CHARLOTTE — Through two games, quarterback Sam Darnold is thriving in Carolina.
With an effective running game led by Christian McCaffrey, a reliable set of wide receivers that includes D.J. Moore and defense that is playing lights-out, Darnold is off to a 2-0 start as Carolina’s starting quarterback.
Darnold threw for 305 yards and two touchdowns on Sunday and Carolina’s defense turned in another stellar performance in a dominant 26-7 win over the New Orleans Saints.
Darnold connected on TD passes to Brandon Zylstra and Moore, and McCaffrey battled through leg cramps to pile up 137 yards from scrimmage and scored his first touchdown as the Panthers (2-0) defeated the Saints for only the second time in the past 10 tries.
McCaffrey’s presence has been key for Darnold, allowing the fourth-year QB to use more play action and bootleg rollouts than he did with the New York Jets, freezing the defense. That was evident when he connected with Zylstra on a 20-yard touchdown pass after a bootleg that bought him extra time to find the open receiver.
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“I’ve always had confidence, that’s never going to change,” said Darnold, who was 13-25 as a starter in three seasons with the Jets. “But just finding completions and continuing to move the ball down the field is a good feeling.”
Added tight end Dan Arnold: “The biggest thing is up front we’re running the ball really well and that opens up a lot of that play action. That was one of our keys today was running the ball. When you have that success you are able to open up a lot more of the offense.”
Jameis Winston struggled after throwing five TD passes in a 38-3 win over the Green Bay Packers in the season opener. Winston, who replaced future Hall of Famer Drew Brees, was held to 111 yards passing, intercepted twice and sacked four times on a day when the Saints (1-1) were limited to 128 yards on offense, their fewest ever under coach Sean Payton.
Carolina’s defense held Alvin Kamara to 5 yards on eight carries as the Saints struggled with five of the team’s offensive coaches out because of COVID-19 protocols. In all, the Saints were missing eight assistant coaches because of COVID-19.
“Our protection plan wasn’t good,” Payton added. “It had nothing to do with us being short-handed.”
The Panthers racked up 383 yards, and had 28 first downs to New Orleans’ 6.
“We left our defense out on the field too much,” Kamara said. “We’ve got to do a better job of finding our rhythm and being more efficient on first and second down. I don’t blame anybody. It’s on us. We’ve got to do better.”
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 have 10 sacks and three interceptions through two weeks and defensive end Haason Reddick said, “Right now, we’re exceeding where I thought we would be as a defense. ... We’re just getting after it.”
Defensive end Morgan Fox said that is because guys have “bought in” to coordinator Phil Snow’s defensive scheme.
“When you have the back half covering extremely well that allows guys to make plays and guys up front are learning how to rush together,” Fox said. “It just goes to show what everyone is locked in and ready to do their part.”
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 took advantage 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 to help put the game out of reach.
The Panthers are 2-0 for the first time since 2017, which is also the most recent time they reached the playoffs.
Carolina has started 2-0 seven times in franchise history, reaching the playoffs six of those seasons.
When asked if he thinks the Panthers are a playoff team, defensive end Brian Burns said, “Yeah, facts. I mean I’m not going to say we’re not. I believe in my guys and I believe in myself and I would pick us against anybody.”
The Saints struggled in their first away game with crowd noise leading to a handful of false start penalties and other miscues.
“I have to communicate better and be louder,” Winston said. “Our first time on the road, I definitely have to use my voice to let the offensive lineman know the protection and what we want.”
Saints: Cornerback Marshon Lattimore (hand) and nickel back C.J. Gardner-Johnson (knee) were declared out before the game.
Panthers: Left guard Pat Elflein left in the second quarter with a hamstring injury and did not return. He was replaced by Dennis Daley.
Saints: at New England next Sunday.
Panthers: at Houston on Thursday night.
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