CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP)P.J. Walker has earned another start for the Carolina Panthers following a 21-3 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday.

”I feel like P.J. would be our starter this week,” against the Atlanta Falcons, Panthers interim head coach Steve Wilks said Monday.

Wilks said he’s still unsure of where Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold are in their rehabs from ankle injuries at this point in the week, but said regardless that Walker played well and deserves another start.

”I don’t see no reason not to start him,” Wilks said.

Walker has earned the respect of the players in the locker room, and he provided a much-needed boost for the Panthers passing game, completing 16 of 22 passes for 177 yards and two touchdowns to help the 13 1/2-point underdog Panthers earn a surprising win.

Walker earned a game ball for his efforts.

Walker entered the game 2-1 as an NFL starter, but with a reputation for forcing throws downfield and into tight spots. He had eight career interceptions and only two TD passes coming into the game.

But Walker said he’s grown as a player and has learned from his mistakes.

”I can make every throw. But every throw doesn’t have to be made,” Walker said. ”That is something I have learned and that is something I take into game-planning every week. When I am out there knowing what I like. Every ball ain’t got to be pushed down the field. It can be thrown away. You ain’t got to force nothing. Live to fight another down that is how I approach the game now.”

Walker’s big game came one week after he was limited to 60 yards passing on 10 of 16 completions in a 24-10 loss to the Los Angeles Rams, when the team relied on screen passes instead of throws downfield because they weren’t quite ready to trust Walker.

On Sunday, the Panthers shifted gears. They threw downfield to Terrace Marshall on their first offensive play.

And while Walker didn’t complete the pass, Wilks believes it set the tone for the game.

”It showed that we weren’t going to sit back,” Wilks said. ”That we were going to be aggressive and it showed that we wanted to push the ball down the field and try to really see what we can get. Again, a divisional game at home, we felt like we wanted to be able to be aggressive today.”

WHAT’S WORKING

Running game. The Panthers may have finally found their identity on Sunday and that’s running the football. Despite trading 2019 All-Pro Christian McCaffrey to the 49ers last Thursday, the Panthers ran for 173 yards behind D’Onta Foreman and Chuba Hubbard. Hubbard started the game and ran for 63 yards and a score before leaving with an ankle injury. Foreman was a big part of the game plan with 118 yards on 15 carries, including a 60-yard burst that set up a touchdown to give Carolina a 14-0 lead.

The strength of the Panthers offensive line is run-blocking, so that will be something they need to focus on for the remainder of the season.

”We knew what (McCaffrey) meant to this team,” Walker said. ”We knew what he brought to the table, but we still had to go out there and execute and go out there and play at a high level. The O-line knew that, the running backs knew that, and I knew that.”

WHAT NEEDS HELP

Third down offense. Despite the win, the Panthers continued to struggle on third downs, converting just 4 of 12 opportunities. For the season, the Panthers have converted a league-low 25% of their third down chances. That is not a long-term recipe for success in the NFL.

STOCK UP

D.J. Moore. This season has been a struggle for Moore, largely because of the team’s poor quarterback play. But Moore finally seemed on the same page with a QB as he caught six passes for 69 yards and a 20-yard touchdown.

Prior to Sunday, Moore had just 20 catches for 204 yards and one score in six games, leaving him well off the pace to earn his fourth straight season with at least 1,150 yards receiving.

STOCK DOWN

PR Shi Smith. The returner continues to make punt returning an adventure. First, he called for a fair catch in the end zone on Sunday after back peddling 10 yards to field the punt. Later, he allowed a punt to hit the ground and roll around a bit before pointlessly attempting to jump on the ball with three Buccaneers players approaching, risking a potential fumble. Smith will remain as the punt returner this week, but Wilks said he needs to be coached up.

INJURIES

Hubbard and CB Donte Jackson suffered ankle injuries and cornerback C.J. Henderson injured his arm on Sunday, but Wilks offered no updates on Monday. Carolina is hoping to get CB Jaycee Horn back this week after he missed two games with a shoulder injury. Wilks said he wanted to give Horn an extra week to heal.

KEY NUMBER

46 – Number of yards rushing for the Bucs on Sunday against Carolina’s improving defense.

”We wanted to make them one-dimensional,” Wilks said.

NEXT STEPS

Despite enduring a miserable start to the season that resulted in the firing of coach Matt Rhule, the Panthers (2-5) find themselves just one game back of the struggling Bucs and Falcons in the division. And, they’re the only team in the NFC South with an undefeated record in the division entering Sunday’s game at Atlanta.

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