CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Sam Darnold spent the better part of this season on the sideline in a boot, learning the importance of patience while watching other quarterbacks play.
Those lessons appear to be paying off.
Darnold is 2-0 since taking over as Carolina’s starting quarterback and has the Panthers (5-8) in control of their playoff destiny with four games remaining. If the Panthers win out, beginning Sunday at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers, they’ll win the NFC South.
“I think the biggest thing I learned was patience,” said Darnold, who was 4-7 as Carolina's starter last season. “When I’m back there, I’m taking the shots when they are there, but at the same time being patient and understanding what the situation is. First and second down, you want to stay ahead of the chains, and then on third down being able to go through my reads and use my legs if I have to.”
The No. 3 pick in the 2018 NFL draft hasn’t put up eye-popping numbers by any means, throwing for 284 yards and two touchdowns in two starts.
He hasn’t needed to.
With the Panthers running the ball so effectively, Darnold’s biggest task has been managing the game and not turning the ball over.
“I love fact that he is protecting the football,” Panthers interim coach Steve Wilks said. “That is critical and key for our success."
Darnold has led 20 drives (excluding those ending in kneel downs) and the Panthers have scored five touchdowns and six field goals in wins over Baltimore and Seattle. They've not turned the ball over.
Steelers defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said the Panthers have “settled down” with Darnold under center.
“He’s doing some things with his feet, getting out of some jams that way with some long runs and scrambles and keeping drives alive,” Austin said. “You can kind of see that’s the way they’re going. They’re going to run. They’re going to take their shots. He has the ability to make all the throws.”
COMMITTED TO THE RUN
The Panthers ran the ball 46 times for 223 yards in last week's 30-24 win over Seattle and have made no secret about their offensive identity being running the football.
The Panthers called runs on 16 of their final 18 plays over their final two possessions against Seattle to close it out.
"Every good team establishes an identity," Darnold said. “We know what we're going to do and (defenses) essentially know what we're going to do. There is a ton of tape of us doing the same thing over and over again. ... At the end of day, it's can they stop us?"
The Steelers got run over last week in a loss to Baltimore, giving up 215 yards rushing even though the Ravens were playing without injured quarterback Lamar Jackson and lost backup Tyler Huntley early in the second half.
“The ball snaps, you kick butt or you get your butt kicked,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “Football is a legitimate humble man’s game.”
WE HAVE THE MEATS!
One notable example of Carolina's commitment to running the ball is the team lining up against Seattle with eight offensive linemen on the field for one play. It's a formation they call “Arby’s.”
Guard Brady Christensen explained that's because of the company's slogan: “We have the meats!”
“I like that nickname, it’s cool,” Panthers running back D’Onta Foreman said. “If you are all out there, Arby’s, hook my men up.”
Tomlin's next losing season as an NFL head coach will be his first.
Yet with a month left in his 16th year on the job, Pittsburgh's wiggle room to avoid one in 2022 is gone. The Steelers need to win out or Tomlin's long run of sustained success will end.
And the players know it.
“Something that means a lot to me is Coach T,” defensive tackle Montravius Adams said. "Never had a losing season and I just don’t want that to be under my belt. He’s a guy that when I came in, gave me a lot of morale to play better and I’m sure a lot of guys in the locker room feel this way but we’ve got to get it right.”
GETTING HIS KICKS
The Panthers have been rewarded for their patience when it comes to kicker Eddy Pineiro.
There was some outside talk about Pineiro’s future after he missed a 48-yard extra point at the end of regulation and a field goal in overtime in a heartbreaking midseason loss to Atlanta. But instead of cutting Pineiro or bringing other kickers in for a tryout, Wilks threw his support behind him.
Pineiro has since made 12 of his last 13 field goals. He has now made 92.6% of his field goal attempts this season, making him the second-most accurate kicker in the league.
“We had no thought about bringing in a kicker,” Wilks said. “We had total confidence in Eddy and we wanted to make sure he got the support he needed. We put our arms around him and he's been consistent since.”
The Steelers have dominated the series against the Panthers, winning the last six games by a combined margin of 213-80. Pittsburgh has won each of the last six games by at least 10 points, including a 52-21 shellacking in 2018.
AP Sports Writer Will Graves contributed to this report.
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