What���s Wrong With Sam Darnold And The Carolina Panthers | Charlotte Observer

By Ellis L. Williams

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Patriots at Panthers

Expanded coverage of Carolina’s Week 9 NFL game.

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CHARLOTTE

Halfway through the third quarter, Sam Darnold trotted toward the sideline. It appeared his day was over. He’d thrown two interceptions and Carolina trailed by double-digits. Yet backup quarterback PJ Walker wasn’t in the game.

Then he stopped slightly below the numbers, splitting out as a wide receiver. DJ Moore lined up behind center in a wildcat formation. He took the snap and gained 10 yards on a scat run up the middle. Oddly enough, Darnold made heads-up play by getting in the way of a would-be tackler which helped Moore gain a few more yards up the sideline.

Wildcat formations took the NFL by storm more than a decade ago. But in today’s league, it’s a sign of desperation, which the Panthers were in Sunday in their 24-6 loss to New England.

Darnold deserves plenty of blame. His return from the concussion protocol ended similarly to how all his previous matchups against coach Bill Belichick have; defeated with a wretched stat line. In four career games against New England, Darnold has one touchdown pass and nine interceptions. His completion percentage sits under 52%. On Sunday he completed 48.5% of his throws.

Coach Matt Rhule had an opportunity to protect Darnold from this. Darnold was a game-time decision because of a right shoulder injury he suffered on the same play that concussed him. Backup quarterback Walker took the majority of first-team reps during practice and was ready if Rhule didn’t think Darnold looked healthy. But Darnold showed enough to start. Then went on to throw three interceptions, two of which were completely avoidable.

“I thought he was going to have to play his way out of it,” Rhule said. “I just thought the shame of two of the interceptions were ... The first one and the third one, the shame of it was down inside the 30-yard line about to get points and keep that a close game.”

Worst yet, all three came in the second half. When a quarterback struggles this poorly, it’s important to survey the situation around him. What is causing him to regress?

Darnold had four passes batted down at the line of scrimmage. A fifth throw would’ve been but linebacker Jamie Collins made an incredible interception, timing the jump perfectly. Late throws are clear signs of poor timing. Darnold held the ball far too long against New England because he was waiting to see his targets open. That’s how the Patriots’ front anticipated his throws.

In the first quarter, Darnold missed a wide-open Christian McCaffrey on a double move versus linebacker Dont’a Hightower. McCaffrey started in the backfield, ran a flat route then cut inside Hightower and up the left sideline. Darnold’s delayed throw helped New England pass rush collapse the pocket and cause a deflect.

Darnold didn’t look ready to play. He may have been healthy but he wasn’t prepared. That’s on Rhule and offensive coordinator Joe Brady.

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“He got reps on Thursday. He got reps on Saturday,” Rhule said of Darnold’s practice time. “I don’t want to lay things on one person but we just can’t continue to keep throwing the ball up. We have to protect the football. If you have an interception, if it’s a third-down interception, that’s one thing. A first or second down interception, can’t happen.”

But they kept happening. Two of his three interceptions came on second down.

Carolina’s offensive line allowed only one sack. But Darnold bailed on a lot of pockets due to early pressure. Carolina suffered too many injuries up front to sustain consistent play. Center Matt Paradis left with a first-quarter knee injury and didn’t return. Then in the second half, Cam Erving suffered a calf injury, ending his afternoon.

Darnold already didn’t trust his offensive line. Playing with a backup center and left tackle appeared to shake that confidence even more. Without time to throw the playbook shrunk. Darnold averaged only 5.5 yards per attempt. Carolina didn’t threaten New England deep or challenge them intermediately.

A lack of practice plus an injured offensive line resulted in Carolina gaining only 162 passing yards. The Panthers’ offense lacked pre-snap motion and creativity. Without those elements, an offense quickly grows predictable. That’s why McCaffrey and Moore were both lit up by Patriots defenders in the second half on late throws from Darnold. New England sat on everything underneath and drove downhill freely with no fear of deep exposure.

There aren’t any quick solutions. At least Darnold won’t play Belichick again. But it should be a top priority for him and McCaffrey to have a full week of practice together. The Panthers’ offensive timing is completely off. Rhule didn’t declare whether Darnold would start next week in Arizona.

“I’ll watch the tape before I make some big statement. To be quite honest, I want to make sure I see everything and consider all factors,” Rhule said. “I know Sam prepared hard. I thought he went out there I thought he showed toughness. He gritted to the end so I don’t want to lay anything at his feet. We can’t have a quarterback throwing the ball up in the air. He knows that.”

Sunday marked the second time in three weeks where Carolina didn’t score a touchdown. There is no way of knowing what a Walker game plan would have looked like. All week the coaching staff said they believed in him.

Then Darnold gave Panthers fans nothing to hope for but a high draft pick.

More Panthers reading

+ Fowler: It’s time for the woeful Carolina Panthers to start a new QB Sunday at Arizona

+ DeCock: Panthers are more behind schedule now than they were when Matt Rhule was hired

+ Analysis: Panthers chose to settle for Sam Darnold. Now they’re stuck with him

+ Carolina Panthers lose their starting center for the season

+ Carolina Panthers star calls out Patriots QB Mac Jones. ‘It was a dirty play.’

This story was originally published November 7, 2021 6:40 PM.

Source : https://www.charlotteobserver.com/sports/nfl/carolina-panthers/article255624756.html

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