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Pittsburgh Steelers v Carolina Panthers

Source: Chris Keane / Getty

Wow! I don’t know about you, but after that game between the Bucs and the Cowboys Thursday night, I’m seriously ready for some Panther football! We finally get to see the 2021 version of this Carolina squad when they take on the New York Jets on Sunday at Bank of America stadium. Kick-off is set for 1:00 on WBT. There are plenty of questions going into this one, starting with how will the quarterback look? Sam Darnold takes over an offense that struggled last season and was missing star running back Christian McCaffrey for all but three games. CMC is back – how will that change the offense? He can’t wait to find out. “I’m definitely excited,” said McCaffrey. “I mean, the emotions are obviously high. But at the end of the day it’s all about doing your job at a high level.”

The Jets definitely didn’t do their jobs at a high-level last season. They were one of the worst teams in the league, going 2-14. So they hit the reset button, bringing in former 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh as head coach, and using the second overall pick in the draft to take quarterback Zach Wilson out of BYU. Wilson replaced Darnold, who of course is now in Carolina, and early impressions have been good. “He’s a tremendously talented quarterback,” said Panthers coach Matt Rhule. “He’s looked great in the preseason. He’s a winner, he’s a gamer, he’s a young quarterback that’s got a dynamic way about him.”

After ranking last in the NFL last season managing just 15 points a game, the Jets brought in plenty of talent to help Wilson, starting with former Titans wideout Corey Davis. They also drafted Elijah Moore in the second round, he averaged 149 yards a game last season at Ole Miss. The Jets upgraded their rushing attack as well, bringing in former Falcon and 49er Tevin Coleman and drafting former UNC standout Michael Carter to team with third-year player Ty Johhson. Wilson and company will be lining up against a young and fast Panther defense that was middle of the road in total defense but had 22 takeaways last season, which tied for 9th in the league.

Of course, we all know that it’s the Panthers running back that will be getting plenty of attention in this game. McCaffrey will face a Jets defense that was actually pretty darn good against the run last season, allowing just 112 yards per game on the ground, that ranked 12th in the league. Injuries have depleted the front seven, with defensive ends Carl Lawson and Vinny Curry both out for the season, but standout defensive tackle Quinnen Williams is still around, and the Jets added veterans Sheldon Rankins and Shaq Lawson. They also get middle linebacker C-J Mosely back after he opted out last season. But slowing down McCaffrey is no easy task. “He’s a special player,” said Williams. “Fast, quick, he’s a lightning explosive player. Everybody knows that he’s one of the best running backs in the NFL.”

CMC is also a threat in the passing game, and that’s bad news for a Jets defense that ranked 28th in the league last season allowing over 275 passing yards per game. And this season they’ve got a bunch of young guys in the secondary, with three rookies rotating in at cornerback along with 2nd-year players Bryce Hall and Javelin Guidry. They do have a pair of veteran safeties in Marcus Maye and former Raider LaMarcus Joyner. “They’re sound, they’ve got really good players up front,” said Darnold when asked about his former team. “Their secondary’s been really good so far. But I feel like a whole other package gets released in Week One of the regular season. So it’s going to be really interesting to see what they do.”

It will definitely be interesting to see what Darnold and the Panthers do. They’ve only faced the Jets seven times before, winning four of those matchups, including their first-ever win back in 1995. There are plenty of storylines surrounding this game – CMC is back, Darnold is facing his former team – but they don’t need any extra motivation heading into this one. “We’re all excited to just play football,” said Darnold. “We’re all excited to have the fans back. And I’m excited to play the Jets and see what this football team can do.”

 

-Sharon Thorsland

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