The Carolina Panthers completed the 2012 preseason and will begin making preparations for their season opener at Tampa Bay next week. They finished with a record of 2-2 following a 17-16 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers Thursday night.
So, what did we learn about the team when the final whistle sounded?
There were many things to take away from this game, and the preseason as a whole, about the Panthers and it should give us an idea of what to expect as the season progresses. While finishing with a decent record is nice, their play did suggest a few alarming trends and some pleasantly surprising ones.
This slideshow will breakdown ten different things we learned about Carolina not only from their most recent game, but also from the entire preseason as well.
This game did not feature any starters and rightfully so. This was a game meant to get a look at those players rounding out the depth chart and those who are on the bubble. While it could be argued the starters should have made an appearance, it made sense to see what the backups could do playing for most of the game.
Unfortunately, there was nothing different about the defensive line's backup unit that we did not already know about the starting unit. The pass rush is almost non-existent and too many big yards were allowed on the ground. The first series was especially troubling as it seemed as though Charlie Batch had his way with the Carolina defense.
However, they did settle down a bit and play somewhat better but still had some issues getting pressure up front. That being said, Thomas Keiser had another decent game in the preseason.
He recorded four tackles to include a sack, his fourth in as many games. Also, he had a batted ball at the line and showed a strong motor during his time on the field. It is safe to say he has a roster spot on this team and it shouldn't shock anyone if he sees a lot of action during the regular season.
When Charlie Batch connected with Emmanuel Sanders for a 37 yard touchdown, it was a bit alarming in a couple of ways.
First, it split double coverage consisting of Reggie Smith and Josh Thomas, two players fighting for a starting spot on the team. Second, it gave a good indication of just how much work still needs to be put in with the secondary.
While there were some good plays at the line of scrimmage, especially a good tackle by RJ Stanford, there were times when they were just overmatched.
They allowed 18 completions on 24 targets which is not a good sign of effective pass defense. On the other hand, they did not allow themselves to get beat by one player and did enough to keep their team in the game.
Next to the defensive line, the secondary draws the biggest question mark. How much will they improve as the season goes on? It is hard to say. Hopefully, the young rookie from Coastal Carolina Josh Norman can step up and be a solid number two across the field from Chris Gamble.
There really is not too much to say about the coverage on kick and, especially, punt returns that has not been said already. If this team has an Achilles' heel, it is definitely this unit.
As a defense it is hard to watch a lot of yardage to be given up and even more difficult to watch an opponent score without a chance to stop them. For the offense, life becomes increasingly difficult by either having to battle back on the scoreboard or not make a crucial mistake deep in your own territory.
In the game against Pittsburgh, the former seemed to be issue. However, due to penalties, field position was not much a of an issue but the principle of the matter remains the same. The coverage units cannot give up a lot of yards or a score.
This unit may need to work on some fundamentals or try finding ways to take away running lanes for returners. The beginning and end of a series starts with this unit and if the guys on special teams don't improve, they could make the season a very long one and not for the right reasons.
The Panthers have never been accused of having the most depth on their team. There are really one or two positional units in which there seems to be an adequate amount of reliable players who can be called upon to start or fill in at a moment's notice: running backs and linebackers.
The wide receivers did not show too much as they seemed to have issues trying to catch passes. The line on both sides of the ball showed it's youth and inexperience at certain times in the game and this preseason. The botched snap from Mike Pollak to Derek Anderson stands out from the first series.
They are young; that is why it is called a youth movement. While the guys who started in tonight's game will not be the everyday starters when the season begins, there will be young guys like Amini Silatolu and Byron Bell on the offensive line. Rookies Luke Kuechly, Josh Norman and Joe Adams look to play a huge part in the team's game plan.
The preseason is a time to make mistakes, identify what went wrong and make the appropriate corrections. With any luck, the guys backing up the starters will be able to step up and give Ron Rivera different options from the bench.
Everyone knows how exciting a return man Joe Adams can be. He has briefly shown that brilliance during the preseason but has yet to do anything really spectacular.
Then he had a couple of miscues against the Steelers.
On his first return attempt, he muffed the punt and later he had lost a fumble. This is concerning because he was brought in to do a specific job and be instrumental on special teams—remember the slide about special teams not being so special?
This is more than likely just an isolated incident and there shouldn't be too much stock taken from his underachieving performance. Like a lot of his teammates, he is young and a rookie at that; mistakes will happen. Hopefully, he won't make it a common theme and hurt his team in pivotal moments during a game.
When camp opened up, many felt that Armanti Edwards' time in Carolina was coming to an end. On the other end of the spectrum, there was a lot of optimism regarding Seyi Ajirotutu and what he could offer a young receiving corps.
One training camp and four preseason games later the general consensus is that neither one of these receivers deserves a roster spot though numbers-wise it seems like one will have to stay.
Of the two, Edwards made the most of his targets, catching two balls in his last game. Meanwhile, Ajirotutu cannot seem to haul in the passes thrown to him; a theme too often associated with him during the preseason.
The Panthers may find themselves reluctantly having to carry one of these guys.
Jared Green made a small case for himself with a touchdown reception Thursday night. It probably wasn't enough to get a roster spot but he may have secured a spot on the practice squad.
Regardless of what happens when the final roster cuts are made, Edwards and Ajirotutu will probably not be around in Carolina too much longer.
Give Clausen some credit: he tried his best to make the most of his field time Thursday. He didn't play particularly well but he did throw for 173 yards and two touchdowns. His quarterback rating was an impressive 114.6.
What wasn't impressive was his completion percentage. Despite the decent numbers listed above he was nine of 19, giving him a 47 percent pass completion percentage. Not exactly the kind of numbers you want to have when trying to secure a roster spot.
The good news about Clausen was that he didn't seem to fold under the pressure like many of us are use to seeing from him. There were a couple of moments when he stepped up in the pocket and made the necessary throws. He still showed flashes of the typical check-down, scrambling quarterback seen in the past but at least he gave the Panthers a legitimate shot at winning the game.
Clausen is on his way out, it is just a matter of when. Obviously, the Panthers have several options in regards to his future with the best one being to trade him to a quarterback needy team. Despite his struggles, Clausen may still have a chance to be an NFL quarterback. He was put in a difficult situation from the start which may have hindered his development while in Carolina.
Carolina has a deep and talented group of running backs in their stable. They have a quick and mobile quarterback in Cam Newton. So, it should not be a surprise that the Panthers have young backup running backs who are also capable of finding holes and making big plays.
If anyone wasn't sold on Armond Smith prior to the Pittsburgh game, they bought into him after it was done. Smith carried the rock 16 times for 85 yards. He showed an ability to not only hit the holes straight ahead but also displayed some nifty footwork as well.
Tauren Poole looked good early in the preseason but what Smith has done seems just a little better.
Hopefully, this kid stays on the final roster and could very well give the Panthers another return man in the event Kealoha Pilares or Joe Adams fail to pan out. He brings another welcome surprise to an already talented and high-octane offense.
First, let's not get too wrapped up in Justin Medlock's missed field goals Thursday night. Both were from at least 50 yards, the latter holding the outcome of the game in the balance. While it was a meaningless game, it would have been interesting to have seen what they could have done with Olindo Mare still on the team.
Earlier in the week Mare was cut in favor of the younger Medlock who had been lights out in both camp and preseason games. Figures the minute he wins the position battle, he misses two long field goals for which he was building a reputation of knocking down in training camp.
Was it premature of the Panthers to cut Mare?
This is the preseason and those were the only two kicks he's missed so far. He has shown accuracy and strength in his kicks so the red flags shouldn't be on the rise. Kicking a 50-yard field goal is not an easy task but Medlock will need to work on his technique and ensure the coaching staff he is capable of hitting the long kicks as well as the short ones.
The game ended with a 17-16 Steelers victory. However, the game shouldn't have been close. The Panthers benefited from a lot luck. In the first quarter, they should have given up 21 points alone.
Chris Rainey was making life miserable for the Panthers with his two long returns and should have hit pay dirt twice but each one was called back due to penalties. If Carolina ever needed a break in order to keep the game's momentum balanced, they got some twice in the first period.
While this will not be a common trend for the Panthers entering the 2012 season, a little bit of luck never hurts. Penalties and missed calls will either favor or go against Carolina. That is the nature of the beast.
This last game should have been a blow out but due to penalties, the game was a close affair coming down to the wire in and the Panthers had a chance to win on a last second field goal.