It wasn’t the crisp start we had hoped for Carolina. Matt Cassel moved the ball effectively against the Panthers first team defense, which failed to generate any real pressure. Picking on veteran corner, Charles Tillman, who played noticeably off opposing receivers, exploiting AJ Klein at times, and running adequately against the Panthers front, Carolina started the game flat.
Carolina’s offense struggled to get anything going until the third drive. Cam missed on a couple of shots downfield. The throws didn’t look bad, but the timing was either off slightly or Kelvin Benjamin was getting mugged by Buffalo’s secondary. Cam got things going on the third drive, despite the absence of any running attack. Heavy doses of Kelvin Benjamin downfield ended in a near guaranteed end zone toss for the rising star receiver.
Buffalo seemed the one in the driver seat as Carolina’s second stringers took over. To be fair, the starters who did play on defense only played like six snaps and those who did start on defensive line were second stringers to begin. Three out of the of the front four starters didn’t even make the trip to Buffalo (Charles Johnson, Star Lolutulolei, and Kwaan Short). Carolina’s first round draft pick, Shaq Thompson, didn’t see the field either, leaving Glanton and Klein to see significant action. Glanton racked up 10 tackles and Klein looked better as a run defender. Klein got in the backfield a time or two, but also got twisted up in pass coverage. Jason Trusnik and David Mayo saw significant action in the second half as well.
Carolina started the second half strong. Derek Anderson hit rookie receiver Devin Funcess deep with what was a toe tapping type sideline catch. Funchess failed to haul in another deep endzone pass heaved up for grabs in single coverage. Carolina’s running attack found a spark with Jordan Todman and Cameron Artis-Payne, and the drive ended with a touchdown pass to Brenton Bersin.
Buffalo, however, won the time of the possession battle decisively because of grueling ground game led by mobile quarter back Tyrod Taylor and hard running from Bryce Brown and Karlos Williams. Buffalo looked to pull away after a 51-yd touchdown bomb from EJ Manuel to Deonte Thompson to end the 3rd quarter. Poor special teams throughout the 4th quarter by Carolina left Buffalo in perfect position to keep pounding the rock on the ground.
Carolina got things going offensively on the ground later in the fourth quarter with contributions on the ground from undrafted free agent Brandon Wegher and a timely first down catch by Damiere Byrd. What could have been Carolina’s last chance at catching the Bills, the drive stalled when Byrd failed to haul in a 3rd down contested, but catchable pass with less than 4 minutes to play.
Carolina forced Buffalo to punt with less than two minutes to play. Joe Webb then led the two minute drill, which found ended with a beautiful check-down pass to Wegher, who took it 42 yards to the house to pull within one. Webb then converted for 2-points to the newest Carolina Panther, Paul Browning, who was called up while on the golf course two weeks ago after Stephen Hill suffered a season ending injury.
Carolina squeaked it out at the end, even though Buffalo appeared in control for much of the game. The end result was a win, but it may have begged more questions than it answered.
Fans went into the game concerned about the offensive line, eager to see a defense that looked dominant at the end of last season, hoping to see either Frank Alexander or Kony Ealy to show the ability to get create pressure, and wondering if some we could get a bead on the guys on the bubble at wide receiver and running back. Unfortunately, few of those questions were answered and many of the areas fans felt most confident turned out to be most concerning.
So what questions ultimately emerged?
Michael Oher and the offensive line played better than expected, but the Panthers failed to produce on the ground. Jonathan Stewart didn’t play, but Fozzie Whitaker and Mike Tolbert were unimpressive with the first team. When the young bucks took the rock, Jordan Toddman, Brendon Wegher, and Cameron Artis-Payne all looked more effective. Will Carolina look to keep a Brandon Wegher or Lee Ward over Mike Tolbert or even Fozzie Whitaker?
The Panthers pass rush also left something to be desired. Neither Frank Alexander, Kony Ealy, or Mario Addison stood out. The defensive line struggled without its two studs in the middle. The biggest standout was Rakim Cox, a guy I hadn’t hear of prior to Friday, who played like a man possessed at the end of the game. This opens a couple of questions:
Could a Panthers defensive line be effective without dominant play from guys like Charles Johnson and Kawaan Short?
Will Ealy or Alexander ever play to a premiere level?
We all hoped that Carolina’s opening preseason performance would lesson our concerns, answer our questions, and validate our perceptions of this team. Friday’s game, however, soberly reminded us that we only have a lot more questions than answers. What questions do you think this game raised or answered for you the most?
By the Professor, aka Tony Dunn
Follow me on Twitter @Cat_Chronicles