Panthers live up to 'What's Next' mentality

Chuba Hubbard

HOUSTON — So many times in the past, when everything else was going wrong, the Panthers could count on Christian McCaffrey.

When he left in the second quarter of Thursday night's game against the Texans with a hamstring injury that knocked him out the rest of the day, they had to count on someone else.

But the silver lining on a night with plenty of dark clouds was that the Panthers found a bunch of someone elses.

Rookie running back Chuba Hubbard helped them finish the game. Running back Royce Freeman got his first extended action as a Panther, and made a few key plays.

Hubbard ran nine times for 49 yards in the second half. Freeman added 17 yards on five carries, including a 13-yard burst which helped position them for a touchdown in the third quarter. That was what the Panthers needed, as their bell-cow running back wasn't able to carry his normal load.

"I think they just have to be starting NFL running backs," head coach Matt Rhule said of his backup backs. "Royce has done that before. I told Chuba at halftime, 'That's why we drafted you, man.' I thought Chuba was outstanding. At the end of the half, we didn't give him a ton of chances, but I thought he got in there at the end and made some key runs. When we can line up in four-minute offense and run and get the first down on two plays, especially versus that stout defense, that's a credit to the offensive line, credit to the tight ends and fullback.

"I thought those backs hit it, and the minute Royce got in, he made that nice run, cut the ball back on a dual play, which that's a veteran-run. That's a guy that's played a bunch and saw it. Those guys stepped up for us."

Having those two step up directly was part of a theme for the Panthers on the night.

They threw key passes to their punt returner. They handed the ball to a tight end at the goal line.

And mostly, their defense continued to play the way it had during its dominant first two weeks, even without a couple of key parts.

When cornerback Jaycee Horn left the game with a broken foot, and veteran safety Juston Burris couldn't finish with a groin injury, the Panthers had to adjust.

But the league's top-ranked defense did just that, sacking Texans rookie quarterback Davis Mills four times (pushing their season total to 14), and limiting them to 193 yards as a team (bumping the Panthers' season average in yards allowed slightly up to 191.0 per game).

Reddick and Fox sack

They were clearly rattled after seeing two top-shelf players unable to finish, but they came together to push this game over the finish line.

"I don't know what to say about that," outside linebacker Haason Reddick said quietly, when asked about the impact of the injuries. "As a defense, it doesn't matter who's playing, the brand has to stay the same. The goal is the same no matter who's playing."

The consistent play of the defense (and the improved play of quarterback Sam Darnold) will be even more important moving forward.

But as much as the Panthers might miss McCaffrey and Horn as they move forward, the team is adopting the kind of next-man-up mentality that sounds like a cliche, but which has to be true when faced with difficulties.

"I mean, we're a football team," veteran left tackle Cameron Erving said. "We're not called the Carolina Christian McCaffreys. It's always hard playing without one of your best players, but at the end of the day, everybody knows we have to step up and make plays when he's not in there.

"Coach always tells us, 'What's next,' and that's how we played tonight."

View photos throughout Thursday Night Football in Houston in Week 3.

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