When the schedule was announced in early May, this matchup with the Carolina Panthers stood out to me like a sore thumb. Not in a bad way, but, for me, it was more a feeling of curiosity. I knew by week three the bumps and bruises of a season would start to pile up. Early season trends and tendencies would be forming. It's a short week. And, quite honestly, with a new quarterback established in Carolina and a lot of new here in Houston, I figured week three would be a pivotal week in the continued establishment of an identity for both teams. Taking that ALL into account, this one was intriguing as all get out back in May.
With what's transpired the past few weeks, it's even more so with the 2-0 Panthers, uhh, excuse me, the dominant 2-0 Panthers coming to town. Oh, there's more, the 2-0 Panthers with the league's most DOMINANT defense coming to town on a short week. The 2-0 Panthers with a seemingly resurgent quarterback leading the way. I could go on but the one element that makes this one even more interesting, unfortunately, is that the Texans will be without quarterback Tyrod Taylor who was OUTSTANDING in his six quarters of play to start the season.
So, it's a hot Panthers defense against a rookie quarterback for the second time in three weeks. In fact, the Panthers will face a third quarterback in a row who didn't start an NFL game in the 2020 season (Rookies Zach Wilson and Davis Mills and veteran Jameis Winston). This Panthers defensive unit has feasted on that youth and inexperience in the first two weeks and it'll try to replicate that success against Texans rookie Davis Mills, starting for the first time in his NFL career.
With all the injuries for your Texans, we might need a Know Your Foe's Foe article later in the week, but for now, let's get to Know Week Three's Foe - the Carolina Panthers.
2021 Schedule (2-0)
Week 1 - W @ New York Jets 19-14
Week 2 - W New Orleans Saints 26-7
Week 3 - @ Houston Texans (Thursday night)
Week 4 - @ Dallas Cowboys
Week 5 - Philadelphia Eagles
Week 6 - Minnesota Vikings
Week 7 - @ New York Giants
Week 8 - @ Atlanta Falcons
Week 9 - New England Patriots
Week 10 - @ Arizona Cardinals
Week 11 - Washington Football Team
Week 12 - @ Miami Dolphins
Week 13 - BYE
Week 14 - Atlanta Falcons
Week 15 - @ Buffalo Bills
Week 16 - Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Week 17 - @ New Orleans Saints
Week 18 - @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Panthers OFFENSE (in 2021 regular season)
Rushing Yards Per game - 100.0 ypg (21st in the NFL)
Passing Yards Per game - 282.0 ypg (9th)
Total offense per game - 382.0 ypg (14th)
Turnovers lost - 2 (1 Fumble lost, 1 INT)
Expected Panthers starting offense for Week One
QB - SAM DARNOLD
RB - Christian McCaffrey
WR - Robby Anderson
WR - D.J. Moore
WR - TERRACE MARSHALL
TE - DAN ARNOLD/TOMMY TREMBLE
LT - CAM ERVING
LG - PAT ELFLEIN
C - Matt Paradia
RG - John Miller
RT - Taylor Moton
Key Offensive Non-Starters
TE - Ian Thomas
RB - ROYCE FREEMAN
RB - CHUBA HUBBARD
WR - Brandon Zylstra
OT - Trent Scott
Italics - Rookie
ALL CAPS - New to team in 2021
Keys to winning v. the Panthers Offense
- The biggest small man on the field - This reference is clearly Panthers do-it-all weapon Christian McCaffrey. The last time McCaffrey set foot in NRG Stadium, he reeled in 37(!!) touches - 27 rush attempts and ten receptions for 179 yards and a rush touchdown. He wasn't healthy long enough in 2020 to really get the full OC Joe Brady experience. But, it's happening early in 2021 for sure. Brady is finding as many ways to give McCaffrey the football in the run game. They have a ton of different concepts in the run game and McCaffrey excels in all of them. But, he's almost even better as a receiver than he is a running back and he finishes all his runs with authority. He's less than 200 lb., but he's as tough to tackle as Nick Chubb or Kareem Hunt, both of whom were a thorn in the Texans' defense side last Sunday. He's a problem, a major one.
- How different is it? - As I noted above, what saves the Panthers run game is McCaffrey and the diverse nature of the run game. The subtle wrinkles make that facet of the offense really go. For example, last week against the Saints, Brady mixed split zone blocking with counter backfield action and the Saints got lost looking for #22. He then darted behind his tight end and ran in the game sealing touchdown. Now, if it becomes a phone booth fist fight, the Texans front seven can win that brawl. But, the way that Brady mixes the run game concepts will keep the Texans on their toes. So, read keys. Run through the face of a blocker. Hit and wrap up a great running back. That last part is harder than anything else, but the first two are non-negotiables to slow down this Panthers run game.
- You give it, they'll take it - The one thing that seems very consistent with this Panther offense is taking what they get. If teams are leery of the speed of Robby Anderson and D.J. Moore and plan to take away deep shots, Panthers QB Sam Darnold will fire slant routes all day long. Play hard inside leverage, he'll fire speed outs to his pass catchers and steal five to seven yards any time. Get too aggressive playing the run, Darnold will boot out and get a good look out of the chaos of the pocket. Play nickel or dime, they'll mash McCaffrey on a defense against advantageous numbers. It's a chess game and a defense can't take away everything. When the defense does declare, so to speak, the Panthers will chase the void left behind for sure.
- Moving on out...and up...and through - We first saw Panthers QB Sam Darnold in 2018 when he was a rookie for the Jets. He was a rookie in a number of different ways, but the one thing that became a massive concern was his ability to get out of danger in the pocket and the wheels he had to turn upfield and get yards as a runner. We learned right away that he's incredibly mobile and if he could ever get with a coach/coaching staff that truly understood how to capitalize on those movement skills and Darnold's innate ability to make throws on the run, Darnold could really be dangerous. Enter Joe Brady. As the Panthers OC, he's putting Darnold on the move enough to keep defenses honest and Darnold, like Baker Mayfield last week, is capable of turning a strong rush effort into a futile one by escaping the pocket and running for a first down. The discipline needed this week to corral Darnold on the run is at the top of the list for these Texans pass rushers.
- Hit on 19 - That all said, there's still going to come a time in this game when Darnold hits on 19 when the dealer has a five showing. If you don't play blackjack, just know that move is inexcusable and hurts everyone at the table. Here's what I mean...Darnold's swashbuckling style, so to speak, can hurt him at times when he tries to make EVERY play. It leads to an inexcusable mistake and it was part of his issue when he was with the New York Jets. Even in a masterful 60 minute performance against the Saints, he made a crucial one. As he was being sacked by a pair of Saints, he still tried to throw the ball. Commendable? Sure. Right thing to do? Hardly. Predictably, the ball squirted out and the Saints recovered, which led to the only Saints score of the day. The Texans would love a multitude of mistakes from Darnold on Thursday night, but when The One happens, the Texans must take full advantage.
Panthers DEFENSE (in 2021 regular season)
Rushing Yards Allowed Per game - 46.5 ypg (1st in the NFL)
Passing Yards Allowed Per game - 143.5 ypg (1st)
Total offense Allowed per game - 190.0 ypg (1st)
Turnovers generated - 3 (3 INT, 0 Fumble recoveries - Panthers are +1 in TO margin)
Expected Panthers starting defense for Week One
DE - Brian Burns
DT - DaQUAN JONES
DT - Derrick Brown
DE - MORGAN FOX
LB - Shaq Thompson
LB - Jermaine Carter
LB - HAASON REDDICK
CB - JAYCEE HORN
S - Juston Burris
S - Jeremy Chinn
CB - Donte Jackson
Key Defensive Non-Starters
DE - Yetur Gross-Matos
S - SEAN CHANDLER
DT - Bravvion Roy
CB - Stanley Thomas-Oliver III
LB - FRANKIE LUVU
CB - RASHAAN MELVIN (PS called up for last Sunday's game)
Italics - Rookie
ALL CAPS - New to team in 2021
Keys to winning v. the Panthers Defense
- Speed Kills - DE Brian Burns and DE/LB Haason Reddick are two of the fastest pass rushers in this league. Their burst off the snap is insane and the problems they each create are the biggest key to the game against this defense. In his first four years in the league, Reddick had 7.5 sacks for the Arizona Cardinals. In the last 17 games, he has 15.5 sacks, including 10.5 in his last six games. DC Phil Snow does a wonderful job scheming up his defense to get Reddick one-on-one and his speed and bend are a problem. Burns? He doesn't need to be schemed up, per se. I studied him last summer and this guy has a tool kit of pass rush moves - spins, chops, swipes, rips and straight speed. One of these two will get a one-on-one matchup throughout the game and that's going to be a massive challenge for the Texans edge protectors.
- Shaq in the House - When Matt Rhule took over as the head coach of the Carolina Panthers, one player came to mind who could play a huge role for this fast, twitchy defense - Shaq Thompson. It feels like he's been unleashed in this defense and no offensive blockers seem to be quick or agile enough in the run game to occupy him, much less get a hat on him. He's made plays all over the field in the run game and the pass game and he personifies the speedy aggression that is the hallmark of this defense. The Texans offensive front must get a hat on him and make him play the game in a phone booth.
- Eight ball - Neither the Jets nor the Saints really had enough time to throw the rock such that either offense could put the Panthers first round rookie Jaycee Horn in the spotlight. He's a wonderful, young player and should have a long, prosperous career for the Panthers. But, he's a rookie. With Donte Jackson, the seasoned veteran on the other side, if the Texans provide the protection for QB Davis Mills, Horn should see his fair share of action in only his third start in the league.
- Where is 21? - When I first saw Panthers S Jeremy Chinn in person at the 2020 Senior Bowl, I was blown away by his movement skills at his size. Then I thought, is he a linebacker or a safety? The answer is yes. He's actually both, really. He lines up all over the field but where he really creates a problem is when he mugs in the A gaps as a potential pass rusher. DC Phil Snow does a tremendous job with A gap muggers and Chinn's dual threat abilities, size and speed make him the perfect fit. Sometimes he drops. Sometimes he rushes. But, he makes plays ALL THE TIME. The Texans must account for #21 no matter where he lines up on the field.
- Comfortability, first and foremost - Thursday night's game will be the first start in the career of Texans rookie quarterback Davis Mills. Keeping him comfortable with all the different looks he'll see from Phil Snow's defense is paramount to being efficient on offense. Even with some up and down moments, against an athletic Browns defense, Mills settled in and, with a made field goal, would've produced ten points in his last three drives. He had two drives of 55 yards or more and nine first downs. Keep him comfortable and efficient and let's see what he does over the entire 60 minutes against the number one defense in the NFL.
The Texans will host the Carolina Panthers on Thursday Night Football. Kickoff is set for 7:20 p.m. CT on NBC, NFL Network and SportsRadio 610. Click here for tickets.
Check out the top photos from today's Houston Texans practice.