If it looks like NFL football, sounds like NFL football, and smells like NFL football, it probably is NFL football.
Unless it is the fourth preseason game.
If Panthers fans were looking for a little tuneup for starters, they were sorely disappointed. Panthers stars Cam Newton, Jonathan Stewart, Greg Olsen, Luke Kuechly, and Thomas Davis sat out, giving their backups the spotlight.
And shine they did.
The run game was nearly unstoppable, paced by their starter, rookie Cameron Artis-Payne. Artis-Payne gashed through the Steelers offense for 67 yards on 12 carries.
He was not alone as the other running backs, Fozzy Whittaker, Jordan Todman, and Brandon Wegher all had their moments tonight.
Not to be undone, the defense showed well also. Preseason stud defensive end Rakim Cox notched a sack and multiple pressures. The defense as a whole stuffed the Steelers on 4 sacks and limiting them to 6 points, no touchdowns, and only 191 total yards. (Compare that to the Panthers’ 454 total yards.)
The debuts were good. With a new acquisition and multiple players returning from injury, the fourth preseason game was a debut (or re-debut) for many Panthers. Defensive tackle Kawann Short had been plagued by a back injury, but had good pressure and a sack to show for his first preseason game. A groin injury stopped tight end Brandon Williams, but the Steelers defense, not so much. His 22-yard reception and "truck stick" were beauties, and his incredible block, sprung Wegher free for a long run.
And the new "saviors" of the wide receiving corps, Devin Funchess and Kevin Norwood made solid, albeit unspectacular plays. Funchess hauled in his two targets for 22 yards despite imperfect throws. Norwood lived up to his reputation of being solid and not flashy. He also caught both of his two targets with his "exceptional hands" for 40 yards.
Somebody put the punt teams out of their misery. Earlier in the preseason, it was poor coverage and punter Brad Nortman’s inconsistent punts that made the punt teams look ugly. And just when you thought it could not look any worse, it did tonight. One of Nortman’s punts was blocked, and was eventually cashed in for 3 points. Backup punt returner Damiere Byrd muffed two punts, although he recovered both. The punts teams looked abysmal last year, and if the preseason is any indication, it may be the same this season.
A good running back is going to get cut. All the Panthers running backs behind Jonathan Stewart on the depth chart all showed off their value against the Steelers. Artis-Payne looked unstoppable in the first half, running for multiple big gains and first downs. Whittaker peeled off a 14-yard run and showed good blocking in the backfield. Todman played the explosive scatback role to perfection, ripping off a 49-yard touchdown run and keeping the 2 minute drill alive at the end of the first half. Wegher showed a great balance of speed and power, making something out of nothing on many of his 17 carries for 64 yards. All were great, but they all can not make the team.
Most valuable player: running back Cameron Artis-Payne. He did not have a touchdown nor the play of the game, but his dominance when the "starters" were in made it very clear that he is the backup (and heir apparent?) to Jonathan Stewart.
Mr. Reliable: Graham Gano. None of his field goals were over 30 yards, but his reliability on kicks and on extra points cannot be praised enough.
Mr. Underrated: tight end Marcus Lucas. The absence of Kelvin Benjamin has raised questions about who will replace his production. Is it Funchess? Olsen? Newly acquired Norwood? Marcus Lucas made a statement again, as he has all preseason. A favorite of backup quarterback Joe Webb, Lucas hauled in a touchdown pass at the end of the first half that put the game well out of reach.
Worst coaching decision: Ron Rivera playing cornerback Josh Norman. At the time it sounded like a good idea, but in retrospect, playing Josh Norman may be a mistake that head coach Rivera may regret. Norman’s night ended early with a concussion, putting his status for Week 1 against the Jacksonville Jaguars in doubt. For those keeping score, that makes both of the Panthers starting cornerbacks (Norman and Charles Tillman) in the concussion protocol.
"Honorary" captain: running back Fozzy Whittaker. While many Panthers fans (including myself) thought that Whittaker’s roster spot is in danger, Rivera may have fanned the fire under his seat by naming him the captain for the coin toss for the game. Take it for it is worth, but on the surface, it seems like vote of confidence from the head coach.
Most likely to succeed: linebacker Shaq Thompson. Of all the "backups" playing for the Panthers tonight, the one most likely to get the most playing time is Thompson. He flied all over the field again and seemed to always be around the ball, en route to 3 tackles in limited action.
Worst announcers: the announcers from the Steelers broadcast. Hines Ward looked really red on TV, but that was the least of the announcers' problems. They consistently called out the wrong names of the Panthers (Marcus Lewis, Radim Cox), and called a broken up pass to Brandon Williams a completed catch. Certainly amusing, but not good.
Other Panthers worthy of note: Marcus Lewis, Brenton Bersin, Terry Redden, Brian Blechen, Ben Jacobs, Jason Trusnik, Daryl Williams, Derek Anderson, Joe Webb, Dean Marlowe.
Other Panthers worthy of shame: Damiere Byrd, Amini Silatolu, TJ Heath, Carrington Byndom.
The season is here! The Carolina Panthers travel to Jacksonville and face their expansion partner in the Jaguars in a week 1 showdown next Sunday at 1:00pm EDT.