After a 24-13 defeat in their third preseason game against the Cincinnati Bengals, the Carolina Panthers believe that experience will allow their players to learn and play better.
However, Carolina refuses to use any excuses for not playing well in a game that was billed as a mock-preparation week.
Aside from quarterback, the obvious struggles where up front on both sides of the ball.
Rookie quarterback Cam Newton had had some exciting runs that included four carries for 49 yards and a 16-yard scramble for a touchdown.
But Newton didn’t look as good passing. He completed six of 19 passes for 75 yards. In seven quarters of football, Newton has completed 40.4 percent or 21 of 52 passes for 275 yards. And he only has four completions to receivers. Newton has completed only one deep ball, which was to Armanti Edwards for 36-yards in the first preseason game against the New York Giants.
In his second start against the Bengals, Newton was consistently under pressure. Bengals defensive tackle Domata Peko led a front four who seemed to collapse the pocket every other play. Newton was even sacked on a cornerback blitz while trying to run out of a collapsed pocket.
That isn’t anything new for Newton. He has seen a lot of pressure since his debut against the Giants two weeks ago.
Despite Newton’s struggles, Panthers coach Ron Rivera said the rookie will start the final preseason game at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday.
Panthers tackle Jordan Gross believes the struggles on the offensive line come from playing in a new system. The Panthers are adjusting to offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski’s system after playing nine straight years in a run-first offense.
“There are a millions reasons, no excuses,” Gross said. “New system, new calls, new quarterback, new everything, there is definitely a learning curve there. And we have to probably do it about three times quicker than we normally would, but that is the job ahead of us. The nice thing about preseason is all the stats and negative plays you don’t want to look at erase here in another week. So, we have a chance to practice a little bit on Thursday, and then it is for real.”
This Thursday’s game against the Steelers will give the Panthers an opportunity to rebound after two rough weeks. The first-team offensive line is likely to play more than usual. Gross said he wasn’t sure what was going to happen as far as the first team’s playing time, but he believes the first-team offense will get more time because it has a rookie quarterback.
Rivera didn’t reveal the playing-time plans, either.
However, he remained positive about his team. After watching film of the Cincinnati game, he said the coaching staff felt good about how well the offense can play. As far as the offensive line, he said his biggest concern is the group continuing to play together.
“When you look at some of the pressures that we (have) given up on the quarterback (it) came down to communication between the (offensive) line,” Rivera said. “Again, we have been mixing and matching the last couple of games, and you haven’t had that same group out there. And that is going to be the hard part, and what is going to be the starting group come Sept. 11 may not have played or had reps in a preseason game together, so that is going to be hard.”
Beyond the offensive line woes, Rivera is supportive of Newton. Rivera said it is important to see how Newton continues to handle everything in the offense. He said the coaching staff will continue to evaluate Newton and ensure the first-year quarterback is progressing before naming him the opening-game starter.
“This is a very serious thing for us,” he said. “We don’t just want to say, ‘hey, you are the guy’ and walk away from it and go from there. But at the same time, we want him to understand he is working toward being our guy.”
Greg Hardy and Jeff Otah return
Despite how poorly the offensive line has protected both Newton and Jimmy Clausen, the Panthers received some good news with Jeff Otah taking reps with the first team at Saturday’s practice. Rivera said he did more than what they expected and looked good in practice.
More importantly, he said it looks like Otah will be ready for the first game of the season against the Arizona Cardinals. Rivera said the Panthers took their time with Otah because the trainers wanted him to rehab his sore knee and get the proper conditioning to avoid a setback. Rivera said Otah felt good and pushed himself to do extra work at practice.
And Rivera was glad to have defensive end Greg Hardy back too. Hardy had reps with the first defense and second defense. Rivera said Hardy looked good. Like Otah, Hardy took more reps than expected.
“It is good to get those guys back on the field,” Rivers said about Hardy and Otah. “We have to get those guys ready to play come Sept. 11.”
Even though Rivera was excited to have Hardy back, the first-year coach didn’t commit to a starter opposite of Charles Johnson. Rivera started defensive end Eric Norwood for the first two preseason games before benching him in favor of Everette Brown against the Bengals. Brown and Norwood have struggled to make plays in three preseason games, but Norwood has had the better training camp.
It is about who looks better each day in practice, and it isn’t about putting guys out there because there is a rotation, Rivera added.
The Panthers have had a difficult time with containment too. Rivera admitted there were containment problems against the Bengals.
“I think the big thing we have to (do is) make sure we are better on that,” Rivera said. “We just have to get up field and make sure we hold the point.”
Rivera believes it is important to have Hardy back because it will allow the Panthers to get more pressure on the quarterback and help with containment. Asked what the front four have to do to get more pressure on quarterback, he said the group has to keep working.
The defense hasn’t played well since the first preseason game against the New York Giants. In the last two games, the unit has given up 301 total yards against Miami Dolphins in the first half , and the defense gave up 269 first-half yards against Cincinnati. The defense didn’t begin to show life until the opposition’s starters were replaced with backups in the second half.
Moreover, the defense looked better last year after three preseason games. The unit currently has only four sacks and eight quarterback hits. Last year, the Panthers had 18 sacks after three exhibition games.
Big Money’s take
Defensive end Charles “Big Money” Johnson, a fourth-year pro, believes it is more than just sacks. He said the defense needs to improve on stopping the run and sticking to its fundamentals. He said the defensive line has to take one play at time and each player needs to focus on his job.
Johnson said the guys up front have to get in “grove” and get into the mindset that no one can block them. He said it is important to not overact in the preseason.
But he said there are no excuses for playing poorly, and that everyone needs to realize the defense is in a new scheme. Johnson said the young defensive line can get it together before the first game against the Cardinals.
The Panthers have six young players in their defensive line rotation. That group consists of rookies, Sione Fua and Terrell McClain, second-year players, Corvey Irvin and Andre Neblett and third-year players, Nick Hayden and Kentwan Balmer, who was recently claimed off waivers Thursday.
Free agent pickup Ron Edwards, who would have started, is the only veteran with experience. But Edwards is on season-ending injured reserve due to a torn triceps muscle that was suffered during training camp.
Johnson said he tells the young guys don’t get discouraged after a mistake and remain positive. He said he tells the young players they have an entire game to play and there are plenty of chances to play well.
“Sometimes being young and bullets are flying you can get thrown off, and you are not focusing on what you need to do,” Johnson said. “So, you really have to focus on the fundamentals.”
But he isn’t concerned about seeing more double teams because the Panthers haven’t settled on a defensive end opposite of him and their defensive tackles have struggled.
“I really don’t know because I have never been in that situation,” he said. “I don’t know how teams are going to play me or anything like that. All we can do is keep working hard.”
Rivera takes the same approach as Johnson. He believes the defense and offense lines can correct their shortcoming and compete at a high level. But Rivera was disappointed in the defense’s inability to capitalize on some plays.
“We are a young team, and we are growing and progressing, and we are going to learn how to do things the right way,” he said. “And when we are not doing those things the thing we can’t do is sit there saying, ‘We will get better. No.’ We have to continue to teach them and coach them up and get them going.”
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