The expectation for the Carolina Panthers heading into the 2021 season weren’t particularly high. ESPN did a simulation of the Panthers’ schedule and projected they’d finish 5-12 and land the No. 1 pick in the draft.
The Panthers’ 19-14 Week 1 win over the Jets likely won’t change many minds, but it does represent a step in the right direction for a team hoping to prove it belongs in the playoffs conversation.
“We see the disrespect and we won’t let it go unnoticed,” Panthers linebacker Haason Reddick said after the win.
For weeks, throughout training camp and the preseason, there were questions about how Sam Darnold would play after struggling in 2020, whether the offensive line would hold up and just how good would the defense be.
Here’s what we learned from Week 1:
1. The defense is much improved
It’s hard to measure just how good the Panthers’ defense is compared to the rest of the league because it’s still early in the season and the Jets are not a particularly good team.
But we can talk about last season, and this Panthers defense is better than it was in 2020.
For one, their pass rush is better. It was a struggle for the Panthers in 2020 to get sacks. The Panthers didn’t have their first sack until Week 3.
On Sunday, all it took was five plays. Brian Burns came off the left edge untouched and sacked rookie quarterback Zach Wilson for a 9-yard loss.
“I don’t usually get freebies,” Burns said.
Six different players had a sack on Sunday, including Burns. Outside linebacker Haason Reddick had 1.5, rookie defensive tackle Dayvion Nixon had half a sack, and defensive tackle Derrick Brown, defensive end Marquis Haynes and linebacker Shaq Thompson had a sack each.
They also made the Jets one dimensional by stopping the run. The Panthers held the Jets to 45 yards rushing, which put pressure on the Jets’ rookie quarterback.
The Jets didn’t score their first points until the third quarter.
The Panthers were 18th in the league in total defense in 2020. They’re better this year, and it likely will be the unit that carries this team as long as the unit remains healthy.
2. Sam Darnold should be fine
One of the story lines heading into Sunday was Darnold’s revenge game against his former team, the Jets, who traded him three years after drafting him third overall in 2018.
Darnold was horrible in 2020. He threw nine touchdowns passes, 11 interceptions and completed less than 60% of his passes.
But on Sunday, he performed better than expected. He looked confident and poised, even when he was pressured. He finished with 279 yards passing, and two total touchdowns (one rushing, one passing). He also completed 68.5% of his passing attempts and had a 102 passer rating.
If Darnold continues to play the way he played Sunday, the Panthers won’t have much to worry about. It’ll just be up to the offensive line to keep defenders away from him.
“Coming into the game, I think I talked to (general manager) Scott (Fitterer) and I felt like he was the least of my concerns,” coach Matt Rhule said. “I wasn’t worried about Sam. He was locked in this whole week. I think he has played that well. I think people will just have to wait and see how he plays as we move forward.”
It helps to have weapons like Christian McCaffrey, Robby Anderson and DJ Moore, who all made plays Sunday. All Darnold needs to do is get the ball into their hands and allow them to make plays, which he did.
Darnold also showed that he can throw the deep ball — something he didn’t show much of last season. His 57-yard touchdown pass to Anderson in the second quarter was what the Panthers had been looking for.
3. Shaq Thompson’s number change
The biggest surprise of the game when linebackers Shaq Thompson and Jermaine Carter showed up to the game with new numbers.
This season, defensive players were allowed to wear single-digit numbers. They pay money to purchase their inventory. But most most players who made the decision to change their number, like DJ Moore, did so before training camp began.
Seeing No. 7 and No. 4 as linebackers had to be somewhat confusing for Wilson. Thompson and Carter wore No. 54 and No. 56, respectively, throughout the preseason.
When asked about Thompson and Carter’s number change, Rhule said the two came to him earlier in the week to talk about their interest in changing numbers.
“I think one got approved on Wednesday and the other got approved on Friday,” Rhule said. “There is no rule about when you tell that, so I didn’t see a reason to go announce it ahead of time.”
Said Thompson: “Yeah, not to say it like this but once seven was available in the back of my head I kinda just knew I wanted it. I have a respect for Will (Grier), and I didn’t want to do it right away but we had to wait on the NFL. It took a couple of days to get changed and accepted, so that was the whole reason why.”
Grier wore No. 7 before he was waived by the Panthers last month.
Thompson wore it in college at Washington. He thinks the number change had something to do with his performance Sunday. Thompson finished with 10 tackles, three pass deflections and an interception. It was his best performance of his seven-year career.
4. Red-zone and third-down woes
The Panthers were among the league’s worst teams in the red zone and on third down in 2020. They were 28th in the league in red-zone touchdown percentage, scoring a touchdown on only 50.9% of their red-zone trips. They were 24th in the NFL in third-down percentage, converting 39% of third downs.
And it was bad again Sunday.
In the second quarter with the score tied 0-0, the Panthers had the ball at the Jets’ 6-yard line with a chance to score, but Darnold fumbled the exchange to McCaffrey on fourth down when he bumped into fullback Giovanni Ricci. The Jets recovered.
On the next possession, the Panthers got the ball down to the Jets’ 3-yard line and settled for a 22-yard field goal.
The Panthers were 1 for 4 on red-zone touchdown opportunities, and were 4 for 14 on third-down attempts. The Panthers were worse than the Jets (4 of 13 on third down).
This is where they must get better.
“I feel like as an offense we didn’t capitalize as much as we should have,” Darnold said. “We should have scored more points.”
Darnold is right. The defense gave them great field position all game. Too often, they left points on the board.
5. Offensive line needs work
Darnold was sacked only once on Sunday for a 9-yard loss, but he was under constant pressure.
The Jets hurried him eight times, only two less than Wilson, who was hurried 10 times.
But Darnold was able to get the ball out each time. Time in the pocket was an issue for Darnold with the Jets, and it led to a lot of his bad habits with his foot work and comfort in the pocket.
The Panthers were without starting right guard John Miller and started Dennis Daley in his place. Daley is used to playing left guard. And left guard Pat Elflein, a former Jets offensive lineman, seemed to struggle, too.
He was called for a holding penalty in the first quarter and negated what would have been a big gain on a McCaffrey screen play.
“We had some struggles, kind of some whiffs on some pass pros,” Rhule said. “The deep play to Robby, we whiffed up front and Christian McCaffrey blocked the defensive tackle himself.
“I think Dennis (Daley) needed to play this game and kind of get his feet underneath him. Elflein came out of the game for a little bit. Dennis came out of the game for a little bit. Trent Scott went in and played. I’ll watch the tape and probably have a better feel on Monday in terms of where we are at. But overall, I thought they were solid.”
Eight quarterback pressures won’t cut it, though.