Through their first two games of 2020, the Carolina Panthers defense had a bend-but-don’t-break dynamic going on. There was also a whole lot of don’t-do-much-of-anything, though.
Just two takeaways, zero sacks and not a timely stop to speak of beset the unit in Carolina’s first two losses to Las Vegas and Tampa Bay. They didn’t completely implode in either contest, which was impressive given their youth and drastic personnel turnover rate, but the big plays were essentially non-existent.
That changed on Sunday.
Carolina’s 21-16 victory over the Los Angeles Chargers, their first win since Week 9 of 2019 (yes, you read that correctly), was headlined by seized opportunities on defense. Perhaps, with the Ron Rivera era behind us, we can call those “un-missed opportunities?”
Whatever you call them, the clutch stops began early with edge rusher extraordinaire Brian Burns. The second-year defensive end forced a fumble off rookie quarterback Justin Herbert midway through the first quarter. Burns’ dirty work halted a drive near midfield and helped set up an early 6-0 lead.
Brian Burns is a problem.
— Edgar Salmingo, Jr. ✌️ (@PanthersAnalyst) September 27, 2020
lmao Brian Burns — the perfect representation of putting someone in a blender pic.twitter.com/1m8FK2S5Wk
— Anthony Treash (@PFF_Anthony) September 24, 2020
The Chargers fumbled again later, as linebacker Shaq Thompson kneed the ball out of the grasp of running back Joshua Kelley from behind. Not exactly a “Peanut Punch,” the seemingly accidental strike and subsequent forced fumble set Carolina up at their own 43-yard line.
Three minutes and 57 seconds later, Christian McCaffrey-replacement Mike Davis hit the end zone on a reception from 13 yards out to stretch the lead to 15-7 at the 3:02 mark of the second quarter.
The Panthers didn’t waste those final three minutes of the half either, as cornerback Donte Jackson picked off Herbert on the ensuing possession. Jackson’s 66-yard return left Carolina on the Los Angeles eight-yard line. They closed the half with a chip-shot field goal and an 11-point lead.
When they returned to the field for the second half, rookie linebacker Jeremy Chinn broke out again.
Like Burns, Chinn has proven he’s got a bright future. Chinn ranked second only to Thompson (13) with 12 total tackles on the afternoon. Chinn now has 20 tackles through three games and has made an impression with his athleticism and versatility.
On offense there weren’t any shocking developments. This performance just reinforced the fact that, even with the most dangerous group of weapons they’ve had in quite some time, they have their limits.
That’s due to the limits of QB Teddy Bridgewater. It’s not that he can’t throw downfield, as evidenced by his 38-yard connection with DJ Moore, it’s that he and offensive coordinator Joe Brady seem reluctant to do so.
Take their possession at the end of the first half, for instance. Rather than take a quick shot at a receiver in the end zone from the eight-yard line with eight seconds left, Bridgewater dumped off to Robby Anderson at the four-yard line. Eight seconds is certainly more than enough time to at least take your one shot at a touchdown before you settle for three points.
Offenses go as their QBs go. Although he’s solid option and a guy who won’t hand the opposition the game with poor play, Bridgewater doesn’t exactly go above and beyond. He’s not, as Panthers fans have seen in the nine years previous, a Cam Newton type that can drag a fundamentally-flawed roster kicking and screaming to a victory.
But Bridgewater will usually keep you afloat, as he did on Sunday. He was efficient (22-of-28), drew the defense offsides with his cadence a few times and didn’t offer the Chargers any giveaways to catapult themselves back into contention.
Regardless, it’s time to celebrate. Congratulations to head coach Matt Rhule and his staff on their first win and congratulations to the franchise for their first victory in *checks notes* 329 days!