If the Panthers were going to be a playoff team this year, they needed to fix their pass rush.
Brian Burns was one of the few players getting after opposing quarterbacks last season, and when teams finally figured that out, they doubled him.
But it appears the Panthers (2-0) have found a solution.
For the second consecutive week, the Panthers got after the opposing quarterback. Last week, it was Jets rookie Zach Wilson. This week, it was the Saints’ Jameis Winston in a 26-7 win.
The Panthers sacked Winston four times and tallied 11 quarterback hurries. The pressure also caused him to throw two interceptions — one in the second quarter and another in the fourth. Both were attempts to avoid a sack, and neither had a chance to end in a completed pass.
And this was a week after the Saints didn’t allow a single sack against the Green Bay Packers in a 38-3 win. It was an impressive performance by a Panthers team that, just last year, was one of the worst teams in the league in generating pressure.
The Saints have the defense and offensive line to be a playoff team when healthy — and they showed that against the Packers in Week 1. But Sunday, they were dominated on both sides of the ball, falling out of a tie for first place in the NFC South, a spot that, for now, belongs in part to Carolina at 2-0.
Most teams that start the season 2-0 go to the playoffs. From 1990 to 2019, 62% of teams that start the season 2-0 went to the playoffs, according to USA Today. The Panthers started the 2017 season 2-0, which is also the most recent time they went to the playoffs.
“Yeah. Facts,” Burns said Sunday evening when asked if the Panthers were a playoff team. “I believe in these guys. I believe in myself.”
New Orleans was without eight starters Sunday. Among them were defensive backs C. J. Gardner-Johnson and Marshon Lattimore, who were announced as inactive shortly before kickoff. Star wide receiver Michael Thomas also missed the game, leaving Winston without a go-to target under pressure.
Winston, in his first season as the starter in New Orleans, taking over for the retired Drew Brees, completed 11 of 22 passes for 111 yards and rushed for the Saints’ lone score. Last week, he passed for five touchdowns.
A season ago under defensive coordinator Phil Snow, then in his first season, it took three games for the Panthers to record their first sack. They lacked depth on the defensive line, Kawann Short was injured early in the season, and Stephen Weatherly admitted he was complacent, and never played well.
Fast forward to 2021, and the Panthers went out and got what they needed to be a better team.
They signed linebacker Haason Reddick, who had 12.5 sacks in 2020, and Morgan Fox, who had six sacks.
Both were key in the Panthers’ win over the Saints. Reddick had 1.5 sacks and Fox had half a sack.
But Reddick, in particular, has made the Panthers better. His 2020 season was a breakout season, and many wondered whether he could replicate it.
So far, he has.
“They see the tape,” Reddick said in response to his critics.
He and Burns have a friendly bet going that whoever gets the most sacks this season will gift the other player a golf cart.
They talk about it often, and Reddick has the lead in the race. Burns isn’t far behind: He, too, had a sack Sunday, on a third down late in the fourth quarter where he wasn’t blocked.
This bodes well for the Panthers because some of their best teams got after the quarterback.
In 2013, when the Panthers finished the regular season 12-4, they led the league in sacks. In 2015, when they made it to the Super Bowl, they were sixth in NFL in sacks. And in 2017, when they finished the regular season 11-5, they were third in sacks.
Through the first two games this season, they have 10 sacks — the second-most the Panthers have recorded through the first two games in franchise history. They recorded 12 sacks through the first two games in 1998.
“Right now, we’re exceeding where I thought we could be and it’s surprising to me,” Reddick said. “But it’s a testament to the work we put in, in training camp, getting in here, gelling with each other and everyone committing to one goal. Just playing as hard as possible.”
The key for the Panthers’ pass rush, Reddick and Rhule said, is first stopping the run.
After holding the Jets to 46 yards rushing in Week 1, the Panthers held the Saints to 48 with only 5 yards on 8 carries for star running back Alvin Kamara.
That allowed the Panthers to get the Saints in third-and-long situations, forcing them to pass. The Saints were 2-for-11 on third down conversions. Six of those 11 third downs were third-and-8 or longer.
Two years ago, the Panthers were the worst team in the league at stopping the run, allowing 31 touchdowns rushing in 2019.
“It’s complimentary football,” Rhule said. “It’s getting pressure on second down. It’s guys covering, not having a ton of defensive penalties.”
The Panthers also owned the time of possession battle 38:32-21:28, which allowed their defense to rest more, while the Saints defense stayed on the field.
“When you are able to create three-and-outs and their defense doesn’t get really the breather that they might want, it’s easier for us to go out there and run the ball and have misdirection because they are a little bit more tired,” quarterback Sam Darnold said.
The Panthers are still having issues on offense, though, including in the red zone. Their second-half performances for two weeks in a row have been anything but impressive.
After throwing for 216 yards and two touchdowns in the first half Sunday, Darnold threw for 89 yards and an interception in the final two quarters. His interception came late in the third quarter when he was pressured by Saints safety P.J. Williams. Darnold tried to pitch it before he was hit, and defensive tackle Michael Roach intercepted it.
“I just tried to get it out to Chuba (Hubbard),” Darnold said. “It was a bad play. Tried to get it out to Chuba and should have just gone down or thrown it away.”
Had he not thrown the interception, the game likely would have been a shutout.
There’s no way to tell at Week 2 whether the Panthers will make the playoffs, but what is clear is that their defense has the potential to carry them there.