It's hard to believe we're already into Week 3. Tonight's edition of "Thursday Night Football" sees the 2-0 Carolina Panthers square off with the 1-1 Houston Texans, who will be without their starting quarterback and are starting rookie third-rounder Davis Mills in his place.
The Panthers would be among the more surprising 3-0 teams we've seen in recent years, but given the contours of this game they seem to have a pretty good shot at getting there. Houston already having secured its first win is pretty surprising to many NFL observers, but the team could struggle to get another one over the next few weeks with Tyrod Taylor on the sideline.
So, how will this game shake out? We're glad you asked, because we're here to break down Thursday night's matchup.
How to watch
When the Panthers have the ball
Christian McCaffrey has turned 59 total touches (45 rushing attempts, 14 receptions) into a league-high 324 total yards. He didn't score in Week 1 and found pay dirt just one time in Week 2, but he was tackled at the 1- and 2-yard line last week. An absolute monster game is on its way, and it could very well be tonight.
The Texans have yielded 4.6 yards per carry to opposing backs (22nd in the NFL) and last week allowed Browns running backs to combine for four catches for 56 yards and a score. They have a league-low 21.3% pressure rate, per TruMedia, so Sam Darnold should have plenty of time to find McCaffrey, D.J. Moore, Robby Anderson, and Terrace Marshall Jr. at any level of the field.
Panthers offensive coordinator Joe Brady is doing a far better job of putting Darnold in position to succeed than Adam Gase ever did, and Darnold is largely taking advantage of the opportunities. He's had a few boneheaded throws here and there but he's also taking more chances further down the field than he did in the past, and he's been much more accurate with the ball now that he's been granted wider throwing lanes and adequate protection.
Texans cornerbacks could have their hands full with Carolina's receivers, who should provide a much tougher test than the group they squared off against last week with Odell Beckham sidelined and Jarvis Landry joining him after just a few plays.
Moore is in the midst of what looks like a breakout season, having connected with Darnold on 14 of 19 passes thrown his way for 159 yards and a touchdown. (That's despite the Panthers barely throwing the ball after halftime last week.) Anderson has surprisingly not gotten going yet despite having a pre-established rapport with Darnold from their time together in New York; it wouldn't be surprising if they got things going on Thursday night. Marshall has been utilized fairly often on short, quick throws to get the ball in his hands and let him try to make a play after the catch. Given his physical advantages and Brady's familiarity with his skill set from their days together at LSU, there's likely a degree of trust that he's being put in the right positions to make plays. That should continue in this game.
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When the Texans have the ball
Through the first two weeks of the season, the Panthers are leading the NFL in Football Outsiders' defensive DVOA thanks to their near-total shutdowns of both the Jets and Saints offenses. Those are two units with plenty of deficiencies (offensive line for New York, non-Alvin Kamara skill position players for New Orleans), but it's not like this Houston offense is anything to write home about.
Taylor buoyed the group with very strong play for the first week-plus of the season, but he's now on injured reserve. Mills, who played in relief of Taylor last week, will be under center for the foreseeable future unless he struggles badly enough to necessitate a switch to Jeff Driskel, who was elevated this week to the active roster from the practice squad.
Mills was once a top prospect coming out of high school, but injuries limited him to just 13 starts at Stanford, in which he completed 287 of 436 passes for 3,468 yards, 18 touchdowns, and eight interceptions. He unsurprisingly looked overwhelmed last week against the Browns, completing just 44.4% of his passes at an average of 5.7 yards per attempt while throwing a 2-yard touchdown pass and a pretty brutal interception where he targeted Andre Roberts in double coverage and missed well behind his receiver.
Mills was pressured on 52.6% of his drop backs last week, and could be in for a rough night on that front against Carolina, which has gotten pressure on an absurd 56.9% of opponent drop backs despite playing one of its two games against one of the best offensive lines in football. In particular, Brian Burns figures to live in or near Mills' lap all evening.
We ranked Burns sixth in our preseason list of the league's top 10 edge rushers for the 2021 season, noting that a monster season could be on its way.
This is admittedly a bit of a projection, but I can't help it. This dude is so uniquely skilled. He has the fastest pass-rush get-off in the league, per NFL.com's Next Gen Stats, and he's already been really productive (16.5 sacks, 37 hits, eight tackles for loss) despite playing just 43% and 71% of snaps in his first two NFL seasons. Now that the Panthers have added some more talent up front to take some of the pressure off, Burns should have even more room to operate. He should continue playing a larger and larger share of snaps. The 15- to 20-sack season is coming soon. This year could be it.
Two weeks in, it appears that season is happening. Burns whooped up on the Saints offensive line last week, just like he did against the Jets in Week 1. He has two sacks, three hits, and two tackles for loss already, and is one of just 22 players leaguewide with seven or more pressures so far.
Brandin Cooks has been easily the No. 1 passing game option for the Texans so far, and figures to remain just that with No. 2 option Nico Collins joining Taylor on IR. The Panthers have held opposing passing games largely in check through two weeks but haven't faced a speed threat like Cooks just yet. If the Texans can afford Mills adequate protection, perhaps he can hit Cooks on a play down the field.
Houston has mixed and matched four running backs, with Mark Ingram seeing the majority of the carries, David Johnson working as a pass catcher, Phillip Lindsay doing a bit of both, and Rex Burkhead seeing a handful of snaps here and there. None are expected to test the Carolina defense too much -- especially not behind one of the league's weakest offensive lines. There really doesn't seem to be much chance of this offense putting a scare into what has so far been arguably the NFL's best unit.
Prediction: Panthers 27, Texans 13