With a new quarterback under center in Sam Darnold and new pieces added to their defense, the Panthers got off to a strong start in 2021 by winning their first three games.
Star running back Christian McCaffrey – limited to just three games in 2020 due to injury – looked like his old self, posting 324 yards from scrimmage and one rushing touchdown during the first two games.
Then came his hamstring injury in that third game, sidelining a major part of Carolina's offense for its next five contests.
That unit still produced respectable numbers, but the next four games were a struggle. All losses, the first three were by eight points or less before a 25-3 loss to the Giants in the fourth one. It left the Panthers with a 3-4 overall record, and they would manage to win only two games the rest of the season for a 5-12 finish. Meanwhile, McCaffrey would return in Week 9, but play only four more games before suffering a season-ending ankle injury.
If there was a silver lining to last season, it was Carolina's defense improving from No. 18 to No. 2 in total defense. However, as evidenced by opponents scoring 21 or more points in 11 of its 17 games, the scoring defense (23.8 points per game allowed, 12th-most in the NFL) wasn't keeping pace. Coupled with Darnold and the offense's uneven play, it made it difficult to win many games.
After producing the fourth-fewest total yards and third-fewest points per game in the NFL last season, it seemed inevitable changes to that part of the Panthers coaching staff would be made. To that end, Carolina fired offensive coordinator Joe Brady and offensive line coach Pat Meyer, replacing each with former Giants head coach and offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo and veteran offensive line coach James Campen, respectively.
The Panthers also fired a fourth assistant coach this offseason – special teams coordinator Chase Blackburn – and replaced him with Chris Tabor, a veteran special teams coordinator who previously held that position with the Bears (2018-21) and Browns (2011-2017).
They also revamped an offensive line that, in addition to playing a role in last season's struggles, gave up the fifth-most sacks (52) in the league last year, by signing former Rams starting right guard Austin Corbett to a three-year deal, former Ravens starting center Bradley Bozeman to a one-year deal, and selecting North Carolina State offensive tackle Ickey Ekwonu sixth overall in this year's draft.
Matt Rhule enters his third season as head coach of the Panthers, compiling a 10-23 record through his first two years.
What to watch for
Rams defense vs. Panthers offense, and familiar faces
With all the aforementioned adjustments and investments, Carolina's offense should be better than it was last year. Provided McCaffrey stays healthy and Darnold improves his play, those elements – plus wide receivers D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson – set the stage for another potential early-season challenge for Los Angeles' defense, and in back-to-back weeks, no less, coming off of facing the Dallas Cowboys the week prior.
This will also be a game in which Rams fans will recognize a few faces. Besides Corbett, the Panthers also signed former Rams punter Johnny Hekker as well as former Rams linebacker Cory Littleton this offseason.