Carolina Panthers: Grades After Preseason Game 4

Sep 1, 2016; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers running back Cameron Artis-Payne (34) is stopped by Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons (94) during the first half of the game at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

The Carolina Panthers closed out the 2016 preseason in strong fashion; severely limiting the Pittsburgh Steelers as they took an 18-6 win.

The Carolina Panthers finished out the 2016 preseason with an 18-6 win over the visiting Pittsburgh Steelers. This brought Carolina to a 2-2 record to close out the exhibition games before the regular season kicks off this week. The Panthers play the Denver Broncos on Thursday in a rematch of Super Bowl 50.

Looking back to this final preseason game there are some very strong points and some continuing questions that linger for the Panthers. Now that the final game is complete and the Panthers revealed the official 53-man roster, it will be interesting to see how the team answers some of these lingering questions. Either way, this was a solid win and performance for the defending NFC Champions. 2016 is going to be full of big expectations and many NFL experts are looking for the Panthers to fall far short in comparison to the success the team has seen in recent years.

This weekly breakdown measures how well the Panthers performed in the following areas: quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, defensive unit, special teams and overall play. Each group is graded on the scale of A to F, along with notes of where the team must improve heading into the next game.

Sep 1, 2016; Charlotte, NC, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Anthony Chickillo (56) pulls down Carolina Panthers quarterback Joe Webb (14) during the second quarter at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Quarterbacks Grade: C

The final preseason game was the Joe Webb show as he let the world know that he’s a strong backup quarterback and utility player. He ended the night with 200 yards passing, completing 17 of his 29 attempts. While he didn’t have any touchdowns, he also didn’t turn the ball over—which hampered the Panthers in their previous game. He was also sacked three times for a total loss of 23 yards. His night closed with a 79.7 quarterback rating.

Since Cam Newton and Derek Anderson didn’t play at all, this was an opportunity for Webb to continue his development under-center. While many hope that Webb isn’t needed as a quarterback as that would mean injuries or other issues tore into the other quarterbacks, he has shown steady development in the last few seasons. In this game he showed the ability to make key passes. Even though he didn’t have a big night, he also didn’t make any major mistakes to hamper the offense.

While the opportunity may not come with the Panthers, Webb does have the abilities to be a big contributor to an offense. There wouldn’t be much surprise if he ended up playing a larger part of an offense in the near future.

Sep 1, 2016; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers running back Cameron Artis-Payne (14) breaks through the Pittsburgh Steelers defense during the first half of the game at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

Running Backs Grade: A+

Throughout much of the Panthers’ preseason, a big question has hung over the running backs and the offensive line. The unit seemed to be struggling to break through, but that wasn’t be the case against the Steelers. At the end of the night, the team would put up 174 total yards on 42 attempts. 

Cameron Artis-Payne was the star of the group, as he proved why he is the man to help alleviate some of the stress placed on Jonathan Stewart. Artis-Payne ended the night with 77 yards on 18 carries for an average of 4.3 yards. He’s firmly the frontrunner to play backup to Stewart, which is a highly needed position considering Stewart’s struggles with injuries.

Both Fozzy Whittaker and Brandon Wegher added to the team’s total, but it would be Whittaker who would make the roster due to his value as a special teams contributor as well. Jalen Simmons also had a strong performance, but he would not make the 53-man roster. Mike Tolbert didn’t play during this game, but he is an expected part of the four-man running back team looking to continue the Panthers’ dominance in the rushing attack.

Nov 22, 2015; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers wide receiver Brenton Bersin (11) signals a first down during the first quarter against the Washington Redskins at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Wide Receivers Grade: C+

For one of the few times in the team’s history, the Carolina Panthers can boast about the depth that is available at the wide receiver position. The six players that made the roster include Kelvin Benjamin, Ted Ginn Jr., Devin Funchess, Philly Brown, Brenton Bersin and Damiere Byrd. This is a great core of receivers and the team still has options on their practice team if they become needed. Kevin Norwood was hit with an injury to his hip that placed him on the injured reserve, while Keyarris Garrett is headed back to the practice team.

Bersin was the star against the Steelers as he had six catches for 89 yards. Byrd ended with one catch of his own for 18 yards. They were the only members of the full roster, other than Artis-Payne, to have a catch during the game. Marcus Lucas, Norwood, Garett, Scott Simonson, Jalen Simmons, and Wegher each contributed, but are not members of the 53-man roster.

This gives the Panthers a dangerous passing attack, especially when coupled with Greg Olsen and Ed Dickson at the tight end position. It will be interesting to see if Newton can continue his trend of improvement that brought him the NFL MVP award last season. With this group of receivers, that certainly looks possible for the future.

Sep 1, 2016; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers linebacker Jeremy Cash (57) looks on to the Pittsburgh Steelers offense during the second half of the game at Bank of America Stadium. Carolina wins 18-6. Mandatory Credit: Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

Defensive Unit Grade: A

While the offense may get much of the attention, it’s the Panthers’ defense that has long been the force on this team. They’ve continued to look great during the preseason and this game capped off that consistent play. This group includes enough youth and experience to help keep them playing at a high level.

The defense held the Steelers offense to eight total first downs and 122 yards on 39 plays. They were very successful in getting Pittsburgh off of the field as they were only able to convert on a meager four of their 11 third-down attempts. Pittsburgh would also lose two fumbles, continuing the narrative of the Panthers being a team that can force turnovers.

That doesn’t solve the issue as to whether or not this defensive secondary can keep up the way they played last year. The Panthers cut their fifth-round draft pick, Zack Sanchez, in a move that surprised many people. Instead, the Panthers kept Teddy Williams on the roster as he has experience in the backfield as a member of the special teams group. Rookies Darryl Worley and James Bradberry made the team, along with veterans Kurt Coleman, Tre Boston, Bene Benwikere, Robert McClain, Dean Marlowe and Colin Jones.

Sep 1, 2016; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers kicker Graham Gano (9) kicks a field goal during the first half of the game against the Pittsburgh Stellers at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams Grade: A

Graham Gano continued to look in mid-season form. He scored on six of seven attempts; missing an attempt from 46 yards, but converting from 47 as well. He was the only scoring player on the Panthers as the team continued to struggle making it into the end zone consistently.

Andy Lee added to his 13-year professional career as he earned the starting punter slot for the Panthers. He had 3 attempts for 101 yards, including two that landed inside the 20-yard line. Lee’s performance netted him a key position on this roster.

The Panthers also looked stronger in the return game. Artis-Payne had two attempts for 40 yards while Byrd had four for 59. It’s doubtful that Artis-Payne will remain in this specialized position, which was filled by Whittaker in the past. The Panthers have a number of speedy options that can help in their area including the aforementioned Williams and Ginn Jr.

Last season, the Panthers’ special team players were often overlooked for their contributions, but this group seems to be poised to continue that type of play. The Panthers made a late offseason move to bring over Lee and he looked exceptional in his first game with the team.

Aug 26, 2016; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera talks with an official during the fourth quarter against the New England Patriots at Bank of America Stadium. The Patriots defeated the Panthers 19-17. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Overall Play Grade: B

As mentioned, the Panthers looked strong in some points in this game, but there are still issues that need adjustment heading into the regular season. For example, Newton’s led 15 drives during the preseason that resulted in only 13 points. In 2015 it seemed like the Panthers solved their issues with getting into the end zone, but the offense has looked sluggish more often than not this preseason.

Defensively, Carolina has found its replacements for Josh Norman in Bradberry and Worley. Coupling these two rookies with other veterans is how the team plans to attack the offenses that look to take advantage of Norman’s departure. Throughout the preseason it seems as if these selections are ready for the challenge, but there’s a lot of work before the verdict is made.

Overall, the Panthers ended the preseason in a strong position, as the unit looked to use this time to fill important gaps on the roster. When the next 16 games, and hopefully the postseason beyond that, it will be a compelling story to look back on this roster and how well they performed during the preseason as a precursor to what happens in the 2016 NFL regular season.

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