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5 Things to Watch: Sam Darnold, the running man

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CHARLOTTE — The Panthers don't have the attention this week that comes from being undefeated and playing the Cowboys.

That doesn't make it any less important to them, heading into this week's chance to go 1-0 against the Eagles.

The Panthers came out of last week's game with a number of areas of concern, and plenty of things to fix. But they also have a certain spark about them this week, with Wednesday's trade for former Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore making it clear they're planning on winning games this year.

The next opportunity comes in the Eagles, who have a different kind of running threat, and issues of their own.

Here's a look at five things to watch heading into Sunday's game.

RUN SAM, RUN

One of the statistics no one in the world of football would have expected through four weeks is for Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold to lead the league in rushing touchdowns.

His five rushing scores put him ahead of Ezekiel Elliott and Derrick Henry, and well, every other player in the league. And while everyone has sort of a half-grin when discussing it (like, "Are these people serious?"), Darnold's athleticism does add an element to the offense, especially in the red zone.

"It's been fun to be able to run the ball like that," Darnold said. "But at the same time, I've got to get down, and not take those hits when I don't have to. But it's fun, going out there and playing football and being able to run a little bit. It's a fun deal.

"I think it's a product of all these really good players around me. All these safeties and corners and linebackers, they have to commit to trying to stop all these guys around me, and sometimes a quarterback run opens up, like it has the last few weeks."

Offensive coordinator Joe Brady was asked this week if he went back to tape of their joint practices with the Ravens to steal some Lamar Jackson plays for Darnold. He broke character and laughed, knowing that Darnold might not be that kind of a runner, but he's effective in his own way.

"You know what, nothing's ever off the table," Brady said. "I think when you get in the red zone you have to find ways to get creative and find ways to get eyes looking different ways, to switch up, to make red zone communication errors.

"I don't think we're necessarily at the point to run the ball like Lamar can do. But it's definitely something else a team has to prepare for, and he's made the most of the opportunities."

Darnold, as is his custom, played it low-key when asked about his unusual statistical achievement. He laughed and told reporters he'd let them rank his best rushing moves. But he does enjoy being able to hand the ball to right tackle Taylor Moton in the end zone, to let him finish the traditional spike celebration.

"It's about the same," he replied when asked if he enjoyed running or passing for scores more. "I will say having the ball in my hand and getting to hand it to T-Mo for the spike, that's a feeling I don't usually have."

LET'S GET PHYSICAL

Panthers wide receiver DJ Moore has made his own imprint on the stat sheet this year, as he's tied for second in the league in receptions and fourth in receiving yards.

But he also got some earned praise this week from his coaches and teammates for his blocking ability as well. Not many receivers really want to lay people out (many of them aren't built for it), but Moore is more than willing.

"Do I enjoy blocking? I mean sometimes, but it comes with the nature of the business as a receiver," Moore said. "Delivering a hit, they're more likely to bounce off of you and make a tackle. Getting hit is worse than delivering one."

He laughed when asked about head coach Matt Rhule's assertion that in his day, Moore would have been a running back. Moore, for the record, is content to make cameo appearances only as a runner, and isn't signing up for a position switch or anything.

"It's always fun to be in the backfield," Moore said. "We all did it as kids in little league. So it's fun to get back there.

"Go back to it? Nah, I'll stick with playing receiver. Running backs take a lot of hits."

STOPPING THE LEAKAGE

The Panthers are going to have a new look on offense on Sunday, with left tackle Cameron Erving out. Rookie Brady Christensen could make his first start, though they haven't specified where.

Regardless of the construction of the line, they know it needs to improve after last week's issues at Dallas.

That's why general manager Scott Fitterer was ready to admit he's been looking for help there, while he's been out trading for all the cornerbacks.

"I think that's something you're always looking at," Fitterer said. "It's not like there's a lot of offensive linemen available. I think every team is in the same situation we are, looking for them.

"We like the guys we have here. I'm sure we'll move some guys around, try different combinations. If you ask our guys, they're all competing. Our own players would say they need to play better; there's too much leakage in there. However, we love the way they're going about it.

"There's just not a lot of offensive linemen on the market right now. No one's letting them out right now, even their backups."

They still have until the Nov. 2 trade deadline, and it's Fitterer, so you know he's on the phones. But at the moment, they're going to have to try to fix it from within.

BEING DISCIPLINED

The Eagles have their own offensive line issues, but they give quarterback Jalen Hurts some space to start with, to allow him to make the kind of run-around plays he's known for.

Per NFL Research, the Eagles start out of the shotgun formation on 90.6 percent of their offensive snaps, the highest number in the league. (The Panthers take 50.4 percent of their snaps from the shotgun, the fifth-lowest number in the league).

Hurts has the ability to run himself, or run to buy time to fling it downfield. But his varied abilities and their run-pass option offense are a different challenge than the Panthers saw a week ago, so they have to adjust their game plan.

While everyone wants to sack quarterbacks, keeping Hurts in the pocket isn't the worst idea, though that requires a gap discipline they didn't have last week in Dallas.

HEY, I KNOW THAT GUY

While Gilmore won't be eligible to play until Week 7, his main responsibilities at the moment are learning his new playbook, and learning the new people he's surrounded by after the midweek trade that brought him from New England.

Defensive coordinator Phil Snow was walking him around the building introducing him to people, when the magnitude of trading for the 2019 NFL Defensive Player of the Year landed on him.

"I took him into the defensive line room to introduce him," Snow recalled. "One of the rookies said, 'We know who you are.' So everybody knows who he is. That's the only way I really know him, and I'm glad to have him.

"He's been one of the best cover guys in the league for a long time. So obviously it allows us to send more than four people and not worry about who he's on. It adds a lot to what we can do."

Carolina is 5-7 all-time against Philadelphia, including record-setting fourth-quarter comeback in 2018 and a win in the 2003 NFC Championship game.

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