Panthers back in the NFC South race after impressive win against the Cardinals

 By Zach Goins 

AP Photo/Brian Blanco

October 4, 2020

Things are suddenly looking up for the Panthers after Carolina notched its second straight victory on Sunday against Arizona.

Whether it was the return of fans to Bank of America Stadium or the positive momentum built from last week’s win, something went right to lead to the 31-21 victory. 

In a year where the Panthers were expected to settle for a rebuild and fall towards the bottom of the league rankings, Carolina is now 2-2 and right in the thick of things in the NFC South. Despite the predictions from the media and many fans, no one inside Bank of America Stadium ever had a rebuild in their plans for 2020.

“I’ve never even thought about no rebuild, nothing. I just know the guys that we have in the locker room are special,” defensive end Brian Burns said after the win. “I really can’t explain it, but everything is just starting to click. We just need to keep this momentum and keep it going, because I really don’t feel like we’ve scratched the surface yet, to be honest.”

Here are some takeaways from Sunday’s win:

A complete turnaround on offense

Last week, the Panthers struggled on third down and had minimal success in the red zone, often settling for field goals. It was clear this week everyone knew the offense needed improvement in those areas. Well, the extra focus paid off, because it looked like a brand new team in black and blue on Sunday.

In the first half, Carolina converted 5-of-6 third or fourth down attempts to keep drives moving. As expected, that led to success in the red zone where the Panthers scored touchdowns on all three first-half trips.

“I thought our guys played great situational football,” head coach Matt Rhule said. “I think it started with our offensive line keeping guys clean. I thought it was some huge, huge catches by Curtis (Samuel) and DJ (Moore) and Robby (Anderson) and Seth (Roberts) and Ian (Thomas) had some great catches today. So, I just thought it was a whole collective team effort.”

The offensive efficiency carried over into the second half, as the Panthers punched it in again on their next trip inside the 20. By keeping the chains moving and extending drives, Carolina racked up a 14-minute time of possession advantage and 30 first downs.

“We really didn’t come into this game saying, ‘Oh, we want to keep the ball away from those guys,’” quarterback Teddy Bridgewater said of the lopsided time of possession numbers. “We wanted to have an aggressive approach, although we just had an opportunity where we just kept drives alive, we converted on third downs and stayed on the field.” 

The success was particularly impressive considering Arizona entered the matchup with the league’s No. 1 third down defense, allowing conversions on just 28.6% of third downs.

Carolina finished the game 8-of-12 on third and fourth down.

Defense steps up

On the flip side, the Panthers defense played its best game yet Sunday. With offensive threats like Kyler Murray at quarterback and DeAndre Hopkins at wide receiver, slowing down the Cardinals is no easy task– but the Carolina defense rose to the occasion. 

“They tackled really well. Not a lot of blown assignments,” Rhule said. “We were able to mix up our coverages, play different things, and that to me was a real key. If you give a guy like Kyler Murray one defense, he’s going to find the holes in it, so being able to mix and match what we were doing was really important.”

The unit forced one turnover when rookie defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos recorded a strip sack on Murray in the third quarter, but their domination extended beyond just turnovers. 

“That was a big sack and a big play that we needed, because they were driving the ball pretty successfully,” Burns said of Gross-Matos’ strip-sack. “That was a big turnover for him. His first sack was a strip sack at a clutch time.”

The defense held Arizona to just 262 total net yards– the lowest of any opponent this season–  and the Cardinals’ running backs combined for just 51 rushing yards. Murray had a bit more success, rushing for 78 yards on his own, but the quarterback was limited through the air for the most part. Hopkins was held to just seven receptions for 41 yards, while future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald had only two catches for four yards.

Gross-Matos wasn’t the only rookie to step up, though. First-round pick Derrick Brown added two tackles, including an impressive tackle for loss while Jeremy Chinn impressed once again, with a team-high eight tackles. 

“I think we have a really good group, a group that’s hungry. Everybody’s chomping at the bit to get on the field, make a play, to help this team,” Gross-Matos said of his rookie class. “I think it’s a group that helps each other get better every week.”

No McCaffrey, no problem

Of course, every offense would love to have a player like Christian McCaffrey at its disposal, but the Panthers were just fine without their All Pro running back on Sunday.

New starter Mike Davis and back up Reggie Bonnafon split the running back duties and helped the offense tally 168 yards on the ground. Davis got things started in the first quarter scoring Carolina’s first points of the day on a 1-yard plunge into the endzone. 

The duo proved effective on the ground and through the air, as Davis hauled in five passes for 27 yards and Bonnafon added two for 18 yards and a touchdown.

The rest of the offense played its part, too. Wide receiver Robby Anderson led the way with eight catches for 99 yards, and Bridgewater once again proved himself to be a field general, facilitating the ball to eight different receivers and completing 26-of-37 passes for 276 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. 

The Panthers take on the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, October 11 at 1 p.m. in Atlanta.

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