Panthers 26, Saints 7: Insta-reaction as Carolina’s swarming D makes ‘P’ word possible

·5 min read

The Carolina Panthers had one of those blue-sky afternoons where everything seems possible Sunday, throttling New Orleans, 26-7, on the strength of a fearsome defense.

Watching the 2-0 Panthers on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium you had to think: Yeah, the playoffs are possible for this group.

Quarterback Sam Darnold was very good again (305 yards passing) and the defense was great. The Panthers defense had four sacks — that makes 10 in two games. The Panthers also picked off Jameis Winston twice and managed to make New Orleans running back Alvin Kamara look ordinary.

Yes, the Saints were undermanned, missing seven starters and a slew of assistant coaches due to a combination of injuries and COVID-19 protocol. Still, they had smashed Green Bay by 35 points a week ago with Winston at quarterback, not allowing a single touchdown on defense and not allowing Winston to get sacked.

Carolina took care of all of that in the first quarter and rolled from there. The Panthers still have yet to trail all season entering Thursday night’s nationally televised road game at Houston.

There was one brief scare Sunday when Christian McCaffrey left the game and went back to the locker room in the third quarter, but it was only cramping issues and not something more serious. He returned to play in the fourth quarter and didn’t miss a step.

The Panthers had lost eight of their past nine games to the Saints, so any win against their NFC South rival would have been significant. This one came with the added bonus of Carolina thoroughly outplaying the Saints at home.

Carolina Panthers defensive end Morgan Fox, left and linebacker Haason Reddick, right, sack New Orleans Saints quarterback Jameis Winston during second quarter action at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC on Sunday, September 18, 2021.
Carolina Panthers defensive end Morgan Fox, left and linebacker Haason Reddick, right, sack New Orleans Saints quarterback Jameis Winston during second quarter action at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC on Sunday, September 18, 2021.

Again, the Panthers started the game at full speed and slowed down in the second half. They outscored the New York Jets 16-0 in Week 1; this time, it was 17-0 against the Saints at halftime. The teams then played a scoreless third quarter, and New Orleans finally got on the scoreboard in the fourth with a Winston scramble to make it 17-7. But McCaffrey’s first TD of the season with 5:53 to go sealed the game, putting Carolina up 23-7.

Red-zone fix

Although the Panthers have moved the ball well during the first two weeks, they were having trouble inside the 20. In Week 1, Darnold missed two open receivers on potential TD passes and also lost a fumble when he got too wide on an attempted handoff.

The Panthers scored on their first possession Sunday on a 20-yard strike from Darnold to little-used wide receiver Brandon Zylstra. However, that didn’t count as a red-zone play because it didn’t come from inside the 20.

Then came another possession in which McCaffrey had no room and got stuffed on third-and-goal from the 1, so Carolina kicked a short field goal. That made the Panthers officially 1-for-5 this season on touchdown percentage when advancing inside the 20. But they fixed it the next time. Instead of trying to batter through a stacked box on third-and-goal from the 2, Darnold threw out of an empty backfield and hit DJ Moore for a TD on a contested slant pattern.

The Panthers then converted again in the fourth quarter on McCaffrey’s 11-yard run.

Carolina Panthers defensive end Brian Burns, left and linebacker Haason Reddick, bottom, sack New Orleans Saints quarterback Jameis Winston during first quarter action at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC on Sunday, September 18, 2021.
Carolina Panthers defensive end Brian Burns, left and linebacker Haason Reddick, bottom, sack New Orleans Saints quarterback Jameis Winston during first quarter action at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC on Sunday, September 18, 2021.

Speaking of DJ Moore ...

Moore has become Carolina’s most effective third-down receiver, especially on slants. He had several big ones in this game with seven catches for 70 yards in the first half alone. Moore isn’t a big target by NFL standards — he’s listed at 6-0 and 210 — but he excels at catching the ball in traffic and then acting like a running back once he gets it.

In the end zone after his TD, Moore also offered a tribute to Brian Burns’ sack celebration, doing a Spider-Man pose.

Kicking woes continue

The Panthers’ kicking game continues to be an issue. Zane Gonzalez made field goals of 20 and 42 yards, but then had a 50-yard field goal blocked and returned to Carolina’s 38, something head coach Matt Rhule said later “just can’t happen.” And then in the fourth quarter, Gonzalez missed an extra point.

Gonzalez also obviously doesn’t have the strong leg of Joey Slye or Ryan Santoso, Carolina’s most recent two kickers. (Slye is now kicking for Houston; wouldn’t it be sadly ironic if he beat the Panthers with a field goal Thursday night?)

Gonzalez had three kickoffs in the first half and none reached the end zone, with New Orleans returner Deonte Harris returning the three for a total of 95 yards. A fourth-quarter kickoff reached only the 15.

Because Carolina picked Gonzalez off Detroit’s practice squad, he has to be on the active roster and must be paid for three weeks. That likely means he will kick at Houston and at Dallas in Carolina’s next two games, unless the Panthers want to waste another roster spot on another kicker. But his chances at a full-time job here seem iffy.

Panthers wide receiver Brandon Zylstra runs the ball into the end zone for a touchdown during the game against the Saints at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday, September 19, 2021 in Charlotte, NC.
Panthers wide receiver Brandon Zylstra runs the ball into the end zone for a touchdown during the game against the Saints at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday, September 19, 2021 in Charlotte, NC.

Small victories

Every win has a number of plays that don’t necessarily make the highlight films, and the Panthers had a number of those. Punt returner Alex Erickson made a big one when, after a wobbly Saints punt bounced off a Panther player, he made a sliding recovery of the ball inside his own 20 to avoid a big turnover. Also:

Rookie tackle Brady Christensen had another one when he made a big tackle after the chaos that followed Gonzalez’s blocked punt, stopping the Saints at Carolina’s 38 instead of allowing a potential cheap touchdown.

Cornerback Donte Jackson wasn’t tested much in the air, but his run support was superb. He also drew an offensive holding penalty.

Rashaan Melvin, just activated from the practice squad, was solid in coverage.

Defensive linemen Morgan Fox and DaQuan Jones were involved in a number of big plays.

Zylstra not only scored a TD, but also combined to help make the tackle on the ensuing kickoff. Zylstra had three catches for 44 yards.

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