Matt Rhule’s message is clearly working. Win shows they’re all-in.

Eufemia Didonato

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Throughout the first month of the Panthers’ season, head coach Matt Rhule has prioritized the need for the team to improve every day. Getting at least “1%” better is a phrase that Panthers coaches and players mention often. Coming off the team’s first win of the season […]

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Throughout the first month of the Panthers’ season, head coach Matt Rhule has prioritized the need for the team to improve every day. Getting at least “1%” better is a phrase that Panthers coaches and players mention often.

Coming off the team’s first win of the season against the Chargers a week ago, the offense had two areas that needed to be cleaned up: efficiency in the red zone and converting third downs.

Against the Cardinals at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday, the Panthers were better — much more than 1% — in both areas.

With the team’s top player, Christian McCaffrey, watching from the sidelines while recovering from a high ankle sprain, quarterback Teddy Bridgewater led the offense to its best game of the young season, possessing the football for 37:08, with a dominating 31-21 victory that allowed the Panthers to finish the first quarter of the season with an exclamation point.

“If this is the high point of the season, then we won’t have a very good season,” Rhule said on what is clicking for the team right now. “I will say this, the coaches aren’t any different. I just think the players getting more and more comfortable with what we do and how we do it. And then more and more making it how they do it. And that, to me, is the mark of a winner.

“When you’re 0-2, everyone wants to work really hard, but when you win a game, who doesn’t get complacent? And I thought our team this week worked really hard, and I was really pleased to see their mental energy going into this game.”

The Panthers (2-2) went 4 of 5 in the red zone and converted 7-of-11 third downs, in addition to converting one fourth-down attempt. All of that against a Cardinals’ defense that came into the game allowing the NFL’s second-lowest red-zone efficiency (30.8%) and the lowest third down-conversion percentage in the NFL (28.6%).

Despite that, Carolina was able to finish the game with a season-high 30 first downs (also tied for the third-most in franchise history) after having 14 just a week prior, while putting up 31 points — also the most this year.

Each of the stalls in the red zone finished with Joey Slye field-goal attempts. He made the first from 27 yards and then missed a 42-yarder, snapping a streak of 16 consecutive makes.

One area the Panthers will need to continue work on going forward is penalties after finishing with a season-high 10 for 72 yards.

The Panthers started the day not on the best of notes with wide receiver DJ Moore dropping a pass and then getting called for offensive pass interference on the opening drive. But the offense didn’t look back after that.

Despite the slow start to the drive, quarterback Bridgewater orchestrated a 13-play, 66-yard possession that concluded with a 1-yard Mike Davis touchdown run. The drive was especially impressive in part because of a decision by Rhule to go from it on fourth-and-2 from the Cardinals’ 41-yard line. Bridgewater got the first down on a 6-yard scramble, despite the play not being designed with that in mind.

“We called a naked (bootleg), wanted the receiver to be on the slide. And it was last minute, but this week Coach (Rhule) mentioned three letters, F-I-O: figure it out,” Bridgewater said. “And that’s what we had to do in that situation and we were able to get the first down, stay on the field.”

Davis put together another impressive performance in his second consecutive start in place of the injured McCaffrey. He finished with 84 rushing yards on 16 carries and five receptions for 27 yards. It was his first game with 100-plus scrimmage yards since 2018. He made defenders miss throughout the game.

But it was Bridgewater who scored the most impressive — or at least, most flashy — rushing touchdown of the day, scrambling for 18 yards to put the Panthers up 14-0 in the first quarter.

Throughout the game, the Panthers got a variety of offensive players involved — better than the team had in the first three games of the season. However, Bridgewater’s connection with the team’s No. 1 receiver Robby Anderson remained a highlight of the offense. The two combined for eight catches for 99 yards, and Anderson looked unstoppable at times on the field.

Running back Reggie Bonnafon caught his second career NFL touchdown in the second quarter to put the Panthers up 21-7, and tight end Ian Thomas caught a 2-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter to stretch the lead to 28-7. It was the team’s first touchdown by a tight end this season.

Bridgewater threw passes to eight different receivers throughout the game and his only significant error was an interception in the second quarter that was intended for Thomas, but was overthrown and picked off by Patrick Peterson.

There were often unsung heroes that stepped up for the offense. The offensive line helped contribute to the team’s rushing performance, putting up 168 yards on the ground, and Bridgewater rewarded them after the game with a game ball. Rhule pointed to wide receiver Curtis Samuel, who finished with three catches for 51 yards. Two of his catches came on those key third downs.

The defense held up on its end as well, holding the Cardinals to 94 yards in the first half. Star wide receiver, and former Clemson Tiger, DeAndre Hopkins, was contained to just seven receptions for 41 yards, but also was noticeably not 100%% after dealing with an ankle injury throughout the week. Quarterback Kyler Murray exploded for a couple runs, but the Panthers overall were able to contain him.

The Panthers’ offense spread the ball around throughout the game and put together three drives with double-digit plays. And the defense stifled the Cardinals’ offense at the right times, including defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos recording his first NFL sack and fumble forced on a strip-sack — Rhule won a challenge after the play was originally called an incomplete pass — that stopped a key drive early in the third quarter.

“That was a big sack and a big play that we needed, because they were driving the ball pretty successfully,” defensive end Brian Burns said. “We really needed that play and that was a big turnover for him. His first sack that was a big turnover for him. His first sack was a strip-sack at a clutch time.”

Even when Arizona’s offense got going, Carolina never let it get too close.

While correcting last week’s mistakes, the Panthers put together the most complete game of the season and notched a second straight win.

“You can be happy when you win, but to me, the real joy is in the doing, it’s in the coaching, it’s in the getting better. It’s those things,” Rhule said. “We’ll find out how good we are again next week. We’ll wake up tomorrow, we’ll set a mission of putting this game to bed and getting ready for next week.”


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