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Panthers snap 10-game losing streak and get first win in the Rhule era against the Chargers

By Zach Goins

AP Photo/Alex Gallardo

September 27, 2020

For the first time in 329 days, the Carolina Panthers won a football game. Sunday’s 22-16 victory over the Chargers delivered head coach Matt Rhule the first victory of his young NFL career, and allowed fans across the Carolinas to breathe a much-needed sigh of relief.

“I was proud. I was really excited for those guys,” Rhule said following the victory. “You know, they play hard, and at the end, they found a way to make it happen. It wasn’t some magical call. It was an ugly win, but it was a win nonetheless.”

With star running back Christian McCaffrey sidelined due to a high ankle sprain, questions surrounded how the Panthers would produce points in Los Angeles, but the answer came in the form of kicker Joey Slye. The offense may have been underwhelming, but the defense forced three turnovers and Slye’s right leg delivered five field goals to lead Carolina to victory.

“Coach Rhule was trusting me in every spot that we had,” Slye said. “They put their hands up for the field goal, I’m just going out and locking in and going. That was kind of my only mindset today.”

Here are some takeaways from Sunday’s win:

The Thieves strike early

After failing to force any turnovers in their first five quarters this season, the Panthers defense finally began to turn the tide with two against the Bucs last week. That streak continued into Sunday’s game against the Chargers, as Carolina forced three first-half turnovers. 

The turnover party began when defensive end Brian Burns made his way into the backfield and recorded a strip-sack on quarterback Justin Herbert to set up Carolina deep in Los Angeles territory. 

“Going into this week, the preparation was get after the quarterback, get after the quarterback, perfect our moves,” Burns said. “Honestly, my mindset on that strip-sack was run, but Shaq Thompson yelled behind me, ‘Pass, pass, play action!’ I pinned my ears back and I went, so I give all credit to him.”

In the second quarter, linebacker Shaq Thompson punched the ball away from Chargers’ running back Joshua Kelley, then just before halftime cornerback Donte Jackson intercepted a Herbert pass and returned it 66 yards to the 8-yard-line. The interception marked Jackson’s second in as many weeks.

The turnovers proved critical to helping the Panthers build their first-half lead, as the Chargers managed to move the ball fairly well, but ultimately could not maintain possession and produce points. 

Offensive failures in the red zone

Thanks to all those turnovers, the Panthers’ offense was blessed with excellent starting field position throughout the first half. Unfortunately, though, the unit was rarely able to convert touchdowns.

“I said that this week, I said, ‘Hey, the game’s going to come down to our ability in the red zone. They’re a bend but don’t break (team),’” Rhule said of the Chargers defense. “We did not execute it at the level we want.”

After punting on their opening possession, the Panthers settled for field goals on each of their next three drives, despite moving the ball inside the Chargers’ 15-yard-line each time. What appeared to be a well-oiled machine on offense seemed to hit a brick wall each time it entered the red zone. 

Late in the second quarter it looked like the Panthers would be settling for another three points after stalling in the red zone as kicker Joey Slye knocked through another field goal. However, an illegal formation penalty on the Chargers gave Carolina new life on offense– one play later, the Panthers were finally in the end zone thanks to a 13-yard pass from quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to running back Mike Davis. 

Just before the half following Jackson’s near pick-six, the Panthers again found themselves knocking on the door of the end zone. With just eight seconds left on the clock, the offense didn’t have many attempts to score a touchdown. One pass to wide receiver Robby Anderson fell short, so another field goal was added to the scoreboard. 

Things didn’t get better in the second half. Carolina didn’t reach the red zone until early in the fourth quarter, but the result was the same: a stalled drive and a Slye field goal. 

Points are points, yes, but it’s hard to feel confident in an offense that can’t convert from 15 yards out.

So, how do you fix the red zone struggles? Bridgewater makes it sound simple.

“We just have to spend more time in practice down there. That’s what it is,” Bridgewater said. “We have to have that mindset that everything happens faster, whether it’s running routes, me making decisions, being able to run the ball down there also. So, we’ve just got to put more of an emphasis on it.”

Jeremy Chinn continues to impress

When the Panthers passed on Clemson standout hybrid defender Isaiah Simmons in April’s draft, fans questioned the strategy, but Rhule and company knew what they were doing when picking up Chinn in the second round. Hailing from Southern Illinois University, Chinn was heralded by scouts as a carbon copy of Simmons, just without the hype. 

Well, he’s certainly lived up to that reputation through three games. Against the Chargers Chinn ranked second on the defense for the third week in a row, notching 11 tackles and adding a quarterback hit. In Weeks 1 and 2 Chinn tallied eight and six tackles, respectively.

Panthers rookie safety Jeremy Chinn postgame Zoom press conference.

The rookie’s most impressive play came late in the third quarter on a key stop on third down to halt a Chargers drive and force a field goal. L.A. running back Austin Ekeler caught a screen pass outside, but Chinn had sniffed out the play and brought Ekeler down for a 3-yard loss.

As impressive as Chinn has proven to be so far, though, he knows he’s still got a lot to learn– and so does the rest of the defense.

“We’re learning still. It’s still a whole new defense for everybody,” Chinn said. “Just continue to learn and learn, get more comfortable as the weeks go by. It’s definitely a learning process, so I’m excited to keep on continuing to get better for the defense.”

For what it’s worth, Simmons was drafted by the Cardinals, but has seen limited action due to the depth of Arizona’s veteran defense. 

Where is that high-powered offense we were promised?

It’s only Week 3, but Carolina’s offense has been thoroughly unimpressive so far this year. No one expected the Panthers to dominate games or even win many, but offensive coordinator Joe Brady and his players promised an exciting, high-scoring offense. 

Sure, the Panthers still won. Yes, Christian McCaffrey was out. But with so many weapons on offense– DJ Moore, Robby Anderson and Curtis Samuel at wideout– scoring one touchdown is unacceptable. 

This isn’t an isolated event, though. Against the Bucs last week Carolina only managed 17 points– 10 of which came in the fourth quarter. In Week 1 the team put up 30 points in a loss to the Raiders, but again, 14 of those came with an offensive explosion in the game’s final quarter.

There has yet to be any sort of consistency on the offensive side of the ball, instead settling for sporadic explosive plays here and there that oftentimes cover up for some of the less-than-stellar stats. 

For all the hype put into Brady’s hiring and the talent on offense, they still seem to be far from what was promised.

Watch the Panthers vs. Chargers full game highlights.

The Panthers will take on the Arizona Cardinals in Charlotte on Sunday, October 4.

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