The preseason is over, and meaningful Panthers football is now less than two weeks away and, while it’s nice to see new additions flash during the preseason, they are now about to get a chance to show that they can actually help a team win. For the Panthers, no new addition is going to be more significant in how the season pans out than Sam Darnold and, while it was only the preseason, fans got their first extended look at Darnold in the Panthers’ final preseason game against the Steelers where he played the entire first half.
The numbers certainly tell an optimistic story as Darnold completed 19 of his 25 pass attempts (76%) for 162 yards and two touchdowns, but in order to get a fuller picture of how he performed we need to dive into the tape.
So, just how good was Sam Darnold against the Steelers?
Both last season with Teddy Bridgewater and in the 2018 season where Cam Newton was mostly healthy early on, the Panthers have relied on their receivers to turn short passes into longer gains after the catch, and Matt Rhule has made it clear that this is something that is going to be a feature in 2021 as well.
Here, on fourth down, Darnold shows good timing and a quick release to get the ball out to DJ Moore to convert on fourth down.
And while this isn’t super-flashy, Darnold also showed an ability to work through his progressions and check the ball down for positive yardage. On this next play, Darnold works the field but seeing nobody open gets the ball to Chuba Hubbard for four yards.
Like most teams, the Panthers were only using a subset of their playbook during the preseason and, while this will have made things simpler for Darnold in some cases, with the playbook expanding during the regular season there are likely to be more opportunities for Darnold to show that he cannot just function as part of the scheme but actively elevate it.
However, while there were unquestionably a lot of positives from his performance against the Steelers, there were also some areas where he could improve further.
Though only six of Darnold’s passes feel incomplete, some of those misses were by pretty hefty margins. Both of the following passes are examples of plays that Darnold will hope to correct going forwards. On the first, Darnold’s high release platform leads to an arcing throw wide of the mark while on the second he is unable to locate the pass while working off-balance.
In both cases, for a throw to have been completed Darnold would have had to fit the ball into a tight window with a defender nearby, but these are throws that he will hope to improve on moving forwards, at least to the point of giving his receivers a chance to make a play on the ball.
However, the most concerning element of Darnold’s play during his first three seasons in the NFL, namely his play under pressure, was also on display against the Steelers. This mostly shows up in terms of how it impacts his ability to read the play and make smart decisions with the ball. On this first play, Darnold has the space to make the throw but unnecessarily steps up into the pocket and into the arms of the defender.
Unfortunately, sacks are just a reality of playing quarterback, but taking unnecessary ones is always problematic and Darnold could do more to limit the number of sacks he takes. Here, Darnold is doing his best to keep the play alive and get the first down but when backed-up this far inside field goal territory he needs to be content with either a minimal gain or an incompletion rather than taking a bad sack by holding the ball too long.
This is something that Matt Rhule mentioned specifically after the game.
“I wasn’t happy with the ball that they called an incomplete,” admitted Rhule. “That’s not what we need. You know, we are in field goal range.”
The Panthers’ offensive line isn’t expected to be the strength of the offense this season, and while this is an area the Panthers are hoping improves with time, Darnold is going to need to have a good sense of pressure to make this a winning season for the Panthers and eliminating plays like these will go a long way towards that.
He could also do better to try and limit his movement in the pocket when there isn’t ether an imminent threat of a sack or an opportunity to run the ball, such as on this next play where he does ultimately fit the ball in to Dan Arnold but only after nearly breaking a comparatively clean pocket.
However, more than sacks, what Darnold really needs to eliminate from his game are the turnovers. While he didn’t have any against the Steelers, there was at least one play that could have ended up going the other way.
There are two things that go wrong with this play; the throw is really very late, and the ball is wildly off target; and it is likely the combination of the two that saves Darnold from an interception. If the throw had been made on target as Anderson crosses the face of the receiver, then this likely ends with a first down, but by delaying the throw it allows the underneath defender to drift under the throw which, should the pass have been more on-target, would likely have led to an interception.
Ultimately, the throw is too off-target for the underneath defender to be a factor and the defender that the throw ultimately hits is likely so taken by surprise at it being there that he is unable to come down with the pick. Darnold got away with it here, but these are mistakes that could well lead to interceptions in the future and so are things that he must continue to work to eliminate from his game.
There were bright spots in Darnold’s performance on Friday night and it seems reasonable to expect that he will have more license to make use of his mobility during the regular season, not to mention an offense that should be more aggressive pushing the ball down the field as the playbook expands.
Against his former team, he will get a chance to make a real statement in week one but, in order to do that, he will need to make sure he maximizes his positives while eliminating the negative plays that have dogged him thus far in his career. If the Panthers’ offensive line can help him out in that then it’s all the more likely that the Panthers will have a chance of being relevant this season.
(Top photo via Chanelle Smith-Walker/Carolina Panthers)