With Cam Newton, Luke Kuechly and the rest of the Carolina Panthers’ starters on the bench for Thursday’s preseason finale against the Pittsburgh Steelers, it was time for the backups and fringe players on the roster to shine ... or stumble.
And while it was an underwhelming collective effort from the Panthers — they ultimately lost 39-24 to finish the preseason 3-1 — there was still much to be gleaned from the lopsided result.
Pittsburgh quarterback Josh Dobbs, who finished the game with 169 total yards and two touchdowns, shredded Carolina’s reserves in the secondary all night long. It didn’t help that the Panthers’ two starting defensive ends, Daeshon Hall and Bryan Cox Jr., let Dobbs slip out of their grasps time and time again. Overall, the defensive reserves allowed Pittsburgh to rack up over 300 total yards on offense, which was far from encouraging.
And while Carolina’s starting offensive line has been bitten hard by the injury bug, the backups did nothing to ease depth concerns. All three of Carolina’s quarterbacks were flushed out of the pocket on multiple occasions, which doesn’t include the three sacks by the Steelers. Reserve tackle Blaine Clausell, who could be one offensive line injury away from seeing playing time, particularly struggled.
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The two largest positive takeaways from Thursday were at the skill positions, where running backs Cameron Artis-Payne, Kenjon Barner and Reggie Bonnafon all impressed in various capacities. Similarly, receivers Curtis Samuel, Mose Frazier and Rasheed Bailey all had solid nights and impressive grabs.
Of course it’s only the preseason, and no starters saw playing time, but in a battle for roster spots ahead of Saturday’s deadline for the 53-man roster, there was still plenty to dissect by the end of Thursday night.
Three who mattered
Taylor Heinicke: Starting Thursday’s game may have been an indication that he was in the lead for the backup quarterback job, but he still needed to play well to stave off Garrett Gilbert. And while he started the game 1-for-5, he still made an impression in leading the offense to Carolina’s first touchdown. Barring a trade or free-agent move in the next week, the job is Heinicke’s to lose.
Mose Frazier: He spent most of last season on Carolina’s practice squad, but continued his impressive summer on Thursday with another touchdown grab, this time a back-shoulder toss from Heinicke. He finished the preseason with four catches for 48 yards and three touchdowns.
Andre Smith: After being injured for the previous three preseason games, it was the former UNC linebacker’s last chance to prove he belonged on the roster. Three tackles on the night, including two in the red zone, and a hit that incited a taunting penalty on Steelers QB Mason Rudolph, counts as him making the most of his opportunity.
▪ The Panthers had multiple chances to stifle Pittsburgh’s first offensive drive, but on three separate occasions, Dobbs was able to avoid the rush. The first two chances, Bryan Cox Jr. had sack opportunities, and on the third, Dobbs juked rookie linebacker Jermaine Carter Jr. to dive into the end zone for the game’s opening points.
▪ A nice pass breakup in the end zone by Demetrious Cox prevented the Panthers from going down two touchdowns before the half. Instead, Smith and Zach Moore stuffed Dobbs on the ensuing third down and forced Pittsburgh to kick a field goal.
▪ It was a forgettable final possession of the first half for Clausell, who was called for two holding penalties before getting beaten badly for a strip sack. Given Carolina’s injury situation on the offensive line, that’s not what coaches want to see.
▪ Best hustle play of the night goes to Bonnafon — after backup QB Kyle Allen was strip-sacked, he chased down the defender who recovered the fumble the length of the field and prevented him from scoring. Bonnafon downed him at the 1-yard line.
▪ Running back Elijah Hood, who starred at Charlotte Catholic and UNC, injured his knee on the game’s opening kickoff and did not return. Hood spent most of last season on the Oakland Raiders’ practice squad.
▪ Ryan Switzer, who tied an NCAA record for punt returns in a season while at UNC with Hood, was traded this week from the Oakland Raiders to the Steelers. He finished the night with 52 total return yards.