Getting healthy will help Carolina Panthers, but coach Matt Rhule says they still 'have a long ways to go'

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – There is no question Carolina Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold misses running back Christian McCaffrey. His statistics are significantly worse the past three games without him than they were the first three, and he’ll be without the fifth-year back for at least two more games.

But don’t forget the defense has been without linebacker Shaq Thompson for two games and cornerback Jaycee Horn the past three.

Playing without them has as much, if not more, to do with three-game losing streak for Carolina (3-3), which started the season 3-0, as what’s happening on offense.

It certainly did in Sunday’s 34-28 overtime loss to the Minnesota Vikings (3-3).

The defense gave up 571 yards Sunday after giving up a combined 573 in the first three games. It had no sacks against the Vikings and has only three the past three games after leading the league with 14 the first three weeks.

The quarterback pressure that was such a big part of defensive coordinator Phil Snow’s unit also has drastically dissipated. Minnesota quarterback Kirk Cousins was pressured on just 8% (four of 49) of his dropbacks, which was Carolina’s lowest pressure rate in its past 10 seasons. The Panthers entered the day with a league-best rate of 42%.

Cousins was not pressured on any of his six dropbacks in overtime, as he easily took the Vikings 75 yards on nine plays for the game-winning touchdown.

The poor play of the defense -- which was ranked No. 1 in the NFL after the first three games -- along with the poor play of the offense, has the Panthers searching for answers.

With their stars out, this may be who they are.

“We have a long way to go,’’ coach Matt Rhule said when asked what Sunday’s game said about his team. “That we’re not where we want to be. You can’t line up and call two timeouts two plays in a row. You can’t take the sacks we took. You can’t turn the ball over.

“I like our competitive nature and our work ethic, ... but the execution has to come along with it. And I don’t see that.’’

He didn’t even mention the six dropped passes, including one by leading receiver DJ Moore in the end zone on a drive that ended with a field goal.

Carolina making it to overtime had to seem like a victory with all the mistakes made prior to that.

“As I told our guys, we’re not the type of team that’s going to show up and not execute and still win,’’ Rhule said.

The defensive struggles in particular were alarming after the promise showed the first three games. The good news there is help is coming.

Thompson may be ready for Sunday’s game against the New York Giants. Four-time Pro Bowl cornerback Stephon Gilmore, recently acquired in a trade with New England, is eligible to come off the physically unable to perform list this week.

Those two will help against teams that are loading up the edges with extra tight ends and wide receivers to chip Brian Burns and Haason Reddick on rushes.

Reddick hasn’t had a sack in two of the past three games after having 1.5 in each of the first three. Burns hasn’t had a sack in three straight games after having one in each of the first three.

“When you’re getting as much pressure as we were the first three weeks, teams game plan for that,’’ Reddick said.

Said Burns, “They was really double-chipping frequently throughout the game. Just putting guys in our way just to mess with our eyes, to slow us down. Three step, quick throws. All those kind of things, they just affect rushes.’’

The Panthers must find a way to deal with that just as they must with the loss of McCaffrey because of a hamstring injury.

It starts with Darnold. His six interceptions the past three games are tied for the most in the NFL this season during that span. His total quarterback rating without McCaffrey is 32, compared to 66 with him. His completion percentage has gone from 68 to 55 without the running back.

The Panthers need Darnold to look more like the quarterback who engineered a 96-yard touchdown drive and two-point conversion to send the game into overtime.

Darnold’s 25-yard fourth-down pass to Moore was his only completion under duress. He was 0-for-8 on such throws prior to that, according to ESPN Stats and Information.

He was mediocre to bad on everything prior to that one drive, though the six drops from his pass-catchers impacted that.

“Some guys will come back at some point here soon,’’ Rhule said. “That’ll help us. But overall, just program-wise, team-wise, we all have to be better.’’