The Carolina Panthers began the off-season with serious questions regarding three key areas: the offensive line, the wide receiving corps, and the secondary. The team made serious strides to answer those questions through the draft and free agency, but by training camp many of those questions had not been answered.
Through the course of Panthers camps and the first preseason game players like offensive tackle Byron Bell and rookie guard Trai Turner, rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, and free agent safeties Thomas DeCoud and Roman Harper had begun to answer those questions.
However, new questions emerged as answers to the old questions were sought, this time concerning quarterback Cam Newton’s surgically-repaired ankle and the state of the Panther’s vaunted defense in the face of defensive end Greg Hardy’s legal trouble.
Would Newton be able to scramble out of trouble with an inexperienced line, or better yet, would he have any chemistry with his new wide receiving corps? Would the defense be able to pick up the slack in the event that someone like Hardy was lost for any significant time?
Answers to all the aforementioned questions came in droves during the nationally-televised second preseason game Sunday night against the Kansas City Chiefs.
The offensive line as a whole played very well. The starters – (left to right) Bell, Amini Silatolu, Ryan Kalil, Turner, and Nate Chandler – played solid games. The run game excelled because of the middle of the line (Kalil, Turner and Silatolu) and despite a few breakdowns by tackles Bell and Chandler, the protection was above average.
Reserves Garry Williams and Chris Scott, still technically vying for starting positions, played well, with Scott assisting Chandler by pancaking Chiefs defensive end Allen Bailey as the half closed, right after Chandler gave up a Derek Anderson sack the previous play. Reserve linemen Andrew McDonald, Oscar Johnson and Kevin Hughes also played well, especially in the run game, helping Fozzy Whittaker lead all rushers with 71 yards on 13 carries, largely in second half play.
Overall the running game had success and Newton was well protected after the first few series, so the offensive line answered some major questions. For Newton, the quarterback who has been hit more times than any other quarterback in the past three seasons, good protection is good news. Although head coach Ron Rivera wasn’t ready to name starters yet, he did make a point to say that Bell had “taken over” the left tackle position.
Speaking of Newton, all eyes were on him as he took the field for the first time since the Carolina Panthers playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers last January. Newton had recovered well from off-season ankle surgery, but admitted he hadn’t “really” run on the ankle and that the Chiefs game would be his first real contact since that playoff loss, noting that coaches would end practice plays long before their star quarterback could be hit.
It showed the first three series with the Panthers going three-and-out all three times, with Newton completing only one of six passes; on one such pass attempt Newton stared down his defender and threw a strike right to him, only to have the defender squander the interception opportunity.
Despite looking rusty trying to get a rhythm going while displaying a lack of chemistry between him and his new set of receivers, Newton looked physically strong and had no problem evading the rush of Kansas City’s first-team pass rushers. By the time Newton had shaken off the rust he ended 4-9 for 65 yards, completing 3 of 3, including a few darts to Benjamin and tight end Ed Dickson, and a bomb to Jason Avant, to help set up the team’s two touchdowns in the second quarter.
The wide receivers have also been answering questions recently, or more specifically, criticism. Once thought of as a potential Achilles heal for these Carolina Panthers, the receiving game has actually looked strong, despite the absence of tight end Greg Olsen, the team’s leading receiver in 2013.
Benjamin is the receiver that has stood out the most, making all the right catches and making all the right decisions, the notable exception being a bone-headed sidelines head butt to end the half, which ended with Benjamin being flagged 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct, ultimately putting the Panthers out of field goal range. Rivera wasted no time schooling the young receiver.
The tight ends Dickson and the gigantic Brandon Williams looked good, especially Williams, who made his case to secure a roster spot by doing his best Rob Gronkowski impressions. Williams is a giant, physical tight end and could be a nightmare with some polishing. If the Carolina Panthers were to keep three tight ends on the roster they would have options: they could run many two tight end sets, and could also run successful jumbo and goal line packages with their stable of running backs.
Brenton Bersin was a nice surprise, hauling in two great catches on his only two targets, one going for a touchdown. Bersin, a two-year practice squad player for the Panthers and an alumnus of Wofford College, the site of Panthers training camp and the alma mater of owner Jerry Richardson, furthered his case for a roster spot; conversely, Tavarres King, who had a big drop in the game, was injured and did not return.
As previously mentioned, the running backs played very well, especially Jonathan Stewart, who has missed 17 games the past two seasons with various injuries, and Fozzy Whittaker, who played so well the Panthers were comfortable trading Kenjon Barner to the Philadelphia Eagles for a conditional 7th round pick in the days following the game. As announcer John Lynch noted, Whittaker was “running hungry” and made his case to be the team’s third back, or at least the kick returner. Whittaker scored one of the team’s three rushing touchdowns; Stewart scored the other two touchdowns on two of his four carries, on which he gained 26 yards.
Also worth mentioning was the Carolina Panthers special teams play. Solid for the most part on kick and punt coverage, punter Brad Nortman stole the show booting a 74-yard punt into the end zone, ending in a touchback for a net of 54 yards; Nortman averaged 64 yards on three punts.
Finally, we analyze the least questionable aspect of the Carolina Panthers, the defense. Despite the Panthers exhibiting “bend-but-don’t-break” defensive play, the individual efforts were there. The vaunted defensive line was not getting much push on the young Chiefs line early, but the linebackers, specifically Luke Kuechly and Thomad Davis, and the defensive backs, specifically DeCoud, Antoine Cason and Melvin White, were closing in on plays fast and delivering plenty of pop.
Chief’s quarterback Alex Smith was productive through most of the first half, specifically in the first quarter, and had plenty of time to throw, but wasn’t able to make any big plays due to the play of the linebackers and secondary. That pocket time changed considerably in the second quarter.
By the second quarter the line had started to rush Smith, forcing him out of the pocket on several occasions, twice culminating in sacks, one by Star Lotulelei and one by Kuechly, who had added pass rushing to his already dangerous repertoire during the off-season. It got so bad for the Chiefs 2013 first round draft pick Eric Fisher that eventually it appeared he was getting beat on every play. The defensive line ended up playing extremely well, including reserves Wes Horton, who played lights out, and Frank Alexander, who is facing a four-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy; rookie defensive end Kony Ealy also played well.
Perhaps no one played as well as the secondary, which helped to keep the Chiefs to 225 yards passing on 35 attempts (6.4 yards per attempt) and assisted in closing in on the running game at every opportunity. White and Cason played lights out, essentially solidifying their place in the Panthers secondary. Rivera had pointed to the secondary before the game even started, saying the safeties were “taking charge” of the secondary, specifically DeCoud and Harper; apparently the corners took notice.
This Carolina Panthers defense will certainly bend at times this upcoming season, and will undoubtedly give up a big play now and again, but they will hardly break. The only questions about the defense have been soundly answered through the first two preseason games.
But then again, we never really had questions about this defense, did we?
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