The Carolina Panthers (2-0) and Houston Texans (1-1) enter Thursday night’s game tied for the best record in their respective divisions. It’s a tenuous-looking standing in the NFC South for Carolina because the defending Super Bowl champion Buccaneers look like they haven’t missed a beat. And it looks tenuous for Houston in the AFC South because a season that came with the lowest of expectations has a long way left to go. The greater pressure to win falls squarely on the Panthers, however, who look to keep pace with the Bucs against a short-handed Texans team missing quarterback Tyrod Taylor due to injury.
Here are four things to watch Thursday night when the Texans host the Panthers:
1) Mills’ mobility to be tested
This is a bad week for the Texans to have to replace an elusive, athletic quarterback like Taylor with the more stationary Davis Mills, a rookie. The Panthers pass rush has been dominant in two games (10 sacks). It would be less concerning if the Panthers were counting on a single, star edge rusher who could be neutralized by Houston’s outstanding left tackle, Laremy Tunsil. Instead, the reality is that defensive end Brian Burns, who leads Carolina with three sacks, has plenty of help. Eight Panthers have at least an assisted sack, and Morgan Fox leads the way in pressures with 10. Expect the Texans' game plan to get the ball out of Mills’ hand as quickly as possible.
2) The new Darnold, chapter 3
Panthers fans are counting on a change of scenery making a big difference for their new quarterback, Sam Darnold. Through two weeks, on the heels of three disappointing seasons with the Jets, he's made an initial jump from poor to adequate. His 100.5 passer rating currently ranks 14th in the NFL. What might Darnold have in store for Thursday? Watch for play-action. Darnold's passer rating jumps to 128.9 on play-action attempts, while the Texans defense has been hurt by play-action (75% completions allowed, 10.3 yards per attempt), per Next Gen Stats.
3) Watch out for McCaffrey
The Cleveland Browns exposed the Texans run defense last week, primarily with Nick Chubb (11 carries, 95 yards). New Texans defensive coordinator Lovie Smith is overseeing a scheme change from a 3-4 to a 4-3, with free-agent signee Christian Kirksey calling the signals. If the Texans' run fits are leaky again Thursday, Christian McCaffrey will run wild. The Panthers star running back looks like himself again after an injury-marred 2020. The Saints managed to hold him to 3.0 yards per carry last week, but his explosiveness is back. Houston will also be challenged to hold him in check as a receiver; his 154 receiving yards lead all NFL running backs.
4) Looking for Cooks
Through two games, Texans wide receiver Brandin Cooks doesn't just lead this receiving corps -- he is the receiving corps. His 21 targets are more than the rest of the team's wide receivers combined. His 210 yards are nearly five times that of Danny Amendola (43), who likely won't play this week with a thigh injury. Nico Collins is out with a shoulder injury. Cooks caught Mills' lone TD pass against the Browns on a play-call Cooks himself suggested to offensive coordinator Tim Kelly. He will be a handful for Panthers cornerbacks Donte Jackson and Jaycee Horn, but beyond Cooks, Mills' progression should move directly to backs and tight ends.