The stage was set nicely for the Carolina Panthers to come out and "steal" one from a Super Bowl favorite, the Seattle Seahawks. With much of Seattle's defense nicked up, the pieces looked to be falling into place for a Carolina victory—this was not to be the case.
Issues such as undisciplined penalties, an offense that could not put up points and an exhausted defense in the fourth quarter led to yet another season-opening loss for the Panthers. It was another game that "woulda, shoulda, coulda" been a win for the Ron Rivera regime.
Even in the loss, Panthers fans can find a few beacons of hope and, as always with losing, a few pariahs to lay the blame upon.
Here are some of examples of both from Carolina's 12-7 Week 1 loss.
Star Lotulelei was advertised as a powerful defensive tackle that could will disrupt the middle of offensive lines and demand double-teams. In his rookie debut, the young tackle posted four solo tackles and a pressure of Russell Wilson. Not too shabby for a rookie defensive tackle against a quality offensive line.
The rest of the Carolina Panthers defensive line poured on the pressure, keeping Wilson on the move for most of the game. Wilson's ability to avoid the rush and pass with a high level of accuracy on the move to avoid more than two sacks deserves credit.
In defending the man known as Marshawn "Beast Mode" Lynch, the Panthers D-line played smart and physical football. It rarely allowed Lynch to escape for big gains and limited the punishing running back to just 43 yards on 17 carries.
Our first beacon of hope, the young and aggressive Panthers defensive line will make games a nightmare for quarterbacks this season—and likely for seasons to come.
One would think that Luke Kuechly would have something of a drop-off come Week 1 of the regular season after his coming-out party in the third preseason game against the Baltimore Ravens. This was not to be the case.
Showing off sideline-to-sideline speed that doesn't particularly look human, Kuechly was always there just in time to stop the Seahawks running backs from breaking containment.
His stat sheet doesn't tell the story completely: nine tackles (six of which were solo and one was for a loss). What the stat sheet doesn't show is the complete control of the defense the second-year player appears to command. The entire defense, rookies and veterans alike, fed off of Luke's leadership and direction.
Forgive the hyperbole, but Panthers fans could be watching the emergence of the next great NFL middle linebacker.
Steve Smith continues to produce at a high level for the Carolina Panthers. The 34-year-old pulled in the lone score for the Panthers in Week 1. Despite pedestrian numbers from the rest of the wide receiver corps, Smith had a solid day with six receptions for 51 yards and a touchdown.
Combined, the rest of the Panthers wide receivers had one reception for 10 yards, which was Ted Ginn's contribution. Tight end Greg Olsen had six receptions for 56 yards. Olsen also had several drops that stopped drives dead in their tracks.
Also of note was Smith providing a blistering "dressing down" of defensive end Frank Alexander after his ejection and Armond Smith after both of his costly special teams penalties. Smith has taken a coach-like approach on the sidelines so far.
The Panthers have to realize Smith can not continue to be the biggest threat at wide receiver. That said, it's an issue that has existed off and on for almost a decade now with no end in sight (yet) this season.
How can a stat line that includes only 125 yards in the air be a cause for hope? Simple: It's accompanied by a completion percentage of almost 70 percent, which for Cam Newton is a solid improvement.
Newton has had accuracy issues for the entirety of his NFL career. Poor footwork and mechanics have plagued him often. In Week 1, those issues were not completely gone, but progress had been made.
He appeared to be going through his reads fairly comfortably, taking what was given by the defense and making some amazing throws.
Several key drops from the Panthers skill players cost the team greatly and hurt what could have been an exceptional day passing for Newton. When those drops become receptions, his numbers can skyrocket.
When you are a special team contributor first and a skill player second, you need to play smart. In Week 1, Armond Smith didn't play smart.
Smith isn't a big-name player for the Panthers, as evidenced by my having to use a preseason photo. As such, he needs to contribute and not cost the team yards. Two penalties from Smith while he was running gunner for the punt unit cost the Panthers greatly.
What was so incredulous about the penalties was not that they happened, but the same penalty happened twice.
Smith was caught going out of bounds, pushed once and by his own merit the second time, and managed to get himself a solid 20 yards of penalties assessed against his team. The latter penalty proved to be even more costly. It took away an exceptional Brad Nortman punt which pinned the Seahawks inside their own 10-yard line.
Josh Thomas isn't expected to be nominated to the All-Pro team anytime soon. The Panthers starter at cornerback needs to cover just long enough for the defensive line to do its thing and not get beaten deep. As a special team player on the punt return team, Thomas needs to pay attention to the ball and not let it hit him in the back.
These things are fairly common for NFL players in terms of responsibilities. In Week 1, Thomas failed at both of these things.
First, Thomas paid absolutely no attention to a frantically waving Ginn during a Seattle punt. He was blocking his opponent (in the back no less) so well that they both fell down and the ball hit Thomas on his leg. This led to Seattle getting the ball back and netting three points from a field goal.
Later, Thomas was burned not once, but twice on the same exact play. Fortunately for him, the Seattle receiver dropped the first pass. Unfortunately for Thomas, Seattle smelled the blood in the water and ran pretty much the exact same play against the cornerback and scored a touchdown.
Thomas was indirectly (or directly depending on who you ask) responsible for nine of Seattle's 12 points.
Production from Frank Alexander is vital for two reasons for the Carolina Panthers. First, Alexander is a promising young player on a defense full of talent. When he rotates in, the drop-off isn't as significant as it could be. Second, keeping a defensive line fresh is vital to stopping offenses late in the game.
The above reasons are why Alexander's ejection was such an issue for the Panthers. Without Alexander available to rotate in, Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson had to play extended minutes—which, of course, led to a high level of fatigue late in the game.
Alexander smartly took to Twitter last night and posted what appeared to be an earnest and honest apology to Panthers fans and teammates. Frank is a young guy. In the long run, he will be smarter because of this ejection.
Ron Rivera has had his ups and downs. Last season was ripe with areas of criticism. It was the hope of Panthers faithful everywhere that he had learned from his mistakes. His decision to take his three timeouts into the locker room at halftime has to make us wonder if he has learned anything at all.
Up 7-3 on Seattle, the Panthers got the ball back with roughly 45 seconds left in the half. The Panthers had three timeouts and were around the 20-yard line. Rivera opted for a dive play to Mike Tolbert, and then scampered into the locker room with his timeouts and time on the clock.
My issue here is the message it sends. To me, it says "Take no chances." I wonder if Rivera wishes he had at least attempted to get into field-goal range as the clock hit zero.
Mike Shula did something I didn't think was possible. He neutered Newton this past Sunday.
Not only did the offense not produce more than seven points, but Newton threw his lowest yards per attempt of his career (5.4) and greatly limited his deep-pass options. Newton is one of the best deep-ball passers in the league.
To make matters worse, the play execution time was so incredibly slow one could take small cat naps between plays. For all the talk about playing fast, it was not to be seen in Week 1. It took the Panthers roughly 30 minutes to run 50 plays Sunday. That's about a play every 36 seconds. Compare that to last season when the Panthers ran a play roughly every 27 seconds.
The Panthers offense did exactly what it said it didn't want to do.