by Darin Gantt & Augusta Stone
CHARLOTTE - No, DJ Moore has not been as productive as he normally is, and part of that is because opponents are paying more attention to the Panthers most trustworthy wide receiver.
But part of that is also because of Moore himself, and Panthers interim coach Steve Wilks wants to point that out as well.
Wilks doesn't mince words - with reporters or his players and coaches - so when he was asked about Moore's struggles to make plays in Sunday's 13-3 loss to the Ravens, he took dead aim at one of the team's highest-paid players (who had three catches for 24 yards on five targets).
"Well, it's a couple of things," Wilks began. "One, DJ, he has to catch the ball when the ball is thrown. So that's number one that's going to help him out to increase his yardage and opportunities."
When reliable run game was stopped, Panthers struggledBaker Mayfield: 'We have to fix a lot of our own mistakes'Despite limiting Lamar Jackson, Panthers defense left looking for more big playsStats and Superlatives: Fourth-quarter turnovers prove costlyRapid Reactions: Panthers fall, 13-3, at BaltimoreSnap Counts: Carolina at Baltimore in Week 11
That wasn't Wilks taking shots at one of his best players; that's how he talks. Later, when asked about veteran linebacker and team captain Shaq Thompson, Wilks shared part of his messaging to the team as they looked back over a game in which they had opportunities.
"You know, he (Thompson) was here before when we had success. So he understands the formula and what you have to do. He needs to be one of those leaders to lead us in the right direction," Wilks said. "You know, one of the messages I talked about this morning in the team meeting, our star players got to play like stars, right?
"They need to step up, right? So across the board on both sides of the ball, they need to play. And if you're a first- or second-round draft pick, you're there for a reason. If we brought you in as a free agent, you're a star player; go play."
It's not a conventional message, but there's nothing conventional about this moment for the Panthers. Wilks hasn't operated as a man with or without job security since taking over for Matt Rhule, and has kept his focus on each day's business. So in the wake of a loss to the Ravens that was within their grasp, that meant putting the team's best players on notice that they need to be the ones carrying the burden.
Players are growing accustomed to it now, and Moore said Monday he didn't take it personally.
"Yeah, that's perceived as, people that were drafted or got paid, they've got to go out and there and make big-time plays when their number is called," Moore said Monday. "So that's the challenge to everybody, first, second, even if you consider yourself a starter, just go make a play. . . .
"You always want your coaches to be direct, no matter what, good or bad. It shows that he believes in us, and what he believes in is going to work. . . . Shouldn't have no hard feelings in this game. That's how I take it."
Wilks' style is unflinching, as wide receiver Shi Smith realized when they discussed his late fumble, which led to the Ravens' only touchdown.
"Just as I'm looking at you in your eyes, that's exactly how I deal with my players," Wilks said when asked about that play. "I don't try to coach them through the media. So I don't come in here and say certain things to you guys that I haven't said to them.
"So he (Smith) understands that he has to protect the football, right? It's unacceptable at that particular time, or any time, but that time in the game to get that ball up when we still had the opportunity to win that football game."
- Wilks didn't announce a starting quarterback Monday, a change from how he typically shares the Panthers' plans under center the day after a game.
Wilks said he would know whether Carolina would go with Baker Mayfield, PJ Walker, or Sam Darnold on Wednesday.
"I don't know right now - still in the process of evaluating," he said.
Wilks said he would size up which quarterback is best suited for an upcoming matchup against the Broncos while also considering ball security and how well each quarterback operates within the offense.
Walker had built up some momentum in five starts before a Week 10 injury, helping Carolina head on a more upward offensive trajectory with wins over Tampa Bay and Atlanta and positive offensive outputs.
Walker's health for this week is unknown, as he was inactive for the Panthers' 13-3 loss to Baltimore while he deals with a high ankle sprain. Wilks said Walker was "still working his way back" and that he would know more about his status after meeting with trainers Wednesday.
Because of Walker's injury, Mayfield started against the Ravens for the first time since he suffered a high ankle sprain in a Week 5 loss to San Francisco, and he continued to struggle at the head of the offense in his second chance.
Mayfield threw for 196 yards on 21-of-33 passing with no touchdowns and two interceptions against the Ravens while taking four sacks for a 27-yard loss. Carolina put up just 3 points and 205 yards of total offense in Baltimore.
Darnold was activated off injured reserve before the Ravens game, battling back from a high ankle sprain he suffered in the preseason. Wilks said last week he was conscious of the fact Darnold hadn't played live regular-season football since last season but expressed confidence in Darnold when discussing the quarterback decision for this week. Darnold did not play any snaps against the Ravens, though he stood as Mayfield's backup.
"Last week, I mentioned the mere fact that I was looking to try to get him in the game at certain opportunities," Wilks said. "So yes, I feel more than comfortable putting him out there."