More questions than answers as Panthers return home

A bad game from Carolina’s defense adds uncertainty

Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold will need to handle pass-rushing pressure better than he did against Dallas if Carolina is going to be successful with star running back Christian McCaffrey out of the lineup. (Roger Steinman / AP Photo)

The Carolina Panthers return home on Sunday after two weeks away. When the Panthers headed into their Texas road trip of back-to-back games at Houston and Dallas, they were an undefeated team with a dominant defense and questions on how much to trust the early success on offense.

As they return to Bank of America Stadium, the Panthers are no longer unbeaten, and there are now some red flags on defense as well.

“Our rush defense has been our sort of calling card,” coach Matt Rhule said after the Panthers lost to Dallas on Sunday. “We were not able to stop the run today, not able to get to the quarterback. Not able to take the ball away.”

After holding each of their first three opponents to fewer than 50 rushing yards, the Panthers watched the Cowboys run wild on them, giving up 245 yards on the ground, a 7.2 yards-per-rush average.

The Cowboys’ ground game was led by Ezekiel Elliott, who ran for 143 yards on 20 carries, including a touchdown.

“I think the tale of the day is just Zeke running the football,” Rhule said. “I think he had 10 carries for 49 yards at the half, so he was averaging 4.9 yards per carry, and then in the second half, just some of these runs.”

A pass rush that sacked opposing quarterbacks 14 times in the first three weeks also couldn’t reach Dak Prescott, who passed for four touchdowns. To a man, the Panthers’ coaches and defensive players said that the problem with the pass rush started with the defense’s inability to stop the run.

The defense will need to find answers while also scrambling to possibly replace a key piece of the unit. Linebacker Shaq Thompson went down with a foot injury. While the team hasn’t made any announcement about his availability for Sunday and beyond, they did make a roster move early in the week to add another linebacker from the practice squad. Several media outlets reported that Thompson was expected to miss “some time” but won’t be put on injured reserve.

On the other side of the ball, the jury is still out on the offense. Sam Darnold has avoided the disastrous games that were the hallmarks of his Jets career, and he has shown an ability to run the ball, leading the NFL in touchdown rushes with five after running it in twice on Sunday. He faced pressure from the pass rush for the first time against the Cowboys, though, and that led to the Panthers’ second-half struggles.

Darnold was sacked five times on Sunday, nearly doubling his season total up to that point. He was also hit 11 times after taking an average of five a week through three games. He responded by completing just 14 of 23 (60.9%) in the second half, following a 12-of-16 performance early.

“Any time Sam has time, he’s going to make a lot of really good decisions,” Rhule said. “If he doesn’t have time, it’s not quite as good. Dak had a lot of time and Sam didn’t.”

Even more troubling, Darnold threw a pair of bad interceptions in the third quarter, both of which led to Dallas scoring drives as the Cowboys built a 22-point lead.

“Obviously, there are balls I shouldn’t throw,” Darnold said. “(Dallas’ Trevon Diggs) was just waiting for that second one. On the first one, he was just reading my eyes the whole time.”

“I’d like to see us respond a little quicker,” Rhule said of the third-quarter meltdown. “I think we just kind of let a bad play turn into a bad drive turn into a whole bad quarter.”

With Christian McCaffrey out after going down to a hamstring injury in the Houston game, the Dallas defense didn’t have the same concern for the Panthers’ run game to worry about. That allowed the Cowboys to focus on pressuring Darnold.

“I’m sure teams will try to do the same thing,” Darnold said. “The same games and all that stuff. We just got to be ready for it.”

They also need McCaffrey back. The running back is going to test the hamstring at Wednesday’s practice. If all goes well, he might be able to return for Sunday’s game against the Eagles.

“I’m going to get to Wednesday and see,” Rhule said.

The schedule gives the Panthers another break this week. After beating teams who are a combined 3-8 on the year in the first three weeks, Carolina now faces the 1-3 Eagles.

Philadelphia also hasn’t shown an ability to do the things that Dallas did to hurt the Panthers last week. The Eagles have averaged just 83.5 yards on the ground the last two weeks. On defense, they’ve managed just eight sacks in four games.

So the Panthers could get back on the winning track at home. And if they do, all the same questions will still be on the table for the following week.