The Day After: Another change for offensive line

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CHARLOTTE — The Panthers will have a new look on the offensive line Thursday night against the Texans, and they see some progress in that area — at least in parts of the game.

Panthers head coach Matt Rhule said that left guard Pat Elflein would not play Thursday against the Texans, after leaving Sunday's win over the Saints with a hamstring injury.

Dennis Daley replaced him during the game, and will start Thursday.

Rhule said he was encouraged by the pass protection against the Saints, which is good news since protecting quarterback Sam Darnold was a priority. Rhule said one of the two sacks was on a running back, while the other was just a Saints player making a good play.

"Like everything else — some good, some bad," Rhule said of the offensive line's play. "We didn't run the football well enough, 2.7 yards a carry; we have to improve that. We ended the game with a big focus on protection, a big focus on the twist game, and I thought they handled that excellent. That was excellent.

"I thought it was a step in the right direction in terms of protecting the football. We have to be better in short-yardage, we have to be better in the goal line area, but I think, as I said, a step."

Rhule was particularly encouraged by the play of right guard John Miller, calling him "one of the keys to victory." Miller missed the opener while on the reserve/COVID-19 list.

Miller returned to practice last Wednesday, and was doing extra conditioning between reps during the week to get ready. His work with right tackle Taylor Moton in pass protection offered some stability on that side while they sort things out.

"I thought Johnny played excellent," Rhule said. "He was physical, him and T-Mo on the right side, passing off twists, working together; I thought it was really, really good.

"I think having Johnny back solidifies us over there. Now we need Dennis to step up and play well, which I know he can."

— Rhule was not as complimentary of the special teams, after kicker Zane Gonzalez missed an extra point, they had a field goal blocked, and allowed Saints returner Deonte Harris to average 31.2 yards per kickoff return.

Rhule called the kicking game "woeful" and pinned the blocked kick on a missed blocking assignment. As for the coverage, there's an inevitable trade-off they knew they were making going from a big leg like Joey Slye to a more accurate kicker on field goals, and the adjustment to covering was difficult when they realized touchbacks were no longer automatic. Punter Joseph Charlton isn't an option there, and Rhule said they have to simply get better in coverage.

"Nothing special teams-wise was good enough yesterday," Rhule said. "Maybe we were lulled to sleep by we haven't had to cover kicks. But we have to cover kicks. There's a lot of teams in the NFL that purposely kick the ball down to the goal line and cover, and try to tackle you inside the 25. If we can add elite kickoff coverage to our defense, that'll help us change field position."

Later in his Monday press conference, he said he didn't blame Gonzalez or special teams coordinator Chase Blackburn, putting it on himself first.

"We will play well on special teams moving forward," Rhule said.

He did like punt returner Alex Erickson's recognition of getting on a punt after it hit rookie corner Keith Taylor's foot.

"It was a huge play in the game," Rhule said of Erickson's recovery. "I thought Alex did an amazing job of turning and getting on that ball."

— Rhule also praised cornerback Donte Jackson, for the part of a defensive back's game that doesn't get as much attention.

"I thought Donte Jackson really showed up in the run game," Rhule said. "when you have a premier cover corner who will also tackle, ... I mean he triggered on the run, triggered on the balls in the flat, I was really, really, really, really pleased with the way Donte played."

That's four reallys, in case you were counting. That's a good way to gauge how pleased Rhule is with a particular thing.

— Rhule said he had "no concerns" about running back Christian McCaffrey's availability after he left the game for two series because of cramping.

He did say defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos was in doubt for Thursday because of an ankle injury.

— Rhule also gave credit where it was due to the fans at Bank of America Stadium, saying the support was a factor in their pass-rush success.

"I thought the crowd noise was a big factor," he said. "I thought it was loud. And that leads to some indecision. I think it was a lot of factors together."

View the best select photos from Carolina's win over New Orleans in Week 2 at Bank of America Stadium.

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