Keeping Sam Darnold upright will make or break the game for Panthers against Saints

·3 min read

One of the biggest questions for the Panthers heading into the 2021 NFL season was whether their offensive line could protect Sam Darnold.

When he was with the New York Jets, Darnold was used to being pressured, and Carolina wasn’t great in 2020, either

Heading into Week 2 against the Saints, it’s clear that those questions haven’t been fully answered. Darnold was under duress for much of the Panthers’ 19-14 win over the Jets. While he was only sacked once, he was hit seven times and was pressured 14.

But the Saints aren’t the Jets, and if the Panthers can’t keep the Saints’ pass rush away from Darnold, they could be in for some trouble.

“We talked as a staff, as a unit and we obviously hold ourselves to a higher standard,” Panthers offensive coordinator Joe Brady said Thursday. “The pressure on the quarterback, the hits on the quarterback, we obviously take that personal. It’s a point of emphasis. We know that this week, New Orleans prides themselves on getting to the quarterback and playing with energy.”

The Saints allowed the fifth-fewest passing yards and fourth-fewest rushing yards in 2020. They were also eighth in sacks with 45. Defensive end Cameron Jordan is the anchor on their defensive line. He was second on the team with 7.5 sacks in 2020.

Last week, the Saints dominated 2020 NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in a 38-3 win. The Saints forced three turnovers — two interceptions and a forced fumble — and held the Packers to 229 total yards.

“They are extremely good up front on the defensive line,” Panthers coach Matt Rhule said. “Their defensive line coach, Ryan Nielsen, I think is one of the best. They’re disruptive.”

The Panthers played well against the Jets overall, but their offensive line struggled. Left guard Pat Elflein allowed five pressures last week, including three hits and two quarterback hurries. Dennis Daley, who was filling in at right guard for John Miller, allowed two pressures, including the lone sack and another hit.

Left tackle Cameron Erving allowed three pressures.

“Ultimately, we just want to limit any type of hits on the quarterback we can,” right tackle Taylor Moton said.

Neither Brady nor Rhule on Wednesday would say whether the Panthers were making a change on their offensive line. Both said the best five offensive linemen would play.

Miller, who was activated off the reserve/COVID-19 list earlier this week, could return to the starting lineup. The biggest hurdle holding him back is his conditioning.

Miller said he was down “pretty bad” for three of four days after contracting COVID-19. He began getting symptoms on Sept. 4. He said he got worse the next Monday. He stayed home throughout the process, but never felt he needed to go to the hospital.

Miller said it has been tough getting back into game shape.

“Running around on the field Wednesday morning, I did a little conditioning and I was like, ‘Wow, my lung capacity is not what it used to be,’ ” Miller said.

Miller said it will take some time to get back into game shape. He said he feels like he could play up to his standards for one half, but he is still working to getting back to where he was before the virus.

“I had a lot of time to sit and think and reflect about different things, and obviously the most important thing that came up to me, was how much I love the game of football,” Miller said.

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