The Panthers, fresh off a 26-7 pounding of the Saints, are one of the NFL's early surprises. Sam Darnold is as poised as ever under center, and Carolina's defense is wreaking havoc on opposing offenses thus far. Matt Rhule certainly has the Panthers trending in the right direction in his second season as head coach.
It's only Week 2 and Texans fans could use a hug. Sure, some of the franchise's faults are of their own doing, but the injury to quarterback Tyrod Taylor certainly isn't. Last week, Houston was hanging with the Browns step-for-step before Taylor missed the second half with a hamstring injury as Cleveland was able to pull away and get a 31-21 win. Now the quarterbacking duties shift to rookie Davis Mills on a short week against a tough Carolina defense.
Thursday Night Football: Carolina (2-0) at Houston (1-1)
Kickoff: Thursday, Sept. 23, at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV: NFL Network
Spread: Panthers -7.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Panthers' top-ranked D
A season ago, the Carolina defense was about as middle of the road as you could get in the NFL. They were 15th in points allowed, 18th in yards surrendered, 19th in yards per play, and 23rd in sacks. So far this season, coordinator Phil Snow has flipped the script, and now the Panthers' defense is a force, allowing only 21 total points in their first two games.
Last week, the Carolina defense was flat-out dominant against the Saints. They held Jameis Winston and the Saints' offense to just 128 yards, the lowest mark of the Sean Payton era in New Orleans, and allowed only six first downs. After five Week 1 touchdown passes, Winston threw for only 111 yards with two interceptions while Alvin Kamara only rushed for five yards on eight carries.
The Panthers' defensive makeover starts with their ability to pressure the quarterback. So far this season, Carolina leads the league with 10 total sacks after getting to Winston four times and pressuring him on 64 percent of his dropbacks. And it's been a total group effort, as six players have recorded at least one sack, led by outside pass rusher Haason Reddick (3 sacks) and defensive end Brian Burns (2). What's more impressive is that Carolina's defenders are able to get into the backfield without constantly bringing pressure, blitzing on only 16 percent of snaps, 13th most in the league.
Look for Snow to dial up more blitzes against the Mills, who will be making first career NFL start on Thursday night.
2. Good luck, Mr. Mills
Tyrod Taylor can't catch a break. He was playing so well against Cleveland last week, single-handedly keeping his team in the game in the first half. He connected on 10 of his 11 passes for 125 yards and had both a touchdown pass and run. But it was the latter score that ended up costing him, as he pulled his hamstring on the 15-yard touchdown scamper. The injury, although mild, will keep him out of the lineup on Thursday night.
Enter Mills, the Texans' third-round pick in this year's draft from Stanford. Mills is the third rookie quarterback to replace an injured Taylor since 2018, the other two being Baker Mayfield and Justin Herbert. While Mills isn't widely considered to be the heir apparent in Houston, the Texans are now his team until Taylor can return.
Houston has made it clear that Deshaun Watson will remain inactive until his status is further clarified. He is the subject of 22 active lawsuits containing allegations of sexual assault and inappropriate behavior, and he remains under investigation by the league. He is not banned from taking part in team activities and still wants to be traded due to his unhappiness with the direction of the franchise. Should Mills get hurt on Thursday night, Jeff Driskel will likely get the call. He is currently on the Texans' practice squad but is expected to be elevated to the active roster to take Taylor's spot.
Following Taylor's injury last week, Mills entered the game and not surprisingly experienced some growing pains in his first NFL snaps. He completed only eight of 18 passes for 102 yards, with a touchdown and an interception on the second throw of his career. Looking over the limited NFL Next Gen stats of Mills' outing from Sunday, I found that 22 percent of his throws were considered aggressive, but none of those attempts were classified as "bad throws" by Pro-Football-Reference.com. It's an interesting statistical conundrum considering that his eight completions only went for an average of 5.7 yards. Basically, the kid is checking down a lot, which is to be expected and, quite frankly, probably the right thing to do.
I'd assume head coach David Culley is going to simplify the offense as best as he can for Mills on Thursday night. Look for most passes to be within the five-to-seven-yard range — lots of routes out of the backfield from running backs Mark Ingram II, Phillip Lindsay, and David Johnson, and also a lot of underneath routes to Brandin Cooks.
3. Stay steady, Sam
The first two weeks of the Darnold era in Carolina are the steadiest we've ever seen of the young quarterback. Maybe it's the calming effect and guidance of Rhule and offensive coordinator Joe Brady that has helped Darnold. Perhaps it's having the versatile Christian McCaffrey, who looked like his old self last week after an injury-plagued 2020, in the backfield. Having a great defense certainly helps. So does having a competent offensive line. Maybe it's just not playing for the Jets.
Whatever it is, Darnold is playing better than he ever has before and clearly with more confidence. His current completion rate (68 percent) is almost 10 points higher than that of his entire Jets tenure (59.8), and his passer rating sits at an impressive 100.8, 22.2 points higher than his three-year average with New York. Last week, he went 26-for-38 for 305 yards and two touchdowns against the Saints. His one interception on an ill-advised shovel pass wasn't great, but it ultimately didn't matter.
Darnold has gotten plenty of support, including from an offensive line that has helped keep him clean in the pocket. So far, he's only been pressured on 18 percent of his throws, as opposed to an absurd 27 percent last season. Darnold has also cut his bad throws in half, from 18 percent in 2020 to just nine percent through two games. Some of that has to do with McCaffrey being such a reliable target out of the backfield and in the slot, tying for the team lead with 14 receptions. But if you're Darnold, does it really matter? As long as the offensive line can keep him upright, we might actually see what he's capable of, and that just might be a pretty good NFL quarterback.
Rhule has the Panthers rolling right now, especially on defense. Simply put, there is no reason why they should slow down against a rookie quarterback making his first start on a short week. The hits keep coming for the Texans as the Panthers should roll to a 3-0 start.
Prediction: Panthers 27, Texans 14
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.