Any thoughts the Panthers would rest their starters this week at Pittsburgh and cruise into the regular season were scrapped during an uninspiring loss at New England.
After the 30-7 defeat Friday at Gillette Stadium, Panthers coach Ron Rivera said he planned to play his first team against the Steelers, including quarterback Cam Newton.
Newton will have to be cleared by the medical staff after bruising his back against the Patriots, but Rivera said timing issues in the passing game have to be worked out before the Sept. 7 opener at Tampa Bay.
“To me it is very evident we’ve got to get (the starters) out there. We’ve got to get our quarterback out there on the field, and he’s got to get some timing with those guys,” Rivera said. “He missed a couple throws, we had some guys that were open he overthrew, and we’ve just got to continue to work with him. The more snaps he gets, the better.”
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That Newton is struggling to develop a rhythm isn’t surprising. He missed all but the final practice during organized team activities after offseason ankle surgery.
When he returned to the field during training camp, he was throwing to a receiving corps that had been completely overhauled.
The Panthers signed free agents Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant and Tiquan Underwood, and they drafted Kelvin Benjamin in the first round.
And while Benjamin looks every bit like a No. 1 receiver, Cotchery and Avant have done little during the exhibition season, and Underwood is likely to be cut.
Through three exhibitions, Benjamin has been targeted 12 times, compared with just three targets for Avant and Cotchery.
Benjamin was targeted six times against the Patriots and caught five passes for 47 yards, at least one of which came against Pro Bowl cornerback Darrelle Revis.
Neither Cotchery nor Avant had a reception. Avant was targeted once, while Newton never threw to Cotchery.
“A lot of the throws went to Kelvin,” Rivera said. “So it looked like others guys didn’t get any opportunities more so than anything else.”
Avant and Cotchery each have one catch in the preseason. That’s the same total as tight end/fullback Richie Brockel and one fewer than fourth-string tight end D.C. Jefferson.
Newton and Avant, in particular, have had trouble getting on the same page. After the second exhibition against Kansas City, Avant mentioned receivers breaking off their routes before Newton was expecting them to.
On Avant’s lone target against New England, he and Newton again appeared to be out of sync.
On the 7-yard scramble during which he was injured, Newton left the pocket after he failed to see running back DeAngelo Williams running open down the sideline.
Rivera said he was a little disappointed the timing and rhythm isn’t there yet.
“Hopefully we can get that down,” Rivera said. “We will work on it most certainly because again, when (Newton) gets his rhythm you can see that he does some really good things.”
Newton was 8-of-12 passing for 88 yards against the Patriots, who sacked him three times. Besides Benjamin, the only other players to catch passes from Newton were Jonathan Stewart (one catch for 20 yards) and tight end Greg Olsen, who returned from a calf injury to catch two passes for 21 yards.
Olsen was the Panthers’ leading receiver last year. The Panthers added another receiving tight end by signing Ed Dickson, who had a 24-yard catch in the second half from Derek Anderson.
No. 4 receiver Brenton Bersin added two receptions for 42 yards.
But it’s not just the passing game that needs work. With the line opening up few holes, the running backs averaged 2.3 yards on 16 carries against the Patriots.
The Panthers were missing the right side of their line, with both guard Trai Turner (groin) and tackle Nate Chandler (knee) out. But their replacements – Chris Scott and Garry Williams – both have been starters.
“From what I saw from the replays and the stuff on the sideline, we just have to do a better job of everybody taking care of their job,” center Ryan Kalil said. “Sometimes we’d have a surge and we’d miss one guy on the backside or vice versa. We just have to do a better job of being consistent.”
There’s a tendency to make too much out of an August loss, even one as lopsided as Friday’s.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick pointed out neither team did little in the way of game planning or varying their formations.
“That’s not really what this game is about. ... If that’s the way you want to judge it, I think you’re making a big mistake,” Belichick said. “It’s a game about fundamentals. It’s about basic football, and it’s not anything close to a regular-season game in terms of game planning and situation football and doing strategically the things that you would do.”
Still, Panthers’ players acknowledged there is work to do before Week 1, starting this week with what Rivera indicated would be a normal workload in what’s typically a tapering period for the starters.
“We have a lot of improving to be done between now and Tampa,” Olsen said. “It was a combination of things (against New England). I think it was a bad night, but I don’t think it’s indicative of the offense we’re going to be for the entire season at all.”