What happened to Carolina's defense?

Despite Luke Kuechly's exceptional play, the Panthers' run defense has struggled this season. Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

ESPN Insider Adam Schefter hits five of the biggest questions around the league once a week during the NFL preseason and regular season, and sporadically throughout the playoffs and offseason. Have a query of your own? Submit it here

What’s happened to the Carolina Panthers defense this season? That unit has been dreadful.

Yes, it has. It has been one of the biggest surprises of the NFL season. Much of it has to do with the loss of Greg Hardy, who was the team’s best defensive lineman. He helped generate a ferocious pass rush last year that has been absent this year. But Carolina’s decline cannot all be attributed to Hardy’s absence. Plenty has to do with the poor play of the Panthers’ run defense. Carolina is ranked 26th in the league in rush defense It's hard to imagine that a defense with as much talent as the Panthers, and with a player as good as Luke Kuechly, could be struggling as much as it is against the run. But it is.

Now that Adrian Peterson has agreed to a plea deal, can you see him returning to the NFL this season?

There certainly seems to be an undercurrent that his situation is fluid. At one point, it looked like he had no hope of playing this season; now the odds of him returning this season definitely are on the rise. The NFL still is going to have to clear it, and to date, the league has been unbending.

But here’s the argument I’ve heard from a few people around the league this season: As distasteful as many found Peterson’s behavior, the justice system allowed him to plead guilty to a misdemeanor. How many players do you know who have missed eight games for being guilty of a misdemeanor? Now this is a different (and highly sensitive) time in the NFL. The league wants to do everything it can to make sure it gets this right. But my guess is that the NFL, the NFLPA, the Vikings and Peterson will come together and reach some sort of acceptable compromise in which Peterson pays a stiff fine and is allowed to return to action. But again, nothing has been close to decided, so this still can go any way.

What’s the biggest problem for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers right now?

They’ve been consistently bad across the board: 31st in the league in total offense, 31st in the league in total defense. So that tells you that head coach Lovie Smith and general manager Jason Licht have a major overhaul on their hands. The biggest issue, to me, has been on the offensive line. It wasn’t very good this summer -- the team tried to improve it with the trade for Logan Mankins, and yet the line hasn’t gotten much better. If the offensive line is struggling, then the rest of the offense is going to struggle. And when the offense doesn’t score consistently, the defense is put in tough, challenging positions. There are many areas to blame.

How long do you anticipate Nick Foles will be out? What are your expectations for Mark Sanchez?

These injuries can be tough to predict. Just think back to last season, when everyone kept wondering which week Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers would return from his fractured clavicle. Well, now Foles has the same injury, and even without a firm timeline, there’s a real chance we might not see him again this season. (Rodgers missed seven games last season, and the Eagles are eight games into this season.) Then, if the Eagles are fortunate enough to make it to the postseason, are you turning over your offense to a quarterback coming back from an injury, or are you riding the arm that got you there? These are all calls the Eagles have time to make, but I wouldn't be surprised if we didn't see Foles again this season.

What was your biggest takeaway from Robert Griffin III's game on Sunday?

There’s still work to do. If Griffin can play well, he can get his teammates to believe in him more than they do now. But he has to elevate his level of play. It wasn't going to be easy in his first game back from a dislocated ankle injury. But he didn't always give receivers a chance, and his balls weren't always accurate. To me, Griffin has to be the type of quarterback who runs around, makes things happen, and turns into the dynamic playmaker he was when he won the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year. When he stands in the pocket and tries to become a pocket passer, he just is not as effective. Griffin would prefer to be a pocket passer, but he’s a better quarterback when he’s using his array of talents to beat defenses with his arm and legs.