Panthers vs. Ravens: Inside the grades

Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

The defense was as good as you imagined, and the offense as poor as you thought. Lets dig into the game with Pro Football Focus' player grades.

The Carolina Panthers' dominant defense ruled the day, while the offense was atrocious. Today we're getting inside Thursday's game to get a better look at the standout performers, and this week's goats.

Before we look at Thursday lets talk about Cam Newton. Doubt is starting to sneak in the minds of fans for the first time since 2011, and some are wondering whether he really is the player to lead the Panthers into the future. I'm here to allay your fears.

Newton hasn't been perfect, not by a long shot, but nothing that is happening on the field is benefiting him. His weakness has always been 10-19 yard passes. Newton struggles at mid range with what I call the 'puppy dog effect', where he doesn't realize his own strength. He puts too much arm in these passes, and they often sail wide or high.

There are two ways you can deal with this: Try to coach it out of him (which is hard), or handle him like Matthew Stafford in Detroit, or Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh -- both of whom have the same propensities. Call deeper passers, and play to a quarterback's strengths.

Thus far in preseason Cam Newton has attempted just two passes of 20+ yards. His QB rating on these passes is 87.5. Maybe it's preseason, but Mike Shula's playcalling is hammering Newton's bad range -- where he's attempted 13 passes, resulting in an 18.1 rating. Cam is a long and short range passes, that's his MO. The remaining 10-19 yard gains were picked up with his legs in Ron Chudzinski's offense, but he hasn't gotten that benefit yet.

Playcalling is part of the battle, the other is terrible offense line play. Newton has been under pressure on 39.5% of his passes this preseason. His YPA tumbles to 2.1 in these situations, and he's only completing 23% of his passes. The line has been a problem for months, fix it.

Now onto the Ravens' game.

Three standouts

Star Lotulelei

Luke Kuechly got on the glory (and rightfully so), but Lotulelei was the real driving force of the defense. He finished with the game's highest grade, a +4.6 and was awarded 5 defensive stops, one sack and one QB hurry. Working against Keleche Osemele was no easy task, and the rookie handled it perfectly. The sky is the limit for him, and the better Star plays, the better Luke plays.

Luke Kuechly

Grading out second was the Panthers' middle linebacker at +3.7. While he wasn't as big of a force on every down compared to Lotulelei, he was the biggest defensive playmaker with his important forced fumble and interception.

Frank Alexander

It was quiet, but Alexander was a force on Thursday. His +2.2 grade was third-highest on the team, and would have been even better if he didn't get penalized. The second-year defensive end is starting to show why the Panthers traded up for him, and against the Ravens he pressured the quarterback four times, getting one sack. It's not going to be an everyday occurance, but in this game he was substantially better than Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson

Three goats

Byron Bell

Holy smokes that was ugly. Bell finished the game with a -4.0 rating, the lowest on the Panthers and allowed Cam Newton to be hurried four times... four. The rest of the starting offensive line wasn't much better. Jordan Gross finished at -1.5, Amini Silatolu at -1.5, Garry Williams was worse at -2.3, while only Ryan Kalil avoided a negative rating, finishing at +0.4.

A.J. Klein

This is going to be a slowed burn than expected. He has his flashes, but his -3.6 rating was the lowest on defense. Klein missed two tackles, and was a team-worst -2.7 in run stopping. There will be time for him to learn, and everyone should hope Jon Beason can stay healthy.

Richie Brockel

It's not like Vonta Leach was available for a run-first team, or anything. On Thursday Brockel was terrible at fullback. He finished with an overall game grade of -3.2, with a scary -2.5 in run blocking. This is the guy who's supposed to pave the way for double trouble in 2013. Yes, it's bad.

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