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Panthers' improvement in three categories leads to win over Cardinals

Teddy Bridgewater 18-yard rushing touchdown

CHARLOTTE — Even though the Panthers won in Los Angeles last week, players and coaches knew there were glaring issues to correct.

Carolina finished 1-of-6 in red-zone efficiency. They converted only 3-of-12 third downs. Defensively, they allowed the Chargers to convert 10-of-15 third downs.

So the talk all week centered around how each of those would be points of emphasis in Week 4. It turned out that wasn't just lip service, as evidenced in Sunday's 31-21 win over the Cardinals.

The Panthers flipped each of those categories en route to a complete team victory that was mainly in hand from cover to cover.

Carolina was 4-of-5 in the red zone and 7-of-11 on third down while the defense held the Cardinals to 3-of-9 on third down.

Entering Week 4, Arizona had the league's best third down defense, allowing a 28.6 conversion rate. They were also No. 2 in red zone defense, allowing just four touchdowns on 13 red zone trips.

"I think it started with our offensive line keeping guys clean," head coach Matt Rhule said. "I thought there was some huge, huge catches by Curtis [Samuel], DJ [Moore], Robby [Anderson] and Seth [Roberts]. Ian [Thomas] had some great catches today. I just thought it was a whole, collective team effort."

Many elements added up to the Panthers' offensive success, perhaps best illustrated by Joseph Charlton's "1" in the punt column in the final gamebook. Carolina recorded 30 first downs — 11 rushing, 17 passing, two via penalty — consistently moving the ball. The offense did not have a three-and-out. Its only possession of fewer than four plays came early in the second quarter when quarterback Teddy Bridgewater threw an interception.

The Panthers finished with a 37:08 to 22:52 advantage in time of possession and ran 17 more plays than the Cardinals.

"Honestly, we wanted to have an aggressive approach," Bridgewater said. "But we just had an opportunity where we kept drives alive, were converting on third downs, and staying on the field."

Carolina's first two drives of 13 and eight plays resulted in touchdowns. Then, after Bridgewater's interception, the Panthers went 10 plays for another touchdown to take a 21-7 lead into halftime.

The club finished the first half 4-of-5 on third down.

"It's a focus. It's something we addressed all week," center Matt Paradis said. "The right play calls from (offensive coordinator Joe) Brady and then just the execution by the entire offense."

Added wide receiver Robby Anderson:

"I think (it was) our O-line. Teddy was able to sit back there, be comfortable, and they did a great job."

Bridgewater largely echoed the same credit when asked why the Panthers were so successful in the red zone. He even ran in his first touchdown since 2015 — before the devastating knee injury that temporarily derailed his career.

"I honestly didn't even think about that," Bridgewater said. "I was just out there trying to play football and trying to score touchdowns in the red zone."

Still, Bridgewater looked spry, dodging defenders and diving into the end zone to give Carolina its second touchdown.

"I think it was unexpected, but it was awesome," Paradis said with a laugh. "He put some good moves out there."

On defense, the Panthers held the Cardinals to just 4.8 yards per play and quarterback Kyler Murray to 24-of-31 passing with just 133 yards. Those are the fewest passing yards with at least 24 completions dating back to at least 1948.

While an ankle injury hobbled wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, he had only seven receptions for 41 yards — well off his average production this year of 10.7 catches and 118.7 yards per game.

"We were able to mix up our coverages, play different things," Rhule said. "That, to me, was a real key. If you give a guy like Kyler Murray one defense, he's going to find the holes in it."

Not getting complacent after wins is a staple of top-tier teams. The Panthers aren't there yet, but they also aren't settling after displaying improvement in critical areas.

"It's not one week and done — that problem's going to be fixed forever," Paradis said. "We have to continue to work on that every week, and we look forward to that."

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