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The Optimist: Welcome back to the original Famous Jameis recipe for sacks and picks

It’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed watching defensive line play this much.

New Orleans Saints v Carolina Panthers Photo by Mike Comer/Getty Images

It’s early in the season for any team to seem repetitive, but here we are. The Carolina Panthers once again dominated an injury-plagued opponent in what ended up being a closer game than it could have been. The Panthers are currently tied with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at 2-0 (1-0 in the NFC South) for the division lead. Carolina’s record is largely due to a dominant defensive performance that has made opposing teams look like they were stuck in the preseason. The offense, on the other hand, has seen a lot of their successes punctuated by injuries or misfires. They need better luck in health and a more consistent effort if they want to continue to compete with Tom Brady’s high-scoring Bucs.

Still, the Saints embarrassed the Green Bay Packers in Week 1. Nobody was picking the Panthers to knock them off in Week 2, yet Sam Darnold and company did so convincingly. Between a smothering defensive effort and what is becoming a traditional offensive performance that moves the ball more easily than scores with it, these Panthers put together a game that won’t have the national punditry underestimating them for much longer. Here’s what I liked about that, and a little of what I didn’t.

Phil Snow

Matt Rhule’s hiring of offensive coordinator Joe Brady last year was electrifying. For the first time in franchise history we were going to see the Panthers with the cool candidate helming their offense. Fast forward a year, and the ho-hum hire of Rhule’s long time collaborator deserves a lot more attention. Snow is calling a defense that has held opponents scoreless in five of eight quarters this season. His guys have ten sacks, 21 quarterback hits, three interceptions, and a stadium full of swagger so far.

This week saw him reach into the back of the NFC South’s pantry and pull out the original recipe for Famous Jameis: Sacks and interceptions. The success of that strategy was marked by 128 yards allowed to the Saints offense. That is a record for the fewest yards allowed to the Saints in Panthers history.

Pressure, applied early and often, led to the Panthers rattling the Saints quarterback into making multiple back-breaking mistakes. Our own Erik Sommers commented before the half that New Orleans offensive line was “visibly frustrated” by the pressure that Snow was dialing up. I thought that ‘visible’ was an overly generous description of that unit in the first half.

Additionally, Snow’s coaching might be the most important factor in the Sam Darnold Reclamation Projection because it is almost solely responsible for the favorable game situations that Darnold has been cutting his new teeth in. Maybe Panthers fans are afraid of the wrong coordinator getting poached in this year’s coaching carousel.

Haason Reddick

This was the signing of the year. With 1.5 sacks and 2 quarterback hits yesterday, Reddick may hold the most responsibility for rattling Jameis Winston and bringing back the inconsistent gift that we grew to love in Tampa Bay. He is playing his way into a big contract next year, and the Panthers will have the first opportunity to negotiate with him. Those negotiations should be a priority.

Jaycee Horn

The rookie bounced back from dropping what would have been his first career interception to come down with his next shot at a ball. It was kind of Winston to give him another opportunity.

Horn, so far, has hardly shown up on our television screens at home because his coverage has discouraged most quarterbacks from sending the ball—and thus the cameras—in his direction. He may not end up with many more interceptions, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t already proving himself worthy of his high draft position.

As for the rest. . .

Sadly, we aren’t able to put to rest the two biggest questions that this team faces. The Panthers offense is continuing to be creative and multiple. Darnold found seven different receivers with his completions; all of them had multiple targets and six had at least three receptions. That is both fantastic and par for the course in Brady’s offense. We know they are going to spread the ball around. What we don’t know is what they are going to do to get better in the red zone and what they are going to do without Christian McCaffrey. Last year’s strategy of ‘losing’ seems like it would be disappointing a second year in a row and an absolute waste of the defense that Snow has built.

On scoring points

Generally speaking, the offense was better at scoring yesterday. That’s always good. The play design that opened up DJ Moore for his touchdown reception off of a slant rant was a thing of beauty. But for every win there is always a balancing frustration with this team. In the red zone, that was the third down run out of a jumbo set on the goal line. Why coordinators keep condensing the defense into a small area in the smallest part of the field and then running into that concentration of defenders will forever escape me. It is nothing short of hubris. Brady is smarter than that, I thought.

Similarly, the Panthers kicking woes continue. A missed extra point and a blocked field goal were not what they had in mind when they signed veteran kicker Zane Gonzalez off of Detroit’s practice squad. Rhule put most of the blame for that on the special teams blocking, saying “there was too much in the kicker’s face” in terms of pressure. He said it was an all day issue and placed pressure firmly at the root of both the blocked and missed kick.

Two games in the Panthers are tied with the Bucs, but that won’t continue for long if this team keeps shooting itself in the foot when it comes time to score. They know this, which is why I am optimistic. These are smart guys who have already, to a degree, done the impossible in reviving Darnold’s career. This is a problem they are certainly motivated to solve. It isn’t too daring—yet—to assume that they can.

Resting Christian McCaffrey

The team came into this game knowing that they had to reduce Christian McCaffrey’s workload. Not only do they have a long season ahead, the Panthers have a short week. They turn around and travel to Houston for a Thursday night game this week.

I don’t think McCaffrey having 29 touches yesterday, versus 30 against the New York Jets, was a result of an intentional reduction of his opportunities. Frankly, the only reason he didn’t surpass his workload from a week ago is because he was sent to the locker room for a series to receive treatment for cramps. It’s two staffs running now. Coaches can’t help themselves around McCaffrey and that is going to shorten his career. Once again I am forced to beg the coaches of the Carolina Panthers to not break Christian McCaffrey.

What’s next?

Another beat up team is on the horizon. The Panthers travel to Houston on a short week where the Texans will be starting somebody at quarterback, probably. Carolina has their own concerns with multiple injuries cropping up over the course of the game on the the offensive line. Cam Erving and Dennis Daley were both able to return to the field, while guard Pat Elflein was not. We’re still awaiting word on the exact nature of his injury and timeframe for his return.

With all of that circling chaos, it is going to be hard to learn anything about the Panthers on Thursday that we don’t already know. Win or lose, we can expect to see a dominant pass rush, an intermittently thrilling offensive performance, and a place kicker.

Fans may be tired of opening a season and rolling forward with a lot of ‘almost great’ performances that are weighed down with questions—questions that are never answered. Hell, it has been since 2018 that this franchise didn’t start a season 0-2. Their last 2-0 start was 2017.

This year, with a dominant defense and an offense that is making strides, those questions haven’t held the team back from wins. That is a great way for the Panthers to set themselves up for post season play. It is early to talk about the playoffs, but it is also a familiar midseason topic of conversation with the Panthers. A middling record and a team that is threatening to punch above its assumed weight class is often, ultimately, held back by a slow start or a late season collapse. So far, they’re threatening anything but a slow start.