Former boxer Mike Tyson, a man who hits incredibly hard, once said, “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
The Carolina Panthers had a plan when they traveled to Pittsburgh for a Thursday night showdown with the Steelers. They planned to prove themselves on a national stage. They planned to jump ahead early and stay ahead. Their secondary planned to prove its gelling process was finally over.
After scoring on their opening drive for the first time this season, everything was going according to plan for the Panthers.
Then they got punched in the mouth.
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“I thought everything was going fine until we gave up a 75-yard touchdown pass,” head coach Ron Rivera said. “At the end of the day, we talked about staying in the lead position and we didn’t, unfortunately. They ran a double move, our guy bit up on the double move and they threw the ball over the top for the touchdown. I can’t give you any other explanation than that.”
Pittsburgh scored on its first play from scrimmage when Ben Roethlisberger hit a wide-open JuJu Smith-Schuster for the 75-yard touchdown Rivera mentioned. Panthers cornerback James Bradberry, who held Mike Evans to 1 catch on 10 targets last week, abandoned his Cover 3 deep third assignment and bit on Roethlisberger’s pump fake to James Washington, who ran a quick hitch.
From there, things unraveled faster than a bored dog unravels a roll of toilet paper.
“It was a snowball effect from there. We had the momentum and after play we lost it,” Bradberry said. “Football sometimes is all about momentum and I allowed them to get the momentum back. I take the blame for that.”
Pittsburgh’s lead swelled to 21-7 within six minutes of game time, eventually reaching 24-7 before Carolina scored its second touchdown. The optics didn’t look good at first glance, but one stop here and another score there and this was a game again. A national audience would see the Panthers take a hit and bounce right back — at least part of the plan was still in play.
But then they got punched in the mouth.
And this time they didn’t get up.
Four plays after the Panthers cut their deficit to 10 points, Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown connected on a 53-yard score in which the All-Pro beat rookie corner Donte Jackson in one-on-one coverage. Jackson clamored for a penalty that he’d never get and was calmed down by Eric Reid on the sideline.
The speedy Jackson kept up with Brown for most of the go-route but fell victim to what Rivera agreed was “a veteran making a veteran move.” The game was never in doubt after that play.
He was admittedly frustrated — he and Bradberry allowed a combined 107 yards to the four receivers they primarily covered in the Panthers’ previous two games, a number eclipsed in just two plays Thursday. And he refused to let those two plays represent their entire body of work.
Or any part of Thursday’s game, for that matter.
“It is what it is. One play each, that type of stuff doesn’t define us,” Jackson said. “We know what we’ve got. We know we have a lot more football left to play ... We’re not going to let one game define us — not even one game, two plays, really.”
Carolina enters a long week with a plan once again. Rest up, get motivated and move forward. With seven games left to play, if the Panthers have any playoff aspirations, they’ll dust themselves off and learn how to better protect their jaw.
They have no other choice. The punches aren’t stopping any time soon.
Marcel Louis-Jacques, 704-358-5015: @Marcel_LJ