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Monday Morning Optimist (Friday edition): One loss doesn’t end a season

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Weaknesses on defense and the offensive line aren’t fatal flaws. . . yet.

Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

That game was awful. Let’s just get that out of the way to start with. The Panthers played a better team on a short week and got exposed. Nine straight quarters of dominance by the Panthers came to a screeching halt in Pittsburgh and took a little wind out of their sails. Carolina is still 6-3 and still technically has control over its own destiny. As bad as this loss was, it was still only one loss. That said, this team learned some hard truths yesterday and has a long way to go before they can be considered a contender again.

We have ten days before the Panthers take the field again, this time against the Lions, and we will spend much of it discussing just how bad last night was. Let’s talk about Cam Newton, Christian McCaffrey, and the future of this offense. The rest we can file, for now, under the aged wisdom provided by Ron Rivera during last night’s presser,

Cam Newton, under significant pressure all night, threw a pick-six and took five sacks. He still posted a 100.3 passer rating. One of those things is simply not like the other. Cam’s interception was one bad mistake in an otherwise exceptional night. The few plays were the offensive line blocked well enough for Cam to complete his drop backs were positive and often constituted scoring drives. The rest were impossible for anybody and Cam even turned a few of those into first downs.

Something has to change on the offensive line. The Panthers went into Pittsburgh facing an absurdly low number of blitzes compared to the rest of the league. I’m honestly baffled that nobody thought to try a more blitz happy approach before given the relative inexperience and lack of successful history that are currently starting at left guard and left tackle. I’m similarly baffled that Norv Turner didn’t make a greater effort to provide more help than a clearly overmatched McCaffrey to pick up the Steelers’ blitzes. Turner must not have watched Super Bowl 50.

To his credit, pass protection was the only part of McCaffrey’s game that wasn’t on fire last night. He was effective in the running game and the passing game as a quick outlet and a scoring threat for Newton.

The offense, when it worked, went through Cam and McCaffrey and it looked good doing so. Whether it was due to a short week, an inability to actually protect against creative pass rush designs, or anything else, the Panthers offensive line has only had one really bad game this season. We need to see them fail like this at least once more before we can say the sky is falling. Maybe Matt Kalil is once again finally healthy and ready to contribute. Maybe Amini Silatolu is actually the answer after all this time. Stranger things have happened.

Right now, the Panthers know they have problems. They have the time to figure out how to address those problems. They might even have the personnel. It is too early to count this offense out given the way Cam and McCaffrey are playing. The defense might be another story, but the offense still has the potential to hang with most of the league. They aren’t functioning on the level of the Saints, either, but there is still a chance the Panthers get there.

The offense is going to be the story of the season and the defense is going to be on the field sometimes. It’s almost impossible to beat a good team in the NFL anymore without surrendering 30+ points. The Steelers’ 52 was excessive, to be sure, but that total likely would have been lower if the Panthers had been able to stay on the field and score more often than they did.

The Steelers and the Panthers combined last night for one more point (73) than the Patriots and the Eagles did in the Super Bowl to end last season (72). The most important thing in this league is the ability to score points. The Panthers have the skill position players to do that so long as Newton can be protected for even a second. I’m still excited to see what they can do about that.