CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Tony Jones Jr. is making the most of his elevation from the Saints’ practice squad, while Chris Olave continues to make plays for unbeaten New Orleans.
Jones ran for two touchdowns, rookie Blake Grupe kicked two field goals, and the Saints beat the Carolina Panthers, 20-17, on Monday night, improving to 2-0 for the first time since 2013.
Jones replaced the injured Jamaal Williams late in the first half and ran for 34 yards on 12 carries.
“It was awesome,” Saints coach Dennis Allen said. “He was great. We ran the ball effectively. I think we blocked it up front and he made the right cuts. You know, two touchdowns on the game. It was big for him and big for us.”
The Saints’ defense did the rest, holding Panthers rookie Bryce Young to 153 yards passing in his home debut. New Orleans limited Carolina (0-2) to 239 yards and sacked Young, the top overall pick in the draft, four times.
“They play hard and very physical,” Young said. “They know exactly where they are supposed to be, and the play well together. Obviously we didn’t do enough offensively. ... Their defense definitely got the best of us.”
The Saints nearly made it two full games without allowing a touchdown before giving up a 3-yard scoring toss from Young to Adam Thielen with 1:16 left in the game. Young’s 2-point conversion pass to Thielen got the Panthers within three, but the Saints recovered the onside kick and ran out the clock.
Derek Carr, who threw for 305 yards in the Saints’ Week 1 win over Tennessee, struggled early. He had a badly underthrown interception into triple coverage and missed several other open receivers as the Saints limped into the locker room at halftime with a 6-3 lead.
But Carr improved in the second half.
He found Olave, who made the play of the game when hauled in a diving one-handed grab along the left sideline late in the third quarter for a 42-yard gain. That set up Jones’ 2-yard touchdown run to give the Saints a 13-6 lead.
“When things aren’t quite going exactly the way you want it to, you’re just one explosive play away from making something happen,” Allen said. “I thought his concentration there and focus all the way through the catch point and to the ground maintaining possession was a progress for him.”
Olave had another short grab leading to Jones’ second TD with about three minutes to play. He finished with six catches for 86 yards.
Carr finished with 228 yards passing and the one pick. Change-of-pace quarterback Taysom Hill was the Saints’ leading rusher with 75 yards on nine carries.
“There’s so much that we have to clean up,” Carr said, “but it feels good to get to do it when we’re 2-0.”
The Saints pulled even with unbeaten Atlanta and Tampa Bay atop the NFC South, while the Panthers fell into an early hole.
Young spent a good portion of the night under pressure as the offensive line struggled. Carolina couldn’t get much going in the running game; Miles Sanders was limited to 43 yards rushing.
The Panthers’ offensive night was marred by miscues, penalties and mental errors.
In the third quarter, the Panthers brought in Young’s backup, Andy Dalton, presumably to run a quarterback sneak on fourth-and-inches. But before Dalton could take his first snap of the season, guard Cade Mays jumped offside. Eddy Pineiro bailed out the offense with a 54-yard field goal, one of his three on the night.
The Panthers had a chance to tie the game just before halftime while facing third-and-6 at the Saints 18, but Carl Granderson sacked Young and forced a fumble that Paulson Adaebo recovered.
“We wanted to be able to stop the run and make it where he was going to have to beat us throwing the ball,” Allen said. “I felt like we might be able to get some pressure and make him uncomfortable a little bit.”
Panthers coach Frank Reich knew there would be some growing pains with a rookie quarterback, but he thinks his offense is showing signs of breaking out despite totaling 27 points in two games.
“It’s not that far away,” Reich said. “I know it looks bad, but it’s not that far away. You make a few plays and you’re at 28 points.”
Veteran Panthers lineback Shaq Thompson, a one-time Red Sox minor leaguer before opting to concentrate on football, was carted off the field late in the first quarter with a right ankle injury that Reich said after the game was “significant.” He said Thompson is likely to miss extended time. Saints offensive lineman Trevor Penning and Panthers defensive lineman DeShawn Williams were engaged in a block and rolled up on the back of Thompson’s leg as he was attempting to make a tackle in the first quarter.