Panthers turn up pressure, give Matt Rhule first NFL win

Carolina Panthers coach Matt Rhule lowered his head, paused for what seemed like eternity, and then went into a four-minute explanation for why you couldn't blame the lack of a pass rush the first two games on coaching, scheme or personnel.

"It's a very complex question," Rhule said this past week. "That's why I'm taking my time on it. It's never any one thing. It's a complex thing that we'll improve on and hopefully at some point it won’t be a story."

The Panthers improved in a hurry, getting two first-half sacks in Sunday's 21-16 victory against the Los Angeles Chargers after having none in the first two games and collecting 19 pressures after having a league-low six during an 0-2 start.

Because of that and an efficient offense playing without star running back Christian McCaffrey for at least the next three games, the story now is about Rhule getting his first win as an NFL coach and how a team left for dead might have reason for hope.

And, oh by the way, ending a 10-game losing streak dating back to Week 9 last season.

The Panthers (1-2) actually were more confident after watching the Las Vegas Raiders beat NFC South rival New Orleans on Monday night, understanding the Saints are one of the best teams in the league and knowing they took the Raiders to the wire in the opener.

Players and coaches realized that if they tightened up a few things, didn't panic after the loss of McCaffrey to an ankle injury and began pressuring the quarterback they could win.

On pressures, check. The two sacks in the first quarter led to field goals and set the tone for the day.

On not panicking without McCaffrey, check. Mike Davis had 46 yards rushing on 13 carries and caught eight passes for 45 yards and a touchdown. Offensive coordinator Joe Brady did a nice job of blending in wide receiver Curtis Samuel as a running back, getting him four carries for seven yards.

On tightening things up, check. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater had no turnovers after having three the week before and the team had only two penalties for 15 yards.

Now, can the Panthers beat Arizona next week at home to even its record to 2-2 and become the playoff team McCaffrey and several other players said they could be this past week?

"We're getting better," Rhule said. "It's Week 3 of figuring out who we are. It wasn't perfect, but the pressure allowed us to be in the game."

Season changing: It’s too early to tell, but considering the Panthers had a chance to win their first two games and won this one, anything is possible.

QB Breakdown: The question posed all week was whether Bridgewater was a game-manager or game-changer. Offensive coordinator Joe Brady insisted Bridgewater was more than a game-manager. Bridgewater insisted his goal was just to win games. He did that without being a game-changer, completing 22 of 28 passes for 235 yards and a touchdown. Perhaps consistency counts toward being a game-changer.

Troubling trend: Missed tackles. The Panthers ranked fourth in the NFL, according to CBS, with 20 in the first two games, and continued to give up big plays with missed tackles on Sunday. The perfect example came on Austin Ekeler's first-half touchdown. You can argue whether it was a great move or missed tackle, but three defenders had Ekeler surrounded and he scored on a 12-yard run. Further evidence of why this is troubling, the Panthers allowed 194 yards after contact in the first two games. They allowed 63 in the first half on Sunday.

Pivotal play: The Panthers were about to settle for another Joey Slye field goal in the first half when the Chargers were called for an illegal formation for lining up over the center on the field goal attempt. Carolina took the first down and on the next play scored on a 13-yard catch by Davis for a 15-7 lead instead of 12-7.