Welcome to the new Carolina Panthers, where bad is good and down is apparently up.
After one preseason game, they now have to be more satisfied with their pass rush than they could reasonably expect, but wondering what happened to a secondary and an offensive line that were supposed to be counted on as strengths.
While the Carolina quarterbacks will be the topic of many conversations after the 17-12 loss to the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium, there were other facets of the game that stood in stark relief to expectations.
The first defense got surprising push on Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, with veteran defensive end Tyler Brayton recording a pair of sacks in the first quarter. The Panthers finished the night with six sacks, after never logging more than five in any regular season game last year.
They want Brayton to lead, and his 15.5 career sacks were the most of any Panthers lineman. But this wasn't supposed to be the way it went down. Without Julius Peppers, the Panthers were supposed to struggle on their defensive front, and that clearly wasn't the case Thursday.
In addition to Brayton's two big plays, the got consistent push in the middle from defensive tackle Ed Johnson, and end Charles Johnson also showed he could be a factor. Rookie Greg Hardy added a pair of sacks in the third quarter as well, making it an impressive night for the largely anonymous group. Rookie Eric Norwood added a sack-forced fumble in the second quarter, and defensive tackle Nick Hayden got into the act in the fourth quarter with a sack as well.
That's going to be huge for the Panthers, who suffered some slip-ups in the back of the defense which they're going to have to fix.
The Panthers fell behind 10-3 in the first half, as Flacco hit some short and intermediate passes, and one long one which took advantage of a pair of Panthers slip-ups. First, cornerback Captain Munnerlyn fell down in the end zone, which enabled Ravens wideout Mark Clayton to catch an easy 30-yard touchdown pass. But it was free safety Charles Godfrey frozen in place at the snap which allowed Clayton to make the easy one-on-none play when Munnerlyn fell out of the picture.
There were equivalent slip-ups on the other side of the ball. The Panthers first offense followed a shaky scrimmage outing last weekend with a slow start.
There was a fine 23-yard run by DeAngelo Williams (who finished with five carries for 33 yards), but starter Matt Moore threw two incompletions and then was sacked and fumbled on third down when Ravens safety Tom Zbikowski caught him cleanly on a blitz. No one bothered picking Zbikowski up, the kind of protection problems that plagued them through the night. Right guard Duke Robinson in particular struggled in pass sets, as the powerful run-blocker revealed a hole in his game which could keep him on the bench.
It appeared the Ravens were prepared to drive for a touchdown on the ensuing series, but Brayton's second sack forced them to settle for a Shayne Graham field goal and a 3-0 lead.
Penalties derailed the Panthers at several junctures in the first half, and kept them scoreless through the Moore portion of the program. After his final series (he finished the night 4-of-7 for 32 yards passing and a 68.8 rating), the Ravens went 10-0 on the long pass to Clayton.
Rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen came in next, and nearly scored on all three of his first-half drives.
He moved them into position for a 37-yard John Kasay field goal that closed it to 10-3 on his first drive, then after Norwood gave him a short field to work with, his second chance unraveled when running back Tyrell Sutton fumbled at the 1-yard line. He took a sack but was able to keep them in field goal position just before halftime, but the Panthers missed a chance to narrow the game when holder Jason Baker couldn't get the snap down for a field goal attempt. Clausen threw an interception in the rain-soaked third quarter, and finished 8-of-15 for 80 yards and a 41.0 rating.
That wasn't the last mishap in the kicking game, as Kasay missed an extra point in the third quarter, clanking his attempt off the right crossbar. He's made 507-of-518 career extra points. It spoiled another big play by the defense, as C.J. Wilson scooped up a fumble (forced by reserve defensive end Eric Moore) and returned it 38 yards for a touchdown, which cut the Ravens lead to 10-9.
Baltimore pushed it to 17-9 late in the third on Troy Smith's 8-yard run, which was set up by a sloppily covered 57-yard punt return by Ravens cornerback Prince Miller.
Kasay tacked on a late 45-yard field goal to closing the gap to the final margin.