CHARLOTTE – There's a reasonable case to be made that up 21-3 Saturday night, the Packers took their foot off the gas.
But there's an equally plausible argument that the second half of the game showed the Panthers' defense — particularly a young core of players who just arrived — has something to build upon.
The second-half showing against quarterback Aaron Rodgers might have been a tease, or it might have been an eye-opener for the defense. After allowing touchdowns on the first three possession of the game, the Panthers forced the Packers into five straight punts. The Packers' 49 net yards in the second half were their second-fewest second-half yards in 20 years.
The Panthers limited the Packers to just a field goal in the second half, and Rodgers finished the game with just 143 yards and a touchdown (season lows).
"To hold that unit scoreless for that long showed some promise," head coach Matt Rhule said.
Of particular note was the play of the front four, as the Panthers had five sacks on the night, with rookie defensive tackle Derrick Brown getting his first two sacks of the season and second-year defensive end Brian Burns adding two of his own to get to eight for the year. The Packers had allowed just 14 sacks in their previous 13 games.
"Aaron Rodgers, right now, he's scoring offensively in the passing game," Rhule said. "I think for us to get sacks and that's really the first time we got sacks with the four-man rush. We got some pressure. We got some four-man rush sacks at a few times, knocked them out of field goal range. We got one at the end of the game. Got one at the end of the half. We got it from the inside as well.
"As disappointed as we are when we lose, there are a lot of positives. Those players have to continue to grow, continue to play better. Was happy to see them make some plays."
They also did it without rookie linebacker Jeremy Chinn scoring touchdowns or forcing turnovers as he has in recent games. But Chinn did top the 100-tackle mark for the season, joining a couple of guys named Jon Beason and Luke Kuechly in reaching triple-digit tackles as Panthers' rookies.
That had Burns thinking the progress was not just an eventual thing.
"I think we've got a good defense now, to be honest," Burns said. "When we came out in the second half, it was completely different. I don't know what clicked in everybody's head, but we just came out with a different mentality. But I feel like we've got a good defense now. We cut out these small errors, I feel like we can be great. For real."
It took some time to get to that point (too long Saturday night), but time has been a luxury all season. With no traditional offseason program or OTAs because of COVID-19, the Panthers are putting this thing together on the fly, without the hundreds of snaps of work they'd normally have had.
"You're taking a group of guys that's had not even a full month together really before this," Brown said. "I mean that was in virtual meetings. It's been a long season, but it's something that we have to overcome and just going forward being able to rely on one another and just laying it on the line for each other."
The progression goes beyond the high picks.
The Panthers have used undrafted rookie Myles Hartsfield more in recent weeks as their nickel, and the converted running back/safety played nearly half the defensive snaps against the Packers (29), the most he's been used on defense this season.
With every young player on a rookie deal who contributes, the process of building the defense gets easier (particularly entering an offseason of uncertainty regarding the salary cap).
More work clearly needs to be done.
They could use a solid middle linebacker who could run sideline-to-sideline, which will allow Chinn to move around more. They need a defensive tackle to create pressure inside, which will only make Brown more of a presence. The need for secondary help is evident, as they need to upgrade at corner this offseason and also develop some of the young players on hand to be reliable depth.
But on a night in which they were playing a future Hall of Fame quarterback, they showed signs that the reclamation project began with a plan, and some of the foundational pieces are already in place.