Shorthanded Panthers prepare for big test

Carolina heads to Dallas missing three key players

Panthers running back Chuba Hubbard will take on an even bigger role with star running back Christian McCaffrey injured for the next few games, including in Carolina's visit to Dallas this Sunday. (Matt Patterson / AP Photo)

The Carolina Panthers have taken care of business so far this season. That business is about to get significantly more difficult.

The Panthers are 3-0 on the year, with victories over the winless Jets, the 2-1 Saints and a road win against the 1-2 Houston Texans. They’ve faced two rookie quarterbacks and had two home games.

This week, the difficulty level steps up as the Panthers travel to Dallas to face the NFC East-leading Cowboys.

The Cowboys have scored 90 points in three games — 17 more than any of Carolina’s previous three opponents. Dallas also has a plus-21 scoring differential. Carolina’s previous three foes have a combined minus-28.

Not only will the Panthers have to win a road game against an experienced playoff contender, but they’ll also have to stop an experienced quarterback and running back in Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott. And they’ll have to do it shorthanded.

The team’s undisputed MVP this season, Christian McCaffrey, left last Thursday’s game against the Texans with a hamstring strain.

Quarterback Sam Darnold put a scare into Panthers fans after the game, saying he was being optimistic and hoping McCaffrey would be back by the end of the season.

“(I told him) that I’m thinking of him and to take his time,” Darnold said. “We’ll be all right without him. Obviously, we want him back, but I want him to take his time right now and make sure he’s good for the end of the season. … Hopefully he will be. I’m being optimistic, but, yeah.”

On Monday, coach Matt Rhule calmed everyone’s nerves, announcing that McCaffrey likely wouldn’t have to be placed on injured reserve. He’ll still probably miss at least the next few games, however, which puts the Panthers at a disadvantage on offense.

“I thought we struggled a little bit,” Rhule said of the post-injury offense. “Got banged up a little bit. We got really tired. We threw four verticals, we pushed the ball down the field and then we got rushing yards from Tommy (Tremble) and Chuba (Hubbard) and those guys. … If there is anything to take away from it, I think Chuba and Royce (Freeman) stepped up and made plays.”

The team will need to depend heavily on rookie draft picks Tremble and Hubbard in McCaffrey’s absence.

“I told Chuba at halftime, ‘That’s why we drafted you, man,’” Rhule said.

“Just because Christian is out doesn’t mean I’m not going to go to the running back, you know what I mean?” Darnold said.

Despite the early success of the youngsters, the team clearly will miss the versatile threat McCaffrey presents a defense.

“Christian just can kind of do everything,” Rhule said. “I think the biggest thing he brings is they have to account for him in every passing rep. They can’t just double DJ (Moore), they can’t just double Robby (Anderson). They have to account for him. … Christian is amazing at his ability to win one-on-ones, so people have to zone everything off, and that creates a lot of windows for other people.”

“He’s a special player,” Darnold agreed. “I don’t know if there is any way to describe him. He’s someone who you can align anywhere, and I think the greatest way to see how great a player is by how a defense has to game plan for them. When Christian is out there, you can see when he starts to line up in different ways that defenses have certain checks for him when he’s out there. That’s a sign of a really good player.”

With Prescott and Elliott looming, the Panthers also have concerns on the defensive side of the ball. Rookie corner Jaycee Horn was injured in the Houston game as well.

“Sounds like Jaycee broke some bones in his foot,” Rhule said afterward, confirming that it was multiple bones. Horn is scheduled to undergo surgery this week and will likely be placed on the injured reserve, meaning he’ll miss several weeks before being eligible to return.

“I said to Jaycee in there, ‘You’ll be back. Don’t worry about it,’” Rhule said after the game. “Jaycee Horn is a special, special, special young man, special football player. So, we’ll get the other guys ready.”

One of those guys was on another roster at the time. The Panthers swung a trade earlier in the week, sending tight end Dan Arnold to Jacksonville for corner CJ Henderson.

Safety Juston Burris also went down with a groin injury and is expected to be out “a couple of weeks” according to Rhule.

That leaves the Panthers without two defenders and their top offensive player as they prepare for their toughest opponent to date. It’s time for the first big test of the season.