Aug 9, 2013; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers cornerback Josh Norman (24) jumps up in the stands to celebrate after returning an interception for a touchdown during the second half against the Chicago Bears. The Panthers defeated the Bears 24-17. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Carolina Panthers Defeat Chicago Bears 24-17 in Turnover-Laden Opening Preseason Game

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The good news is the Carolina Panthers defeated the Chicago Bears, 24-17, in their first Preseason game.

The bad news is the offense turned the ball over four times, and one of those was a pick-6 thrown by Cam Newton.

Initial preseason games are often marred by rust, miscommunication and penalties, and rookie mistakes. This game was no different as rookie RB Kenyon Barner fumbled twice and Newton attempted to force a short pass to the receiver he stared down the entire play.

Each team turned the ball over four times and second-year pro Josh Norman of the Carolina Panthers had two interceptions…and one of those was also a pick-6, so he negated the one that Cam threw.

Norman, whom this writer got lambasted for saying he was Chris Gamble’s heir-apparent as the #1 corner by a couple of “know-it-all commenters,” demonstrated on the field exactly why I labeled him that way. Just because he was a “late” draft pick in 2012 and “only” a rising second-year player does not mean a darned thing.

What DOES matter is play on the field, and Norman still seems to be the top playmaker among the Carolina cornerbacks. It’s a team filled with CB2s and nickel guys, but someone has to start against the opposing team’s best receiving threat and right now it appears Norman is that guy….so that’s some good news.

Aug 9, 2013; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) before the game against the Chicago Bears at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

Game Notes and observations:

– 7th-year pro and first-year Panther WR Ted Ginn, Jr. at one point had been targeted 7 times…for a single reception for 17 yards. This performance summarizes his career at WR in a nutshell – he’s not a “go-to” receiver and never has been.

– While Cam went 3/6 for only 16 yards, a TD and an INT, on the interception he stared down his target and threw it into double-coverage. He’s in his third year, when many QBs and WRs really start to hit their stride. He looked like a rookie on that play and needs to come off of staring down anyone. If there’s a particular guy he wants to go to, he needs to look him off first or learn how to do a good pump-fake – something. He’s better than that. But it is the first game in pads against another team and his coaches will go over this with him in depth, so I wouldn’t worry too much over a single bad play.

– Aside from Ted Ginn, the WRs looked really good over the entire game. Armanti Edwards had a couple of nice catches and it was wonderful to see David Gettis lead the team with 3 receptions for 56 yards. Rivera & Co. are really hoping Gettis can return to and exceed the form he showed as a rookie. If he can do that, I think he’ll be a nice surprise and get back into things after spending almost all of the last two seasons injured.

– Brandon LaFell had a single short catch, but it went for a 3-yard TD. Rivera spread the ball around and let pretty much everyone see the field.

– Rookie RB Kenyon Barner had the two fumbles, as I noted. However, one was on a bad exchange from QB Jimmy Clausen and that sort of thing is easily fixable with repetition in practice. Miami Dolphins 2nd-year pro Lamar Miller did the same thing on his very first carry in his first preseason game.

– The other fumble was on a short reception where a defender behind Barner managed to get a hand on the ball and strip it out. THAT will be harder to fix and he’ll be coached up on ball security….it’s an issue for most rookies coming in, and preseason games are the places to make mistakes and learn – before the games actually count.

Aug 9, 2013; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers quarterback Derek Anderson (3) hands the ball off to running back Kenjon Barner (25) while playing against the Chicago Bears at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

– Backup QB, Derek Anderson, looked horrible. He went 8/15 for 133 yards and a pick, rounding out the four turnovers for the Panthers. Anderson wasn’t sharp at all, and needs to work on a number of things but, again, it’s “only” the first preseason game.

– 3rd-string QB Jimmy Clausen actually out-played Anderson, going 5/9 for 51 yards. On a couple of passes, he stepped up in the pocket and fired firm strikes to his targets and actually impressed me. While I don’t see him overtaking Derek Anderson for the team’s backup QB spot just yet, with continued good play, he might push Anderson for the spot by Opening Day. Keep an eye on this “silent” battle.

– The run defense was pretty good the entire game. The rookie DT duo already seemed to help the rush defense, and of course Luke Kuechly was there to lay the lumber. If the Panthers can keep playing rush defense this well, the team strength is going to be its defense in 2013.

– Panthers’ defenders were harassing the Chicago QB all night. It didn’t matter if it was the starters, the twos or the threes – pressure was there all night long. I really think the Panthers’ pass rush should be one of the NFL’s best as they look to have as good a starting front-seven as any team in the league.

– 25 yr old rookie TE Brandon Williams showed incredible strength, athletic ability, and made a beautiful diving catch over the middle of the field in the red zone to set up one of the scores. The team has Ben Hartsock, who has never been much of a threat catching the ball, but Williams is a guy to watch this preseason. Number 86 is 6’4″ and 250 lbs and if he can run-block, it’s quite possible he’ll not only make the team but be the TE2 behind Greg Olson. Keep an eye on him as he battles to make the final 53-man roster. If he makes many more catches like he did last night, he’ll not only make the team but could be a surprisingly good secondary target for Cam once the season starts.

The Good

– Joe Adams looked good in return duty. If he can stay healthy and keep ball security as his utmost concern, he could add depth to both the slot WR position and kick/punt returns with Ted Ginn, Jr.

Aug 9, 2013; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers wide receiver David Gettis (12) gets tackled by the Chicago Bears defense during the second quarter. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

– David Gettis appeared healthy again and with a full training camp and no injuries could work his way into the WR rotation.

– Kenyon Barner carried 9 times for 37 yards. Sure, his two fumbles are not good, but one was due to inexperience and all rookies have a learning curve. If he’s getting 4 yards/carry in preseason, he should translate into a run/receiving threat out of the backfield and with the Carolina Panthers’ multi-millionaires in the backfield, he could work his way up the depth chart and the team could let either DeAngelo Williams or the still-injured Jonathan Stewart loose when their contracts are up and free up a TON of salary cap space for 2014 and beyond.

– The pass rush – at one point late in the game, the Panthers had 7 “unofficial” sacks as that 7th one was borderline as to whether the QB lost or gained a foot in being dropped. Both of Carolina’s starting DEs had double-digit sacks in 2012, and that should continue in 2013 with reserves rotating in fresh off the bench and not seeing much of a drop-off in intensity. The pass rush looks very strong and should only get better with experience and repetitions.

– Josh Norman’s two interceptions should speak for themselves. Getting one in any particular game – preseason or not – is difficult and TWO is quite a feat. Toss in the fact that he returned one for a TD and one can see why he’s truly the “heir-apparent” to the CB1 position. Whatever the case winds up, Norman appears to be a budding ball-hawk and that’s exactly what this defense needs on the back end. With the front-seven applying pressure and the D-line doing most of it without having to blitz, that turnover margin in 2012 of +1 for the season should go up.

– The play of Brandon Williams. If he can develop into a receiving threat, the Panthers could field a number of 2 TE sets a la the New England Patriots of old, and pass and run equally well out of it. Otherwise, it would be a great thing for Cam to have a second TE that can slice up the defense over the middle and hit those seams….exactly what he did on his incredible catch over the middle in last night’s initial contest.

The Bad

– Ted Ginn, Jr. showed why he has never lived up to his talent at the NFL level. He saw a lot of balls come his way but managed to only snag a single one…and this, with opponent CBs having to play soft on him because they respect his speed.

– Derek Anderson played very sloppy football and at times looked like a raw rookie. We came into the season thinking Anderson was the NFC South’s best back-up QB due mainly to his experience, but he just wasn’t sharp at all. Perhaps some of that can be blamed on being unfamiliar with some of the others on the field and “reading” his WRs, but he really needs to work on a number of things. Anderson is NOT a threat to scramble so defenses don’t have that to worry about when he’s taking snaps, but with his experience, I would have thought he would have had a better showing.

– The right side of the O-line. I watched them as much as I could. While they fought hard, they “lost” more than I’d like to have seen, given the difficulties we ALL know exist there. I came into the game thinking they’d stink the joint out, but they actually didn’t play as poorly as I feared they would. That said, they still have work to do there as the starting unit. I DID see Garry Williams give a great effort, however, and did make some good blocks. I still see that right side struggling against a fierce pass rush, so watch them as the preseason progresses. On Newton’s interception to Bears’ defender John Bostic, it was evident that speed-rushers on the strong side can cause havoc as Cam felt the pressure there. Bostic ran thee ball back for a 51-yard TD, and that can’t be allowed. I’m sure that particular play will be run over and over and over again in the film study this upcoming week.

Aug 9, 2013; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers wide tight end Brandon Williams (86) makes a pass while being defended by Chicago Bears safety Anthony Walters (37) while playing at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

Overall

– Check the photo here….that’s the catch Brandon Williams made. It was a “wowzah” catch!

The Panthers’ effort overall was great. First preseason games are almost always sloppy and teams and players make adjustments. It’s just how life in the NFL is – especially with shorter training camps – so the first preseason game or two can’t really show how the teams are going to be on opening day. What they CAN do is help uncover some good talent and whittle that roster down to the 53 guys they’ll keep.

It was great to see David Gettis on the field again. Joe Adams did what he was drafted to do in the few snaps he saw. The DEs are the defense’s strength other than Kuechly and Josh Norman’s performance really helped show what a strong pass rush can do…force early/poor throws and get turnovers. Again, in 2012 the Panthers’ turnover margin was a whopping +1, and given what I saw last night, this defense could well become much like the Chicago Bears’ 2012 version – a turnover machine that can score.

There’s a lot of hope for Panthers fans this year, given how the two teams played. Although the turnover margin was 0 since BOTH teams turned it over FOUR TIMES, one of the Carolina fumbles was that bad handoff exchange and easily fixed with practice. I like how the team moved the ball except for Derek Anderson’s play, and once the chemistry gels over time, I think what we’ll finally see is a Carolina Panthers squad that will be renowned for its nasty defense and potentially explosive on offense with uber-athlete Cam Newton’s dual threat presence.

The team showed that preseason predictions in general have been spot-on with the projected strengths being there in the early going….as are the weaknesses. While the O-line will be an issue all year long unless someone REALLY steps up, the WR corps is going to be difficult to whittle down to fit in the 53-man roster.

The Panthers WR corps played better than any other group on either team. Ted Ginn still looks like a backup WR but the others all seemed to step up their game a notch as Ron Rivera played the twos and threes quite liberally…something all good coaches do in the early going.

I’m very encouraged by the overall team effort while taking into account the circumstances.

In short, I think this team does in fact have the talent and depth to compete for the NFC South division crown.

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