One down, three to go.
After nearly eight months without playing a game, the Carolina Panthers returned to the field Thursday night in their preseason opener against the Chicago Bears. And while many — read: almost every single one — of the team’s projected offensive and defensive starters didn’t play, it was still the first opportunity to see who this team might become as the regular season inches nearer.
That the Panthers ultimately won 23-13 doesn’t much matter. More important was assessing key positional battles, especially with depth players and those fighting to make the final 53-man roster.
No competition was more important than at backup quarterback, where Kyle Allen and Will Grier are vying to be the No. 2 passer behind the still-rehabbing Cam Newton. With Newton not participating Thursday, Allen earned the start and promptly delivered a mistake-free performance, albeit largely against Chicago’s second-string defense.
Allen threw for 228 yards and two touchdowns in Carolina’s Week 17 win against New Orleans last season, and his comfort in Norv Turner’s offense was evident. Allen escaped pressure in the pocket several times, and while he didn’t always connect with receivers after, he didn’t do anything that hurt the offense.
Grier, who spelled Allen and played the majority of the second and third quarters, had his bright spots and his mistakes. He threw the game’s first touchdown pass to fellow rookie Elijah Holyfield, but also threw a ‘what-was-that?’ interception into double coverage.
This is just a small sampling of both players’ talents — neither threw for more than 80 yards — but it was the first step toward answering the Panthers’ most important depth question.
Three who mattered
Brian Burns: His two sacks were the flashiest plays of the night, but more than that, showcased the explosive first step and pass-rushing instincts that made him the Panthers’ No. 16 overall pick this year.
Elijah Holyfield: An early fumble could have wrecked his attitude and momentum, but he responded with his first NFL touchdown catch early in the third quarter.
Joey Slye: With Graham Gano out, the Virginia Tech grad had a chance to audition for other teams — and he absolutely responded, drilling from both 42 and 55 yards out in the first half.
▪ Grier’s interception midway through the second quarter doesn’t help his case to be Cam Newton’s primary backup this season. Grier either severely overthrew a crossing Terry Godwin, or forced an underthrown ball into double coverage on Jason Vander Laan. A few plays later, Grier was hit while he threw after center Tyler Larsen got beat one-on-one up the middle.
▪ Defensive end/outside linebacker Marquis Haynes swam through the Bears’ offensive line on the first play for the game for a tackle for loss. And while that speed was impressive, Haynes also had a slip up later on, when he failed to seal the edge on David Montgomery’s touchdown run. In the third quarter, he also recorded a sack.
▪ On the first of Burns’ two sacks, the first-round pick out of Florida State spun off a chop block and back into position to make the tackle. Bears backup Chase Daniel then stepped up into the pocket... and right into Burns’ grasp. Bonus points for the Spider-Man celebration pose after.
▪ Linebacker Andre Smith missed a good part of his rookie season with nagging hamstring issues, but he has been one of the team’s primary backups behind Luke Kuechly and Shaq Thompson. He had five tackles on Thursday night and a key pass breakup in the end zone in the fourth quarter.
▪ Tight end Ian Thomas, expected to be a significant contributor on offense this season, suffered a rib injury midway through the game and did not return.
▪ The only presumed offensive or defensive starter to play Thursday night? Recently-signed safety Tre Boston. Coaches want to continue getting him up to speed with the playbook, and the preseason is great for those active reps.
▪ Receiver Jaydon Mickens got the first look at both return positions, but the most impressive return of the night went to seventh-round pick Terry Godwin, who took one punt back 57 yards down the right sideline. Those two are competing for not just return duties, but to be the team’s sixth receiver.
▪ First preseason game? Ron Rivera doesn’t care. The Panthers’ coach tried icing Bears kicker Elliott Fry before halftime, but Frye made the 43-yarder anyway. Bears fans, after all their kicking woes last season, understandably responded with the loudest cheer of the night.
They said it
“I was planning on just taking off and throwing my fastball by using speed, but it just so happened that when I got to my point, the back came out to chip me so I spun off the back.” – Burns on his spin move on his first sack.