In a game featuring two former first-round picks at quarterback, Sam Darnold offered glimpses of what the Panthers’ offense could look like in 2021. With Darnold leading the way, the Panthers took a 17-0 halftime lead en route to a 34-9 victory over the visiting Steelers, who sat most of their high-profile players.
In two quarters of work, Darnold went 19 of 25 for 162 yards that included second quarter touchdown passes to rookie Terrace Marshall (13 yards) and Robby Anderson (eight yards). Donald’s favorite target was DJ Moore, who caught six passes for 48 yards during the first half.
It was a rough night for Dwayne Haskins, who was hoping to strengthen his case to move past Mason Rudolph as the Steelers’ No. 2 quarterback. Washington’s former first-round pick went 5 of 12 for 38 yards and an interception in his first eight series of work. Haskins had a solid finish after replacing injured quarterback Josh Dobbs late in the fourth quarter. He completed his final four passes for 70 yards that included a 22-yard touchdown pass to Ray-Ray McCloud. Haskins finished with 108 yards with a touchdown and an interception on 9 of 16 passing.
Defensively, Brian Burns came up with an interception of Haskins on an overthrown pass intended for Derek Watt late in the first quarter. Rookie cornerback Jaycee Horn broke up several of Haskins’ passes, while safety Jeremy Chinn had a nice breakup of a Haskins pass during the first half. Defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos came up with a fourth quarter sack of Pittsburgh quarterback Josh Dobbs.
Here’s a closer look at what transpired on Friday night.
Why the Panthers won
Carolina’s offense took advantage of a Pittsburgh defense that rested most of its starters. They also showed resilience after not cashing in on their first two scoring opportunities. Pittsburgh’s young secondary had no answer for Moore and Marshall, who caught a combined nine passes for 91 yards during the first half. Carolina complemented their passing with the running of Spencer Brown and Chuba Hubbard. Hubbard had nearly as many total yards (51) as the Steelers’ entire offense during the first half. Brown broke several would-be tacklers on his 20-yard touchdown run to open the second half.
Why the Steelers lost
Pittsburgh made mistakes in all three phases. Along with Haskins’ pick, the Steelers turned the ball over on special teams when Matthew Sexton muffed a punt that led to the Panthers’ first touchdown. Rookie defensive back Tre Norwood dropped an interception during the first half, while inside linebacker Robert Spillane’s struggles in pass coverage continued. Offensively, Pittsburgh did not pick up its first third-down conversion until the final four minutes of the third quarter.
Twice, the Steelers defense came up with big plays during the first half. Pressure on Darnold contributed to an incomplete fourth down pass on the Panthers’ first possession. After Haskins’ pick, the Panthers missed a 49-yard field goal that was made more difficult after Jamir Jones’ sack of Darnold three plays earlier. But Pittsburgh’s defense finally broke after Sexton’s fumble, as Marshall scored on a well-executed bubble screen. Pittsburgh’s defense barely had time to rest before going back on the field moments later. Carolina’s defense took advantage, with Darnold orchestrating a 12-play, 84-yard drive that ended with his touchdown pass to Anderson.
Play of the game
Marshall showed Panthers fans what could be in the works after the former LSU standout scored the game’s first touchdown. Marshall broke several tackles while following a convoy of Carolina blockers to paydirt.
“All in all, it was a junior varsity performance. We accept that, we understand what that means. But we also understand where we are, collectively, in this journey.” — Steelers coach Mike Tomlin on his team’s performance
The Steelers will open the 2021 regular season in Buffalo against the Bills. Pittsburgh fell to Buffalo in Week 14 of the 2020 season, a loss that was part of the Steelers 1-5 finish to the season. Darnold will face his old teammates for the first time when the Jets come to Charlotte on September 12.