With a nice 2-0 start to the season and a team that hadn't really been tested yet, Ron Rivera took his Carolina Panthers into Bank of America stadium last night to face the Pittsburgh Steelers. When he and the team were done, they began playing the game.
Yes, Carolina never had momentum on either side of the ball and never did "feel" like they were ever really in the game - even at the beginning. In the first quarter especially, it was tangible.
Not only was Carolina being out-played with a 3-0 lead, but you could tell the Steelers were "testing the waters" with a VERY GOOD offensive game plan. They kept moving the ball but were unable to get the ball in the endzone and settled for field goals before their #1 WR, Antonio Brown, caught a TD pass eerily reminiscent of Santonio Holmes' Super Bowl-winning catch against Arizona a few years ago.
The Steelers offense just completely shredded the Panthers' "vaunted" front-seven on the ground. We're talking Gash City, USA with not one....noooOooo....but TWO Steelers RBs gaining well over 100 yards.
Bell had 147 yards on 21 carries while LeGarrette Blount had 118 yards on only ten totes. Bell's longest carry went for 81 yards while Blount's longest was 50.
Yeah, I know....
Le'Veon Bell, whom we're reminded by the announcers every time he touches the ball, had lost 20 pounds in the off-season and is lighter and quicker.
The Steeler running game plan was perfect against our aggressive, run-stuffing defense. Instead of trying the quick-hitting plays, such as the one Tampa Bay's fullback gashed us on for 54 yards on opening day, they displayed the complete opposite approach...and it worked. All night long.
They were running slow-developing plays often with multiple pulling offensive linemen that the defense never really could solve all night. Bell is a particularly "patient" running back (something one doesn't see much of these days) who plays very intelligently as he waits for his blocks to develop before committing to a hole.
WR Antonio Brown was targeted ten times. He had ten receptions.
Folks, this is more of an issue for the defense than we think. Many of you are thinking "ah, just wasn't our night" and perhaps that's the case, but it gave the other 30 NFL teams a blueprint on how to beat us. Slow-developing plays often cause defenders to commit themselves as well, isolating them in the process, and leaving the ball carrier with fewer people to defeat for a long gain. Without getting any penetration to disrupt things, this approach often works well.
Sometimes, as we saw last night, they're left with zero people to defeat. That's not good.
Bell had an 81-yard run from the shadow of their goalpost (just like the Tampa Bay fullback run and I can't think of the guy's name) where two good holes in the D-line were open. MLB Luke Kuechly picked one, Bell the other, and suddenly we were all at the Kentucky Derby....
The pass defense was equally atrocious. We couldn't put pressure on Big Ben all night and any decent QB is gonna kill you if he's not pressured, hit, or rattled at least. Not only that, but Ben's accuracy was Brady-like last night. He was really on top of his game while his counterpart, Cam Newton, struggled the entire night.
First, Cam wasn't "on" like Ben, but he's still healing from ankle and rib issues. That much I get. But once again, I am compelled to point out our lack of talent at the offensive tackle positions.
In the preseason game, Jarvis Jones was beating LT Byron Bell like he wasn't there. The same thing played out last night. Nate Chandler couldn't handle Brett Keisel coming off the edge on his side, either, and this is exactly what I've been warning the "homers" about - and a large part of why I picked Carolina to finish 9-7 this season.
I hope I'm wrong, I really do. But this is the easy part of the schedule!
Carolina finally began to get the running game started in the third quarter but was too little too late. The defense couldn't stop Pittsburgh all night long, and that's certainly reflected in the score. That 37-19 game? It wasn't as close as the score might indicate. Seriously, it was that bad.
I saw Bell just look totally sophomoric out there at left tackle on more plays than I care to repeat, and once again, his counterpart on the right side didn't fare much better. I'm 100% convinced it's because both starting tackles are too big and too slow to handle a good speed-rusher....and even Trai Turner was completely flattened by a bull-rush later in the game.
I mean, lying on your rear end, footprints on your chest flattened. THAT was unexpected, given what I'd heard and largely seen from Turner so far, but this IS the NFL and anyone can get used on any play, so I can chalk that one up to the learning curve. It's the tackles that I don't see getting any better and continuing to be the problem.
Just recently I penned a piece called "Armchair GM: What Should Gettleman do in 2015 Draft?" and I suggest you read it. I'm not trying to toot my own horn here, but that article contains a lot more detail about what we need and why we need it. The tackle position as well as the secondary is looked at there and I won't repeat much of what it says here other than to say last night's game really did a neon-sign job at the deficiencies on the team.
Keep your chins up, fellow Panthers fans, several things had to come together for the team to look that bad last night, and they ALL came together. IN spades.
As I tweeted last night, remember - the NFL hasn't seen a perfect season in 42 years and running - so we've got a single loss now. It's not something the team can't recover from and will most certainly be something the coaches are going to remind them all of ALL SEASON LONG. It'll keep players' heads and egos from getting too fat - they've been beaten and beaten badly, AND at home - and there's just no getting around that. It'll take anyone down a few notches and perhaps - hopefully - serve to re-focus the team from any possible distractions (like the Greg Hardy deal) and be a shameful reminder that they aren't "all that."
Even the Seahawks laid an egg the previous week, so nobody is immune, but the manner in which the Panthers lost simply pointed to the obvious weaknesses we ALL knew we had offensively.
Defensively, I attribute the horrid performance largely to a brilliant offensive game plan by Pittsburgh and one done with near-flawless execution on their part.
Did Kuechly look human last night? Oh, he looked like an average LB last night rather than SuperLuke. Nobody on either side of the ball had a particularly good game and many had very poor performances and not "just" the offensive line.
The "special teams" even looked like they came in on the short bus, fumbling a punt and instead of falling on the ball inside their own five, Philly Brown and - gulp - Josh Norman couldn't find the handle on the football while trying to pick it up. Touchdown, Pittsburgh. The good part is that Brad Nortman has the "pin the punt inside the ten" down to a science and showed it again on a couple of kicks last night.
One bright spot last night was once again WR Kelvin Benjamin. This guy really IS for real and continued to make great plays while he could and had 8 receptions for 115 yards and a TD.
Another bright spot was "Riverboat" Ron converting on a 4th and 2 early in the 4th quarter and then winding up with a TD when Greg Olsen showed a nice burst down the right sideline to get in for that score. The offense doesn't have any top-end (sub-4.4) speed, but rather has a number of bigger guys (Cam, Greg Olsen, rookie Kelvin Benjamin) with 4.6-speed that can still find paydirt.
Last night it just wasn't enough.
Oh well. At least Al Michaels voiced my own nickname for rookie Ben Benwikere, calling him "The Fed Chief" as I've been doing ever since I first heard the name, let alone when he became a Panther, but very small consolation.
At any rate, the team showed it can play like a very average team - especially against teams with certain styles of play or players. Here's what to be on the lookout for the rest of the year:
- Teams with good edge-rushers will give us trouble: It's because of the lack of talent we have at the offensive tackle position. Can't be fixed this year.
- We need to stick with the run from gun to gun: Cam's not quite ready to carry the team on his shoulders consistently and needs better protection (see above) as well as a decent #2 wideout to put opposite Kelvin Benjamin. Jason Avant and Jerricho Cotchery should be "serviceable" in that role this season, but is a position we should look at upgrading through the draft to get some long-term stability there. It's hard for any QB to get new WRs and hit on all cylinders from day one and Cam missed significant time this year, so they're still behind the curve. If rookie right guard Trai Turner can keep improving, the tackles are actually at least average run-blockers, and running (if it's not Cam) keeps Cam from getting hit. If Jonathan Stewart can start playing full games and OC Mike Shula can help them find some rhythm from game to game, it'll help a lot. Work in progress - should gradually improve over the course of the season.
- Stop giving up big plays: This is what's probably most disturbing to me, because there's no reason for it. The entire front-seven was with the team last year, even if you start A.J. Klein over Chase Blackburn or Wes Horton or Mario Addison over Greg Hardy. The corners actually played well overall last night, but without a pass rush no secondary can cover forever. Antonio Brown got his second TD of the night running all the way across the field left to right, getting open under the zone for an easy catch and score. The rush defense has quite obviously regressed since last season and they need to rediscover their magic to help the weaker offensive unit and keep games close for us. Highly concerning; Kuechly isn't playing up to the standard he set last season.
- As always, winning the turnover battle is key: We gave it away twice and didn't have a take-away. That sort of play will rarely win games. Largely improvable with coaching.
Overall, it just wasn't the Panthers' night last night and the hope is that this will jolt the players out of any sense of complacency that they might have had and re-focus them on doing their jobs play after play with more consistency. Offensively, they need to "play within themselves" - in other words, not ask them to do things they aren't equipped to do. As I've said before, pass when you're supposed to run, run when you're supposed to pass, keep the other team off-balance with creative (even slightly bizarre once in a while) play-calling, but above all take care of the ball. In Carolina's case, punting isn't the worst thing in the world. Pinning the other team inside their five yard line only to give up two 50+ yard runs in three games is.
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