How Panthers QB Sam Darnold immediately earned another start

Khadejeh Nikouyeh/Knikouyeh@charlotteobserver.com

Panthers interim head coach Steve Wilks wasted no time naming Sam Darnold the team’s starting quarterback following Sunday’s 23-10 victory against the Denver Broncos.

On Monday — the eve of the Panthers’ Week 13 bye — Wilks explained why anointing Darnold was a no-brainer.

“It is not so much a quick decision. It was more like a quick announcement,” Wilks said. “There were a lot of times that even with PJ (Walker), I knew what I wanted to do. I just didn’t express it at that particular time.”

Darnold posted the highest quarterback rating of any Panther this season in his lone start. He protected the ball, as even his fumble was a touchdown. And he was explosive. His fourth-quarter bomb to DJ Moore traveled 52 air yards.

Wilks would not commit to Darnold beyond the Seahawks game but Sunday proved Darnold gives Carolina the best chance to win. It also allows the Panthers to simultaneously contemplate whether Darnold should return as a veteran backup next year.

Depending on how Darnold plays, he might price himself out of the Panthers’ 2023 quarterback plans.

“(Darnold) did a great job. He really orchestrated and ran the offense,” Wilks said. “He did good things for us, getting outside the pocket, utilizing his feet, and still having his eyes down the field to try to convert.”

Wilks was far less committal about Carolina’s backup quarterback. Baker Mayfield backed up Darnold on Sunday. Wilks said the team will wait to see how Walker recovers during the bye week before naming Darnold’s backup. Walker has been out since sustaining a high ankle sprain two weeks ago against Atlanta.

“Right now, (we are) waiting to see exactly where we are from a (health) standpoint with PJ. And then we’ll evaluate that situation as it occurs,” Wilks said. “My mindset all year has been winning the day. In order to win the day, it’s all about that (next) game. So things can change. (Sam) is a starter for Seattle, and then I can’t even really express on anything beyond that.”

Panthers players have Tuesday through Sunday off. Players can still utilize the team facility for treatments and voluntary workouts.

When the team returns Monday, players will begin installing the Seattle Seahawks’ game plan.

Seattle (6-5) has lost two in a row, including a 21-16 decision to Tampa Bay in Germany two weeks ago. Despite a four-game October win streak, the Seahawks do not look as high-powered as they did a month ago.

The same can be said about opponents on the Panthers’ remaining schedule. Carolina hosts Pittsburgh and Detroit after visiting Seattle before closing the season at Tampa Bay (5-6) and New Orleans (4-8).

The Panthers’ route to victories is simple. Wilks preaches it to his players and the media each week. The team must effectively run the ball, not commit turnovers, make a few explosive throws, excel in the kicking game, and play stout defense. Considering its upcoming opponents (Carolina has the third-weakest remaining schedule), the Panthers should be able to execute their game plan each week.

Making the playoffs should not be out of the question. Neither is picking in the top three of the 2023 draft.

Here are some bye-week areas the Panthers should prioritize.

Keep the offensive line, D’Onta Foreman rolling

The Panthers go as their offensive line does. When Ikem Ekwonu, Brady Christensen, Bradley Bozeman, Austin Corbett, and Taylor Moton are pushing opposing defensive lines backward Carolina tends to keep games close. On Sunday, the team gained 185 rushing yards on a season-high 46 carries. The Panthers have only rushed more than 40 times in five games since 2014.

Foreman battled all game on Sunday. He endured a bruising top-three Denver defense en route to a game-high 113 rushing yards. Foreman continues to showcase his second-level dominance. When he hits a hole untouched (thanks to the offensive line) then linebackers and safeties bounce off him.

“When you look at 185 yards rushing, and no sacks, I thought they did well,” Wilks said. “We’ve been expressing that since (the start) which is the physicality and effort starting up front. Then running smashmouth football.”

Equally impressive, Darnold was not sacked on Sunday. He navigated a clean pocket and was only hit twice.

Still not good on third down

The Panthers’ offense had a third-down problem before Wilks took over in Week 6. Though the offense has improved, the team is not any better on third down.

On Sunday, the Broncos’ defense held Carolina to 2-for-13 on third down. Carolina entered Sunday averaging just three third-down conversions per game.

“A lot of areas to still improve on offense,” Wilks said, “particularly on third down.”

Achieving third-down success takes creativity and sound execution. Perhaps offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo spends the bye week crafting more unique plays that better put opposing defenders in conflict yet are still easy for Darnold to execute.

Better secondary play

Carolina is still seeking more defensive takeaways. The Panthers rank 22nd in takeaways with 12.

Wilks said he wants to see more ball hawks in the secondary along with cornerbacks C.J. Henderson, Keith Taylor, and Jaycee Horn playing more fundamentally sound.

“The quick, easy throws, when playing off, you got to get up there and challenge the receivers a lot,” Wilks said. “We did a little bit of that yesterday. We need more opportunities and plays on the ball to create takeaways.”

The Panthers kept Denver’s receivers in check but they are only a week removed from allowing a 100-yard performance to wide receiver Demarcus Robinson.

Seattle (DK Metcalf, Tyler Lockett), Pittsburgh (Diontae Johnson, George Pickens), and Detroit (Amon-Ra St. Brown, Jameson Williams) all feature blue-chip receivers who are capable of taking over games.

Wilks will expect perfection from the Panthers’ secondary after the bye week.