Throughout the Panthers’ three-game losing streak, Matt Rhule was adamant that he had no plans rest starters or shut down players who are healthy enough to play.
He proved that point when he played second-year defensive end Brian Burns on Sunday, who injured his knee last week and was considered a game-time decision.
Rhule’s only agenda, he said, was to win.
The Panthers did that Sunday, dominating Washington’s Football Team in the first half en route to a 20-13 win.
Here are four observations from the Panthers’ win:
1. Defense shows why there’s hope for Panthers future
Washington quarterback Dwayne Haskins looked confused and flustered all day. Credit the Panthers, who brought pressure.
Haskins was sacked twice. Defensive end Marquis Haynes sacked him in the first quarter, causing a fumble, which was recovered by Jermaine Carter. Rookie Yetur Gross-Matos got to Haskins in the second half.
That led to three Washington turnovers.
The one thing that was holding the Panthers’ defense back earlier this season was getting pressure on the quarterback. Aside from Brian Burns, sacks had been hard to come by. But in recent weeks, the Panthers have stepped up.
They have seven sacks in the last two weeks, including the two against Haskins, who finished 14-of-28 passing for 154 yards.
The Panthers have one of the youngest defenses in the league. Three of their best defensive players are first- and second-year players in Derrick Brown, Brian Burns and Jeremy Chinn.
2. Chase Young may have pulled ahead in DROTY race
The two front runners for Defensive Rookie of the Year — Chinn and Chase Young — had a chance to state their case Sunday, and it was Young who seemed to come out on top.
He was a difference-maker for Washington with one strip-sack and a quarterback hit that resulted in Teddy Bridgewater throwing an interception.
Young finished with four tackles, a sack and a forced fumble.
Chinn, meanwhile, had eight tackles. He was in coverage against J.D. McKissick when Taylor Henicke found the running back for a 29-yard touchdown pass late in the fourth quarter.
Chinn was called for a pass interference on the play, which Washington declined.
Both players have made huge impacts on their teams this season. Chinn has played multiple positions for the Panthers and has two defensive touchdowns. He also has 110 tackles.
Young has 6.5 sacks and four forced fumbles. He also has a defensive touchdown. But in a Charlotte Observer survey two weeks ago, most voters of the award said they were leaning toward Young.
Sunday’s game likely on solidified those thoughts.
3. Panthers could fall out of contention for top-10 pick
Before Sunday’s game, the Panthers were projected to pick No. 4 in the 2021 NFL draft, with a chance to draft No. 3 if they lost. But with their latest win, they are in position to pick ninth.
That could change next week depending on how the Week 17 games shake out.
The Panthers (5-10) face the Saints (11-4) next Sunday at home. With a first-round bye on the line, the Saints are likely to play their starters Sunday, making it a difficult matchup.
If the Panthers do win, they could fall as far as No. 14.
When asked about that, Rhule was once again adamant about wanting to win.
“We’re the Carolina Panthers, we’re a professional football team and we’re someone that … people, when they line up and play us, to respect us, and know that they’re going to be in for a dogfight and then we expect the win,” Rhule said. “To do anything else but that does not respect the Panther, and to me I’m always going to put the Panther first and we have to find ways to win games.”
4. Teddy Bridgewater showed some improvement
Before Sunday, Bridgewater hadn’t thrown a touchdown since the Panthers’ close loss to the Vikings in Week 12. He was trying to do more than what he was asked and was struggling as a result.
Team owner David Tepper didn’t exactly give him a vote of confidence last week when asked about his quarterback’s performance this season.
“I think when you get to quarterbacks and NFL in general, you always want to try to figure out, do you have the best that’s in the position of this right now?” Tepper said last week. “And that’s constant evaluation and reevaluation of that. And that’s what we’ll constantly go through.”
Bridgewater’s long-term future at Carolina is on the line these last two games of the season.
Sunday against Washington, which boasted the fourth-best passing defense in the league, Bridgewater was better. He found Curtis Samuel on a deep 44-yard pass. Three plays later, he connected with Robby Anderson on a 14-yard passing touchdown.
He finished 19-of-28 passing for 197 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
“As frustrating as it’s been all year coming up short, you learn so many lessons each week,” Bridgewater said, “and this week, we learned another valuable lesson that we have a bunch of tough guys who will battle through whatever just to see this team win.”