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Monday Morning Optimist: Honestly, that should have been more than a field goal’s difference

D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel are threatening to give the Panthers an offense? 2020 is weird!

Chicago Bears v Carolina Panthers Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

I’ll admit it: I assumed this was a guaranteed Carolina Panthers loss after the New Orleans Saints went up 14-3 in the first quarter. The Panthers struggled down the field on the opening drive while the Saints had their way in everything but the short running game. When they came even close to short, they were generously extended the benefit of the doubt. They never even considered punting, barring the one moment on their third drive that was erased by a Donte Jackson penalty away from the play. Go team.

That third drive was almost a game changer, however. Brian Burns had another strip sack that would have allowed the Panthers to put up 14 unanswered points to close out the half. Except that Drew Brees did Drew Brees Things with no time and poorly used time outs to retake the lead.

The second half was much of the same. That this game came down to a series of not great plays on offense with about three minutes left and a just-short 65-yard field goal attempt is a testament to these Panthers ability to adjust and fight back. What more can you expect from a game where your team didn’t force Drew Brees’ offense to punt even once.

What I liked

Brian Burns - Extremely Optimistic

We’re going to talk all week about Burn’s strip sack on the notoriously hard-to-bring-down without-a-penalty Brees. But we shouldn’t forget to acknowledge his effort on lesser plays. From forcing throw aways to stopping runs, Burns has become a complete player on the edge and gives the Panthers their first premier edge rusher since Charles Johnson (who fell off young), Greg Hardy (who fell off nuts and violent), or Julius Peppers (who is wholly unmatched in Carolina sports history).

D.J. Moore - Extremely Optimistic

A late injury may have affected the Panthers final drive, but he or his absence have nothing to do with why the Panthers lost. He and Teddy Bridgewater finally hooked up for a deep touchdown and the spark of their chemistry is what kept the Panthers alive in that game.

Curtis Samuel - Extremely Optimistic

It seems that Samuel and Joe Brady have finally come to an understanding of how to offense together. All Samuel does these days is make plays. He even put his reputation for making plays on third downs aside briefly to score a touchdown on a first and goal.

With Robby Anderson and Moore taking most of the targets, Samuel has carved out a role for himself. As with Moore’s 74-yard touchdown yesterday, it is only a matter of time before Samuel turns that role into a highlight reel.

Penalties - Somewhat Optimistic

The Panthers were killed last week by penalties. Pre-snap penalties on offense in particular have been a problem this season. This week, Donte Jackson was flagged for the only Panthers penalty—defensive holding that surrendered an otherwise well defended third down. The Panthers may have struggled against a more experienced team yesterday, but at least they are showing progress on the subject of discipline. If this season is about learning then Rhule is setting up a storyline for next season that could be all about winning.

What I didn’t like

Third downs - Extremely Pessmistic

I’m not going to dive too deeply into this, other than to say that the Saints were 12-14 on third down and the two plays they didn’t convert led to chip shot field goals on fourth. Tahir Whitehead struggled predictably against Alvin Kamara. Water is Wet. Donte Jackson and Troy Pride, Jr. each had less than stellar days that were highly visible on third downs. It was bad. The Saints never punted. That is unequivocally bad.

Injuries are probably adding up on the defense. Compounded by what can only be described as “extreme youth,” this team isn’t exactly built to stop hall of fame quarterbacks. That is most easily noted by the lack of Taysom Hill touches. Hill gets the ball when Sean Payton gets stumped, shrugs his shoulders, and says “maybe this $16M boondoggle will solve it.” Payton wasn’t often stumped yesterday and the third down stats prove it.

The takeaway

Injuries, youth, and 2020 have added up to the Panthers being a highly competitive team. Yes, the Panthers are back below .500 and are on the outside looking in of the division race. But so what? They weren’t supposed to compete this year and yet that’s what they have done in every game.

There was that one time, in the 2020 draft, where the Panthers took seven straight defensive players because they lacked both starters and depth at key positions. Fast forward to now, that same defense is rather banged up and it didn’t force a single punt in a game against the Saints.

Go back to June and put money on the Panthers only losing by a field goal I dare you.

This season has seen some things and none of them, for all the things that there have been, have even approached a worst case scenario given the public health setting that the current National Football League is playing within. I think the only real take away we can have right now is that it looks like Matt Rhule knows how to get a team to Keep Pounding.