Panthers seek boost on D with Jaycee Horn nearing return

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Rookie quarterback Bryce Young is struggling to the point critics are questioning whether it was a mistake drafting him with the top pick in April over C.J. Stroud. Coach Frank Reich is so frustrated that he reclaimed the playcalling duties he gave to offensive coordinator Thomas Brown three games ago.

Yes, the Carolina Panthers are a mess offensively.

And next up are the 6-3 Dallas Cowboys, who scored more points (49) in their last game than the Panthers have in their past three games combined (41).

But not all is lost in this season of losses for Carolina, which, at 1-8, has the worst record in the NFL.

The defense has maintained a solid — and sometimes high — level of performance despite having nine key players go on injured reserve and 11 miss a total of 40 games since the start of the season.

And now it may get back one of its best players, cornerback Jaycee Horn, who was designated to return from IR this week.

The eighth overall pick of the 2021 draft in many ways is the poster child for this defense. He was expected to be a big part of what outside linebacker Brian Burns believed could be something “special” this season.

But he suffered a hamstring injury in the opener and that was followed by an avalanche of Panthers injuries that has kept general manager Scott Fitterer busy finding replacements and defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero busy adjusting his 3-4 scheme.

“He’s just put us in great positions,” Horn said of the job Ejiro has done. “We all know he’s a genius, smart defensive coach. He put us in the best positions to win.”

Overall, the Panthers’ defense ranks 30th, having allowed an average of 26.9 points per game. However, the defense has played well enough to win most weeks, particularly the past three games. During that stretch, the Panthers have allowed an average of 14.7 points on drives that didn’t come off a Panthers turnover. But take away the 59 points given up off turnovers by the Panthers this season — including 45 by Young — and the defense is allowing a respectable 20.6 points per game.

The defense has been exceptional against the pass, which Dallas thrives on, ranking fifth in the NFL with an average of 176.4 yards allowed.

Getting Horn back will enhance their potential because of his ability to match up one-on-one with the Cowboys’ red-hot top receiver, CeeDee Lamb.

That will allow Ejiro to use more personnel to stop the run, which without Horn and others has created issues at times.

“Jaycee can single up on any side, single up on any man,” said safety Xavier Woods, who missed three games with a hamstring injury. “So it will allow us to open up more.”

In many ways, this season has been more frustrating for Horn than anybody in the organization. Having missed eight games this season, injuries have now limited him to 17 of a possible 43 games since being drafted No. 8 overall in 2021.

“S—ty ,” Horn said. “Excuse my language, but that’s what it is. I was brought here to play football and that’s what I want to do. So it’s frustrating, but all I can do is keep putting one foot in front of the other and keep going.”

Horn knows the label “injury prone” could impact Carolina’s decision on whether to pick up his fifth-year option next year or extend him long-term.

“I mean, obviously, you think about it,” Horn said. “I can’t control it. What am I going to do, erase the games I missed? I just try to play good football when I’m out there.”

If Horn, who has been limited in practice this week, returns on Sunday, the Panthers will be close to having the starting defense they imagined entering the season. That gives the team and the staff hope it can keep games close enough to win down the stretch and build momentum for next season.

“They’re playing really good team defense, very consistent, playing together,” Reich said. “I’m very happy with what the defense is doing, and we need to keep doing it. This week, obviously, will be a big challenge with the Cowboys.”

The defense has been consistent despite having to use players not expected to have a role when the season began. One of those is undrafted rookie outside linebacker Eku Leota, who last week was signed off the practice squad and took part in 44% of the plays.

He credits Ejiro for keeping everyone together and focused.

“He brings a great game plan, and he lets us play loose,” Leota said. “It starts with practice. Everything we do in practice is translating into the games. Practice performance is a game reality.”

That the defense has played well through all this turmoil speaks well of Ejiro, who interviewed for head-coaching jobs during the offseason with the Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos after helping Denver to a No. 13 defensive ranking in 2022.

With the return of Horn, his current unit should continue to trend upward with a group that has prospered even under adversity.

“We’re not going to make any excuses,” Evero said. “We have more than what we need to play well.”

Horn can’t wait to be back among that group, and he hopes his return comes against the Cowboys.

“They’re a high-scoring offense,” he said. “[QB] Dak [Prescott] is playing great football. But at the same time, I believe in us, I believe in our defense as a whole. I feel there’s no challenge we can’t handle.”

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