What I Liked
Old Cam: He's back, baby! Cam Newton is once again a dual-threat quarterback as he completed 29 of 46 for 284 yards and two touchdowns while rushing 17 times for 107 yards and another touchdown. It certainly is a sight for sore eyes, and a timely return as the Panthers prepare for the toughest stretch of their schedule. The one thing I noticed with Cam that still could use a little work is his sliding. A few times he didn't go down very smoothly, and that's something he's going to want to work on to avoid getting injured again. Other than that, though, it was a great thing to watch. You could tell just how much Cam impacts the chemistry of the offense, as they were able to string together a few very, very, good drives the likes of which we hadn't seen all year. Heck, even the offensive line looked halfway decent.
What I Didn't
Poor Execution: Well, this isn't good. Just as the offense is finally getting themselves together, it looks like the defense is sliding down. Watching this game, I saw missed tackles, sloppy coverage, and overall poor execution by the Panthers defense. At least two missed tackles turned what should have been a six or seven yard gain into an 89-yard touchdown run by Giovani Bernard, and I counted quite a few times when Andy Dalton should have been sacked yet was able to get a pass off. Maybe that's just a testament to his playmaking ability, or maybe the D line simply needs to do a better job of finishing plays. Oh, and don't even get me started on the number of times the secondary allowed big completions to some perfectly containable receivers. Don't get me wrong, Mohamed Sanu and Jermaine Gresham are both good players, but these guys made them look like Pro Bowlers.
Choking (kind of): I wouldn't call this a textbook choke by the Panthers (it was anything but textbook), but they definitely should have won this game. There were less than five minutes to go, they had just gone up by seven, and all the defense had to do was force a quick three-and-out so the offense could run out the clock. But they didn't even get that far, as the kickoff team allowed a 97-yard return by Adam "Pacman" Jones, and the fired-up Bengals scored a touchdown on the very next play. Now it was back to the offense, but before we could even blink Cam Newton picked the worst possible time to throw an interception. Within a span of about a minute and thirty seconds game time, the Panthers had gone from trying to close out the game with a seven point lead to trying not to lose the game on a last minute touchdown. Thankfully, the defense stepped up and held Cincinnati to a field goal, although they did get a huge break when a Jeremy Hill touchdown run was called back by a holding penalty. The offense also stepped up when it counted, stringing together a nice drive to kick the game-tying field goal with no time remaining. In overtime, the defense again allowed the Bengals to march down the field and score, as they were able to convert on two third downs and gained positive yardage on all but the last two plays. On offense, the Panthers were once again saved by a penalty that turned what would have been a fourth down into a first down. They would tie the game six plays later, but not before Jerricho Cotchery, who made a living with the Steelers on plays like these, dropped a game-winning touchdown. The man had the football in his hands and he dropped it. I guess he left his red zone proficiency in Pittsburgh. Anyway, the Bengals got the ball back at their own 20, and the defense slowly but surely allowed them to take it all the way to the Panthers 18 (with help from a very stupid roughing the passer penalty on Charles Johnson), where Mike Nugent shanked wide right what should have been a game-winning field goal. So, yes, you might say the Bengals choked, but the Panthers also choked because the defense had two chances to close the game out but allowed the Bengals to put together scoring drives. And Cotchery dropped a game-winning catch. Yeah, ties are weird.
The Tipping Point
Pacman Jones' 97-yard kickoff return: Like I just said, the Panthers were up by seven with less than five minutes to go, and another blunder by special teams gave their opponents new life. The Bengals scored on the next play and even took the lead with just over two minutes remaining. Had they not allowed this return, I'm quite sure the Panthers would have won, plain and simple. This is also the second time this season that Carolina's special teams have made The Tipping Point for the wrong reasons (VS Pittsburgh). While there's never a guarantee that they'll even see the field more than twice in a game, these guys are still some of the most important players on the team. Why else would they called special teams?
TCSB Game MVP
Cam Newton: I know I already said this, but it feels so good I've gotta say it twice: Superman has returned. Cam Newton is back. The Cam we saw in the first five games had been reduced to a hollow shell of his old self by surgery. He could still play, yes, but it just wasn't the same. He was making the throws, but they just didn't have the same flair. Rarely did he ever leave the pocket, and when he did, he (understandably) avoided hits. Superman, it seemed, was no more. Cam Newton had become, for lack of a better word, boring, and it was almost disheartening to watch. The team as a whole seemed to soak in this lack of panache, and it showed. But this game was different. This game saw the return of Old Cam, and the rejuvenation of the Panthers offense. He threw, he dodged, he even trucked a few times, and boy was it something to see. When he ran for his first touchdown of the season late in the third quarter, there was almost a sense of relief among the Panthers faithful. Now that Cam Newton is truly back, there's no limit to what this offense can do, and it makes matchups against teams like Seattle that much more enticing.
What I Liked
Possibly the lone bright spot on a dismal night for the Panthers was the stellar performance of the receivers. They adapted very well to a highly physical Steelers secondary and fought for extra yardage every play. Kelvin Benjamin had another solid outing as he caught eight passes for 115 yards and a touchdown, and tight end Greg Olsen caught five passes for 69 yards and the team's other touchdown. Also, with the loss of Jerricho Cotchery to a hamstring injury, the Panthers were forced to turn to Philly Brown for a number of plays on offense. He handled it well, with seven catches for 66 yards. This performance coupled with his budding return skills bolsters my belief that he can end up being one of the best players in his class, drafted or undrafted. However, it would be more than beneficial for Brown to learn how not to let his nerves get the better of him in high pressure situations, something that I feel may have contributed to his fumbled return during the fourth quarter.
What I Didn't
The O Line
These guys are making me sound like a broken record. Where do I even begin? Throughout Sunday night's game the offensive line was downright offensive, giving up three sacks and letting Cam Newton take shots that a quarterback with bad ribs shouldn't even come close to taking. They were beaten time and time again by three-man rushes, which meant Pittsburgh could deploy an extra man to help shut down the Panthers' receivers. In addition, they failed so spectacularly at run blocking that Mike Shula more or less gave up the ground game by the second quarter. In total, the Panthers were able to gain about forty yards rushing against a team that gives up an average of a hundred forty yards rushing. Since the beginning of the season I've been saying that if this team does not fix the problems with its offensive line, they will end up feeling the consequences. They certainly felt them Sunday night, and whether they want to feel them again in a few days is a decision Ron Rivera and his staff will have to make. The bottom line is this: when your Pro Bowl center straight up admits his guys had a terrible game up front, something has to change.
While the O Line played a large role in the Panthers' downfall, numerous other mistakes combined to put nails in the coffin. For starters, they took seven penalties for 105 yards, including an encroachment call on a 4th-and-4 field goal try for the Steelers that gave them a first down and, eventually, four more points. While they should be given credit for trying to adapt to Pittsburgh's physical style of play, the Panthers also should have remembered that you can play physical without playing dumb. I'd like to think that this game in particular was just a fluke for these guys and that we'll never see anything of this sort again, but it will be up to Ron Rivera to make sure of that.
The Tipping Point
Philly Brown's Fumbled Punt Return
It was the early stages of the 4th quarter, and the Panthers had just scored to make it a ten point game. The defense had forced a three-and-out, and it looked like momentum was swinging back towards the home side. The Steelers were punting from their own 29-yard line, and it looked as if the Panthers were going to make a comeback. That is, until Brown dropped the ball around the thirteen yard line. Rather than diving on it, he scooped it up and tried to return it, and was stripped by Shamarko Thomas. The ball bounced toward the end zone as players on both teams raced for it. Finally, Robert Golden fell on top of it and the Steelers went up 30-13. Whatever momentum the Panthers had gained from Olsen's touchdown was now gone, and they would never really threaten again.
TCSB Game MVP
One of the few guys on this team who stayed consistent throughout the game, Kelvin Benjamin caught eight of eleven passes for 115 yards and a touchdown. He performed well under both Cam Newton and Derek Anderson, showcasing another great trait of his (the ability to work with any given quarterback). He also handled the physicality of the Steelers secondary much better than some rookies would. This week, though, Ron Rivera should see that his budding superstar takes a few good hits in practice to get him ready for a Ravens defense that could easily make the Steelers look soft. Regardless of the more hard-hitting aspects of this game, Kelvin Benjamin made a truly mediocre offense look a little less worse than they really were. Imagine what he'll be able to do when the Panthers right the ship.
The Carolina Panthers look start the season 3-0 and keep sole control of the NFC South, as they take on a Pittsburgh Steelers team that is trying to bounce back from a mediocre 6 point offensive performance against the Baltimore Ravens last Sunday.
What to watch for
The Steelers are very defensive minded and have pass rushers that can come at you from all different directions. Look for a lot of blitz packages using Troy Polamalu and their first round pick Ryan Shazier. If the Panthers want to expose the defense, Cam Newton will have to throw the ball deep to his receivers to keep the Steelers defense honest. Look for Mario Addison and Kony Ealy to step up and have a break out performance in place of the inactive Greg Hardy.
Key Match ups
Kelvin Benjamin vs. Ike Taylor- This seems like it will be a very physical matchup between a 6-5 receiver and a 6-2 cornerback. Benjamin will have his toughest task yet as Taylor has 11 more years of experience that the rookie. While Ike Taylor is clearly the more experienced out of the two, Benjamin has less wear and tear on his body and can catch the ball at its highest point over Taylor. Benjamin will have to use that 6-5 frame and limit his drops if he wants to win this matchup.
Antonie Cason vs. Antonio Brown- Cason couldn’t have pictured a better start to his career as a Carolina Panther than his 2 forced fumbles and 1 interception performance throughout the first 2 weeks. His natural ball-hawking instinct has boosted a secondary that many thought were just a product of their great defensive front. Brown, who led the NFL in catches last year, is no “Megatron” or Vincent Jackson height wise; but the 5-10 receiver is a solid route runner who can get himself open enough to make the catch. Cason needs to jam him off the line to create timing problems between Brown and Ben Roethlisberger.
Panthers Front Seven vs. Le’Veon Bell- Luke Kuechly and company will have their hands full with one of the best dual threat running backs in the NFL. In just 2 games, Bell has 168 rushing and 136 receiving yards and has proven to be Big Ben’s “go-to” when teams send blitz packages. The Panthers defense will have to be constantly aware of where Bell is at and keep from getting to the outside so the speedster doesn’t break out for a long run.
Jericho Cotchery- In his first matchup against his former team, Cotchery will play a big role in a Panthers victory. He knows how the Steeler defense works after going up against them in practice every day for the last three years, and will use that experience to create big play opportunities. Stat Line: 8 catches, 99 yards, 1 touchdown
Final Score Prediction
It will be a defensive struggle in the beginning, but the Panthers will come alive in the second half using the crowd to fuel them.
Final: Carolina 20 Pittsburgh 10
In the 11th hour of Sunday’s matchup against the Detroit Lions, the Carolina Panthers pulled a move that surprised many. They deactivated Pro-Bowl Defensive End Greg Hardy from the lineup in wake of what many would call the NFL’s worst week in their history. In the past two weeks, three domestic violence cases and a child neglect case surrounding some of the league’s best players has put a black eye on the shield that Roger Goodell has tried hard to protect since becoming commissioner 2006. It is still unsure whether or not Hardy will play on Sunday Night against the Steelers or if we'll ever see him in a Panthers uniform ever again, but there is light at the end of the tunnel--Mario Addison.
Addison, an undrafted four-year pro out of Troy University in Alabama, got the start last Sunday and played exceptionally well, recording 2.5 sacks and causing havoc for Matthew Stafford. If Hardy’s career is over in Carolina after this year, Addison’s career might be just getting started. While the “Hit-Stiq” bursted onto the spotlight Sunday, Addison has been a successful member on Special Teams and as a backup defensive end since coming to the Panthers in 2012. The organization liked him so much they gave him a two-year contract extension in June. While nobody is questioning how good Hardy is, he carries some conduct questions and will most certainly demand a hefty paycheck after being franchise tagged for 13.1 million dollars this past offseason. Addison showed Sunday that he can come in and can give a pro bowl effort without all the distractions and salary cap problems that Hardy presents.
The Panthers’ defense looked like they were on a completely different level than any other defense against a high powered offense with loaded weapons such Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate, and Reggie Bush. Although we can’t say if the production would have been the same or different if Hardy was activated, we do know that if we can get that production out of the same lineup every week, that Hardy could be as good as gone from the Panthers organization.
Without a doubt Addison’s future is bright and has earned a starting role, if not with the Panthers than another team would be more than happy to load their lineup with a dynamic end. So, if Coach Ron Rivera deactivates Hardy for the rest of the season, fans shouldn’t worry because GM David Gettleman saw pro-bowl potential when other teams didn’t and resigned an important part of the future Panthers’ defense.
What I Liked
When I said the Panthers secondary would be able to contain Calvin Johnson, I never pictured they'd hold him to six catches on thirteen targets for 83 yards and no touchdowns. This performance by the secondary is particularly reassuring considering they will be facing more of the NFL's best recievers in the coming weeks, including Brandon Marshall (Bears), AJ Green (Bengals), and Percy Harvin (Seahawks). The Panthers also held Golden Tate, who was signed from Seattle this offseason, to 57 yards on five catches. They were helped a good deal by the linebackers, as Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly combined for 23 tackles. And we can't forget about the D Line, either, who were given a fairly unpleasant surprise before the game when they were informed that Greg Hardy would be deactivated in light of his domestic violence conviction. However, this proved to be of little concern for them, as Mario Addison, Hardy's replacement, registered 2.5 sacks and two TFLs. The fact that these guys have been able to perform up to their usual standard despite the events surrounding one of their teammates is a good sign of things to come. If Hardy, who has appealed the charges, is found guilty by a jury, the Panthers will almost certainly be forced to release him in order to avoid a PR nightmare much like the one their Week 4 opponent Baltimore Ravens are currently facing. If the D Line can get used to playing without him, though, a potential parting of ways between Hardy and the Panthers shouldn't cause too much of a rift within the front four. The Panthers defense played a tough, gritty game today, repeatedly knocking the ball out of the Lions' hands, even though only one of those was counted as a fumble. They say defense wins championships, and what I saw in this game reminded me of some of the best Super Bowl-winning defenses of the past decade.
What I Didn't
A great showing by the defense helped to mask the Panthers' offensive struggles in this game. Unlike some other games, no one position group could be blamed for it. At times, it was Cam Newton's inaccuracy. At other times, it was Jonathan Stewart's seeming inability to find a hole in the line. And, yes, sometimes the offensive line was inadequate in providing security for Cam, who was sacked five times, and making holes for Stewart, who had 37 yards in 15 carries (15 in 14 if you take away his 22 yard run in the 4th Quarter. Whatever the case, this was a disturbingly poor outing by the Panthers offense, and it's definitely something they'll want to fix immediately. Whether they were flatlining in the form of a three-and-out or making a nice drive down the field only to settle for a long field goal, they looked shaky, indecisive, and occasionally inept. They were only able to find the end zone twice against a mediocre Lions secondary, and one of those touchdowns may not have happened if it weren't for the help of penalty flags. Hopefully, this performance is just a fluke, and we won't be seeing anything like this again. If we do, the Panthers may not be as lucky as they were this time.
The Tipping Point
Melvin White's Interception
It was 13-7, there were about twelve and a half minutes to go in the game, and Matthew Stafford had Calvin Johnson just outside the end zone. If he had scored, the Lions would have taken the lead, and the game would have been placed into the hands of the struggling Panthers offense. It looked like he was going to make the catch...until the ball was tipped by Thomas DeCoud and fell almost perfectly into the hands of second-year cornerback Melvin White. White, who went undrafted out of Louisiana-Lafayette last year, ran the ball back to the Panthers 30, which set up the team's second touchdown. After that, the Lions would never threaten again, and the Panthers simply ran out the clock.
TCSB Game MVP
Not only did they shut down the best wide receiver in the world right now, these guys played a tough, physical game, repeatedly knocking the ball out of the receivers' hands (even though only one was counted as a fumble) and never leaving anybody open. They picked off Matthew Stafford once and almost had him several times, keeping him on his toes pretty much the whole game. This is the best game the Panthers' secondary has had in quite a while, and it should effectively erase any doubts about them.