It came at a cost, but the Panthers earned their third straight win on Thursday night — doing so on the road and with America watching.
Here’s how the Panthers (3-0) graded out in their win over the Houston Texans (1-2).
The Panthers had no choice but to rely on Sam Darnold in the last three quarters of Thursday’s contest, after star running back Christian McCaffrey exited with a hamstring injury early in the second quarter.
And the 24-year-old quarterback rose to the challenge.
He finished completing 23 of 34 passes for 304 yards and no interceptions.
Not only that: He appeared to play with poise and a command that he lacked with the New York Jets — a quality that was particularly on display after halftime when the offense lifted itself out of the McCaffrey-less doldrums.
In the final 12 minutes of the first half, after McCaffrey exited the game and didn’t return, the Panthers netted 17 total offensive yards. In the second half, though, the team adjusted and responded admirably — opening the second half by crunching three straight, time-consuming scoring drives.
That sequence, orchestrated in large part by Darnold, delivered the Panthers a control of the game they wouldn’t relinquish.
Darnold fed DJ Moore early and then spread the ball around to the rest of his receiving corps: Moore ended with eight catches on 12 targets for 126 yards; rookie Terrace Marshall added four catches on five targets for 48 yards; and Chuba Hubbard added three catches on five targets for 27 yards.
Darnold was also helped by a competent offensive line that, despite allowing three sacks, managed well against the Texans, particularly after they increased the pressure without the threat of McCaffrey in the backfield.
Through three games of the 2021 season, Darnold has proven to be the most consequential and successful investment general manager Scott Fitterer and head coach Matt Rhule have made in the pair’s early tenure together in Carolina. The quarterback has recorded 905 total yards and six total touchdowns in a Panthers uniform.
This section can be devoted to Darnold, too.
Carolina’s rushing attack started strong but was undoubtedly subdued after McCaffrey’s aforementioned exit, a fact illustrated when the Panthers (correctly) decided to run the ball on fourth-and-1 inside the Texans’ 10-yard line early in the first half to no avail.
That didn’t deter the Panthers from having a balanced attack, though: The team threw 34 times and ran 32 times.
Darnold accounted for eight of those carries, which resulted in 11 yards and two touchdowns. Hubbard came in for relief of McCaffrey and notched 10 carries for 46 yards, and Royce Freeman added five carries for 17 yards.
The Panthers scored all three of their touchdowns on the ground.
McCaffrey was productive before he exited the game. The running back notched nine touches for 40 total yards — a pace that would’ve sustained his borderline worrisome workload. (Coming into Thursday, McCaffrey had recorded 59 touches through two games.)
Red zone offense
Outside of that aforementioned early turnover on downs, the Panthers earned points every other time in the red zone. That included three scores (17 points) in four possessions in the second half.
The Panthers made Zach Wilson’s NFL debut “hell.” They made Jameis Winston, among the streakiest passers in the league, look indecisive and powerless.
They had their way with the opposing quarterback again Thursday.
Texans quarterback Davis Mills, who assumed the mantle after Texans starter Tyrod Taylor was ruled out with an injury last week, played admirably but was no match for one of the most aggressive defensive fronts in the league. He finished with only 168 yards passing and one touchdown.
The Panthers notched four more sacks Thursday, courtesy of defensive end Morgan Fox (0.5), defensive end Brian Burns (1), linebacker/defensive end Haason Reddick (1.5) and linebacker Frankie Luvu (1).
The win came at a substantial cost injury-wise, though, particularly in the Panthers’ secondary. Defensive back Juston Burris hopped gingerly off the field and 2021 first-round draft pick Jaycee Horn had to be helped off the field in the second half.
The defensive front looked impenetrable again on Thursday. The unit only allowed 42 yards on the ground — the Texans’ longest rushing play from scrimmage was seven yards.
Through three games, the Panthers have only allowed 135 rushing yards, an average of 45 yards per game.
Red zone defense
The Panthers only allowed one red zone possession, which ended in a Texans touchdown pass from one yard out. But the fact that they only allowed one trip at all says enough.
Carolina’s special teams wasn’t much of a factor on Thursday — and that, considering the Panthers’ kicking woes as of late, is a good thing. Zane Gonzalez hit an important but expected 21-yard field goal to extend the game’s score to 17-6 in the fourth quarter.
Rhule and company, on first watch, appeared to call a good game. That means that they were appropriately bold early — going for a touchdown on a fourth-and-1 in the red zone early in the second quarter — and appropriately safe later in the game when faced with a similar scenario.
It’s also worth applauding the staff and players for their halftime adjustments after McCaffrey’s injury. They’ll have their hands full next week depending on how the rest of these injury situations play out.