The Carolina Panthers dropped a winnable opening game at home against the Las Vegas Raiders.
Things only get tougher for the Panthers, with a week two game at Tampa Bay against legendary starting quarterback Tom Brady coming off of a tough loss in his Bucs debut.
As if Brady needed any more motivation to have a bounce-back game, the Panthers are one of just two teams with a winning regular-season record against him in his career — Seattle is the other. Brady is 2-3 all-time against the Panthers (not counting his win with the Patriots in Super Bowl 38). By comparison, the Buffalo Bills have also beaten Brady three times … in 35 games.
Overall, the Panthers performed at the levels expected of the various units in the opening game. The offense was able to move the ball fairly consistently. Carolina outgained the Raiders and converted more than half (7 of 13) of its third downs.
Pleasant surprise on offense: The line did better than expected, allowing Teddy Bridgewater to be sacked just once.
Needs to step up: While Bridgewater had a solid game, his frontline receivers, other than Robbie Anderson, didn’t star. Eight of Bridgewater’s 12 incompletions were targeted for either DJ Moore or Curtis Samuel, who combined for just nine successful catches. Backup Seth Roberts played just five snaps, three fewer than Brandon Zylstra or infamous fullback Alex Armah. Running back Mike Davis also only had three snaps. The Panthers say it every year, but at some point, they’ll need to reduce the workload on Christian McCaffrey.
Also as expected, the defense was shaky. The secondary allowed Derek Carr to complete 22 of 30 passes. Things will only get worse for the defensive backfield if Donte Jackson’s injury is serious. The team’s most reliable cornerback went down with an ankle injury against the Raiders and didn’t return to the game. Rookie Troy Pride Jr. struggled, and Rasul Douglas — cut by the Eagles a week ago — had to fill in at the other corner spot. Douglas stepped up admirably with a solid game, but it’s unlikely that he’ll be part of the long-term answer at that position.
The defensive line was expected to be the one bright spot on that side of the ball, but Carolina wasn’t able to sack Carr during the game and gave up 133 yards and three touchdowns on the ground. First-round tackle Derrick Brown appears to be ready for prime time, but the rest of the line needs to step up. Brian Burns had a quiet four tackles, and rookie end Yetur Gross-Matos was on the field for just 16 snaps out of the defense’s 63 plays.
Matt Rhule, who presumably has some input into playing time, said afterward that Gross-Matos, “probably should play more as we move forward.”
Pleasant surprise on defense: Brown, Butler and linebacker Jeremy Chinn, who had eight tackles in his debut, played well. End Stephen Weatherly also did, helping to keep Gross-Matos on the bench.
Needs to step up: The pass rush. The secondary. The run defense. If you’re missing those three components, your defense is likely doomed.
With wholesale changes on special teams, the only piece consistent with last year was kicker Joey Slye — who then proceeded to miss an extra point, which could have been significant if Carolina had gotten into position for a late field goal.
Pleasant surprise on special teams: Punter Joseph Charlton, who beat out incumbent Michael Palardy, averaged 60 yards on two punts. Pharoh Cooper showed some spark on returns, bringing back two punts for 29 yards and four kicks for 109.
Needs to step up: Slye was successful on all three field goal attempts, but the missed PAT will cause a young coaching staff who doesn’t need one more source of stress to think twice going forward.
The coaching staff will be (rightly) crucified for the critical play call on fourth-and-inches late when seldom-used Armah got the ball instead of McCaffrey. Up until then, Rhule and his staff seemed to be having a solid NFL debut. There were no glaring problems with clock management. The run-pass breakdown on offense was reasonable. He relied a little heavily on his starters, which makes sense in an opening game and will likely change going forward. Still, until Rhule does something to win over fans, he’ll be remembered for the Armah play.