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The Optimist: A special defense could take pressure off Darnold's shoulders

The new quarterback might have time to develop thanks to Phil Snow's outstanding unit.

New York Jets v Carolina Panthers Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

The Carolina Panthers walked away from yesterday’s game as winners. It’s easy to look at their performance and say that it should have been a bigger win, but a win is a win in terms of the standing. The Panthers start 1-0 and we’ll see what’s next. After all, beating the Jets was about a lot more than just beating the Jets. It was our introduction, as fans, to the 2021 Carolina Panthers. Who exactly did we just meet?

Sam Darnold

Nothing matters more for the success of any team than the ability of their starting quarterback. Darnold, escaping the dumpster fire that was the last few years with the Jets, had a lot of bad numbers and tape behind him and no clear indication how much of his past failures were on him and how much were on his former coaching staff(s). The Panthers traded for him this year hoping that he could be more than what he had shown in New York.

Yesterday we saw a Darnold who could be accurate on intermediate and, possibly, deep passes. He was also willing to use Christian McCaffrey, who hasn’t missed a step after missing most of last season, to turn defensive pressure into positive plays. My biggest concern came off his first two passing attempts targeting a receiver in the end zone. The first, to tight end Ian Thomas, and the second, to rookie wide receiver Terrace Marshall Jr, were simply, but mildly, inaccurate. He didn’t miss hilariously or dangerously wide on either target, just enough that you could see the distance between what the quarterback wanted and what the quarterback actually created.

Darnold’s other passes of similar distance, particularly in the first half, looked sharp. The glass half full perspective implies that inconsistency could have been a bit of red zone jitters on opening day. The other way of looking at it is that Joe Brady had Teddy Bridgewater looking pretty sharp in Week 1 of 2020, too.

His performance was ultimately promising but, by no means, a promise fulfilled. The fluke fumble aside—we’ll see if Giovanni Ricci is on the roster tomorrow—Darnold left two touchdowns on the field that should have been there. If he is as accurate as we saw outside of the red zone then this should be easy to fix. If not then it could be a long season.I'm going to remain optimistic until Darnold's play changes my mind.

The defense

No matter what happens with Darnold this year, the Carolina Panthers defense is going to be fun to watch. The Jets had two, out of five, drives for positive yardage in the first half. One of those ended with an interception. Shaq Thompson, Haason Reddick, Brian Burns, Derrick Brown, Marquis Haynes, and Daviyon Nixon combined for six sacks. And they held the Jets to 45 rushing yards as a team in a game that was rarely so far gone that the Jets were forced to pass.

This is where we look at the big asterisk of ‘but it was against the Jets.’ Which, yeah, sure. But also, consider the only times that the Jets really drove down the field were when they started to take big risks in the passing game. That is going to add up to opportunities against any quality of NFL team, even if they don’t post six sacks and force two turnovers every single game.

Sit back and set your clock to worry about linebacker depth down the stretch. Right now they are good enough to be appointment viewing while the offense sorts themselves out.

The coaching

Sam Darnold I called promising. The defense is enjoyable. The coaching was, simply, triggering. Panthers fans just got out of a series of long relationships with guys who swore they were just friends with the punter. Matt Rhule sending Joseph Charlton out to punt from the Jets 33 was not a decision I expected to see made again in Bank of America Stadium. It’s hard to talk field position when your defense just forced consecutive punts on fourth and 23. Take the risk.

The second half took it a step further when the Panthers offense gained seven first downs in five drives, with three of those coming on their lone scoring drive—a 12-play, 52-yard slog that ended with a 29-yard field goal. Some credit, undoubtedly goes to the Jets defense for tightening up and giving their own offense a chance to catch up. But it also looked like the Panthers were more worried about running down the clock than they were about racking up yards or points. I’m hopeful that is me (and the rest of the CSR staff) seeing ghosts. To the Panther’s credit, the play-by-play shows Darnold passing more than I remembered in the second half. He just wasn’t highly successful, completing seven of 13 attempts for 45 yards.

We'll know we have a problem when Rhule tries to explain how the time of possession is key to beating the New Orleans Saints.

Next week

The Saints played above and beyond all predictions yesterday against the Green Bay Packers. Jameis Winston threw five touchdown passes while his defense got reigning NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers benched en route to a 38-3 victory. The Panthers have their work cut out for them.

Big numbers also belie the story of the game. The Saints were more efficient than explosive. They gained a modest 322 yards and scored two of their touchdowns on short fields after a turnover. This isn't to say they don't appear formidable. They are. But they capitalized on mistakes in what was reportedly a conservative gameplan moreso than they proved capable of marching 80 yards down the field at will.

Either Darnold needs to dial in that red zone accuracy or the defense needs to prove their performance wasn't an artifact of facing the Jets. However, if the defense is legit then the Panthers won't need more from Darnold than the average and safe performance he just turned in against his old team.