What I Liked:
In his first NFL game, Kelvin Benjamin led the team with six receptions for 92 yards and a very, very nice touchdown on the first play of the 4th Quarter. He showed us just how big of an advantage his height can be as he made a few catches in traffic that guys a few inches shorter might not have been able to reach. I also liked what I saw from Philly Brown, who may go down as one of this year's biggest undrafted steals, on punt returns. If the guys around him could have held their blocks just a few seconds longer, he might've averaged a bit more than 12 yards per return. Oh, and we can't forget about 5th-round pick Bene Benwikere, who in addition to recovering the fumble that more or less sealed the game had three solo tackles. They may be in need of some development, but the guys with potential on all sides of the football are giving the Panthers a reason to celebrate.
Being On The Right Side of Turnovers
If you were anywhere near the city of Charlotte during the year 2010, you almost certainly know about the Panthers' historic struggle with turnovers. That's what makes finally coming out on the right side of the INTs and FUMs on a regular basis so satisfying. Interceptions from Antoine Cason and new guy Roman Harper have boosted my confidence in the new secondary, and the ability of the defense to knock the ball out of Josh McCown's hands bodes well for the rest of the season. It will be considerably harder for these guys to duplicate today's results against the likes of Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson next weekend, but what I saw today leads me to believe they can do it.
What I Didn't:
The 4th Quarter
The most important quarter was the one where the Panthers looked the most shaky. First, Graham Gano missed a 48-yard field goal, which gave Tampa Bay the ball on their own 38 yard line. They were then able to score a touchdown on the next drive. After Carolina punted on the next series, the Bucs again marched down the field and scored, closing the gap to 17-14. As if that wasn't enough the Panthers then picked the worst possible time to go three-and-out, giving Tampa Bay the ball back with just over 1:30 to go. Fortunately, the Panthers were able to force and recover a fumble on the very next play. But they just had to give the other guys one more chance to win the game by failing to secure a first down which would have allowed them to kneel out the clock. With their seeming inability to finish the ball game, the Panthers were very fortunate to come away with this one, and it's an issue that Ron Rivera will certainly want to address this week.
The O Line
I had hoped that the shoddy preseason performance of the Panthers' O Line was just a fluke of some sort and that it wouldn't carry over into the regular season. Based on today's result, it appears my concerns were warranted. This game saw the offensive line give up six tackles behind the line, and the run game suffered as a result. The Panthers carried the ball 33 times for 113 yards, while Tampa Bay was able to accomplish almost as much with about half as many snaps. Also, Derek Anderson was sacked once and was forced to scramble a few too many times for my liking. Someone tell these guys that they're supposed to be pillars, not turnstiles.
The Tipping Point:
Luke Kuechly's forced fumble and Bene Benwikere's recovery
It was crunch time for the Panthers defense. After surrendering two consecutive touchdowns, they hoped to stymie the Buccaneers' effort to complete the comeback with 1:36 left on the clock and the ball at their own 32 yard line. It started with a relatively simple play: Josh McCown with a short throw to running back Bobby Rainey. But then, in swooped Luke Kuechly, the NFL's reigning Defensive Player of the Year, and suddenly the ball was on the ground and Bene Benwikere, a rookie cornerback from San Jose State, had picked it up and was running the other direction. This play not only allowed the Panthers offense to run some time off the clock, it gave the defense the confidence they needed to come in and seal off the game. Had it not happened the way it did, there's no telling what Tampa Bay could've done, and the "What I Didn't Like" section of this wrap up probably would've been a lot longer.
The Charlotte Sports Blog Game MVP:
While all the skill positions were generally superb, I have to single out Derek Anderson as this week's MVP. Not only was he able to start his first game in four years on less than 24 hours' notice, he put on a performance reminiscent of Cam himself, throwing for 230 yards and two touchdowns and earning a 108.7 QBR. He also demonstrated a keen ability to work outside the pocket, which helped him avoid being sacked more than a few times. The Panthers are fortunate to have one of the best backup quarterbacks in the NFL, and Ron Rivera can certainly rest easy this week knowing Anderson will be ready next Sunday if Cam isn't quite there yet.