CHARLOTTE — It’s not as if the Panthers don’t recognize they have an issue protecting their quarterback, especially without his most dangerous weapon.
Sunday, they moved their best offensive lineman to the most important position, and their replacement running back had 134 yards from scrimmage.
It was still a problem.
The Eagles sacked Sam Darnold three times, had eight quarterback hits, and he responded with his worst start as a Panthers quarterback, throwing three interceptions in a 21-18 loss at Bank of America Stadium.
“Obviously a tough loss. Did not play well enough today,” Darnold said. “That’s what it boils down to. Didn’t play my best football.
“For me, I’ve got to keep staying patient. To me, the biggest thing was pressing too much.”
That’s kind of what the Eagles were doing to him.
The Eagles kept constant pressure up the middle on Darnold, so staying in the pocket was often a luxury he couldn’t afford.
That came after they moved Taylor Moton to left tackle, to cover for the injury absence of Cameron Erving. It was something they anticipated possibly needing to do in training camp, as Erving has struggled to stay healthy in his career.
But Moton acknowledged after the game it’s still something he has to get used to, as he hasn’t started on the left since Week 2 of the 2018 season. Moton practiced there all last week, and said he felt “more comfortable as week went on.”
“Still got a ways to go after playing one side for so many years,” Moton said.
“Personally, I’ve got to look at myself in the mirror,” Moton added. “See what I can do to make sure I’m better for him, wherever I may play in the future.”
Darnold said he thought Moton “did a great job over there,” and also tried to divert as much of the blame as he could onto himself.
“I felt like some of those I was holding onto the ball too long,” Darnold said. “That can also lead to pressure. There’s a bunch of things that go into it, and I’ve got to watch the tape to really tell you the truth on some of those.
“A lot of instances, I was hanging onto the ball too long, and I’ve got to get it out.”
This remains a chicken-egg problem for the Panthers, however. They have to protect Darnold to give him a chance to succeed. And with two straight weeks of pressure causing him to unravel, they know they’re putting a target on themselves for future opponents.
“I feel like it all starts up front, personally,” Moton said. “The offensive line, we have a huge task, and it’s important to make sure we’re at our best for our quarterback and the rest of the team.
“Yeah, I feel like the more comfortable he is in the pocket, the better he plays. It goes hand in hand. So it’s up to us up front to do our jobs, look in the mirror, and see what we can do better.”
Of course, the problems up front were more than just plays that resulted in sacks or picks.
Even with backup running back Chuba Hubbard rushing for 101 yards in relief of the injured Christian McCaffrey, the Panthers weren’t able to hold onto a halftime lead (again). Unlike last week’s one-point margin against the Cowboys which fell apart in a hurry, they were up 15-3 against a one-win team when the problems began to mount.
Many of those issues continued to be self-inflicted.
Five of their nine penalties were on the offensive line, with Moton committing a couple of false starts. They were also poorly timed, with right guard John Miller’s holding on their final drive — when they could have tied the game with a field goal — backing them up an extra 10 yards just before Darnold’s final interception.
The sacks and the picks are the big-ticket items, but Panthers head coach Matt Rhule was also frustrated with the penalties.
“We’ve got to get to the point where the quarterback feels good about protection, to stay in the pocket,” Rhule said. “Certainly the tale of last week and this week was our inability to protect the quarterback. . . .
“It’s just where we’re struggling right now.”