Panthers takeaways from loss to Saints: Offense needs a wake-up call from nightmare start

Carolina Panthers fans who were hoping for an immediate offensive surge to start the Frank Reich era should have hit the snooze button on their expectations. Through two games, the head coach’s offense has been in a slumber amid a listless 0-2 start to begin his first campaign at the helm.

And while those with the most patient outlooks can acknowledge — fairly — that this team is going through a rebuild, the first offensive play-calling head coach in team history has led his unit into back-to-back pedestrian performances to begin his reign.

The Panthers put up just 10 points against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 1. On Monday, against the New Orleans Saints, they put up 17 points, with eight points coming against a prevent defense in the dwindling moments of a then-two score game.

The Panthers’ offense hasn’t had to overcome incredible performances from the opposite sideline to this point. Instead, it has simply let down the defense with turnovers, stalled drives and the inability to capitalize on key plays on the other side of the ball.

The 20-17 loss to the Saints in the home-opener followed a trend that needs to be squashed in a hurry. Reich, quarterback Bryce Young and the rest of the Panthers’ offense need wake up from his nightmare start to the season.

Here are five takeaways from Monday’s 20-17 loss:

Panthers play-calling needs work

Following the game, rookie quarterback Bryce Young blamed the offense’s miscues on execution. And while that admission is a glaringly obvious sentiment, the truth is that the play-calling didn’t do much to stop the bleeding for the unit, either.

The score was within three points (or tied) throughout the majority of the game, and yet the Panthers called just 11 runs through the first 42 minutes of the matchup. With a rookie under center and wideouts failing to separate with regularity, Reich chose not to lean on his well-paid veteran running back Miles Sanders, who earned the richest long-term deal on the market for his position this offseason. Fellow running back Chuba Hubbard — who had as good of a performance as anyone on offense last week — didn’t receive a target or touch until the first drive of the second half.

Yes, the passing offense failed to find a rhythm due to poor execution. But it’s on the coaching staff — particularly the offensive play-caller and his assistant coach think tank — to save the group from itself. Running the ball out of the backfield just 17 times in a close game with an inept passing offense is ludicrous. That outlook was particularly unfortunate for the offensive line, which had to deal with inexperienced guards in the starting lineup

The rhythm of the mostly one-sided play-calling furthered the execution issues for the pass offense. Receivers failed to make plays and the offensive line ultimately crumbled in protection under heavy duress.

Following the loss, Reich said that he isn’t ready to give up play-calling, and he is confident in that aspect of the game plan. He’s been a play-caller for a longtime, so it’s hard to see him giving up control any time soon. At this point, given all that’s happening on offense, I’m not sure a switch would magically fix things, either.

Bryce Young has no choice but to step up

For a second straight week, Young put together a middling performance. The rookie quarterback is feeling out the NFL experience, and thus far, the road has been quite bumpy.

The Panthers selected Young with the first overall pick in this year’s draft because of his ability to process quickly and think on his feet with off-scheduled plays. So far, Young has shown solid decision-making and improvisational skills. The issue for the rookie, though, is that the rest of the quarterback arsenal hasn’t surfaced for him yet. He isn’t making big plays in the passing game, and he doesn’t look like he’s in complete command of the offense. There are pre-snap miscues and blips of inaccuracy as well.

Young, for the second consecutive week, was limited to just one touchdown-scoring drive. He passed for just 153 yards and a passing touchdown, despite eclipsing the 30-toss mark for a second straight outing.

While he had a breathtaking 26-yard gallop on a scramble in the fourth quarter, his highlight reel is looking rather empty through two weeks.

Young has a lot of eyes on him as the top pick in the draft, as he should. So far though, he’s done little to silence his doubters — even as his size (or lack thereof) hasn’t been much of a factor.

With Anthony Richardson flashing athleticism and CJ Stroud looking generally competent, Young needs to show why the Panthers picked him over both of those fellow rookies. No one is expecting Young to light the world on fire as a rookie, but he needs to show that he can elevate the talent around him. On Monday, his weapons averaged just 7 yards per catch.

Defense responds well to Shaq Thompson injury

Panthers defensive leader and starting linebacker Shaq Thompson was carted off the field with a “significant” ankle injury at the end of the first quarter. Defensive end DeShawn Williams and Saints offensive tackle Trevor Penning were battling to the whistle when the two big linemen fell onto Thompson’s right leg, which twisted underneath them.

The Panthers’ defense could have fallen apart without its leader. Instead, the group did a solid enough job in his absence to keep the game close throughout.

The defense didn’t give up a play of 20 or more yards in the first half. Unfortunately, as the offense continued to struggle, the Saints produced a trio of explosive plays in the second half. Cornerbacks CJ Henderson and Donte Jackson both gave up big passing plays of 40 or more yards in the third and fourth quarters, respectively. But, otherwise, the defense held pretty firm through the air.

Safety Vonn Bell made an excellent interception of a Derek Carr pass in the second quarter, and the Carolina offense rewarded that effort with a lost fumble. The Panthers also made a couple of meaningful third-down stops, only for the offense do little to take advantage.

Carolina sacked Carr four times and hit him six times.

The Panthers felt Thompson’s loss in the running game. Quarterback-turned-tight end-turned-running back Taysom Hill was an absolute bulldozer on the ground. He picked up 75 yards on nine carries (8.3 yards per carry) and routinely moved the chains. Tony Jones, a practice-squad running back, picked up 34 yards and two touchdowns on the ground as well.

Veteran Kamu Grugier-Hill is likely to be the Panthers’ immediate replacement for Thompson at inside linebacker. They also have Deion Jones on the practice squad.

Interesting inactives on the sideline

The Panthers listed running back Raheem Blackshear and linebacker DJ Johnson, a third-round draft pick, among their inactives on Monday.

Blackshear was praised by the staff throughout the offseason, but he has seemingly taken a backseat to wideout Laviska Shenault, who was effectively the No. 3 running back on Monday. Shenault was also the team’s kick returner against the Saints.

Johnson’s status is also notable, as he has now been sidelined — while healthy — for two consecutive games. At least last week the rookie got a uniform. But after failing to receive any snaps on special teams or defense against Atlanta, Johnson wore gym clothes on the sideline against New Orleans without even a chance of seeing the field.

The Panthers traded up to draft Johnson with the 80th overall pick. Marquis Haynes is on injured reserve, Yetur Gross-Matos is taking most of his snaps on the defensive line, and Justin Houston is 34 years old, but Johnson apparently isn’t even capable of filling out a role on special teams.

It’ll be an interesting study to monitor how long it takes for Johnson to get on the field this season. He’s clearly a long-term project, but he’s about to turn 25 in October, and the Panthers need to develop some young talent quickly with the way things have gone thus far.

A 0-2 hole is significant but not season-ending

The Panthers are 0-2 against the NFC South to begin the season. That’s quite the divisional hole to climb out of entering Week 3.

With the rest of the division posting identical 2-0 records, the Panthers are early bottom-feeders to begin the Reich era. But Reich has been here before, and he’s ultimately succeeded, even when the early returns have been miserable.

During his first season in Indianapolis in 2018, the Colts started 1-5 and finished 10-6, making the playoffs in dramatic fashion. In 2021, the Colts started 1-4 and bounced back to the door step of the playoffs with a final 9-8 record.

So, the lesson here — even for those who have accepted that this is just the first year in a two-year rebuild — is that this is a 17-game season and weird stuff happens in the NFL. This campaign is largely about the development of Young, and while making the playoffs and winning the division would be swell, the Panthers should largely concern themselves with long-term development at this point.

So, the goal moving forward should be to protect and develop Young in all aspects, especially with the use of play-calling, for the rest of the season.