The Carolina Panthers cracked open a Heinicke for their first offensive series on Thursday night against Pittsburgh, giving backup quarterback Taylor Heinicke his final crack at snagging the No. 2 spot.
And with the coaching staff scouring the field for starter Cam Newton’s backup for the 2018 season, they might have found him — in an unexpected place — during the 39-24 loss to the Steelers.
Heinicke’s night didn’t exactly start as he might have hoped. He rushed for a first down on third and 6 in the Panthers’ opening series, but he was 1 for 5 passing on the next six attempts, including a batted ball and a wide misfire to receiver Curtis Samuel on third down, his third consecutive incompletion.
He started to settle in during the second quarter, hitting backup tight end Evan Baylis for 20 yards and setting up a 6-yard touchdown pass to receiver Mose Frazier.
Heinicke’s night ended after that. He finished 7 of 12 for 68 yards and a touchdown.
Garrett Gilbert entered the game with 10:54 left in the half.
He started 3 for 4 for 18 yards, and had a shot at a two-minute drive to end the half.
But backup left tackle Blaine Clausell got flagged for his second penalty of the game to set the Panthers back, then two snaps later was beaten by defensive end Olasunkanmi Adeniyi, who strip-sacked Gilbert. Pittsburgh recovered to cut off the drive.
Gilbert’s night ended shortly after. He finished 4 for 7 with 63 yards and no touchdowns. Third-string quarterback Kyle Allen took over to begin the third quarter.
But because of the second-quarter fiasco of a series, it seemed Gilbert didn’t really get as complete a chance to show what the Panthers like about him: a strong arm, and strong knowledge of their system.
So the Panthers must — and will — consider much more in their evaluations than either quarterback’s outing in Pittsburgh. The two quarterbacks have dueled all preseason, with Heinicke believed to have the edge entering Thursday night.
And while Carolina believed enough in the potential of Henicke and Gilbert in the spring to decide against re-signing longtime backup Derek Anderson, the two have been inconsistent through training camp and the preseason.
In fact, a quarterback the Panthers might have been lusting after by the end of the first quarter is actually Pittsburgh backup Josh Dobbs. A former aerospace engineering major at Tennessee, Dobbs put together a slick little Steelers drive to open the game.
He evaded pressure twice (once eluding a one-on-one Bryan Cox Jr. sack attempt), and then scrambled for a rushing touchdown.
His second drive was also impressive. Dobbs connected for 46 yards to fellow former Volunteer Justin Hunter and then threw a 27-yard touchdown strike to Tevin Jones.
A report from ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler this week said that multiple teams were interested in trading for Dobbs as a backup.
Because of need at other positions, the Panthers might not have or be willing to put up the necessary capital. They might also be perfectly happy with either Heinicke or Gilbert backing up Cam Newton.
But a lot can happen in two days. Teams must narrow their 90-man rosters to 53, and trades often happen during and after.
Could Carolina call dibs on Dobbs?