Grading the Carolina Panthers for Thursday’s 52-21 loss at Pittsburgh:
C Quarterback: Not all of the awfulness from Thursday’s loss can be blamed on Cam Newton, since he was harrassed by Pittsburgh’s pass rush throughout the first half. He had to throw the ball away twice, was sacked three times and hit four times in the first two quarters. His looming mistake was not taking the safety in the first quarter, when he was hit in the end zone by TJ Watt. Newton threw the ball up into the middle of the field, it was picked and returned for a touchdown and led to seven points instead of two.
B Running backs: Lost in the Panthers’ performance was Christian McCaffrey’s solid game. He had two receiving touchdowns by halftime and added 77 rushing yards and another touchdown by the fourth quarter. But he struggled at times in pass protection and certainly did so in blitz pickup.
B-minus Receivers: When Newton had time to throw the ball, his receivers were pretty consistent. He had some success with McCaffrey as a receiver, and both DJ Moore and Jarius Wright converted on crucial third downs.
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F-minus Offensive line: Thursday was the most atrocious performance out of the Panthers’ offensive line this season. Newton had little to no time to throw the ball as his pocket collapsed again and again against Pittsburgh’s No.4-ranked pass rush. The line gave up four sacks and six hits by the third quarter, a season high, after entering the game only having allowed 12 all year.
D Defensive line: On a first-half drive, Pittsburgh running back James Conner carved through the Panthers’ front like a hot knife through butter. Carolina’s pass rush was mostly ineffective against Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who had a perfect passer rating into the third quarter.
C-minus Linebackers: Conner’s touchdown drive saw big gaps where they shouldn’t have been. And the middle of the field was again a liability - the Panthers gave up a touchdown to tight end Vance McDonald, which is the eighth game this season in which a tight end has scored on a touchdown pass against the Panthers (though it did appear that he pushed off of linebacker Luke Kuechly).
F Secondary: Steelers receivers Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster combined for 175 yards on six catches with a touchdown apiece by halftime. Safety Eric Reid was ejected in the third quarter after hitting a sliding Roethlisberger in the helmet with his shoulder pad. Another tight end - Jessie James - scored a touchdown immediately after.
F Special teams: This grade drops substantially because of a holding penalty on a kickoff return attempt before the Panthers’ second drive. It pushed Newton and the offense back 10 yards, and Newton was hit in his end zone and threw the ball “away” - leading to the pick-6. Curtis Samuel fumbled on a third-quarter kick return and the Steelers recovered on Carolina’s 10-yard line as the third quarter ended.
F Coaching: Carolina’s defensive performance drops this grade all the way to the floor. There has been too much inconsistency against both the run and the pass in the past 10 weeks. On Thursday, the Steelers scored on every one of their posessions (other than a kneel-down as the second quarter ended). Plus, Newton was left in the game with Pittsburgh up 52-14 with 9:26 left to play - after taking a beating all game.
Jourdan Rodrigue: 704-358-5071; @jourdanrodrigue