CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Carolina Panthers sideline was littered with starters out of uniform.
Teddy Bridgewater stood next to Christian McCaffrey in Carolina blue jackets. Twenty yards down the field stood left tackle Russell Okung, while corner Donte Jackson watched further down the line.
Despite the absences and last-minute decision for quarterback P.J. Walker to get his first career NFL start over the injured Bridgewater, the Panthers ended a five-game losing streak with the team’s most dominating performance of the season in a 20-0 win over the Lions on Sunday.
The Panthers (4-7) were helped by multiple mistakes by the Lions (4-6), but the defense’s ability to get off the field on third down, and the best-third quarter offensive performance of the season, helped Carolina do something it hasn’t done all year and dominate a football game.
Bridgewater warmed up prior to the game to test his knee, but was ruled out just prior to kickoff, giving Walker the opportunity after winning the quarterback competition in practice.
“He was cleared to go, he was allowed to go, he wanted to go. I just felt like as I watched him move, he moved at like 80, 85%. And I didn’t feel like it would be at that position, especially with his history on the left knee, I didn’t feel like it was the right thing to do, to ask him to go out there and go against his instincts (in terms of being able to scramble),” head coach Matt Rhule said.
Was the 25-year-old former XFL star perfect? Far from it. He threw two extremely questionable interceptions in the end zone that were each head-scratching in their own way.
But he made throws when he needed to and established a quick connection with DJ Moore, who finished the game with seven receptions for a season-high 127 yards.
Walker completed 24 of 33 passes for 258 yards and a touchdown. He also went 9 of 9 for 90 yards and a touchdown in the third quarter, a period in which the offense has struggled to put up points and win the time of possession battle all season. But against the Lions, a team battling for a playoff spopt, the Panthers scored a season-high 10 points in the 15 minutes after halftime.
Walker got wide receiver Curtis Samuel significantly involved as well, connecting on 8 passes for 70 yards and the touchdown.
But it was the other side of the ball that clinched the win. Carolina’s defense had a season-high five sacks and came away with the team’s first shutout since 2015 (38-0 vs. Atlanta). The Lions’ 185 net yards were the fewest the Panthers had allowed since 2017 and a far cry from the team’s average of 380 yards allowed per game this year.
“I thought our defense was the tale of the day. Did a fantastic job getting to the quarterback, not allowing big plays and getting off the field on third down after our third down woes,” Rhule said. “I thought the staff went back, the players went back and they had our best week of practice our best week of preparation and I think it showed up in the game.”
Detroit’s Matthew Stafford, who came into the game with an injured right thumb, was pressured throughout the second half and made uncomfortable. Against the Lions, coordinator Phil Snow dialed up pressures for Brian Burns and Efe Obada with each putting up season-best performances.
Last week against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Panthers’ young defense was unable to get off the field, allowing 544 yards. Rhule called the performance “unacceptable.” A variety of leaders on defense took the blame, including Shaq Thompson calling his team out in the locker room. But against the Lions, the group looked like a completely different unit.
The Lions went 1 of 6 on third down in the first half against the NFL’s worst third-down defense since 1972 and finished the game 3 of 14. The Panthers forced their first three-and-out of the season in the third quarter.
After forcing just two punts combined over the last four games, Detroit had four punts in the first half and ended the game with six punts, a season-high forced for Carolina.
It was Walker doing enough and the defense stepping up for its most dominant performance in years, despite some of the team’s best players watching from the sidelines.
©2020 The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.)