CHARLOTTE - It's Sam Darnold's turn at quarterback for the struggling Carolina Panthers.
The team announced Tuesday that Darnold will make his season debut on Sunday against the Denver Broncos after interim head coach Steve Wilks decided to bench Baker Mayfield following yet another rocky performance in a 13-3 loss to the Baltimore Ravens this past weekend. Darnold has spent the majority of the season on injured reserve with a high ankle sprain he suffered during the preseason.
Darnold becomes the fourth different quarterback to play for the Panthers (3-8) this season - and the third different starter, joining Mayfield and the injured P.J. Walker.
Darnold went 4-7 as Carolina's starter last season, falling apart after getting the Panthers off to a 3-0 start under former head coach Matt Rhule. He finished the year completing 59.9% of his passes with nine touchdowns and 13 interceptions for a 71.9 passer rating.
Mayfield has struggled since being acquired in a trade in July from the Cleveland Browns, going 1-5 as Carolina's starter.
The 2018 No. 1 overall NFL draft pick has completed 57.8% of his passes with six touchdowns and six interceptions for a 74.4 QB rating. He struggled to get anything going on offense this past week against Baltimore, throwing two interceptions in the fourth quarter as the Panthers fell to 0-5 on the road.
Mayfield will backup Darnold this week, according to the Panthers.
Mayfield returned to the starting lineup last week after Walker injured his ankle in Week 10.
Run defense. The Panthers run defense has come a long way since it allowed the Cincinnati Bengals to rush for 241 yards and five touchdowns three weeks ago. Carolina limited Baltimore to 115 yards on the ground, snapping the Ravens' streak of eight straight games with at least 150 yards rushing.
"I love the way the defense played," Wilks said. "It gave us an opportunity and a chance."
WHAT NEEDS HELP
Third down offense. The Panthers remain 32nd in the league on third down conversions, converting a paltry 28%. For perspective, the Kansas City Chiefs are converting an NFL-high 51.7% of their third downs.
Carolina's struggles in that area continued Sunday. It was 3 of 12 on third downs against the Ravens.
The ground game stalled Sunday, too. After averaging 159.5 yards per game on the ground since the departure of Christian McCaffrey last month, the Panthers were limited to 36 yards on 17 carries.
"It's all on us," center Bradley Bozeman said. "We've got to pick up next week and get our running game back on track."
DE Brian Burns. Despite Carolina's struggles as a team, Burns has had a stellar season with eight sacks through 11 games. Burns has never recorded 10 sacks in a season - he has twice finished with nine - but this could be the season for "Spiderman" to reach that goal. Burns' production is the main reason the Panthers declined an offer to trade him before the deadline for two first round draft picks.
CB C.J. Henderson. The Panthers traded to get the former top 10 pick by the Jacksonville Jaguars last year, but he's failed to live up to expectations in Carolina and is now in danger of losing his starting job.
When asked to evaluate Henderson's play against the Ravens, Wilks said "not good enough."
"C.J. has too much talent, as we have spoke about on several occasions, and he has the ability to get up to the line of scrimmage and challenge any receiver in this league," Wilks said. "So we have to make sure to get that done."
The Panthers were able to get S Jeremy Chinn back on the field and it made a world of difference as Carolina held the Ravens to just three points through the first three quarters. ... LB Cory Littleton left Sunday's game with an ankle injury, and his status for the Broncos is unclear.
3 - Number of Carolina turnovers in the final nine minutes of its loss to the Ravens.
Wilks said the Panthers are not ready to start playing younger players to see what they can do, emphasizing the goal is still winning games. "As long as I'm in this particular role it will always be about now," Wilks said. "I'm trying to put us in the best position to win."
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