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.