The Panthers found a way to avoid an 0-3 start.
By beating the New Orleans Saints 22-14 on Sunday, Carolina moved one game back of first place in its division. For at least the next four weeks, Panthers coach Matt Rhule can say Carolina is undefeated in the NFC South.
Between the Panthers’ first home victory in 371 days and its Week 7 game hosting Tom Brady and the Buccaneers, Carolina will play three critical games against the NFC West.
Win, lose or draw, the Panthers’ issues are still glaring. The team deserves to enjoy its win, but come Monday morning, Carolina must start solving its non-existent intermediate and deep passing game.
Before newcomer Laviska Shenault housed a flat route for a 67-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter, Baker Mayfield had 76 passing yards. Coach Matt Rhule said he did not expect the team to attack New Orleans (1-2) vertically because of its talented secondary and coverage preferences. But the middle of the field (or intermediate passes) were available.
“The third downs are completely on me, just with ball location,” Mayfield said. “I’m going to look back at the tape and not be happy about how I played, obviously.”
Even without watching the tape, it’s apparent Mayfield did not play well. There were times he was inaccurate, missing deep crossing receivers high and away. Once again he and/ or offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo did not open up All-Pro running back Christian McCaffrey in the passing game.
McCaffrey finished with 108 rushing yards on 25 carries, marking his first back-to-back 100-plus yard rushing games since he had three in a row in 2019. He is the only running back to record consecutive 100-yard rushing games this season.
But through the air, McCaffrey caught just two passes for seven yards. He’s enduring the lowest receiving stretch of his career.
Receivers DJ Moore and Robbie Anderson were fantasy football letdowns They notched a combined two catches for 16 yards on 10 targets. Mayfield missed Moore on multiple third-down tries.
Second-year receiver Terrace Marshall was a healthy scratch as Shenault had his “Welcome to Charlotte” party.
“He’s tough. He’s a dog,” Shenault said of what he showed Panthers fans on Sunday.
Shenault caught two passes for 90 yards, a team-high. He accounted for 144 all-purpose yards by adding two kick returns after taking over those duties from running back Chuba Hubbard.
The Panthers are a hit-or-miss offense. The team has three plays of 50-plus yards this season, tying for the most in the NFL. Last week McCaffrey had a 49-yard rush. Yet, entering Sunday Carolina ranked 28th in plays per series with just five. Sunday was much of the same. Excluding quarterback kneels, Carolina ran 61 plays over 12 drives.
Do the math.
But, a win is a win and Carolina did not beat itself Sunday, winning the turnover battle by three.
Here are two other takeaways from the home victory:
Defense can only carry Carolina for so long
During the offseason Carolina asked linebacker Frankie Luvu to become a “complete linebacker,” a player capable of competing every down regardless of distance or opposing personnel package. With five tackles and a forced fumble on Sunday, Luvu is proving he’s one of the best players defensive coordinator Phil Snow deploys.
His first-quarter strip (and scoop-and-score via Marquis Haynes) of running back Alvin Kamara changed the game. Rhule said it unleashed the defense’s spirit. Luvu sparked a blocked field goal, a Jeremy Chinn sack (which led to a missed 46-yard Saints field goal) and a Derrick Brown one-handed interception.
After the game, multiple Panthers players said Brown’s diving takeaway was more impressive than Steelers wide receiver George Picken’s Odell Beckham-like one-hander on Thursday night.
For a second-straight week, the Panthers held a Pro Bowl running back in check. Kamara gained just 61 yards on 15 carries. The Saints rushed for 84 total yards.
“I think really, when I look back at the game, stopping the run and holding them to 84 yards was really a big key in the game.” Rhule said. “One of the keys is that we are stopping the run. I don’t know how many sacks we had today, but we were able to affect the ball.”
Carolina had one sack and six quarterback hits. Carolina’s front controlled the game. Defensive tackle Marquan McCall occupied gaps and pushed the Saints interior backward. He was also on the field for defensive end Henry Anderson’s blocked field goal before halftime.
The secondary allowed two 100-plus-yard receivers. Saints rookie Chris Olave led all pass-catchers with 147 yards. Carolina dealt with injuries to Donte Jackson, C.J Henderson and Xavier Woods. All three will be evaluated Monday but are not expected to miss extended time.
Laviska Shenault earned an expanded role
Carolina must find a way to put Shenault on the field more.
He dominated in his Panthers’ debut. His touchdown resembled a high-school junior varsity game. Shenault looked like Derrick Henry playing wide receiver. Observer columnist Scott Fowler called Shenault’s touchdown “the best first-ever-catch-as-a-Panther” in team history. He’s been covering the team since I was two years old.
“Laviska is a competitive guy. That’s why we traded for him. He has come far enough along that we feel like we have a good feel for him,” Rhule said. “We will just continue to up his workload now that we can see what he can truly do.”
Shenault was active for the first time since joining Carolina via a trade with the Jaguars. The former second-round pick scored his first touchdown since 2020.
He deserves more opportunities, but the Panthers have plenty of playmakers who need the ball too. Until Mayfield starts commanding the offense with consistency the offense won’t develop.
On Sunday, it may have regressed.