The Carolina Panthers preseason opener was a lackluster affair…a meaningless 26-13 loss to the Houston Texans Saturday night in Charlotte. One of the Panthers’ weak spots last year continues into this season – special teams.
The Panthers tried to fix their special teams over the offseason by hiring an assistant special teams coach, signing several free agents with strong special teams resumes and selecting a punter and a kick-returner with two of their seven draft picks. But, at least in this game, it didn’t seem to matter.
After tying the game at 3 each in the first quarter, the Panthers allowed Houston’s Trindon Holliday to return the subsequent kick 90 yards. Coach Ron Rivera was not happy about that, and neither were the special teams players nor the fans in Bank of America Stadium. Justin Medlock‘s short kick (to the 10 yard line) gave Holliday a running start – something you do not need to do when facing one of the league’s fastest players.
“Any time a kick returner can catch that ball going forward like he did, it doesn’t give your coverage an opportunity to get all the way down in position,” Rivera said. “Then we’ve got to get off blocks.”
That didn’t happen. New Panthers free safety Haruki Nakamura, one of the special teams pickups, said the coverage team was to blame. “We brought in guys specifically to fix those problems and none of us are happy about it. It had nothing to do with the call. It had nothing to do with the kick. The coach makes the call, we kick it and you’re supposed to run down and tackle him. That’s on us as players, and we didn’t do it.”
Medlock, the former CFL player is competing with incumbent placekicking veteran Olindo Mare. While he has looked great in camp, remember he was cut after his first NFL game when he went 1-of-2 in field goals. I hope he gets more chances because he has a tremendous leg. His kickoff to the 10 yard line is not good enough in the NFL, however. In fact, Rivera said that play was the biggest disappointment of the night. Mare sent both of his kickoffs into the end zone, one for a touchback. Mare made a 33-yard field goal in the first quarter and Medlock made a 48-yard field goal in the second quarter with plenty of distance to spare. Rivera said neither kicker gained an advantage.
Brad Nortman, the rookie punter (sixth round pick from Wisconsin) hit a 57-yard field goal from the end zone and it had good hang time, forcing a fair catch.
In the second half, fourth-round pick Joe Adams from Arkansas fielded a punt on the left sideline, reversed field and ran up the right sideline for a 34-yard return. This was great to see, as Adams is not only fast, but he is quick, too. Quick gives you a chance to go fast in the league.
The game was scripted, and Rivera said his starters would play between 12 and 15 plays. Newton was in for 13 plays, and set up Mare’s field goal, before giving way to veteran Derek Anderson.
First round pick Luke Kuechly started at weakside linebacker and made four tackles and forced a fumble in his NFL debut. “Luke came out and showed what he’s capable of doing in terms of football plays,” Rivera stated. “He came off the sideline and said, ‘Man, that was fast.’ Once he got past that first series you saw what he was capable of.”
He was named the starter Friday after the team listed Thomas Davis (strained calf) and linebacker Jon Beason (hamstring) as out for Saturday’s game.
“For me it was fast. That’s the biggest thing I remember,” Kuechly said. “The first play of the game I lined up on the wrong side of the ball. It was a learning experience. The speed of the game is a lot faster, even in practice. Practice moves as a certain pace but even the tempo of the previous play is a lot quicker.”
Kuechly’s best play came when Houston running back (and former Pro Bowler) Arian Foster had run for a first down, but Kuechly ball stripped out of his hand and cornerback Sherrod Martin recovered it at midfield. Kuechly’s four tackles topped the defensive list.
Jonathan Stewart, who signed a new five-year contract extension just before kickoff, did not get much work, but he did make a 13-yard reception for a first down.
The offense didn’t do much with short field, and Rivera was disappointed in the second- and third-teamers in particular. He witnessed the offensive line giving up sight sacks, including third-team quarterback Jimmy Clausen going down five times and also losing a fumble.
At the end of the game, the locker room was quiet…not much to celebrate…a point Rivera made to his players. “It was simple. He wasn’t happy. And it was evident why. The effort out there wasn’t good enough. Every time we come out and play in front of our fans we have a point to prove,” Newton said. “At points in the game, myself included, it was lethargic and we could have put more effort into it. We never like to have those types of (post-game) meetings.”
To me, you never know what kind of team you have until you play a game. The Panthers have shown good tempo and effort at camp, other than one time this week when Rivera had to stop practice to get the team’s attention. Going up against a good Houston team shows there is a lot of work to do this week, and over the course of the preseason if the Panthers are going to give New Orleans and Atlanta a run this season.
The first game is just kind of an exercise in getting the cobwebs out. Looks like there is a lot of cleaning left to do.