CHARLOTTE — Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold likes to keep things pretty low-key. He even described his new beard as "day-to-day."
But even Darnold recognizes that things are pretty different for him now than when he was starting last year, thanks to the changes in the offensive line in front of him.
After interim coach Steve Wilks referred to the line as "the strength of our team," Darnold was asked how much easier that makes his life. Last year, Darnold started 11 games, and the Panthers used eight different combinations of starting offensive lines in those games. (They used 14 different combinations of starters in 17 games last year and have used two so far this year, with only the Bradley Bozeman-for-Pat Elflein switch at center in Week 6.)
This year, Darnold played behind the five starters the whole time in both games, and they've been fortunate enough to play every snap together.
"I think it's nice, first of all, to have the stability in terms of guys not getting, you know, knock on wood, guys not getting banged up," Darnold said. "You know, that part's nice, obviously, to have that cohesive unit. You know, those guys are obviously playing really well. And those guys deserve as much credit as anyone on the team. We're just looking forward to putting together a good plan, having good practices, and going out there Sunday and doing everything we can to, you know, to get this thing rolling."
Asked if it gave him an extra measure of confidence, Darnold said it did.
"Yeah, I have a ton of confidence in our guys and in our group," he said. "The whole offense, really, I know, defense, special teams are going to do their thing. But yeah, I mean, our offensive line, like I said, it's playing really well. So I have all the confidence in the world, going into the game with those guys."
Having those same guys in place has made a noticeable difference in this offense, which has gotten progressively better and built a reputation for being able to run as the season has gone on.
The Panthers ranked 27th in the league in sacks allowed after giving up 17 in the first five games. In the eight games since, they've only allowed 11 and now rank 10th in that category.
They also went from averaging 89.8 rushing yards per game (27th) in the first five games and now average 124.9 per game (13th).
As long as Wilks has been in charge, he's talked about "everything starts up front," and he likes the way that line has responded.
"They have taken ownership, in my opinion, each and every week being the strength of the team," Wilks said.
— Since Wilks took over the team in Week 6, he changed the way they practiced, sending them out in full pads on Wednesdays.
But now, they have to adjust their patterns. By the guidelines established in the collective bargaining agreement, teams can practice in full pads 11 times in the first 11 weeks of the season. In the final seven weeks of the year, they can only go in full pads three times. The Panthers have used two of theirs.
For Wilks, the goal is to establish the correct mindset so that the work getting done is the same whether you're in pads or not.
"You know, it doesn't, once you really set the tone and the culture that you're trying to create," he replied when asked about the difference in going without pads.
"And once you take them off, it's still that mental capacity that you've got to make sure that you continue to live up to, and that's what we did today. You know, it's always a point of emphasis right now, your weapons — eyes, hands, hips, and feet — still trying to be in position and train yourself on each and every down."
— Darnold's playing well enough, and the Panthers are winning, so it's easy for him to have a little fun.
Asked about his new beard (which has a certain Kris Kringle in Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town vibe), Darnold joked that he's "a little stitious" (as opposed to being superstitious).
But as long as the Panthers are winning, it's unlikely many of them will be changing whatever personal grooming routine they're in.
"No plans. This is a day-to-day process," Darnold said with a self-aware laugh. "We'll keep it that way. No plans moving forward. But like I said, you know, we'll see."
His teammates appear to be fine with it (though former teammate Christian McCaffrey said he had "big leprechaun energy" earlier this year), and defensive tackle Derrick Brown joked earlier this week that Darnold seemed calmer now.
"Bearded-face Sam is a lot more chill than regular-face Sam," Brown said.
— While the Panthers have gotten some more attention with their recent (and first) win streak, Wilks said he's not paying much attention to any praise they may or may not have gotten.
"Well, the approach has still been the same; it's winning the day," he said. "We were able to do something that I talked about that we haven't done before, which is going to win on the road this year, trying to win two back-to-back games. So that was a great accomplishment for us.
"And, you know, with me, I don't allow myself nor this team to get outside these walls. In other words, we don't listen to the outside noise. Because, again, I believe in stay focused on being focused. And that's one of the things I talk about with the guys all the time just win the next rep. So we will figure out where we are, right, once we lift our heads up at the end and see exactly if we're able to get to the playoffs, whatever the situation may be. But right now, the most important thing is playing Pittsburgh. And that's it."
View photos from Wednesday's practice as the Panthers prepare to take on the Steelers.