Rough second game helps Panthers find some clarity in position battles

The Bills pounded Carolina in Charlotte, but the rookies got extended time

Rashaan Gaulden is among the Panthers defensive backs battling for the starting spot at free safety this preseason. (Mike McCarn / AP Photo)

The Carolina Panthers fell behind 24-3 and lost its preseason home opener to Buffalo, 27-14.

The team originally planned to play most starters after holding nearly everyone out of the first preseason game. However, when game time arrived, quarterback Cam Newton, linebacker Luke Kuechly, running back Christian McCaffrey and tight end Greg Olsen were among the players on the sidelines, which may have led to the team’s flat start in the contest.

Here’s a look at who took advantage of the opportunity in the game and who hurt their chances.

Defensive rookies and position battles

First-round draft pick Brian Burns didn’t start, but the edge rusher came in on third down of the game’s first series and played most of the first half. After drifting around the line and corralling quarterbacks who left the pocket in his first game, Burns did more classic pass rushing against Buffalo, even lining up with his hand on the ground for several plays in the second quarter. He struggled to get through blocks when he made contact, which might explain his hesitancy to do so on many plays.

Fourth-rounder Christian Miller came in for Burns late in the second quarter. Just before halftime, he got around his block and pressured the quarterback. Late in the third quarter, he beat his man for a quarterback sack (which was wiped out by a penalty away from the ball). Miller also made a third-quarter tackle where he pursued the running back on a broken play, tackling him at the line. The lone black mark on his night was a missed tackle in the backfield on a running back screen that ended up going for 47 yards.

The battle for one safety spot didn’t get much clearer after each of the candidates struggled.

Tre Boston started at free safety and was targeted on the first snap of the game for a completion. He got into position to make tackles at the line of scrimmage and in front of the first down line, but in both cases, the ball carrier was able to fight through him for valuable additional yards.

Ross Cockrell entered the game in the second quarter and was also targeted immediately for a first down. He was in position on a wide receiver screen but got blocked out of the play, which then went for 30 yards. He also missed a shoestring tackle that would have resulted in a loss. Cockrell was flagged for illegal hands to the face, wiping out a sack by Miller.

Colin Jones got most of his play on special teams early. He was first downfield and made a hit on a punt return but missed the tackle. He entered the game at safety in the second half and was blocked out of the play when he tried to run blitz.

Rashaan Gaulden had the most bright spots for the safety candidates, but negative plays may have outweighed any positive impact. He came from behind the play to tackle the running back at the line late in the first half. He also twice rushed the quarterback on safety blitzes. He had a costly illegal hands to the face penalty, however, which allowed Buffalo to convert a first-and-19.

Cole Luke got into the game in the fourth quarter and did well in limited time. He nearly had an interception when he broke on a short pass. He also broke up a play when he got through on a blitz.

Offensive rookies and position battles

The rookie offensive linemen had a rough night. Greg Little entered the game in the second quarter and picked up a holding flag on his first snap. He also got flagged for an illegal chop block in the second half and flushed the quarterback from the pocket after he lost his man.

Beside him, sixth-rounder Dennis Daley allowed his guy through to hit the quarterback — roughing the passer was called on the play. Little, Daley and the center also miscommunicated on a stunt, allowing someone to get through unblocked for a sack.

Veterans Daryl Williams and Greg Van Roten started at tackle and guard, respectively and appear to be locking down the starting jobs.

The quarterbacks also had a long night. Kyle Allen started and was 2-for-8 on passes to receivers, with several bad misses and two passes batted at the line.

Will Grier entered next and threw a pick-six that was far wide of his intended target. His decision making and accuracy were problems all night. He completed just one of his first seven attempts to wide receivers, overthrowing on most of the misses and finishing 4 of 14 to receivers. He bolstered his numbers with dump-offs to running backs who ran for good yardage.

Taylor Heinicke had the best night of the three, scrambling for yards and throwing the only touchdown pass of the game for the Panthers.

The running back battle also became interesting. Veteran Cameron Artis-Payne started and looked good as a power back, bulling for yardage. He was also the first option for kickoff returns.

Reggie Bonnafon had a good night catching the ball for long gains. He also was able to bull ahead for yardage on run plays. He seems to be at his best in the open field, on dump-offs or draw plays.

Fifth-rounder Jordan Scarlett had his first playing experience and mimicked Bonnafon, looking good catching the ball and showing elusiveness. He was also able to push the pile for extra yardage.

Elijah Holyfield saw his time diminish but was able to bounce off tacklers for yardage. He also picked up a blitz while blocking.