Carolina Panthers

Grading the Carolina Panthers in their win at the Arizona Cardinals

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Perhaps it was too early to give up on the Panthers. Are the Arizona Cardinals one of the worst teams Carolina will face all season? Probably. Don’t let that put a damper on a win-or-else victory Sunday. The Panthers looked strong on both sides of the ball, and with starting quarterback Cam Newton not even making the trip to Phoenix, there’s not much more anyone could have hoped for from Sunday’s 38-20 victory.

Passing offense: A

Was it perfect? No. But three weeks into the season with a backup quarterback making his first meaningful NFL start, we’re grading on a curve here and Kyle Allen played like a veteran. He lacked pocket awareness and didn’t feel it collapsing on the Panthers’ first drive, which led to a sack and lost fumble, but he responded. Allen threw four touchdown passes to three different receivers — including go-ahead scores to D.J. Moore (52 yards) and Greg Olsen (3 yards) — and completed 73 percent of his attempts for 261 yards and a 144.4 passer rating.

Rushing offense: B

On his 15th carry of the afternoon, Christian McCaffrey broke free for the longest touchdown run of his professional career — 76 yards. The score put the Panthers ahead 28-20 and increased his yards-per-carry average for the game from 4.4 to 9.2. McCaffrey’s longest run of the season before Sunday’s outburst was 23 yards in Week 1 against the Rams. He had rushing 153 yards against Arizona, 12 shy of his season total entering the game.

Passing defense: A

At first glance of the box score, Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray was fairly accurate (30-of-43 for 173 yards), but he missed throws when it counted — none more important than late in the third quarter. Arizona trailed 21-17 and on first-and-10 from the Panthers’ 35, Murray overthrew a wide-open Trent Sherfield 25 yards down the field. Had he completed the pass, it would have been a touchdown. That’s the only notable mistake the Carolina secondary made all day, and it didn’t hurt them. The Panthers sacked Murray eight times (thrice by Mario Addison, twice by Christian Miller). Donte Jackson had two interceptions and a pass defensed.

Rushing defense: B

Murray rushed for more yards (28) in his opening drive of the first quarter than he did in his first two games combined (17). The Cardinals’ running backs were ineffective throughout the afternoon, but Murray’s ability to show what made him so dangerous as a Heisman Trophy winner at Oklahoma bothered Carolina’s defense. He converted crucial third downs via the QB draw with five wide receivers, zone reads and scrambling when flushed from the pocket. Murray had 69 of the Cardinals’ 121 rushing yards.

The biggest play from an Arizona running back came late in the third quarter. Arizona faced a fourth-and-1 at the Carolina 37-yard line with about 4 minutes remaining in the period. A direct snap to David Johnson went for 2 yards and the Cardinals kicked a 47-yard field goal four plays later that cut the Panthers’ lead to 21-20.

Special teams: B-minus

Ray-Ray McCloud continues to leave much to be desired in the return game and can’t seem to field the ball cleanly on a consistent basis. Kicker Joey Slye made his lone field-goal attempt — 36 yards to make it a three-possession game with 4:27 remaining.

Coaching: A

Not much to complain about. Most of what was giving the Panthers trouble in the first half (mainly Murray) didn’t hurt them in the final two quarters; good adjustments made by the defensive staff. There were no questionable challenges made by coach Ron Rivera like we saw in the first two weeks. To use an old coaching cliche, the Panthers stuck to their game and it worked well.

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