Carolina Panthers

Instant analysis: Too many QB hits, and he’s just one Panther who isn’t safe

Instant analysis from the Carolina Panthers’ 24-10 loss to the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday:

First drive goes perfectly for Panthers, Heinicke.

Carolina couldn’t have drawn up a better first drive for quarterback Taylor Heinicke in his first NFL start.

The Panthers scored a touchdown on a 14-play, 73-yard drive to open Sunday’s game. Heinicke was 5 of 6 for 38 yards and also rushed for a first down on third and 9, which ignited the home crowd. Carolina opened 2 for 2 on third down.

Heinicke bobbled his first snap, but settled in afterward by getting the ball to running back Christian McCaffrey on short passes and handoffs.

To cap the drive, Heinicke rolled out to the left, but didn’t have an open receiver. Rookie tight end Ian Thomas adjusted to get some space in the end zone, and Heinicke threw high on the run so Thomas would jump up and snag it.

It was the first career touchdown for both players, and they celebrated in the end zone accordingly.

The drive not only was successful, it took 8:03 off the clock. Carolina kept the ball out of Atlanta’s hands with a methodical drive, but they were also able to play fast within the drive and went no-huddle a couple of times.

A clear message after a Heinicke hit

Heinicke had a promising start, completing 9 of 13 passes for 72 yards and a touchdown. But his pocket looked problematic on multiple throws, and he took an absolute shot in the second quarter from defensive tackle Grady Jarrett.

Jarrett was flagged for roughing the passer after an incensed Luke Kuechly sprinted out onto the field to say something to the referee.

Heinicke went to the locker room with an announced left elbow injury. Third-string rookie quarterback Kyle Allen replaced him until the two-minute warning, when Heinicke re-entered the game after getting a heavy wrap and brace over his left elbow and arm.

But he stayed under heavy duress for the rest of the game. Heinicke, despite clearly being in pain, took seven hits and was sacked twice.

Watching the hits starting quarterback Cam Newton has taken all season — with a hurt shoulder — should already be enough of a reminder that a Panthers offensive line re-build needs to be one of the biggest areas of focus this offseason.

If anyone still needed convincing, Sunday was it. Hurt quarterbacks, whether it’s the starter or the backup, shouldn’t be under this much duress.

But watching the hectic shuffle as Heinicke and Allen went in and out of the game — and as a hurt Heinicke then threw a pick in the red zone — sent another reminder, too: This offseason, Carolina needs to solidify a long-term, durable backup quarterback as Newton continues to recover from a shoulder injury. Stability is crucial for an offense bursting with young talent.

Only a couple players should feel safe on defense

As the season draws to a close, the defensive struggles that have plagued Carolina over a six-game slide continued.

Linebacker Luke Kuechly should feel plenty secure, of course. And, maybe a little surprisingly, so should upcoming free agent defensive tackle Kyle Love, who has been far and away the most productive defensive tackle for the Panthers this year and started in place of an injured Kawann Short on Sunday. Love strip-sacked Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and then recovered the fumble, his third forced fumble of the year. It’s hard to imagine, after the year he has had, that Love isn’t extended this spring.

But otherwise, this group of Panthers defensive players should all feel like they’re playing for their jobs or playing time, no matter their status.

Atlanta converted its first four third down attempts, including one for a touchdown.

Cornerback James Bradberry made a stunning play in the first quarter, stretching out to break up a deep ball intended for Russell Gage. He also broke up a third-down pass intended for Mohammed Sanu in the third quarter, but got easily beat on the run by Julio Jones for Atlanta’s first touchdown of the game.

Safety Mike Adams and rookie cornerback Donte Jackson miscommunicated and got beat by a 75-yard touchdown pass to Calvin Ridley on the first play of the third quarter. Then, Sanu was in his own zip code on a 44-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter to put the Falcons up 24-10.

The Panthers have given up 17 passing plays of 20-plus yards in the last seven games.

Competition will likely be brought in everywhere, and that must improve a defense that badly needs to rediscover its identity.

Jourdan Rodrigue: 704-358-5071; @jourdanrodrigue