San Francisco Chronicle
Behind Darnold, McCaffrey, Carolina routs New Orleans
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Through two games, quarterback Sam Darnold is thriving in Carolina.
With an effective running game led by Christian McCaffrey, a reliable set of wide receivers that includes D.J. Moore and a defense that is playing lights-out, Darnold is off to a 2-0 start as Carolina’s starting quarterback.
Darnold threw for 305 yards and two touchdowns on Sunday and Carolina’s defense turned in another stellar performance in a 26-7 win over the New Orleans Saints.
Darnold connected on TD passes to Brandon Zylstra and Moore, and McCaffrey battled through leg cramps to pile up 137 yards from scrimmage and scored his first touchdown as the Panthers defeated the Saints for only the second time in the past 10 tries.
McCaffrey’s presence has been key for Darnold, allowing the fourth-year QB to use more play action and bootleg rollouts than he did with the New York Jets, freezing the defense.
That was evident when he connected with Zylstra on a 20-yard touchdown pass after a bootleg that bought him extra time to find the open receiver.
“I’ve always had confidence, that’s never going to change,” said Darnold, who was 13-25 as a starter in three seasons with the Jets. “But just finding completions and continuing to move the ball down the field is a good feeling.”
Added tight end Dan Arnold: “The biggest thing is up front we’re running the ball really well and that opens up a lot of that play action. That was one of our keys today was running the ball. When you have that success, you are able to open up a lot more of the offense.”
New Orleans QB Jameis Winston struggled after throwing five TD passes in a 38-3 win over the Green Bay Packers in the season opener. Winston, who replaced future Hall of Famer Drew Brees, was held to 111 yards passing, threw two interceptions and was sacked four times on a day when the Saints (1-1) were limited to 128 yards on offense, their fewest ever under coach Sean Payton.
Carolina’s defense held Alvin Kamara to 5 yards on eight carries as the Saints struggled with five of the team’s offensive coaches out because of COVID-19 protocols. In all, the Saints were missing eight assistant coaches because of COVID-19.
“Our protection plan wasn’t good,” Payton added. “It had nothing to do with us being shorthanded.”
The Panthers racked up 383 yards, and had 28 first downs to New Orleans’ 6.
“We left our defense out on the field too much,” Kamara said. “We’ve got to do a better job of finding our rhythm and being more efficient on first and second down. I don’t blame anybody. It’s on us. We’ve got to do better.”
For the second straight week, the Panthers’ defense set the tone by pitching a shutout in the first half. Carolina has outscored its two opponents 33-0 in the opening half.