The leaks sprang from everywhere for Carolina Sunday night as Pittsburgh embarrassed the Panthers, 37-19, in prime time.
But let’s start with the offside penalty – a simple but enormous mistake that was symbolic of just how bad this night was for the Panthers.
Carolina’s offense had just turned the ball over for the first time the entire season, when Cam Newton was hit before he threw the ball and fumbled it.
The Panthers were already down 9-3 early in the third quarter, but the defense had stopped Pittsburgh. The Steelers, with a fourth-and-4 from the Carolina 11, were ready to settle for field goal No. 4.
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And then, inexplicably, the Panthers jumped.
No one ever blocks kicks in the NFL, first of all. It’s not high school. Rushing a kick hard is nearly pointless.
But Carolina had not one but two players jumping offside – both defensive end Wes Horton and cornerback Josh Norman.
So that gave Pittsburgh a first down. One play later, Ben Roethlisberger found the receiver Carolina couldn’t cover all night – Antonio Brown – for the game’s first touchdown.
It was a four-point mistake. Instead of 12-3, it was 16-3. And while Carolina would have lost anyway, it was the sort of error the Panthers hardly ever made in their past 14 regular-season games.
They had won 13 of those, dating back to last season, doing it with defense and special teams and an offense that was just good enough when it counted. They were 2-0 this season.
On Sunday night, all of that fell apart.
The Panthers were an undisciplined team Sunday night. They looked outmanned, outcoached and outclassed.
It was the kind of lopsided loss that calls into question all sorts of things, from an offensive line that repeatedly got beaten by Pittsburgh’s three-man rush to general Dave Gettleman’s decision to let wide receivers Steve Smith and Ted Ginn Jr. go in the offseason to the Panthers defense’s sudden and complete inability to stop the run.
The Panthers handed out white towels to the fans who entered the building. They hoped to overwhelm the Steelers’ fans, who carry gold towels wherever they go and swing them at every opportunity.
It worked for a very little while, when Carolina led 3-0.
But then came the onslaught. It included Le’Veon Bell’s 81-yard run on a second-and-22 from his own 8. And Philly Brown’s horrendous punt-return fumble into the end zone, which Norman tried to scoop up instead of fall on, and Pittsburgh instead recovered for a touchdown. And Brown’s two touchdown catches. And LeGarrette Blount’s 50-yard run (both Bell and Blount rushed for over 100 yards).
For the game’s final 10 minutes, the stands were only half-full. At least 80 percent of those folks were cheering for the Steelers. Most Panther fans remembered they had work or school in the morning, and I certainly don’t blame them for leaving.
On Sunday night, the Panthers were a house of cards, close to collapse at any time. Certainly, the offensive line was awful. Every single member of that line – including Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil – took turns getting absolutely destroyed by a Steeler defense that suddenly looked like it came straight out of the Mean Joe Greene era of the 1970s.
Quarterback Cam Newton only ran the ball once, but he got hit so often that it seemed miraculous that he was not knocked from the game while it was in progress. Coach Ron Rivera finally did take Newton out, for safety’s sake, with less than six minutes to go.
Carolina plays at Baltimore next, and the Ravens whipped Pittsburgh by 20 points less than two weeks ago. Then comes a brutal October schedule.
The Panthers are still 2-1 and tied for first in the NFC South. But if they don’t get things fixed fast, it’s going to be positively gruesome here by Halloween.