The Carolina Panthers and Houston Texans kicked off their 2017 preseasons on Wednesday evening with the Panthers winning 27-17. The exhibition held in Charlotte served as the first of four games the teams will play in preparation for the regular season.
Carolina’s first-string defense dominated the first few drives of the game before the Panthers got on the board with a Kelvin Benjamin receiving touchdown. Houston answered with a rushing touchdown by Alfred Blue, but the Panthers struck back quickly thanks to a 50-yard strike from third-string quarterback Joe Webb to wide receiver Damiere Byrd. The teams traded field goals and touchdowns until Carolina kicked another field goal to give them the ten-point lead they held at the final whistle.
Rookies on Display
Although most starters for both teams did not play much past the first quarter, there were plenty of reasons for fans to keep watching since plenty of rookies had their chance to make their professional debuts. The lights shone brightly on the teams’ first-round picks, Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson and Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey, and both players had good performances.
Watson entered the game for starter Tom Savage in the second quarter and completed 15-25 passes for 179 yards against the Panthers second-string defense. The former Heisman winner and national champion also added a touchdown to his stat line by pushing a 15-yard run into the end zone during the third quarter. The solid outing added fuel to the fire of a quarterback competition between Watson and Savage, which will be a continuing storyline headed into the regular season.
Carolina’s McCaffrey did not fill up the stat sheet as much as Watson, but he also had a solid game in the Panthers’ winning effort. Playing for most of the first quarter and part of the second, the rookie out of Stanford University rushed for 33 yards on seven attempts. Despite the expectations that he'd be used as a receiver in some offensive schemes, McCaffrey was only targeted once last evening on a screen pass, but the ball was deflected by the Texans defense. Fans also did not get to see McCaffrey’s skill as a punt returner, as head coach Ron Rivera designated the job to various wide receivers. The eighth overall pick still had a promising debut, however, gaining his yards through both running between tackles and around the offensive line while flashing the speed necessary to get into open space. Although he was not fully unleashed in his first game, McCaffrey provided a taste of what the Panthers plan to do offensively in 2017.
Inactives Abound for Carolina
Perhaps the biggest storyline of the evening was the players who did not play in the preseason match. Panthers quarterback and 2015 MVP Cam Newton rested during the game due to shoulder soreness he experienced earlier in training camp. The six-year veteran is returning from offseason rotator cuff surgery on his throwing arm and is expected to play in at least one of Carolina’s three remaining preseason games. The Panthers also had their second-round pick and versatile receiver, Curtis Samuel, inactive for the game due to a hamstring injury, along with veterans Julius Peppers, Charles Johnson, and Ryan Kalil.
The Texans reported no inactive players for their team on Wednesday afternoon. Their star defensive end J.J. Watt, however, only played for the opening series before being pulled by head coach Bill O’Brien. Watt, a three-time winner of the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award, is returning from back surgery which limited him to only three games in 2016.
Here are some other observations from the exhibition game:
- Benjamin’s 23-yard touchdown grab was an encouraging sign to Carolina fans. After reporting overweight last year and having an underwhelming 2016 season, the four-year veteran is going to face pressure to take the next step in his playing abilities this year. The acrobatic catch was a positive sign that Benjamin's efforts to shed weight will help him be more mobile.
- Texans running back D’Onta Foreman will likely start the season as the third-string back, but the rookie had a solid performance on Wednesday finishing with 70 rushing yards on nine carries. Starting running back Lamar Miller struggled in his time on the field, and with Blue scoring a nice rushing touchdown in the second quarter, Houston’s backfield hierarchy may face some drama if preseason continues this way.
- Panthers receiver Byrd led both teams in receiving yards by the end of the night, tallying 4 receptions for 98 yards and two touchdowns. Those stats are padded by Byrd’s 50-yard grab in the second quarter, but the second-year player had a standout game. With the Panthers being deep at receiver this season, another performance like that in the preseason could cement Byrd a spot on the 53-man roster.
- Carolina kicker Graham Gano finished the team’s first drive of the night by missing a 50-yard field goal. Long-distance accuracy was a problem for Gano last season when he missed three of his six attempts from 50 yards or longer. His 78.9 percent field goal accuracy was his worst since 2011 and the Panthers drafted kicker Harrison Butker in the seventh round to create some competition. Butker made his only field goal attempt last night, a 51-yard kick in the fourth quarter.
- Two Carolina players suffered injuries during the game: defensive tackle Vernon Butler and wide receiver Brenton Bersin. Butler, who battled ankle injuries throughout his rookie campaign last year, exited due to a left knee injury in the first quarter, and Bersin did not return after suffering a left quad bruise in the second quarter.
The Texans’ next preseason game will be held on Saturday, August 19 against the New England Patriots at home. The Panthers will travel to play against the Tennessee Titans on the same day.