A trio of brutal turnovers sunk the Panthers in a 24-10 season-opening loss to the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
Rookie quarterback Bryce Young threw a pair of near-identical picks to Falcons safety Jessie Bates III in the first and third quarters, respectively, leading to 10 easy points for a home team that otherwise struggled to move the ball. Running back Miles Sanders — who signed the richest deal at his position this offseason — coughed up another second-half turnover that led to seven points for the Falcons in a 14-point loss.
While the Panthers’ pass rush and offensive line units bounced back after poor showings in the preseason, those surges — including a phenomenal early showing by pass rusher Brian Burns — weren’t enough to overcome the offense’s self-inflicted wounds, which led to 17 total points.
Here are six takeaways from the Panthers’ Week 1 loss to the Falcons:
Undisciplined intro for the good guys
The Panthers were flagged for four penalties for 26 yards in the first 17 minutes of the game.
Young had a “delay of game” blemish — and nearly had another one if not for a wasted timeout by the Panthers early in the second quarter — while the team was also flagged for a hold on special teams coverage, an offensive pass interference and too many men on defense in the first half.
The Panthers finished with nine penalties for 66 yards. They also had three turnovers that led to 17 points for the Falcons.
Young’s two interceptions mirrored each other and led to 10 points. Sanders’ third-quarter cough-up led to seven points in 14-point game.
While head coach Frank Reich’s creativity was felt on offense, the team came out looking pretty shabby overall in its debut. Penalties and turnovers can sink a squad, and the Panthers were reminded of that in Atlanta.
The Panthers need to pay Brian Burns
Burns didn’t let ongoing contract extension talks force him to the sideline Sunday. In fact, Burns dominated at his underwhelming (compared to the rest of the field) rate of $16 million.
On the very first drive of the season, the two-time Pro Bowl pass rusher made his presence known with a third-down strip-sack of quarterback Desmond Ridder to force the Falcons off the field with a three-and-out. In just one play, Burns let the front office know who he was: a team player who is rushing the passer at an outstanding, if not elite, level.
Burns wasn’t done after the first drive, either. The 25-year-old defender was relentless throughout the matchup, forcing regular pressure on Ridder.
On the second drive of the game, Burns was again on the attack, as he had back-to-back standout plays to force the Falcons to punt. On second down, Burns met linebacker Frankie Luvu at Ridder for a combo sack, giving Burns 1.5 sacks in just two series. One play later, Burns killed Atlanta’s second series by taking Falcons first-round pick, running back Bijan Robinson, down for a loss of 6 yards on third-and-8.
Burns continued to harass Atlanta’s offense well into the second quarter, drawing a holding penalty that curbed a late-first half drive for the Falcons’ offense. Burns wasn’t perfect, allowing some regular running space for Atlanta’s running backs, but his work in the passing game was felt throughout, as Ridder was rarely able to find comfort in the pocket.
While the Panthers coughed up a loss — and allowed a lot of rushing yards on defense — it’s hard to imagine how bad of a game this would have been if Burns wasn’t routinely causing trouble for Atlanta by sitting out with a contract dispute.
Bryce Young works through some early growing pains
Young had a couple of early mishaps in his first regular-season matchup. In the pistol formation — a look that wasn’t shown in the preseason — Young had a botched hand-off during the first series of the game. Then, on the second series, Young had a delay-of-game penalty before throwing the first pick of his career.
Bates, a big free-agent addition for the Falcons, jumped a route by tight end Hayden Hurst and picked off Young over the middle to put the Falcons’ offense in the red zone to begin their third drive of the game. Young started the game by completing 3 of 4 passes for 28 yards, but his trio of poor moments — a fumble (that was recovered), a penalty and a pick — loomed large in the early going, as the turnover led to seven points for the Falcons.
Young, as he is prone to do, flushed the early frustrations of the game, and led the Panthers on a touchdown-scoring drive in the middle of the second quarter. The poised passer anchored a 12-play, 75-yard drive that was capped with a 5-yard pass to Hurst for a touchdown. On the drive, Young hit Hurst three times for 28 yards and the score, after back-to-back failed tosses to the tight end earlier in the game.
The drive displayed Young’s unique poise, patience and polish for a rookie. He bounced back, kept his eyes down the field and spread the around like a seasoned pro. Young’s overall decision-making — outside of the interception — was encouraging, especially as it seemed like he learned from his early mistakes in the pass game.
Young continued to get into a rhythm in the third quarter, as the offensive line held up well in pass protection. Young picked up 15 yards on a scramble where left tackle Ickey Ekwonu — who created concern in the preseason — stonewalled his pass blocking assignment in a one-on-one matchup. Young used that run to anchor a nine-play, 50-yard field-goal scoring drive that gave the Panthers a 10-7 lead to start the second half.
It should be noted that Reich and offensive coordinator Thomas Brown — along with the rest of the offensive staff — put together a relatively creative package of plays for the offense throughout the game. Young was constantly set up with different looks in shotgun and pistol formations, allowing him to find receivers in space, whether those weapons were getting open on their own or as a result of the play design. Young targeted eight different receivers throughout the matchup, as the Panthers kept rotating personnel and primary reads.
Young wasn’t anywhere close to perfect in the second half, though, as he threw a second interception to Bates in the third quarter. Young seemingly didn’t see Bates again up the seam as he targeted wideout Terrace Marshall and paid for it. Bates jumped Marshall’s route and picked off the pass in nearly the same spot as his previous takeaway. The pick led to another three points for Atlanta.
Young failed to bounce back after the third turnover of the game — this one caused by Sanders — and struggled to find open receivers down the stretch as the offense tried to mount a comeback. He completed 20 of 38 passes (52.6%) for 146 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions in his debut.
While Young showed enough poise and flashed enough talent to stay patient with his development, his first showing wasn’t particularly palatable for the Panthers faithful. He coughed up to monumental picks that led to game-altering points for the Falcons in a two-score game.
Ultimately, the first overall pick requires patience. He’s a rookie, this is a rebuild (the Panthers can call it whatever they want), and there are going to be growing pains for both him and the offense. He needs to bounce back from this performance quickly and put together an impressive showing against the New Orleans Saints on “Monday Night Football” in Week 2.
Chuba Hubbard outshines Miles Sanders
Outside of being stuffed for a loss on an early fourth-down rushing attempt, third-year running back Chuba Hubbard had a strong afternoon. While the Panthers paid Sanders to be their top runner, Hubbard flashed quite a bit more on Sunday.
Sanders didn’t participate in the preseason, so it’s fair to note that Hubbard’s limited exhibition exposure might have made him a bit more inclined for contact. Hubbard ran hard and fast with his carries, while Sanders had an up-and-down afternoon. Sanders fumbled on a crucial third-down carry that led to recovery (and a touchdown) by the Falcons, ending a promising drive by Carolina.
Hubbard finished with nine carries for 60 yards (6.7 yards per carry), while Sanders produced 72 yards (4 yards per carry) and a costly fumble on 18 carries.
Wideout/running back Laviska Shenault was peppered into the offense, producing 5 rushing yards and 16 receiving yards on four total touches.
Offensive line bounces back with meaningful snaps
Offensive line coach James Campen’s crew was lambasted throughout the preseason for its lack of effective pass protection.
But on Sunday, the group held its own, protecting Young as best as it could as a unit. Ikem Ekwonu, in particular, did an excellent job of keeping Young clean.
While the run game was hit (154 yards on 32 carries) or miss — with the latter side being evident on an opening-series stuff on fourth-and-1 — the unit did its primary job of protecting Young. Young was hit seven times on Sunday, but six of those hits — including two sacks — didn’t occur until the fourth quarter when the offense was trying to mount an unsuccessful comeback.
It wasn’t a flawless showing by the unit, but the group overall looked much better than it did during the exhibition slate — by a couple of miles.
Panthers’ pass rush shows up ... despite run game woes
There was quite a lot of ink spilled on the Panthers’ pass rush this summer. While Burns was always going to be a prime-time player, the rest of the group seemingly left a lot to be desired. With Marquis Haynes (back) on injured reserve, the rotation looked even weaker, despite the mid-camp signing of Justin Houston. But on Sunday, the front seven showed up consistently in creating pressure.
Although the group had its struggles against the run (130 yards and two touchdowns allowed on the ground), Burns, Luvu and the rest of the cast did a nice job of getting into Ridder’s face regularly. Defensive tackle Derrick Brown had one of his trademark batted passes to begin the game, forcing the quarterback to catch his own first pass of the season for a loss. Luvu also did a nice job of blitzing into the backfield — with three QB hits on his own — as Houston routinely turned the corner within the pass rush rotation.
The group finished with four sacks, six QB hits and six tackles for loss on the afternoon. Obviously, Burns was the straw that stirred the pass rush, but the rest of the group showed up as well.