The Carolina Panthers began the 2023 season with an unimpressive 24-10 road loss against their NFC South rival Atlanta Falcons. This was a game of firsts for the Panthers as No. 1 overall pick Bryce Young played his first NFL game while new head coach Frank Reich and his staff made their Carolina debut. With Week 1 in the books, here’s what’s rising and falling with the Carolina Panthers.
Brian Burns’ next contract. While continuing to negotiate a contract extension, the Panthers 25-year-old two-time Pro Bowler had an incredible day against the Falcons. He disrupted nearly every one of the Falcons first half possessions in one way or another. On the day he finished with seven tackles, 1.5 sacks, and a tackle for loss, but his impact transcended the box score. With his Week 1 statement performance, the value of Burns’ next contract is now rising faster than the National Debt Clock.
The hands of Hayden “Hallelujah” Hurst. Okay, I made up the “Hallelujah” nickname and don’t know if it will catch on, but Panthers fans have been praying for a productive tight end since Greg Olsen’s final season in Carolina in 2019. It looks like Hayden Hurst just might be that guy. He led the Panthers in receptions (five), targets (seven), and receiving yards (41) while scoring the offense’s lone touchdown.
The offensive line’s reputation. Last year the Panthers had a stable, mostly efficient offensive line, but there were questions about this unit as the team headed to Atlanta. Their preseason performance was shaky and rookie Chandler Zavala was being inserted for the still recuperating Austin Corbett. Carolina’s offensive line opened holes that allowed Miles Sanders and Chuba Hubbard to rush for 132 combined yards on 27 attempts (4.9 yards per carry) while surrendering just two sacks.
DeShawn Williams’ salary cap value. Carolina added the 30-year-old defensive tackle this offseason on a 1-year, $1.75 million contract. In his first game in a Panthers uniform he played 34 defensive snaps (65 percent of the total) with three tackles and a tackle for loss. He had impactful back-to-back plays in the third quarter where he dropped Bijan Robinson for a four-yard loss on second-and-1, then on the next play he stuffed Robinson for no gain.
The deep passing game. Not surprisingly, the Panthers offense struggled to connect on deep routes as they broke in a rookie quarterbacks, a new scheme, and a host of new receivers. Carolina’s longest reception on the day was just 14 yards despite throwing the ball 38 times. The Panthers wide receivers struggled to get separation and Bryce Young’s deep throws were either off target, miscommunicated with the receivers, or had to be essentially thrown away because nobody was open.
Offensive play calling. Look, it’s way too easy to second guess play calls, and I’m not pretending to know more than Carolina’s coaching staff. That said, when the Panthers had the ball facing fourth-and-1 from the Atlanta 11 early in the game, the decision to run up the gut against a stacked box was predictable and it failed. Later, when the Panthers took possession with two minutes left in the second quarter from their own 17, Carolina dialed up three straight deep passes that all fell incomplete. They then punted with 1:34 left in the half and gave Atlanta more than enough time to score to end the quarter, but fortunately the Panthers defense stepped up and prevented that from happening.
Jaycee Horn’s durability. Oh no, here we go again. As previously noted here at CSR, the Panthers prized young corner has played just 17 of 35 career games. He previously missed time due to broken bones, which are kind of flukey and usually just take time to heal, so it’s more than concerning to have him now dealing with a hamstring injury. Get well, Jaycee.
Ihmir Smith-Marsette’s decision-making. Smith-Marsette returned three punts against the Falcons and one of them was a disastrous attempt where he fielded the ball at his own five yard line (generally a no-no) then ran backward to be tackled at the one yard line. Carolina went three-and-out and punted from their own end zone, giving Atlanta good field position. The Falcons used that good starting field position to eventually score a touchdown to go up 24-10. On the offensive side of the ball, Smith-Marsette played just two snaps and was flagged for an offensive pass interference call.