The Panthers are 3-0 for the first time since 2015.
Yes, the Super Bowl year.
And although their opponents were not playoff teams — with the exception of the Saints — they’ve won in dominating fashion.
The Panthers haven’t trailed in any of the three games they’ve played. And until last Thursday’s game against the Texans — when they lost Christian McCaffrey, Jaycee Horn and Juston Burris — they were one of the healthiest teams in the NFL. It’s still early, but the Panthers are certainly capable of making the playoffs. Here are five takeaways from the first three games of the season:
1. Backups will have to step up
The injuries have started to pile up for the Panthers.
McCaffrey, Burris and Horn all went down in Thursday’s game. Horn broke three bones in his foot and may not return at all. McCaffrey and Burris will likely return with hamstring and groin injuries, respectively, but there’s a possibility that both could go on injured reserve soon.
In that case, some of the Panthers’ younger and less-experienced players will have to step up.
Second year safety Sam Franklin started in four games in 2020 when Burris missed time last season. He’ll likely play more again.
Rookie running back Chuba Hubbard showed potential when he replaced McCaffrey in the second half of last Thursday’s game. He rushed for 52 yards, averaging 4.7 yards per carry. Where he’ll need to get better is in pass protection and catching the ball.
McCaffrey is an underrated pass blocker and a 1,000-yard receiver. Hubbard doesn’t have to do that, but he’ll need to catch the easy passes, be solid on the ground and protecting the quarterback.
Coach Matt Rhule said he expects veteran cornerback A.J. Bouye to play and fill in for Horn in Week 4.
2. Panthers need to get Robby Anderson the ball
Robby Anderson, who before this season signed a $29.5 million contract extension with the Panthers, hasn’t been much of a factor outside his 57-yard touchdown catch in Week 1.
In fact, he has five catches for 103 yards and the touchdown in three games. He’s only been targeted 11 times.
“We have to get Robby going as an offense,” Rhule said. “Against the Saints, we had a couple of deep shots to him. We didn’t quite connect on it. If you watch the tape last night, he’s open quite a bit and the ball’s not getting to him. And the ball has been spreading around to a lot of different people. So I think as a coaching staff we have to emphasize it. He’s too good of a player to not be affecting the game.”
The Panthers are using him differently this season as a opposed to last year. Last year, Anderson ran a lot of crossing routes, which allowed him to get into space and separate from his defenders. This year, he has been involved in a lot of deeper routes.
Last season, he had 15 catches for 278 yards through the first three games. With McCaffrey out through at least Week 4, the Panthers will need to find a way to get one of their best players the ball.
“He has to be frustrated because he’s such a good player, such a good teammate,” Rhule said. “He’s not really getting involved. The ultimate goal is winning, but I think getting everyone involved will help us win.”
3. This defense is one of the best in the league
Sure, two of the Panthers’ three wins have come against two of the worst teams in the league in 2020.
But the Panthers are winning those games, and their defense is dominating. They allow 191 total yard per game, which is No. 1 in the NFL. That includes the fewest rushing yards per game (45), fewest passing yards per game (146) and the fewest points (10).
This Panthers’ defense is much better than it was in 2020. Much of that credit should go to the Panthers defensive line and adding players like defensive tackle DaQuan Jones, defensive end Morgan Fox and edge rusher Haason Reddick.
Defensive end Brian Burns, defensive tackle Derrick Brown have noticeably improved.
Teams haven’t been able to run the ball on the Panthers. They’ve been forced to throw it, which has allowed them to get after the quarterback.
Through three games, the Panthers have 13 sacks. The defense, if it stays healthy, can carry the Panthers to the playoffs.
4. Sam Darnold isn’t the player we thought he was
The film on Darnold showed a quarterback with bad mechanics who sometimes threw passes that he should not have thrown. He was sacked often and lacked the weapons necessary to win games.
But in the three games Darnold has played, he’s looked like a totally different player.
Darnold already has three games with 275 yards passing or more, including two 300-yard passing games. His season-high in 2020 was 266 yards passing.
While it wasn’t pretty statistically, Darnold’s performance against the Texans was perhaps his most impressive. McCaffrey went out a hamstring injury early in the second quarter, and Darnold helped lead the team to a 24-9 win.
“I think No. 1, if you watch the way we called the game, it means we trust him,” Rhule said. “Sam, he has some moxie. ... Again, it’s just him playing within the system, but also I think he has a courageousness, but he’s not crossing the line going over the top. He’s protecting the football and still pushing the ball down there.”
Through three games, Darnold has completed 68.2% of his passes, has thrown for 888 yards, three touchdowns and an interception, and rushed for three touchdowns.
But the biggest stat for Darnold this season is this: Three wins.
That’s more than he won in all of 2020.
5. DJ Moore is a No. 1 wide receiver
Before this season, the biggest question was whether Moore could take a step up and become the receiver teams game plan against.
Through three games, he’s answered that question.
Moore has been Darnold’s go-to target through three games. He has 22 catches for 285 yards and a touchdown.
Moore does need to become more of a red-zone threat. The biggest knock against Moore in his previous three years, was Moore not getting into the end zone. He had 10 receiving touchdowns in his first three seasons.
He has only one touchdown this season, too. But he has been one of the Panthers best players this year and one of the better receivers in the league. He had eight catches for 126 yards against the Texans.
If the Panthers can somehow get Anderson going without taking away from Moore, the Panthers can be a dangerous offense.
The Panthers picked up the fifth-year option on Moore’s contract this past offseason. He should be the Panthers’ primary focus on trying to get signed after this year.