The Chargers lost to the Carolina Panthers 26-24 in the first game of the season. This was not the result I was looking for, but one I feared. The Panthers were uniquely qualified to hang a loss on the Bolts. This Panther team is a powerful playoff contender; make no mistake. The media saw 7-9, their best weapon missing vs. the Chargers stacked lineup and thought it would be a gimme. No such luck. The Panthers last year were awful after their QB went down. This year they seriously upgraded with two number one draft choices, offensive lineman Jeff Otah and running back J. Stewart; both looked terrific today. Those three factors, a good QB, Jeff Otah and J. Stewart, plus some amazing play by Donte Rosario at TE pulled the game together for Carolina. Even though Otah went out for a bit with an injury, he helped dominate the Chargers defensive line. Both on run plays and pass blocking, the Panther line was in charge. J. Stewart who picked up 53 yards in ten carries, was part of a formidable one - two punch. The running game is the weak point on the Chargers defense and this offense was primed to take full advantage. The Panther defense was great in the first half, but gave ground in the final quarter. The temptation is to chalk this loss up to one lucky desperation play; this is a mistake. The Panthers outplayed an excellent Bolts team in their own yard without their best receiver and fully deserved the W.
Antoine Cason is the real McCoy. He came up huge on a fourth and goal, then again by causing a fumble with a ferocious tackle, which the Charger offense then put it in the end zone. Big time plays under pressure for the rookie, this number one looks solid. For that matter Jammer had a fantastic game; breaking up a number of big yardage plays and solid tackling. Who would have thought, Cromartie would be the weakest link this Sunday, once playing too soft allowing a big gainer and once gambling for the pick and losing. Even so there are zero worries either about Cromartie or the secondary; the Panthers caught a series of tipped passes, and there will be games when those gambles pay off; I don't know about fifteen, but the picks will be coming for Cromartie.
Philip Rivers knee is solid and his arm is stronger than ever. Last season Rivers underthrew several passes to wide open receivers, this game he hit a long one to Chambers for the TD. He also hit Gates right in the hands with a terrific pass between two defenders for a huge TD. Antonio Gates, though in and out of the lineup made several nice catches, he got stripped for a TD on one of them. Mike Tolbert, the undrafted free agent looked terrific at fullback, making big blocks and turning some short catches into nice yardage. Rivers seemed to forget about V. Jackson until the fourth quarter, but then they lit up the Carolina defense for 47 yards and a Touchdown.
LT is back and looks ready to have another Pro Bowl season. Although he got off to a slow start, there was one running drive where the line and Tolbert opened holes for him and he ripped off some nice gainers, unfortunately it stalled and ended in a field goal. On a fourth down LT was knocked back three to four feet, only to cut to the outside and make a big pickup for a huge first down. You can sense the hunger in his running, he is on a mission this year and it is going to be a pure joy to watch.
Merriman played well, perhaps even Pro Bowl well bringing pressure and getting close to several sacks, but did not seem to have that seventh gear fans have become accustomed to; he too was also in and out of the line up. At one point he took a nasty shot to the knees, I was really grateful to see him pop back up afterwards.
The run defense was soft again. Too many eight yard and higher plays as Carolina just chewed up our front line. Sometimes they stiffened with Jamal in, but Jamal went out quite a bit. At one point the Bolts resorted to a 4-3 defense. I suppose that can be looked at as innovative, but to me it just says they don't have the backup nose tackle they need. Why the Chargers released Divens to the Ravens I don't understand. I've heard arguments that he only played against second stringers and lower, but that guy was a lion among sheep in the preseason.
The offense was seriously out of synch in the first half. Perhaps the result of too much rest, Rivers only hit one pass to a wide receiver in the first half and the running game was sadly ineffective. It was interesting that Hester, our third round draft choice that the Chargers gave up so much for ran not at all. In short yardage situations it was Tolbert or LT and it was Sproles who briefly relieved LT. It really wasn't until the fourth quarter that Rivers started to get in a groove; but that appeared to be enough to pull the game out until the final drive where Carolina put themselves in a place to win and then executed.
Norv Turner is reputed to have said that he thinks his forty five were better than the Panthers. It seems to me that Carolina was taken too lightly and while the Bolts never gave up; it seemed they were not as primed for this game as they ought to have been. The coaches deserve some knocks for the slow start and restrained game plan.
This a game a super bowl caliber team ought not to drop. It is only the first game, but the Chargers have to be able to put away this type of game. Don't take this the wrong way, I still think these guys can go all the way to the big game, but they have to be sharper on both sides of the ball for the full 60 minutes.