Let’s get the score out of the way as the Carolina Panthers defeated the Buffalo Bills 28-23 here at New Era Field in the first week of the preseason. Because, in all honesty, the score doesn’t matter.
Even the storyline that most will be talking about this weekend might not matter that much either.
While many doubted we would see fireworks before the game kicked off after Kelvin Benjamin’s comments regarding both Cam Newton and the entire Panthers organization seemed to have cooled off as the week went on, what happened on the field when Newton and Benjamin came face to face – Benjamin appeared to rebuff Newton’s handshake attempt and try to walk away from his former teammate before waving his hands in disgust.
While Benjamin and Newton provided the biggest headlines, including a video that will likely be broken down like the Zapruder film as we move throughout the week, it was Benjamin who took the early advantage after the Panthers first drive of the game stalled and Benjamin helped quarterback Nathan Peterman lead an eight-play, 73-yard touchdown drive that ended with the former Panther diving into the stands and surrounded by his teammates after catching a 28-yard touchdown pass.
What is troubling for the Panthers defense is how easily Peterman, who famously threw five interceptions in the first half of his NFL debut in 2017, engineered a drive that would end without the quarterback throwing an incompletion, including five passes to Benjamin – the Bills appeared to be picking on Kevon Seymour as he was the target on three completions, including the touchdown in which he would be well behind Benjamin as he streaked to the end zone; Seymour would also be flagged for a pass interference penalty on the first drive and let a fourth-string wide receiver get past him in the fourth quarter. Peterman would finish 9-for-10 for 119 yards; in fact, the Bills quarterbacks would finish the first half 16-for-20 for 235 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
The Panthers didn’t look crisp at all during the first half, aside from the touchdown drive – the defense allowed 257 yards and 14 first downs to a Bills team that didn’t dress Lesean McCoy; one can imagine that new defensive coordinator Eric Washington was unhappy with his team’s performance for the first 30 minutes. One player who Washington won’t be upset with will be linebacker Shaq Thompson, who had his third interception in four days – albeit the first two were during practice – on a Peterman pass that glanced off of running back Chris Ivory’s hands over the middle of the field and into a diving Thompson’s hands.
“I just saw the whole play and everyone going to the left, and the back came out and I had no work out there to the right so I followed the back, trailed him the whole time,” said Thompson about the interception; he realizes that the team has a ways to go to play up to their potential. “We have to start a little faster than what we did – guys just have to know we’re going to compete. This is our first time coming out here and playing against someone else and not our own team so it feels good to get out there and see it; after the game is done we’ll go back and correct things and make sure everybody’s on the same page.”
Newton and the Panthers would answer with a drive that featured exactly what fans wanted to see as the team mixed their old and new weapons – Christian McCaffrey would have three touches for 28 yards, including a two-yard inside run for the score while new WR Jarius Wright had a nifty catch and run for 28 yards that finished inside the five after Wright dodged tackles near the sideline. Newton would finish the night 6-for-9 for 84 yards and McCaffrey would have six touches for 40 yards.
“The offensive line did a great job holding all of their guys off. I’ve just got to lower my shoulder and get in when it’s at the 2-yard line. It was definitely a good way to cap off that drive,” said McCaffrey about the score that would knot the game at 7 before both first-team offenses departed for the night.
Once the starters exited, it was up to the backups to make an impact, and while Garrett Gilbert would finish out the half with 4-for-8 for 31 yards, he didn’t do much to secure his backup quarterback status during the first half – his three drives resulted in 25 yards and three punts. He’d wait until the first drive of the second half to play well, as he led the Panthers on a six-play, 69-yard drive that ended with an absolute beauty of a throw to WR Mose Frazier for a 26-yard score.
One of the only backups to flash on defense was rookie linebacker Jermaine Carter, Jr – the fifth-rounder had a sack as he flew off the edge during the third quarter in addition to a fourth-down would-be sack in which he chased Josh Allen around the backfield before Allen threw an incompletion that was batted down by Daeshon Hall. Carter would finish with two tackles to go with the sack and was also flagged for a helmet foul as he came in late on a Corn Elder tackle; it was the first call of a rule that the NFL said would be a point of emphasis this season.
Quarterback Taylor Heinicke would take over inside his own 15-yard line and while he started poorly – two overthrown incompletions – a third-down penalty against the Bills allowed him to put together a 13-play, 90-yard drive that would end in a CJ Anderson short touchdown run to put the Panthers up 21-17 and another score to Elijah Hood to put the Panthers up 28-17, which is how the Panthers would finish. Heinicke outplayed Gilbert, albeit against the fourth-string defense of the Bills; Heinicke would finish with the most passing yards of any quarterback – 121 yards and a score on nine attempts – that was good for a 155.9 QB rating.
Other things we noticed:
- With lots of former teammates on the field, aside from the Newton/Benjamin tiff, there was a lot of camaraderie as hugs were exchanged between Star Lotulelei, Kaelin Clay, Kevon Seymour and others as they interacted with their former teams.
- With James Bradberry held out for precautionary reasons after tweaking his leg during practice Tuesday; also not playing were center Ryan Kalil and Julius Peppers – don’t freak out, the regular season is still a month away. With Bradberry out, both Kevon Seymour and Donte Jackson got the start – so there was no clarity on who has the inside track for the starting outside corner position, although Seymour’s play couldn’t have helped his case.
- After Ron Rivera said that UDFA Brendan Mahon would get the start at left guard, it was actually veteran Greg Van Roten who got the nod with the starting line – Taylor Moton, who got the nod at right tackle, played the entire first half before giving way to Adam Bisnowaty. Moton will start the season at right tackle with Daryl Williams expected to start the year on injured reserve.
- Running back Marcus Murphy punched in a touchdown after a 59-yard catch-and-run by Buffalo TE Brandon Reilly in which he was wide open along the left side of the field; someone – either Colin Jones or David Mayo – missed an assignment as Reilly was wide open – the Bills led 17-7 at halftime.
- Second-year wide receiver Curtis Samuel caught three passes for 29 yards in the first half, all of them from Garrett Gilbert and all of them on crossing routes from right to left – the Panthers clearly want to get the ball into Samuel’s hands in space and see what he can do. The same goes for rookie DJ Moore, who got a look on a wide receiver screen on the first drive of the game – Moore would end the game with four catches for 75 yards. Samuel and Moore both got reps well into the second half, including a nice adjustment from Moore on an underthrown ball from Taylor Heinicke that went for 32 yards and a beauty of a play in which Moore took a short pass, made three Bills miss and picked up a first down.
- The biggest ovation of the night – aside from the Benjamin touchdown – was on the Bills’ first offensive play of the second half as rookie QB Josh Allen entered the game and uncorked a deep pass down the right side that ultimately was incomplete as wide receiver Robert Foster couldn’t bring the pass that traveled well over 50 yards in the air down inbounds.
- The Panthers running game never got going, as no rusher cracked 20 yards on the night.