CHARLOTTE — The Panthers were a significantly different team when they played the Cardinals last year in the desert. Kyler Murray was a different quarterback, too, playing in just his third career game.
But in that contest, the Carolina defense sacked Murray eight times and forced a pair of interceptions in a 38-20 victory.
Murray has improved in avoiding sacks since then. In Arizona's final three games of 2019, he took only two. Through three games in 2020, he's been brought down six times.
After starting their 2020 season without a sack and just one quarterback hit through two games, the Panthers' pass rush picked up a pair of sacks, and eight QB hits against the Chargers last Sunday. Keeping that up against the speedy Murray this Sunday won't be an easy task.
"(If) you say, 'Let's try to not rush real aggressively, so we keep him in the pocket,' and then he stands back there all day and kills you. So he just presents a lot of problems," defensive coordinator Phil Snow said Thursday. "But I think the worst thing you can do is not be aggressive. You have to rush his upfield shoulder and try to keep him in the pocket, but not run by him either because that's when he steps up and takes off."
Snow knows all too well what Murray can do. When he was Oklahoma's quarterback in 2018, Murray threw for 432 yards and six touchdowns and added a seventh on the ground to defeat Baylor, 66-33. Then Baylor's defensive coordinator, Snow thinks Murray's gotten significantly better in the last two years.
"He was fearless in college, and now you've got to be smarter in pro football and he's done that," Snow said. "He's just a dynamic guy back there. Actually, he's fun to watch on tape. There's a lot of good athletes that can't catch him."
Plus, the Cardinals have the NFL's leader in receptions and receiving yards in wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins.
"He just finds a way and competes and comes down with the football," Snow said.
According to Snow, Carolina's coaches counted 21 pressures against Los Angeles last week. That's a vast improvement from the five pressures the defense recorded in each of the first two games.
But if the Panthers are to maintain that pace in Week 4, they'll have to get a lot right.
"There's a lot of details to rushing Murray, and we're going to have to be sharp with those details on Sunday," Snow said.
OFFENSE ON THIRD DOWNS AND THE RED ZONE
In the win over Los Angeles, the Panthers were 1-of-6 in red zone efficiency and 3-of-12 on third down. Five of the nine unsuccessful third down tries came in the red zone.
"The last game, a lot of them did marry together, but I think they are two separate entities," offensive coordinator Joe Brady said. "We've just got to continue to put those drives together to punch touchdowns in the red zone because that's what's going to win football games."
Brady reiterated the notion of third downs in the red zone being "four-point plays." Head coach Matt Rhule and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater have also mentioned that as the difference between getting a touchdown and settling for a field goal.
Carolina has converted 44.4 percent of its third downs, which currently ranks No. 13. But Arizona is the league's best defense at stopping third down, allowing first downs on just 28.6 percent of attempts.
"I think a big thing is getting people behind the chains in first and second down," Brady said. "But they're doing a great job, even in third-and-medium range.
"(W)hen you have a defensive end/outside linebacker who (has led) the league in sacks (Chandler Jones), you're able to impact the quarterback. I think they have very good corners that can shut down on the outside. So it allows you to kind of really dial-up anything you want with the defense."
The Panthers' best shot will be to stay in third-and-manageable situations, which means they'll need solid first- and second-down production.
THIRD DOWN DEFENSE
Carolina's defense is at the opposite end of the spectrum, ranking No. 31 by surrendering 56.8 percent of third down opportunities. Last week, L.A. had a 66 percent conversion rate.
Some of that has to do with the Panthers allowing offenses to be in favorable down-and-distance situations. But those numbers must improve regardless.
"It's really hurting us defensively," Snow said. "You just can't give up 10-of-15 on third down. So we're making it an emphasis. At some point, I think it'll kick in. But we have to be better against the Cardinals on third down."
The Cardinals are in the middle of the pack converting third downs, as their 43.9 percent conversion rate ranks No. 15. The Panthers will try to push that figure further down the line on Sunday.