For all the hand-wringing about the Carolina Panthers offense — new coordinator, injury-plagued offensive line, a revamped cast of wide receivers — it was the team’s old reliable defense that ultimately got it done Sunday.
Carolina’s 16-8 season-opening win over Dallas Sunday was paced by a defense that stifled the Cowboys at almost every opportunity. Linebacker Luke Kuechly was ridiculously good — and returned quickly after getting his knee rolled up on in the fourth quarter — as was defensive tackle Kawann Short (two sacks).
The run defense was strong as usual, led by a Panthers front four that mostly gobbled up the Dallas offensive line. The secondary — the big question mark — never allowed Dallas a huge game-changing play (the Cowboys’ longest play of the game went for only 20 yards). And defensive end Mario Addison ultimately made the game-winning play when Dallas still had a chance, sacking Dak Prescott (Carolina’s sixth sack of the game) on the Cowboys’ last possession and forcing a fumble that Carolina cornerback Captain Munnerlyn recovered.
Yes, the Panthers defense allowed one touchdown drive and a two-point conversion in the fourth quarter. But when you only give up eight points as a team, you’re going to win most of the time.
Other quick observations from an impressive first-day Panthers victory:
▪ Carolina’s offense will have to play far better than that to win at Atlanta next Sunday. Carolina left at least 10-14 points on the field Sunday, moving the ball fairly well between the 20s but bogging down too often at the end. Rookie D.J. Moore was a non-factor (three total yards from scrimmage) and Carolina didn’t get a lot of production from new wide receivers Torrey Smith and Jarius Wright (a combined 38 yards receiving) either.
▪ Kudos to Mike Adams for bringing down Ezekiel Elliott on one open-field tackle in which, if Elliott made Adams miss, he might still be running.
▪ Loved Munnerlyn’s hat after the game, which read: “Normal is boring.”
▪ Kickoff was delayed 10 minutes by bad weather, but that was OK as that gave some of the massive traffic jams outside time to clear. And then it stayed cloudy and somewhat pleasant, at least in terms of this extended summer. There was even a rainbow in the third quarter peeking out over the north side of the stadium.
▪ After a lifetime of seeing that NFL logo at midfield, it sure was nice to see the Panthers logo instead. And it also somehow already looked weathered by halftime, like a pair of jeans you buy after they’ve already been pre-washed a few times.
▪ If you feel like you’ve seen a similar defensive performance early in the season before from the Panthers, you have. Carolina allowed only three points in each of its first two games of 2017 – in wins over San Francisco and Buffalo – before giving up 34 against Drew Brees and New Orleans in Week 3.
▪ C.J. Anderson (seven carries, 35 yards) really ran hard and well in spot duty for Christian McCaffrey, coming an eyelash from scoring a fourth-quarter touchdown that instead went to Alex Armah. McCaffrey also had a solid day, active as both a receiver (45 yards) and a runner (50). He had 19 total touches. But McCaffrey’s lost first-quarter fumble at the 5 will haunt him a little. In 197 touches from the line of scrimmage last season, McCaffrey only lost one fumble.
▪ The victory came at a price. Carolina lost tight end Greg Olsen early to a foot injury and offensive tackle Daryl Williams late to a knee injury. The usually media-friendly Olsen would not speak to reporters after the game, which I would wager is not a good sign regarding the injury’s severity.