Shula mentioned on Monday that the Panthers have had fewer negative plays than past seasons. That's actually not true. The Panthers are averaging 6.77 negative plays per game, the highest number since Newton arrived in 2011. Fifteen of those have come in the red zone, which is tied for the most under Newton. But as Shula correctly mentioned, the Panthers are doing a better job of responding to negative plays. They have 22 plays of 30-plus yards this season, which is more than they had in 2014 (16) and 2013 (17). As a result, the Panthers rank fourth in the NFL in red-zone efficiency with 35 touchdowns on 53 possessions. That's a 66 percent rate. The Panthers were 26th in 2014 at 48.15 and 19th in 2013 at 52.08.

Quick-strike ability and Ted Ginn Jr.

This offense no longer is a grind-it-out, three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust system. The Panthers have eight touchdown drives of three plays or fewer, according to ESPN Stats and Information. That's the most they've had through 13 games since 2008. They had eight touchdown drives of three plays or less in the last two seasons combined. That doesn't mean the Panthers can't grind it out. They have 11 touchdown drives of more than 10 plays. That ties them with New Orleans for the most in the NFL.

But back to the quick-strike ability: Wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. is blowing the top off of defenses with his elite speed. He had touchdown catches of 74 and 46 yards against Atlanta. His eight touchdowns in 13 games are one more than he had the past six seasons combined. Ginn has 13 of his career 19 touchdowns in two seasons (2013, 2015) with Newton. Those two have a connection that has made critics forget the Panthers didn't take an elite speed receiver with their first-round draft pick.

Defense and takeaways

That the Panthers lead the NFL by a wide margin with 33 forced turnovers (Kansas City and the New York Giants are tied for second with 24) is huge. That the Panthers have scored a league-best 117 points off those turnovers and the defense has surrendered only 22 points off turnovers alone is a big reason the Panthers lead the league in scoring. And are undefeated.