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Grading the Carolina Panthers in their Week 2 win over the New Orleans Saints

·4 min read

Carolina earned a dominant win over NFC South rival New Orleans on Sunday afternoon in Bank of America Stadium.

Here’s an at-first-glance look at how the Panthers (2-0) graded out in Sunday’s win over the Saints (1-1).

Passing offense

If Sam Darnold was good enough against the Jets — showing flashes of talent and largely avoiding the “big mistake” — then the Panthers’ quarterback was fantastic on Sunday.

Against the Saints, Darnold was confident. Reliable.

Even a bit creative.

On one play specifically, on a critical drive with just under three minutes left in the first half, the pocket collapsed around him and it looked like he might get stripped of the ball. But he somehow navigated out of the mess and found tight end Dan Arnold for 17 yards. (That led to a touchdown connection between Darnold and DJ Moore, who ended his day with eight catches for 79 yards and a touchdown.)

Darnold finished 26 of 38 for 305 yards and two touchdowns and one interception.

Darnold’s pass protection was serviceable for most of the game, other than one play late in the third quarter where Saints safety PJ Williams attacked Darnold untouched and forced an errant throw, which turned into an interception by lineman Malcolm Roach.

And his receivers? They were adequate, too. They ended up making a lot of plays after their respected catches, a product of the dip-and-dunk passing plays called in from the sideline. Among those benefactors: Christian McCaffrey (five catches, 65 yards), Arnold (three catches, 55 yards), Robby Anderson (three catches, 38 yards) and Brandon Zylstra (three catches, 44 yards and one touchdown).

Grade: A-

Rushing offense

McCaffrey affirmed for a second straight week that he’s not only exciting but reliable.

When he’s on the field, that is.

McCaffrey briefly exited Sunday’s game late in the third quarter with cramping, per a Panthers spokesperson. By that point, he’d already accumulated 17 carries for 58 yards and four catches for 56 yards — a tantalizing stat line but one that probably made Panthers fans cringe, particularly ones who are concerned about McCaffrey’s longevity. (It’s worth noting that it was at this point last season — late in the third quarter of 2020’s second game — that McCaffrey became de-facto “out for the season.”)

That said, McCaffrey returned at the beginning of the fourth and even notched his first touchdown of the young 2021 season — further cementing his spot as the focal point of the Panthers’ offense. (He finished with 24 carries for 72 yards and a touchdown.)

Grade: A-

Red zone offense

The Panthers’ red zone struggles dampened on Sunday.

A week after they only scored one touchdown on four trips in the red zone against the Jets, the Panthers looked much better in those short-yardage situations against the Saints — finishing 2 for 3 on touchdowns when they had a first down inside the 20. (They, of course, scored once on the 20 via a Brandon Zylstra 20-yard touchdown catch to open the game’s scoring.)

Grade: B+

Passing defense

Many thought the Panthers’ passing defense would be tested Sunday after New Orleans Saints quarterback Jameis Winston lit up the Packers in Week 1 with his arm.

But Carolina had a field day again.

The Panthers only allowed 111 passing yards and notched four sacks, four hurries and two interceptions, including one from first-round pick and rookie Jaycee Horn that effectively ended the game. Defensive end Brian Burns and linebacker/defensive end Haason Reddick and others treated the Saints’ offensive line like a turnstile.

Grade: A

Rushing defense

The Panthers only allowed 48 yards rushing and one touchdown — and that touchdown came via a Winston scramble. Carolina’s defense, two games in, looks impenetrable.

Grade: A

Red zone defense

The defense only allowed one score in the red zone (and one score at all) on Sunday, and even that one really deserves to be charged to the offense. It came after that aforementioned Darnold interception late in the third quarter.

Grade: A

Special teams

Head coach Matt Rhule called it the “woes of the kicking game.”

A week after cutting one kicker (Ryan Santoso), the Panthers’ new kicker didn’t have a shiny performance: Zane Gonzalez hit two field goals, one from 20 yards out and one from 42, but had one field goal blocked and missed an extra point.

The Panthers also notched no touchbacks on six kickoffs Sunday.

Grade: C

Coaching

Rhule didn’t draw the ire of many Panther fans on Sunday against their NFC South rival (unlike last week). A lot of that has to do with the final score.

But there are still several outstanding questions the coach will need to address in future weeks: Is there a way to play McCaffrey less and preserve his health? Will the Panthers change their red zone strategy in the long-term, being more willing to throw the ball inside the 5-yard line?

And seriously: Is there something about Bank of America Stadium that repels a good Carolina kicking game?

Grade: A-

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