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New Orleans Saints v Carolina Panthers

Source: Grant Halverson / Getty

The Panthers and their number one ranked defense hit the prime time stage Thursday night in a match-up with the Texans in Houston. After an impressive win over the Saints last week, the Panthers are 2-0 on the season. The Texans opened the year with a big win over the Jaguars before losing to the Browns last week. They also lost their starting quarterback – with star Deshaun Watson sidelined by a legal situation, Tyrod Taylor had taken over but injured his hamstring and landed on IR this week. That means the Panthers will face a rookie quarterback for the second time in three games when Davis Mills gets the start. “Excellent quarterback, really smart, has a big arm, moves well,” said Panther coach Matt Rhule. “And he’s extremely accurate.”

The Texans don’t only have a new quarterback, they’ve also got a new head coach in David Culley and plenty of new starters on both sides of the ball. Longtime defensive end J.J. Watt asked is gone, so are veteran receivers Chris Fuller and Randall Cobb. But there is lots of new talent, including receivers Chris Conley, Danny Amendola, and Andre Roberts, who join speedster Brandin Cooks in the lineup. They’ll face a Panthers defense that ranks first in the NFL allowing just 143 passing yards per game.

The Panthers are also number one against the run but they’ll have their hands full with the Texans rushing attack. After finishing dead last in the league in rushing offense last season, the Texans brought in three-time Pro Bowler Mark Ingram, former Bronco Phillip Lindsay and veteran Rex Burkhead. The trio teams with last season’s leading rusher David Johnson to form a potent attack that is averaging 121 yards per game, that’s 11th in the league. Johnson and Lindsay are also excellent pass catchers, both caught touchdowns last week.

After ranking next to last in the league in total defense last season, the Texans totally revamped their defense this offseason, bringing in former Bucs and Bears head coach Lovie Smith as defensive coordinator. Smith implemented a 4-3 base scheme and turned up the pressure – after forcing just nine turnovers last season, the Texans have five already through two games, that’s tied for 2nd best in the league. Veteran defensive end Whitney Mercilus now anchors the front line along with former Broncos standout DeMarcus Walker and Maliek Collins. The Texans also brought in longtime Browns linebacker Christian Kirksey, and the secondary features veteran cornerback Vernon Hargreaves and safety Justin Reid, who already has a pair of interceptions and a forced fumble on the season. “They’re solid,” said Panther quarterback Sam Darnold. “They do what they do and they do it really well. They got good players all around.”

On paper, the Panthers look to have the edge in this one. The defense has been playing lights out and they get another rookie quarterback today. But running back Christian McCaffrey said no one is content with the 2-0 record – they need to keep their foot on the gas to keep winning. “We’re definitely not where we want to be yet,” said McCaffrey. “I think it’s important that we maintain that attitude of not getting comfortable, not getting complacent and continuing just to put one foot in front of the other.”

by Sharon Thorsland

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Panthers in national spotlight versus Houston Thursday night  was originally published on wbt.com