The Panthers, once again, are starting their season 0-1. A loss at home with the team’s best cornerback suffering an ankle injury in front of a stadium of empty Carolina blue seats.
But throughout the season, the Panthers are going to be worth watching for far more than the final outcome or a couple of statistical notes. This is building a team for the future, and throughout 2020 we are going to get a better sense of what that future looks like exactly.
The loss to the Raiders was an up-and-down affair that included the Panthers almost pulling off a dramatic come-from-behind win while team owner David Tepper and his wife, Nicole, watched from their luxury box above the field.
What did we learn from Sunday afternoon’s game? That the Panthers have a lot of growing to do and that the defense will likely continue to be an area that will continue to develop for some time. But here are some areas that stood out.
The third quarter was ugly for the Panthers. Zero points were scored and 10 were given up. The two drives that occurred solely during the quarter were both three-and-outs. After not having any penalties throughout the first half, they had four for 47 yards, including a taunting penalty by wide receiver DJ Moore following an incomplete pass when he poked Lamarcus Joyner’s helmet after the defensive back had some choice words with him.
But that penalty took place with nine seconds remaining in the quarter. And the Panthers went on to score at the end of the drive on a three-yard touchdown run by Christian McCaffrey.
The third quarter could have taken everything out of the Panthers to whether they counted the game as over and started moving on to next week at Tampa Bay.
Instead, the Panthers fought back from a 12-point deficit and reclaimed the lead. That’s what you want to see from a young team with no fans in the stands, especially one that lacked energy in a scrimmage just a week ago. Not only did the offense put together back-to-back scoring drives, but the young defense came up with a key stop on the drive in between.
It says a lot about a team when they are able to come back in a game when things get rough.
“To battle back from some early big plays, to fight, scratch and claw to take the lead back at the end of the game, I was proud of the guys. We were just a play away,” coach Matt Rhule said after the game. “We said as a team we would get to the fourth quarter and we thought we would have a chance to win in the fourth quarter and we did. I told them we are all disappointed. We are all hurting right now but we need to play some games and find out more about our team and find out how we can improve. So, we will improve, and we will continue to get better.”
However, one takeaway from a coaching perspective at the end of the game. The Panthers allowed far too much time to bleed off the clock on the final drive. They got the ball on their own 30-yard line with over four minutes remaining and went slowly with just three plays before the two-minute warning. Even if they had converted the final Alex Armah run, there would have been less than 1:20 remaining with two timeouts and half the field to go to score a touchdown.
The Panthers started three rookies on defense. Cornerback Troy Pride Jr. missed a couple of plays and defensive and Yetur Gross-Matos was not very effective in his time on the field, finishing with just one tackle and playing just 25%% of the defensive snaps with Stephen Weatherly starting despite a hamstring injury.
Defensive tackle and first-round pick Derrick Brown had a fine game, finishing with three tackles, the team’s only tackle for loss and a pass defensed. But the Panthers struggled to create pressure, especially on the interior part of the line, even with the Raiders losing multiple offensive linemen to injury. The Panthers did not have a single sack in a game for the first time since Week 2 of 2018 and that didn’t aid a Panthers secondary that was without cornerback Donte Jackson for most of the game.
“I think there were a bunch of plays where he was a step away from making a bigger play. Those guys will get better and better and better. I thought our tackling at times, a lot of reaching, a lot of grabbing and we could take just a couple more steps and make those tackles and make them even better,” Rhule said. “I hope and expect that we will make some radical jumps on defense as we tackle better. Derrick is a talented player and it looked like he was pretty productive.”
But it was linebacker/safety Jeremy Chinn who stood out among with the rookies with a solid game starting at outside linebacker. He finished with eight tackles, second-most on the team and the second-most by a Panthers rookie ever in Week 1 (Lester Towns had 10 in 2000).
Chinn is going to be a player that is all over the field throughout the season and he showed up well in his first professional game. He lived up to the expectations set by his performance in camp; defensive coordinator Phil Snow said previously that he thought everyone would enjoy watching Chinn play. Checks out so far.
Where Pride Jr. is concerned, his development is what we’ll be watching. He’s getting thrown into the fire earlier than expected with cornerback Eli Apple being placed on IR. How he looks Week 16 will be far more telling of his future than Sunday’s loss to the Raiders.
“If I just do small things that would have helped me at the beginning of the route, it would have provided a different outcome. That was a learning experience,” Pride Jr. said of the touchdown he gave up to receiver Nelson Agholor. “Obviously, it sucks to have those in a game, in a win-or-loss situation, but that was good for me and building my confidence later because I know exactly what I need to do. It’s just about executing now.”
And cornerback Rasul Douglas, whose first practice with the team was Wednesday following being claimed on waivers, filled in well for Jackson.
— Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater had a solid first game. He didn’t have any major mistakes, although he did take responsibility for the one sack. He finished the game 22-of-34 with 270 passing yards and one touchdown — a 75-yard strike to Robby Anderson. Bridgewater was also the second-leading rusher, finishing with four carries for 26 yards.
He moved the offense up the field multiple times and said that his communication with offensive coordinator Joe Brady was even better than he expected. Improving the third-down efficiency will need to be a priority (7 of 13 vs. Raiders).
— McCaffrey was only targeted four times as a receiver, which was a bit of a surprise, but had 26 total touches, slightly above his average from last year, and was on the field for all but two offensive snaps. He’ll likely be more involved in the passing game going forward.
— Moore needs to play better. He only caught four of his nine targets for 54 yards and had the taunting penalty. A couple of those were drops. He’ll need to step up for this offense to really flourish.
— The Panthers have a solid returner. After struggling to find consistency in the return game last year, Carolina signed Pharoh Cooper in the offseason, and while he didn’t have a touchdown or doing anything wild, he consistently improved the team’s field position. He gained an average of 27.3 yards on kickoff returns and 14.5 on punts.