CHARLOTTE – Sam Darnold threw a pair of touchdown passes and the Carolina Panthers defense swarmed New Orleans Saints quarterback Jameis Winston from a variety of angles in an overwhelming 26-7 win for the home team.
The Panthers defense sacked Winston four times, and forced two interceptions as the former Buccaneers quarterback reverted to the form Carolina had been used to in their intertwined history. Winston threw five picks the last time he took the field against the Panthers.
“We played man-to-man defense today, I think we played really well up front, and I think [Defensive Coordinator] Phil [Snow] called an amazing game,” Panthers Head Coach Matt Rhule said. “He was bringing pressures, and showing pressure coming from the other side, I was proud of that part of the game.”
A growing theme during the young season has been the Panthers’ potent pass rush, and Sunday was no different. The Panthers hit Winston 11 times during the afternoon, including four sacks. Juston Burris snagged an interception to derail the Saints’ best threat in the first half, and Jaycee Horn recorded his first career pick to seal the victory late.
Haason Reddick had his second straight game with 1.5 sacks, putting him a one-half sack head of teammate Brian Burns who earned another sack of his own Sunday.
Carolina scored on its first drive in a five-play, 75 yard drive capped by a 20-yard touchdown pass from Darnold to unsung hero Brandon Zylstra. DJ Moore continued his good chemistry with Darnold, collecting his longest catch of the day on the opening drive (20 yards), one of his eight on the afternoon.
Moore caught Darnold’s other score right at the two-minute warning, a two-yard slant route that worked virtually all day against rookie cornerback Paulson Adebo. Darnold credited the pair’s chemistry to some tireless offseason work.
“You know, DJ (Moore) is a really good player. He is going to find a way to get open and that’s kind of his thing,” Darnold said. “Whenever he gets man coverage, even in the zones, he can find those spots. That’s really how everyone plays, but DJ especially.”
New Orleans came into the day with eight assistant coaches missing due to COVID health and safety protocols, and missing five top defenders including DT David Onyemata (suspension), CB Marshon Lattimore (thumb), DE Marcus Davenport (shoulder), LB Kwon Alexander (elbow), & CJ Gardner-Johnson (knee).
Despite the dominating margin of victory, Carolina once again came out passive to start the second half. A Winston touchdown at the start of the fourth quarter contributed to some nervous energy among the 70,675 ticketed fans at Bank of America Stadium.
Christian McCaffrey punctuated the victory with an 11-yard touchdown run at the 6:00 mark of the fourth quarter to put the game out of reach. McCaffrey gutted out a gritty performance with 137 yards on 29 touches amid fighting some leg cramps during the second half. Rhule said he was not worried about McCaffrey’s status for this week.
Darnold had his second solid game to start his Panthers’ career, throwing for 305 yards. His day was not without a blemish, however, as he threw an interception on a shovel pass which he admitted he should have held on to.
“I just tried to get it out to Chuba, it was a bad play,” Darnold said. “[I] should have just gone down or thrown it away.”
Carolina improved to 2-0 for just the eighth time in 27 seasons, seven of which have ended with a trip to the playoffs. Rhule downplayed the significance of the fast start.
“It just means we’re 1-0 this week, gotta get ready for next week,” Rhule said. “There’s a lot of things still to improve upon. There’s also a lot of great things that happened. It’s just about trying to improve this week. It’s a short week, the Texans are a good team, it’s going to be hard.”
The Panthers have a quick turnaround this week as they play the Houston Texans on Thursday Night Football at 8 PM. Carolina will need some answers on injuries from LG Pat Elflein (hamstring) & DE Yetur Gross-Matos (ankle) among others.