In the smallish scope of football, this was every Carolina Panthers fan’s worst fear.
This was that offensive line. The one everyone worried earlier in the year would show up, but didn’t until Thursday night in Pittsburgh.
The one that resembled the gum on the bottom of a shoe more than it resembled a cohesive, protective unit.
The one that could get picked at just as easily.
Carolina’s offensive line gave up five sacks in Thursday night’s 52-21 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. That’s a number they hadn’t even hit through the last four games combined. Quarterback Cam Newton got hit seven times.
“We got beat,” said veteran center Ryan Kalil simply after the game. “They have good players on that side. We didn’t do a good enough job up all around. We all kind of took turns up front, backfield, Cam. We just have to do a better job. We have to get on the same page.
“But it’s not how we drew it up.”
Steelers linebacker TJ Watt breezed through unblocked twice. He had one sack, but his other quarterback hit was costlier to the Panthers.
Newton was backed up into the end zone because of a special teams penalty on the previous kickoff return. With Watt wrapped around his waist, Newton thought he had tight end Greg Olsen in the middle of the field. He tried to throw to Olsen to avoid the safety, but instead it led to a Steelers pick-6.
In hindsight, taking the safety would have been the lesser of two evils. But Newton said he didn’t realize he was in the end zone.
“I was just trying to throw the ball away, and when you’re getting slung around, you can’t really control the accuracy,” said Newton after the game. “I didn’t know if I was in the end zone or not. I didn’t want to get an intentional grounding, so the first person I saw was Greg (Olsen). I was just trying to throw it at his feet, but when you’re getting slung the ball accuracy takes off in ways you didn’t want it to go.”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera indicated after the loss that the game’s switch to the Path Beyond Help happened when cornerback James Bradberry was beaten on a 75-yard touchdown by receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. And that’s a fair assessment.
But I think it really happened when the line lost control and Newton threw the pick-6.
Pittsburgh went up 14-7 in less than a 30-second span, and that lead, combined with the pressure, forced Carolina to dump whatever game plan it had entering the game and lean on more pass-heavy adjustments.
And that meant Pittsburgh could dial up the pressure, without worrying about a huge threat from a potential runner.
“Well, when you get a 14-point lead it’s easy to pass-rush. And we put ourselves in a hole, and that is the result of what happens,” said Rivera. “They did some good things against us, and unfortunately we made too many mistakes early on to give ourselves an opportunity to win a football game.”
Watt rushing unblocked wasn’t the only issue. McCaffrey was twice left in pass protection/blitz pickup situations one-on-one against Cameron Heyward, who has about 80 pounds on McCaffrey.
Rivera said that it was a problem of counting the right players.
“That’s not supposed to happen,” left guard Greg Van Roten told reporters. “Whenever (McCaffrey) is blocking a (defensive) lineman, something went wrong. …There’s nothing else to say about that.”
Thursday’s performance hit a season low for the line that hasn’t happened in 10 weeks.
The Panthers’ line has been excellent, and the play-calling to alleviate pressure has been as well.
They’ve actually played remarkably considering how they were thrown together to begin the season. After the Panthers put both starting left and right tackles on injured reserve, the line featured Chris Clark, who was signed after Week 1, formerly out-of-position second-year tackle Taylor Moton on the right side and third-string center-turned left-guard Van Roten.
We offered “outs” for them every week, just in case things went sideways.
Like, “they’re playing so well despite being such a patchwork group.”
But they played their rear ends off for nine weeks.
And we started believing they were for real.
I still think that.
I believe they can turn it around. That Thursday night was an anomaly for them.
There are enough veterans and enough savvy within that group to fix it. And I expect Carolina to be better prepared for delayed blitzes, shifts, mismatches and everything else Pittsburgh threw at them.
They’re going to have to be.
Otherwise, the Panthers have just given every one of their future opponents a blueprint for beating them.