The Panthers are 2-0 after a solid 26-7 victory over the Saints in Week 2, and while there were a few hiccups I was overall pleased with the way the team handled their business yesterday. When you add in the fact that it was against a division rival, it makes the win even better. There were a lot of things to take away from this game, and I think we learned a little bit more about who this Panthers team is. Below are five takeaways I had from yesterday’s game, in no particular order.
Phil Snow has the defense running like a well-oiled machine
I was going to separate the takeaways I had about the defense into several categories, but then I realized if I did that it would end up being a much longer list than I wanted it to be, so I decided to just lump them all under the same group because I need to talk about the job Phil Snow has done with this defense so far this year.
Let’s just look at what happened yesterday, for starters. The Panthers held the Saints to 128 total yards and 6 first downs. The Saints averaged 3.0 yards per play and only ran 43 plays on offense (compared to the Panthers’ 73 plays). The Saints were 2-for-11 on third down, and 0-for-2 on fourth down. The Panthers picked Jameis Winston off twice, and pressured him all day long. Alvin Kamara had 8 carries for 5 yards, and 4 receptions for 25 yards. Winston was their leading rusher with 19 yards, and Taysom Hill was second with 16 yards. The Saints as a team rushed for 48 yards, and only had 111 passing yards.
tldr; The Panthers defense whipped the Saints’ asses yesterday.
Phil Snow has turned this Panthers defense into a unit that must be respected. I’m sure there are still detractors out there who will argue that the first two opponents aren’t good enough to justify the praise I’m about to give, but I’ll just say this: You play the teams that are put in front of you. You cannot control the quality of your opponent. It’s not your job to ensure they’re up to your standard.
The fact of the matter is this: The Panthers are No. 1 in points allowed (21), points per game (10.5), passing yards per game (143.5), rushing yards per game (46.5), total rushing yards (93), total yards per game (190) and sacks (10). They’re No. 2 in total yards allowed (322) and passing yards allowed (287). They’re tied with six other teams for third place in turnover differential (+1), and are tied with five other teams for third place in interceptions (3). The only two things this defense hasn’t done yet are recover a fumble and force a safety. I don’t know about y’all, but I’d say those numbers are ‘pretty good’.
The Panthers are stacked on defense with guys like Brian Burns, Haason Reddick, Shaq Thompson, Jeremy Chinn, Derrick Brown, Jermaine Carter, Donte Jackson, Morgan Fox, DaQuan Jones and Marquis Haynes. Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned rookie cornerback Jaycee Horn yet (who grabbed his first career interception yesterday, by the way). This defense has a chance to be legendary if they continue the work they’ve done over the last two weeks, and Phil Snow deserves all the kudos in the world for his play calling, his ability to know when to turn up the heat and get after the quarterback and his game planning that puts his best players in the best position to succeed. Phil Snow has been so good at his job that quarterback Sam Darnold has only needed to be ‘not terrible’ for the Panthers to have success over their last two games.
Speaking of which...
Sam Darnold is still pretty good
I’m gonna go ahead and get the laughter out of the way first: That interception was comically bad and I still don’t know what the hell Sam was trying to do there. But, I will say this: Someone pointed it out to me on Twitter that we had to wait seven quarters before the Jets version of Darnold showed up, and I have to say that’s actually not too bad. Yes, the interception was dumb, and it was funny, and we’ll meme the hell out of it for weeks (or years), but for the most part Darnold has looked like an actual NFL quarterback. I don’t think we can complain too much about that.
There were two bad plays from Darnold yesterday: the aforementioned interception, and a third down failure where he didn’t see a wide open Christian McCaffrey that would have given the Panthers a first down and kept the drive going. Other than that, he was borderline great: He went 26-of-38 (68 percent) for 305 yards, 2 touchdowns and 1 interception. He was sacked twice for 11 yards and his quarterback rating was 99.1 (for what it’s worth, it was something like 150 at halftime, which is almost a perfect score).
Say what you want about Darnold, but if we get the production we’ve had over the first two games over a 17-game schedule, and the defense continues to be as fierce and dominating as they have been, then Panthers fans should be over the moon that we traded the draft picks we did to the Jets, because Darnold will have certainly made himself ‘worth it’. I’m interested to see how he handles a short week on the road, but as of right now I’m more than pleased with the job he’s done at quarterback.
The Panthers still need a solution at kicker
The Panthers have been in kicker purgatory ever since they picked Graham Gano over Harrison Butker. I’m not going to go over that decision again because you all know the deal, but the Panthers have struggled to find a kicker ever since. Joey Slye was fine, but then he got the yips. Ryan Santoso was alright, but not good enough to give up a draft pick for in a conditional trade. Zane Gonzalez was good a few years ago, but he seems to have lost his way ... or maybe kickers just don’t like kicking in Charlotte. I don’t know, but whatever it is, we need to find a solution to the problem.
Gonzalez was OK as far as kicking field goals is concerned, except for the part where he missed an extra point. I’m not going to hold the blocked kick against him because it wasn’t his fault. He gets a pass from me for the block, but my biggest concern is that he was unable to get the ball into the end zone on kickoffs. The Saints were able to have better field position the entire game because Gonzalez couldn’t kick it into the end zone, and while it didn’t end up mattering in the end, it’s something that could matter down the road.
The Panthers need to find a kicker who can make extra points, make long field goals and kick the ball into the end zone on kickoffs. One would think this wouldn’t be hard to do, but right now it appears the Panthers are incapable of finding the right guy for the job.
Carolina’s third quarter offense is still missing
The Panthers put up zero points in the third quarter again. They had three possessions: the aforementioned blocked field goal, the aforementioned interception, and a punt. I don’t know why the Panthers are opposed to scoring in the third quarter, but if they keep doing this they’re going to eventually get burned. You have to keep the foot on the gas and put other teams away when you build a big lead. The Panthers were leading 17-0 at halftime, and they had three opportunities to increase their lead and turn the game into a runaway. They went 0-for-3 in those opportunities. It’s not acceptable. Please fix it.
Speaking of things that need to be fixed...
Carolina’s red zone offense is still substandard (But there’s hope!)
The Panthers have a problem in the red zone, and they need to fix it. One possible solution would be to spread the offense out when they get inside the 5-yard line. I know that Matt Rhule and Joe Brady know a lot more about football than I do, but here’s a tip: you can run the football from a four-receiver set. It’s legal, and other teams do it all the time.
When you run the jumbo formation, the field narrows because the defense doesn’t need to put as many people out wide. When the field is also only five yards long, this creates a problem of too many bodies in a tight space. If you want to run the football out of the jumbo formation, you should at least have a guy who’s known to be a bruiser-type back. Royce Freeman is on the team and can fill that role, but if you’d rather have Christian McCaffrey out there (and you probably do because he’s great), then just spread the offense out a little and let CMC take advantage of space. It just might work out.
The Panthers had to settle for a 20-yard field goal in the first quarter because they couldn’t execute inside the 10-yard line (again). It didn’t matter in the end, but sometimes taking a 10-0 lead instead of a 14-0 lead will come back to bite you, and you don’t want to put yourself in a situation where you can lose based on failures earlier in the game. I will give the coaching staff credit, though: they did improve their play-calling the next time they were inside the 5-yard line, and it paid off with a 2-yard touchdown pass to DJ Moore. Going forward, let’s focus more on that and less on running up the middle out of the jumbo formation, please and thank you.
What stood out to you this week, Panthers fans? Tell us what you think in the comments!