Grading the Carolina Panthers for Sunday’s game against the Buffalo Bills:
C+ Quarterback: While Cam Newton certainly showed flashes of his old self – confidence in his early rhythm with receivers when throwing over the top, using his legs well and sliding when he needed to – he also showed some expected rust. He overthrew tight end Ed Dickson on a wide-open play, and also overthrew running back Christian McCaffrey on a would-be touchdown late in the game.
Newton finished 20 of 32 for 228 yards passing and carried the ball five times for 27 yards. He did not throw or run for a touchdown, but he had no turnovers.
C- Running backs: Carolina’s backs only found consistent success when used as pass catchers. Feature back Jonathan Stewart carried the ball 15 times for just 40 yards, and McCaffrey carried the ball eight times for only 10 yards.
B+ Receivers: Other than Benjamin’s drop on a tough hit in the end zone, Carolina’s receivers played well and got several opportunities. Carolina finished with 228 receiving yards and three pass catchers who got at least three receptions apiece and finished with averages above 10 yards per catch. Benjamin led the group with six catches for 77 yards, followed by Devin Funchess with four for 68 yards.
F Offensive line: Newton took six sacks and was hurried seven times as Buffalo’s pass-rush ran roughshod over Carolina’s line, disrupting the offense’s rhythm enormously, beginning in the second quarter.
A Defensive line: Once again, Carolina’s defensive line was a dominant anchor for the rest of the unit. The Panthers’ line held Buffalo to 69 net rushing yards for an average of 3 yards per rush, and hassled quarterback Tyrod Taylor often. Taylor was hurried six times and took three sacks – two of which came as a courtesy of veteran Julius Peppers.
A Linebackers: Thomas Davis had another fourth-down stop, and Luke Kuechly flew around on “cleanup duty,” at one point taking down Taylor as a few defenders missed the scrambling quarterback on a Bills’ fourth-quarter drive.
Kuechly and Davis combined for 12 tackles.
B Secondary: Carolina’s secondary limited the potential damage of Buffalo’s receiver combination of LeSean McCoy, Charles Clay and Zay Jones and only allowed 107 passing yards, but did not have any interceptions. James Bradberry also caught a lucky break after getting behind Jones on the Bills’ final play – a potential touchdown pass, which was dropped by Jones.
A Special teams: Punter Michael Palardy showed excellent placement and repeatedly flipped the field well. Gunner Russell Shepard also played well on special teams, downing a short-field punt of Palardy’s inside the 2.
This grade may drop a bit because of McCaffrey, who may consider waving fair a punt or two after gaining just 30 total yards. Two of his returns kept Carolina inside the 20.
B Coaching: The trendy reaction on social media, etc., after a win like this is to blame the offensive coordinator and the rest of the coaching staff.
But actually, Mike Shula and head coach Ron Rivera had a great game plan against a Buffalo staff that knew them inside and out. They knew Buffalo would align its defense in a manner that left large gaps in the middle of the field, and called the game so that receivers could do damage there and were productive. Where the real error lay in this game was in the execution of the offensive line and the team’s red zone mistakes.