The Panthers were forced to rue a first half of opportunities not taken as the Ravens turned an even if unexciting 3-3 half-time score into a 20-3 rout with a strong second half performance but, while the take-aways from Saturday’s game were decidedly more mixed than against the Colts, there are still some positives to take from the game.
For fans, there was a chance to see new quarterback Sam Darnold complete his first pass as a Carolina Panther; a sixteen-yard reception by Robby Anderson near the right sideline; as well as some impressive plays by a number of new Panthers who saw more extended playing time.
So then, who and what were the positives for the Panthers against the Ravens, and who and what didn’t do as well? Let’s start with the positives.
1. Will Grier
A week ago, PJ Walker laid down the mantle for the Panthers’ back-up battle with a strong performance against the Colts, and while Will Grier’s performance against the Ravens was less flashy than Walker’s from a week ago, his performance of competence is representative of how this battle has played-out through camp. Though he would certainly have liked to have a touchdown pass as part of his performance, a line of 11-14 for 144 yards without an interception formed the backbone of a strong first half for the Panthers.
However, as with Walker a week ago, Grier’s performance also highlighted a couple of areas where he’s limited. He had a potential touchdown to Ish Hyman that fell a long way short when he was unable to step into the throw, as well as a pass to Zylstra down the field that was markedly overthrown.
This isn’t a performance that ends the quarterback battle, but it is one that keeps it very much alive.
2. Young Skill Position Players Making Plays
As with a week ago, the Panthers’ rookie class had a good showing against the Ravens, especially the likes of Terrace Marshall Jr, Tommy Tremble, Chuba Hubbard and Shi Smith. Though Hubbard wasn’t able to produce another big run as he did against the Colts, he made a much-improved contribution to the passing game with two receptions for 29 yards and, crucially, no drops.
Marshall once again led the line, not only for the rookies but for the team, catching all three of his targets for a total of fifty yards, including an impressive catch on a vertical route down the right sideline. With Robby Anderson and DJ Moore back full-time, there is going to be a greater competition for targets, but if Marshall can turn 3-4 targets into 50+ yards on a consistent basis then he is going to make himself an invaluable part of the Panthers’ offense.
Check out this sideline catch from TMJ 😎
📺: NFLN & WSOC pic.twitter.com/zXDOn0dVXT
— Carolina Panthers (@Panthers) August 21, 2021
Shi Smith didn’t get quite as accurate service as Marshall, with one particularly impressive reception nullified by a throw out of bounds, but did also leave a chance at an impressive contested catch in triple coverage going wanting after miss-timing his jump. Similarly, Tommy Tremble might not have had the touchdown grab to go with his play as he did a week ago, but the two combined for four catches for 53 yards.
Chances will likely be harder to come by when it comes to the regular season, but a second strong showing by the Panthers’ rookie skill position players is certainly encouraging, especially when you note that they combined for nine receptions for 132 yards on thirteen targets while the rest of the offense combined for four catches for 36 yards on ten targets.
3. Versatile Edge Rushers
Towards the end of the Ron Rivera era, the Panthers made a noted shift towards a more versatile defense than the base 4-3 they had run before this point, ultimately leading to the shift to an out-and-out 3-4. A major part of this shift was the acquisition of a number of smaller edge rushers with the ability to both rush the passer and drop into coverage, which is how Brian Burns, Marquis Haynes and Christian Miller found their way onto the roster. Players who are now playing a key role in Phil Snow’s multiple scheme.
The Panthers have continued to add to this existing group under Matt Rhule, in particular this offseason when they signed both Haason Reddick and Frankie Luvu in free agency, and both have made a real impact through the first two preseason games.
HELLO DEFENSE 💪
Haason Reddick with the PICK!
📺: NFLN & WSOC pic.twitter.com/mOEPeCctC0
— Carolina Panthers (@Panthers) August 21, 2021
Luvu has arguably been the Panthers’ most impactful player on defense this preseason and showed up against the Ravens with both a forced fumble in coverage and a QB hit as a rusher. While the Panthers failed to get a sack against the Ravens, they did manage to force Tyler Huntley from the spot effectively at times, with Christian Miller the other edge player to record a QB hit, with Haynes missing the game with injury. While the starters only played a handful of plays on defense, Haason Reddick had the Panthers’ only interception of the game while Brian Burns came up with a TFL that came close to being a safety.
The Panthers’ defense has a real chance to take a step this season, and while it’s not certain that all five of these players will make the final roster, it seems as though they are going to be a major part of whatever success the Panthers do have on defense.
4. Clay Johnston
The Panthers’ lack of quality depth at linebacker is something that has been highlighted repeatedly throughout Training Camp and has been exasperated by the injury to Denzel Perryman. While this is a potential problem for the Panthers as a whole, it also creates an opportunity for players to make the roster with a strong preseason. While the Panthers have brought in a couple of veterans to alleviate this issue, the most impressive depth linebacker for the Panthers on Saturday was Clay Johnston.
Johnston, who was a seventh-round pick by the Rams in 2020 after playing for Matt Rhule at Baylor and spent most of last season on the Panthers’ practice squad. On Saturday, he led the Panthers with six solo tackles, and was second with eight total tackles, though he did also miss a couple of tackles. In the passing game, he moved reasonably well and showed some promising instincts but needs to continue to work on his footwork as he did allow a couple of receptions in his zone.
The Panthers’ linebacker depth chart is currently completely up in the air after the third spot and, while this is an area the Panthers could well have interest in when other teams start cutting down, Johnston should be in serious consideration for a roster spot after his performance against the Ravens.
With the Panthers’ starters only playing a handful of plays on both offense and defense, and the Ravens resting all their starters throughout, it is hard to draw any significant conclusions about how the Panthers’ season will play out based on the performance against the Ravens. However, what this game does allow for is an understanding of how the Panthers are faring in terms of depth, what the rookie class looks like and how some of the non-starting position battles are coming along.
Not all of these areas had positive answer on Saturday, but it wasn’t all doom and gloom either. Attention now turns to Friday’s game against the Steelers for the final chance for those on the fringes to stake their claim to a roster spot.
(Top photo via Chanelle Smith-Walker/Carolina Panthers)