As Mayfield struggles, Panthers' defense shines in first win

Defensive end Brian Burns (53) and the rest of the Carolina Panthers' defense stepped up big in their Week 3 win over the New Orleans Saints. James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers didn’t win the Super Bowl on Sunday, as wide receiver Robbie Anderson reminded everyone in the locker room after snapping a nine-game losing streak that was the longest in the NFL.

“Some people might get caught up in the moment and get comfortable,’’ Anderson explained of his message after the 22-14 victory over the New Orleans Saints. “We’ve got a long way to go for our goal.’’

But the win may have revealed the Panthers' team identity under coach Matt Rhule -- and it has little to do with the offense and quarterback Baker Mayfield.

It has everything to do with the defense.

The unit seems legitimately on its way to going from “good to great,” as was the offseason mantra following a 2021 season when the defense ranked second in the NFL.

The only thing missing during an 0-2 start, when the defense played well enough to win, were turnovers. It had none, making Carolina the only team in the NFL without any.

That ended in the first quarter Sunday when linebacker Frankie Luvu stripped Saints running back Alvin Kamara of the ball and end Marquis Haynes Sr. returned it 44 yards for Carolina’s first defensive touchdown since Nov. 29, 2020.

Then, in the fourth quarter, with the outcome still undecided, the defense picked of quarterback Jameis Winston twice, the second with eight seconds remaining.

The defense also held Kamara to 61 yards rushing a week after holding running back Saquon Barkley of the New York Giants to 72 yards after he had posted 164 the week prior.

“We wanted to set the expectations high,’’ Haynes said. “We got challenged [Saturday] night getting back to having fun and going back to the old defense with turnovers and just having fun.’’

The defense’s high expectations were somewhat lost during a two-point loss to the Browns in the opener and a three-point loss to the Giants in Week 2, thanks to Mayfield's poor performance.

That continued Sunday with Mayfield’s third straight subpar outing. He completed only 12 of 25 pass attempts for 170 yards and one touchdown, a 67-yarder on which Laviska Shenault Jr. caught the ball behind the line of scrimmage, missed a diving tackle by defensive back P.J. Williams and raced untouched into the end zone.

Prior to that, Mayfield was a dismal 9 of 20 for 76 yards. His 52% completion rate this season is his lowest through three games, and his total quarterback rating that ranked last in the NFL entering Sunday won’t improve after his performance against the Saints.

“I’m going to look back on the tape and not be happy with my performance,’’ Mayfield said.

Mayfield, as was often the case the past four years at Cleveland, needs a solid running game and defense to succeed. He’s seldom going to beat a team on his own, the way Cam Newton did for the Panthers in his prime.

The Panthers were able to overcome Mayfield’s mediocrity Sunday behind running back Christian McCaffrey’s 108 yards rushing and their defense.

That doesn’t mean Mayfield won’t have good days, but so far he hasn’t.

“Offense is always a work in progress,’’ McCaffrey said. “It is kind of the mindset we have. Each week is a new week. And each week comes with different challenges.’’

The defense was up to the challenge Sunday, just as it has been for most of the first three games outside of a hiccup in the run defense against Cleveland.

“Robbie said it best,’’ Luvu said. “We haven’t won the Super Bowl yet. We’ve won one game. So we just take that mentality every week.’’