Four things to watch in Thursday night’s Carolina Panthers at Pittsburgh Steelers exhibition game (7:30 p.m., WCCB-TV channel 18):
Can Joe Webb play an entire game?
Derek Anderson’s hope is to start the game, but not at the expense of rushing out on his wife after she birthed their first child Wednesday afternoon. If Anderson can’t make it to the game with the arrangements the Panthers have planned, Webb will be the only quarterback available. The last time Webb went a full game was with Minnesota in the 2012 playoffs when he started in place of an injured Christian Ponder and went 11-of-30 for 180 yards, with one touchdown and one interception.
Webb has played well this preseason, but he’s done so in limited time and with the second- and third-team offenses. If the Panthers get in a pinch, coach Ron Rivera said they have emergency quarterbacks but declined to name who they are. It’d be a shame for some of the young players on the offense to have to play with a converted quarterback for the sake of finishing the final exhibition, especially for those players trying to earn a roster spot.
Can A.J. Klein get redemption?
With Luke Kuechly on another limited snap count, Klein will be looked to as one of the leaders of the linebacking group after the starters sit following the first quarter. Klein had done good work this preseason to try and unseat Chase Blackburn as the starting strongside linebacker, but then Klein gave up a 40-yard touchdown to Shane Vereen on a routine wheel route last week at New England. Blackburn returns from a back injury that sidelined him this preseason and he’ll likely take first-team reps. Klein played well in place of Blackburn last season, and he needs to take advantage of extra reps Thursday to compensate for the touchdown last week.
Will the Panthers improve their run blocking?
It’s been an issue for the starting offensive line all preseason. DeAngelo Williams hasn’t had much room to run in the past two exhibitions while Jonathan Stewart has made the most out of little. The pass protection can always improve, but the Panthers butter their bread with the run blocking. The coaching staff has harped on time of possession since last season, and the Panthers were in the top-six in the league in that category while sitting at 29th in passing offense. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula’s offense is designed to eat up time and yards on the ground while helping one of the best defenses in the league get a rest on the sideline.
If the offensive line can’t open up holes in early downs and force third-and-long situations, it could spell trouble for the season. Chris Scott will get the start for the injured Trai Turner at right guard, and Nate Chandler has to watch out for Garry Williams at right tackle.
Who will flash in the second half and earn a roster spot?
The Panthers have until Saturday evening to cut their roster from 75 to 53 players, and the majority of that 53 was settled before the team got on the plane Wednesday afternoon. But what player(s) will make a play or two that will force the coaching staff to reevaluate this weekend? Could undrafted rookie cornerback Carrington Byndom make an interception and swing momentum in favor of the Panthers? How about linebacker Denicos Allen captaining the defense to back-to-back third-down stops after a relatively quiet preseason? Andrew McDonald or David Foucault could keep Webb’s jersey clean from their tackle positions throughout the second half and help their case.
As most casual fans turn off the final exhibition in favor of a college football game, the Panthers coaching staff will keep their eyes out for those handful of players that step up and force themselves into further consideration before final cuts.