The preseason is over. How did we look?
The Panthers concluded their preseason with a 39–24 loss at the Pittsburgh Steelers last night, in a game that saw the majority of their marquee starts sit out, as is the custom with the final dress rehearsal. In what was a difficult night for the team all around, the Steelers were able to take advantage of potential problem areas along the Panthers’ offensive line and secondary, which will both need to improve if the team hopes to be a contender in the loaded NFC. It was the worst outing of their 3–1 exhibition campaign and one that will surely affect the final fifty-three-man roster as the team attempts to cobble together a sufficient protection scheme for Cam Newton, lest he take another beating in 2018. They need to fix that and fast, or they are in significant trouble.
That doesn’t sound promising. What happened to the offensive line?
The Panthers have had problems at this position for some time, and injury luck has not been on their side this offseason. The most recent blow came when starting left tackle Matt Kalil announced he would be getting arthroscopic surgery on his right knee. The procedure is relatively minor, and there is a chance that Kalil could be back for the season opener, but as likely as not the Panthers will face the Cowboys with a patchwork line also missing projected starters Daryl Williams (torn MCL) and Amini Silatolu (torn meniscus). The backups did not look good last night and reserve quarterbacks Taylor Heinicke and Garrett Gilbert were repeatedly flushed from the pocket and harassed by Steelers defenders. Look for the coaching staff to scheme around the problem with quick hitters and a heavy run emphasis, at least until Newton gets blind-side protector Kalil back.
Fine, so I shouldn’t bother watching?
No! Despite the sloppy effort yesterday, there was much in the exhibition season to be excited about. Cam Newton is becoming more and more comfortable in new offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s downfield passing scheme, and last year’s first-round draft pick Christian McCaffrey frequently demonstrated the ball skills and straight-line speed that made him a coveted prospect out of Stanford. A receiving corps featuring Curtis Samuel and Devin Funchess, abetted by rookie draft pick D.J. Moore, has the potential to coalesce into a formidable group, and the team, in general, seems better set at the skill positions on offense than it has in some time. If they can somehow keep Cam upright, the Panthers will move the ball right alongside their high-scoring NFC cohorts the Saints and Falcons.
Well, I do like a high-flying attack. How’s the defense?
Strong in the front seven and weak in the secondary. Luke Kuechly remains on the short list of the best defensive players in the league, and a pass rush led by Mario Addison, Julius Peppers, Kawann Short, and Dontari Poe figures to get to the quarterback frequently. Which they’d better do. A patchwork of journeyman veterans and green rookies comprises a secondary that has received the least attention from a roster-building perspective relative to any position group on the team. Best-case scenario, the growing pains for talented first-year players Donte Jackson and Rashaan Gaulden will prove short-lived and surmountable, and veterans like Mike Adams and James Bradberry will exceed modest expectations as starters. Failing that, buckle up for a lot of 35–31 games.
Well, it doesn’t sound boring.
It won’t be. This is a flawed but frequently exhilarating team in an exciting division, with the potential to make noise in the postseason. Tune in next week for a preview of the September 9 season opener and a prediction for the Panthers’ 2018 campaign.