Darnold’s 2 TD passes, defense help Panthers stymie Saints

Carolina is 2-0 as the defense blanked its opponent in the first half for the second straight week

Saints quarterback Jameis Winston is sacked by Panthers defensive end Morgan Fox and outside linebacker Haason Reddick during Carolina's 26-7 win Sunday in Charlotte. (Jacob Kupferman / AP Photo)

CHARLOTTE — Sam Darnold threw for 305 yards and two touchdowns, and the Carolina defense turned in another strong performance in a 26-7 win over the New Orleans Saints on Sunday.

Darnold improved to 2-0 as Panthers starter, connecting on TDs to Brandon Zylstra and D.J. Moore as Carolina jumped to a 17-0 lead by outgaining the Saints 274-65 in the first half.

Christian McCaffrey added 137 yards from scrimmage and scored his first touchdown of the season as the Panthers defeated the Saints for only the second time in the last 10 tries.

Jameis Winston, who threw five TD passes in a 38-3 win over the Green Bay Packers in the season opener, was held to 111 yards passing, intercepted twice and sacked four times. Alvin Kamara was limited to 5 yards on eight carries as the Saints struggled with five of the team’s offensive coaches out due to COVID-19 protocols. In all, the Saints were missing eight assistant coaches cue to COVID-19.

The Panthers outgained the Saints 383-128 for the game and had 28 first downs to New Orleans’ 6. The Saints’ total yards are their fewest ever under Sean Payton since he took over as coach in New Orleans.

For the second straight week, the Panthers’ defense set the tone by pitching a shutout in the first half. Carolina has outscored its two opponents 33-0 in the opening half.

The Panthers used rollouts and bootlegs to free up Darnold and the fourth-year quarterback responded well. On the game’s first score Darnold rolled out on a bootleg and found an open Zylstra for a 20-yard TD pass. He completed several other passes on the run, including a strike to tight end Dan Arnold to set up another score.

Darnold was solid, but not perfect.

The Panthers were in complete control until late in the third quarter when Darnold nearly allowed the Saints back in the game. He attempted a shovel pass that defensive end Malcolm Roach intercepted and returned to the Carolina 18. Winston cashed in five plays later with an 8-yard touchdown run to cut Carolina’s lead to 17-7.

But the Panthers regained their composure and put the Saints away after McCaffrey returned to the game following missing two series with leg cramping. He scored on an 11-yard run.

Carolina’s offensive line took a hit in the game when left guard Pat Elflein left in the second quarter with a hamstring injury and did not return. He was replaced by Dennis Daley. The Panthers play their first road game of the season Thursday night in Houston.