NFL teams need to cut down their rosters from 80 to 53 by 4pm ET on Tuesday and for the Panthers’ players who are on the fringes of the roster, Friday night’s game against the Steelers was the last opportunity to show the coaching staff why they are worth keeping around. 

Though he wasn’t at any risk of getting cut, this game was also Sam Darnold’s first extended playing time as a Carolina Panther, playing the entire first half against what was effectively the Steelers’ second-string defense. While this is a situation where he would be expected to thrive, he certainly managed a number of impressive throws and led the Panthers to a comfortable half-time lead. 

So, what did Darnold do well, where might he improve, and what were some other notable plays/themes from the Panthers’ win against the Steelers?

Photo Credit: Chanelle Smith-Walker/Carolina Panthers

In terms of Darnold, while he started with six straight completions this was more a reflection of his ability to get the ball out quickly on short passes than an indication that the Panthers were able to do whatever they liked throwing the ball. He would finish the Panthers’ opening drive 7-9 for 41 yards, but the Panthers would ultimately turn the ball over on downs around the Steelers’ 20-yard line with an incompletion to Robby Anderson that he would potentially have been wiser to simply throw away.

On his second drive, Darnold showed some of the mobility that the Panthers’ coaches have been talking about this offense, using his legs to escape the Steelers’ pass rush and get close to the first down, though the Panthers would ultimately stagnate on the drive and end up kicking a 52-yard field goal. 

With the Panthers struggling to find the endzone early on, and the offensive line not always giving him a huge amount of time to work in the pocket, Darnold did have a couple of plays he’d like to have back as well. He almost fumbled trying to throw the ball away under pressure on third-down, as well as an errant pass that was nearly intercepted by the Steeler’s Tre Norwood. While the overall impression was positive, Matt Rhule spoke about eliminating these plays from his play after the game. 

“I thought there were some good things,” said Rhule. “He made some plays with his feet. I wasn’t happy about the ball that they called incomplete as that’s not what we need and we were in field goal range …He needed to get out there and play. We wanted to put him some situations and he came out of it.” 

Photo Credit: Chanelle Smith-Walker/Carolina Panthers

As Rhule mentions, following this small rough patch, Darnold did indeed bounce back, throwing a touchdown to preseason star Terrace Marshall Jr. on a screen, before driving the ball down the field (including another impressive play to once against find Marshall over the middle of the field) and finding Robby Anderson on a back-shoulder throw in the endzone to give the Panthers a second touchdown right before the half to give the Panthers a lead of 17-0. 

Overall, Darnold went 19-25 for 162 yards and two scores and no turnovers, notably going 6-6 for 48 yards and multiple first downs when targeting DJ Moore. Though Robby Anderson was Darnold’s primary target back in their Jets days, Moore was consistently the player he looked to in key moments and that connection looks to be a crucial one for the Panthers’ offense in 2021. 

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“There was some good, there was some bad,” Darnold said about his performance. “It was good to get out there and get that game feel. There was some good and there was some bad. We just have to watch the tape and learn from it.” 

While no one will begin printing out Panthers Super Bowl tickets just yet, Darnold’s performance was encouraging with a number of impressive throws and an improved sense of poise under pressure compared to some of his time with the Jets. With the Jets coming to Charlotte for the Panthers’ opening game of the season in two weeks, things are certainly looking positive for a Sam Darnold revenge game. 

But what about the rest of the roster?

Photo Credit: Chanelle Smith-Walker/Carolina Panthers

A day after he was traded from the Giants to the Panthers, Ryan Santoso certainly made an encouraging opening impression and, by extension, all-but-cemented Joey Slye’s future being outside the Panthers’ active roster. Santoso started with an impressive 52-yard conversion off the right upright following the Steelers’ run stuff to stall the Panthers’ second drive around the 35-yard line. 

Slye then got his opportunity to bounce back in the second quarter, but missed wide right from 49 yards, his third miss of the preseason to go with a missed extra point. Though he made his only extra point attempt, he wouldn’t get another chance at a field goal. Santoso went on to add a 27-yard field goal late in the fourth quarter as well as going 3-for-3 on extra points and, while this is hardly a significant sample size, with Slye struggling throughout the preseason this could be enough the decide the competition that only started this week. 

After the game, Jansen didn’t go into what the pair discussed, only that he wanted to support Slye during a difficult time. 

“He’s a good friend and a really good kicker,” Jansen said. “The last few weeks are not what we all hoped, but it was a good chat … I try to offer words of encouragement and perspective and our coaches do the same thing. There’s no advice a long snapper can give to a kicker but help him do his job to the best of his ability.” 

Matt Rhule refused to comment on the kicker competition following the game, but it seems as good as over. 

Photo Credit: Chanelle Smith-Walker/Carolina Panthers

The Panthers’ back-up quarterback competition has been back-and-forth throughout the preseason, and while there is a reasonable chance that the Panthers will continue to carry three quarterbacks on the active roster, both players went into the final preseason game looking to cement themselves as the #2 quarterback. 

Walker got the first chance of the pair, starting the third quarter, and threw a number of impressive passes. However, he wasn’t helped by a number of drops by the Panthers’ receivers, though on one occasion he was also helped-out by David Moore on a throw that was rather high. Overall, he went 5-10 for 83 yards with no rushing attempts. 

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“I thought P.J. really good when he was in there,” Rhule said. “He put a lot of throws in our guy’s hands even though they didn’t make the play we would have liked but we went down and scored.

Grier played the fourth quarter and, coming off an encouraging performance against the Ravens, he began by leading the Panthers down the field for a touchdown on a 24-yard run by Grier himself. 

Overall, Grier went 5-7 for 47 yards, as 3 carries for 22 yards and a touchdown. The Panthers’ decision at quarterback will likely be about the arithmetic at other positions as much as the play of Walker and Grier, but if the Panthers do choose to cut down to just two quarterbacks then both Walker and Grier have played well enough to make that a tough decision for coaches. 

“I thought Will was excellent,” said Rhule. “Will made some plays with his feet and I’m really happy to see that from Will. He went out there with twos and threes and still found a way to move the ball. At the end of the day, it is about moving the team … As I’ve said all along, I really feel good about these two guys. We have some tough decisions to make over the next couple of days.”

Photo Credit: Chanelle Smith-Walker/Carolina Panthers

Though the Panthers starting defense was playing against a largely second team offense for the Steelers, they carried over their impressive play on their one drive against the Ravens into a more extended shut-out. Not only did they not allow the Steelers to score any points, but they held them to just three first downs all game while forcing another inception. It’s just two plays but it seems notable that the Panthers’ starting defense has forced two interceptions this preseason and that both of them have been by edge rushers. 

Though the Panthers will likely expect Brian Burns and Haason Reddick to make their money rushing the passer, it is clear that they will also drop both players into coverage at times and, if they can continue to generate turnovers in coverage, then that is going to create real headaches for opposing offense. 

Coaches and fans also got an encouraging look at the Panthers’ revamped secondary, with Jaycee Horn impressively forcing an incompletion on their opening drive while Jeremy Chinn made a more spectacular play down the field later in the game. 

Again, it’s a limited sample size against second stringers, but the Panthers defense looks much-improved this year and, while there are likely to be some bumps along the road, there is plenty of historic evidence about what a team can achieve with a high-level defense, even if the offense isn’t always firing on all cylinders. 

Photo Credit: Chanelle Smith-Walker/Carolina Panthers

The lone Panthers starter who was a healthy scratch against the Steelers was Christian McCaffrey, as the Panthers expect that he will receive more than his fair share of hits during the regular season. With Reggie Bonnafon and Rodney Smith both missing the game with injury, as they have for almost all the preseason, this meant that Chuba Hubbard and others got extended preseason playing time once again. 

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Hubbard played throughout the first half and rushed for 35 yards on ten carries as well as catching three passes for 15 yards. He did have a frustrating drop with plenty of grass in front of him that could have allowed him to gallop all the way to the endzone, but he did a good job of maximizing what was there was the offensive line struggled to generate a huge amount of push up front. 

It is still not clear what the timescale is for either Bonnafon or Smith, but with both players question marks heading into the regular season, UDFA signing Spencer Brown made the most of his playing time to add his name to the list of viable options. 

Overall, Brown had 57 yards on eleven carries, including this 20-yard scamper, and showed a promising combination of power and quickness. Ultimately, the Panthers’ running back room going forwards is going to be dominated by McCaffrey, but Brown certainly should be part of the conversation when it comes to deciding the 53-man roster. 

Photo Credit: Chanelle Smith-Walker/Carolina Panthers

However, not all news is good news, and the biggest negative of the night was that rookie receiver Shi Smith left the game with an apparent right shoulder injury and didn’t return. Smith has been a consistent highlight player throughout training camp and the preseason and, while his loss is unlikely to change the Panthers’ whole season, if he is going to miss an extended period of time then that could place some pressure on the Panthers’ receiver depth. 

“I don’t know exactly where that is at,” said Rhule. “It sounded like it was significant but we will see what the extent is. I would hate to say something and have it not be right when they go look at it.”
 
The Panthers do have options further down the receiver depth chart with the likes of Omar Bayless, Keith Kirkwood, Brandon Zylstra and Ishamel Hyman, with Kirkwood the only one to record a catch against the Steelers. Fans and coaches will have to wait to find out more about Smith’s injury, but it certainly put a negative cherry on top of an overall positive cake. 
 
The Panthers won’t play again until they host the Jets in two weeks’ time, and the roster is going to look very different when they do. While not all the players who have made positive impressions this preseason will be able to make the final roster, with the expanded practice squads there is still a chance for them to make their way back later in the season, as Kenny Robinson did a year ago. 
 
Not everything went to script against the Steelers, but after an underwhelming performance against the Ravens, this was certainly a positive performance and one that should have fans excited to see what this team can do when the games start counting. 
 
(Top photo via Chanelle Smith-Walker/Carolina Panthers)
Antwan S
Antwan Staley has written for publications such as USA TODAY, Bleacher Report, the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.