Carolina’s third preseason game against New England on Friday night was a dress rehearsal for the regular season, and the first half carried plenty of drama.
The Panthers won 25-14, but lost a fourth offensive lineman in as many weeks as fill-in right tackle Jeremiah Sirles left the game with a hamstring injury.
And quarterback Cam Newton gave the crowd a scare as he scrambled on third-and-9 in the team’s opening drive, flipped after contact and lost the ball. Somehow, the ball squirted between two Patriots players and was recovered by running back Christian McCaffrey, but Newton appeared to land on his head during the play. He had to leave the game for four tense plays (backup Taylor Heinicke got the call-up), and was evaluated in the sideline tent.
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But Newton re-entered the game later in the drive and finished the game 11 for 17 with 142 yards. He did not play in the second half.
Meanwhile, Carolina’s red zone defense was stout for a second consecutive week, holding New England to just three points in the first half.
But the offense stalled on three really promising drives, settling for three field goals in three red-zone tries at the half.
Three who mattered
Taylor Moton, Greg Van Roten: Both fill-in offensive linemen had a solid outing on Friday night. Moton played his first game at left tackle, with starter Matt Kalil out with a knee injury, while Van Roten had his second start at left guard.
The two opened several nice holes for McCaffrey, who rushed for 42 yards in the first quarter and usually to the left side. Van Roten also sprang McCaffrey loose on an 18-yard run by executing three downfield blocks after helping open the initial gap.
Christian McCaffrey: A lot has been made of Panthers head coach Ron Rivera’s comments as training camp opened about wanting to see McCaffrey get 25 to 30 touches per game.
But McCaffrey made it look like that might be feasible Friday night, with 10 touches for 50 all-purpose yards and a fumble recovery in the first quarter alone.
McCaffrey only played one half, and finished the game with 14 touches for 64 all-purpose yards and a fumble recovery.
Luke Kuechly: Boy, will this come as a surprise: Carolina Panthers linebacker Kuechly was in on every red-zone play to halt the Patriots’ drive to open the second quarter, and made the third down stop that held New England to a field goal. He was credited with three consecutive tackles and a pass breakup.
▪ Veteran safety Da’Norris Searcy (concussion protocol) and cornerback Kevon Seymour did not dress for the game.
▪ Panthers rookie cornerback Donte Jackson started opposite cornerback James Bradberry, and rookie safety Rashaan Gaulden started opposite veteran Mike Adams.
▪ Jackson had a huge third-down stop on New England’s first drive of the game.
▪ The Panthers had two promising drives in the third quarter, but both ended in field goals. The first was a 16-play, 77-yard series that lasted 9:59, but stalled inside the 5-yard line when Newton threw a little behind rookie receiver D.J. Moore, and Moore couldn’t adjust.
▪Linebacker Shaq Thompson had two tackles-for-loss on two Patriots rushing plays in the first half, when he was too quick for blockers on the interior.
▪ The pass-rush complemented the secondary well for Carolina on the Patriots’ first drive, as defensive end Mario Addison batted down a Tom Brady pass and then hassled the quarterback to force a hurried throw on third down, upon which Jackson made the stop.
▪ Carolina’s defense held the Patriots to two consecutive field-goal attempts in the first half, the second of which sailed wide right to end the half 6-3 in the Panthers’ favor.
▪ Carolina ran the ball well in the first half for a second consecutive week, averaging 4.4 yards per carry with McCaffrey the solo back.
▪ Three young players, rookie defensive end Marquise Haynes, second-year receiver Curtis Samuel and second-year defensive end Bryan Cox Jr. got some time with the first team in the first half.
Haynes came away with a tackle-for-loss and recovered a fumble forced by safety Colin Jones in the third quarter. Samuel had a slick 28-yard catch and was targeted by Newton in the end zone (it was broken up). Samuel also caught a 31-yard ball from Heinicke in the third quarter.
And Cox, who is battling for the final defensive end spot with last year’s fourth-round pick Daeshon Hall, played long into the third quarter and well before Hall saw the field.
▪ While McCaffrey took the bulk of the workload on the first drive, Newton spread the ball around to seven different receiving targets throughout the first half. Among the highlights: Jarius Wright opened the game with a clutch third-down catch for a first down, and Devin Funchess caught a smooth back-shoulder ball in tight coverage down the sideline for a 28-yard gain.
Wright also had another clutch third-down catch as a play broke down in the second quarter, and Newton scrambled to find a target.
▪ A weird call ended the second half in a field goal, instead of an attempt at the end zone. Tight end Greg Olsen slid out of bounds on a long catch with eight seconds left in the second half, and the referees kept the clock running. Newton got the ball spiked with one second left, and the Panthers settled for a third drive ending in a field goal to lead 9-3 at the half.
▪ Newton’s night ended at the half, as Heinicke opened the third quarter at quarterback. Newton likely won’t play in the team’s final preseason game, so he’ll finish the preseason 26 of 38 with 315 yards (68.4 completion percentage), a touchdown and an interception.
▪ Heinicke showed some impressive wheels on a fourth-down touchdown scamper, in which he slipped past two defenders for the score. The former Houston backup might have sealed his spot as Carolina’s backup quarterback with his performance Friday night.
They said it
“We most definitely stepped it up down there. We defend every blade of grass..” – Cornerback Donte Jackson, on the team’s red zone defense in the first half.