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It was a game the Panthers gave away in the last minute, but there's still a lot of positives to pull from Sunday's game against Atlanta.
That one hurt, that one stung, that one was... encouraging. If you're only now learning the Panthers aren't a 14-and-2 playoff team, I'm sorry. However, if you knew who this team was it makes yesterday's loss a little easier to swallow. This was a case of a veteran Atlanta team playing like veterans, knowing what it takes to win a game, and a young Carolina team who are showing promise, but who don't know how to win yet. Yes, we say that a lot, and it's because it happens to be true.
There are so many promising things that will unfortunately overshadow the game in the mind of most fans. It's far too easy to remember the last-gasp deep pass, or the two out routes that set up an easy field goal. It's too convenient to concentrate on Cam Newton's fumble, and ignore everything that went right on Sunday.
Finally the pass rush worked, Charles Johnson broke out, Frank Alexander showed glimpses of being a special player, and Greg Hardy was harnessed as an under tackle on third down, a role that really suits him. Luke Kuechly took a step forward, and Cam Newton returned to being the QB we know he can.
It was a loss, it was a loss that hurts, but there is so much good to pull out of this game that has an impact beyond one loss, but that can help define a season.
The most encouraging thing from Sunday's game was the emergence of the Panthers pass rush. They were facing an offensive line in Atlanta who have done an excellent job this season keeping Matt Ryan protected, and yet they looked completely over-matched by Carolina's defensive ends. Yesterday was Charles Johnson's breakout game for the 2012 season. Finishing with eight tackles, and 3.5 sacks, Johnson was the thorn in Atlanta's side for much of the game. He was consistently impacting plays, and was all over the field.
So too Frank Alexander had a great day. Finishing with 1.5 sacks, he really got great pressure every down he was in, and this allowed Charles Johnson to make his plays. Perhaps most reassuring was that Alexander looked like a young Charles Johnson, and if that's the case the move to trade for him will be worth it. Greg Hardy was effective too, and it was nice to see him used in a DT role that allowed him to get mismatches with his speed on third down. That third down package with the three defensive ends on the line shows life schematically, and a move that indicates they're trying difference things.
Pass rush- Extremely Optimistic
How can you dislike what we saw? They were varied, strong, effective, and got to the QB on seven occasions. If they can keep this up, and Frank Alexander can continue to develop the panthers will have a special pass rush.
Cam Newton- Extremely Optimistic
Newton is already taking the loss hard (as he does), and sure the fumble was inopportune. However, that fumble didn't cost the Panthers the game, and the sole reason Carolina were in it was because of Newton. He didn't have the greatest success through the air, but his legs carved up the Falcons for much of the day on designed runs.
Greg Olsen- Extremely Optimistic
It was games like today where you see Greg Olsen's potential. He's a huge mismatch, and plays like a wide receiver. Finishing with six receptions, 89 yards, and a touchdown he was exactly what Cam Newton needed.
Kealoha Pilares- Somewhat optimistic
He didn't do anything particularly great in the return game, but scored a fairly easy touchdown on a screen pass, and then put in the Panthers in a position where they should have won the game as he made an astounding heads-up play to down a Brad Nortman punt at the one-yard line.
Haruki Nakamura- Extremely Pessimistic
Sorry 'Ruke, you messed up. I'm not going to tow the party line of it being '100% your fault'. After all, you did have an interception, and broke up a critical end zone pass in the 3rd quarter. For what it's worth I know what you were trying to do on both occasions also, but you got too cute. Backing up to the receiver you hoped these deep balls would be underthrown, allowing you to make a play or get an interception. However, you messed up and are a key reason why the Falcons were able to get that field goal.
Josh Norman- Extremely Pessimistic
He is a rookie, and that's understandable. However, Norman keeps making the same mistakes, and they're not getting corrected. Norman gets beat off the line, then commits pass interference where he needs to catch up. On Sunday there were two, but only one was called. It's not his fault that he's a 5th round rookie who isn't ready, but he's still not playing at a high enough level.
Jon Beason- Somewhat Pessimistic
Beast had five tackles, but he just doesn't look himself. He's not swarming to the ball the way we're used to seeing, and while that's likely a product of the injury he was fighting all week, the MMO does not change for injury.
It's far too easy to get mired in the few things that went wrong yesterday. Were they big things that went wrong? Absolutely. However, there were just a few areas where the Panthers were lacking. Against the New York Giants we saw a complete breakdown of all three phases, nothing looked good for the Carolina Panthers. Yesterday we saw a weak secondary, and a couple of players who didn't live up to their potential, and that's about it.
Who are the Carolina Panthers? Despite week four being in the books I'm still not sure. There have been astounding highs, and shattering lows from week to week. It might take a full season for us to know who this team really is, but they're growing and maturing; sadly this takes time, and isn't always fun to watch.
Yesterday I had fun watching the game, and it was a joy seeing the Georgia Dome silent for much of the afternoon. The end wasn't good, but for 59 minutes the Panthers played well. Getting over the hump is hard, and while it may take a while I think they can do it.