The Carolina Panthers defense has been the best in the league through the first two weeks of the season. They rank first in passing yards allowed per game, rushing yards allowed per game, total yards allowed per game, and points allowed per game. Their defensive DVOA is -50.2%, an unsustainably insane metric that is basically twice as good as any defense has ever scored in that statistic for a whole season.
Those numbers are heavily influenced by the performance this defensive group put forth on Sunday. They sacked Jameis Winston four times (giving them a league high 10 through two games) and limited the Saints to just three yards per play. The Saints offense never drove into scoring range—their touchdown drive started in the redzone after a Sam Darnold interception, and their next closest play to the end zone was from the Panthers 33 yard line after a blocked field goal.
This defense is bound to come back down to Earth at some point, at least a little bit, and that might even start tonight. Thursday night games are notorious for being weird, and defenses seem to struggle a little bit more with the short week to prepare and recuperate. That said, the Texans aren’t exactly an offensive juggernaut, especially given their quarterback situation.
Starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor is on injured reserve with a hamstring injury. That thrusts rookie third round pick Davis Mills into the spotlight. Mills came on in relief of Taylor in the second half of the Texans game against the Browns and went 8-of-18 for 102 yards with one touchdown, one interception, and one fumble. Walker wrote a whole piece about him, and the crux of that piece will lead us to the first of our keys to the Panthers defense this week.
- Make Davis Mills uncomfortable. As this wonderful scouting report on Battle Red Blog illustrates. Mills is not the best quarterback at handling pressure. He runs himself into sacks and doesn’t feel his way through the pocket very well. On top of that, his accuracy is shaky at best, and playing under pressure only compound that problem. The Panthers have been relentless getting after the quarterback so far this season, and continuing that against a third round rookie making his first career start should allow them to feast on the back end.
- Stop the run on early downs to force the Texans to put the ball in Davis Mills’ hands. On 1st and 2nd Down in play-neutral situations (first and third quarters with the game within score), the Texans run the ball 57% of the time, good for the fifth highest rate in the NFL. They average 2.8 yards per carry on those runs. They feature a backfield full of former fantasy RB2’s in Mark Ingram, Philip Lindsay, and David Johnson, with Ingram handling the workhorse duties. None of them have been particularly efficient on the ground while the Panthers are fresh off a complete shutdown of Alvin Kamara. Stuffing the inevitable runs on the early downs will set the Panthers up to pin their ears back and rush Davis Mills on 3rd and long, and they should have a field day with that.
- Shade coverage to Brandin Cooks. Last week, 10 Texans pass catchers were targeted at least once. Nine of those pass catchers received two targets or fewer. The one exception—Brandin Cooks and his 14 targets. For the season, Cooks has three-and-a-half times as many targets as any other Texans players. The Texans have gotten the occasional big play from the other members of the supporting cast, but Cooks is the go-to guy. We saw Jaycee Horn do some shadowing last week, and Cooks should probably get that same treatment this week.
The Panthers defense should be able to handle the Texans offense fairly easily, but these are the Carolina Panthers on a Thursday night, and these Texans can be frisky.