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Carolina Panthers

For Ikem Ekwonu and offensive line, better is just the first step

Ikem Ekwonu

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — There would be no meeting this week. That's not to say it was perfect, not by any means.

But after a rough opener for the Panthers' offensive line, things settled a bit in the second preseason game against the Giants.

It clearly still needs to get better. But to head coach Frank Reich's haven't-watched-the-film-yet estimation Friday night, the first group protected more efficiently than the week before. It wasn't ideal, especially with left tackle Ikem Ekwonu allowing Giants defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux to get to Bryce Young in the second quarter, but it was at least better than the week before (two sacks allowed against the Giants, five last week against the Jets).

"I think overall, as a unit, we improved," Ekwonu said as he dressed after the game. "Obviously, personally, there's a lot of things I want to work on, get better at."

That sack was not one of Ekwonu's finer moments. With Thibodeaux lined up wide, Ekwonu's eyes shifted to linebacker Bobby Okereke when he showed blitz inside. Left guard Brady Christensen had the linebacker, but Ekwonu reacted as if there was tight end help, or anything, to his outside. There was not.

"Just a miscommunication on my end," Ekwonu said. "Definitely, 100 percent, my fault."

That seemed clear upon first watch, but after looking back on last week's game — when line coach James Campen called his guys in to emphasize that it was not good enough — Ekwonu got a lot of focus as well. That's what happens when you're a top-10 pick the year before and play the position he plays.

When Campen was asked last week about Ekwonu, he said simply, "he's progressing; he's fine."

Campen's not going to overpraise, but he's also not going to overreact because he remembers what happened last season.

When the No. 6 overall pick in the draft got his first two games against Cleveland's Myles Garrett and Thibodeaux, he allowed three sacks in those games, according to Pro Football Focus grading. In the remaining 14 games, Ekwonu also allowed three sacks, including a 10-week stretch without giving up one. Part of that streak coincided with the Panthers being extremely run-heavy, which cut into the number of pass-protection demands, but it's reasonable to conclude that Ekwonu improved considerably over the course of the year.

Ewkonu said he feels more comfortable in general than he did as a rookie, but after another highlight play for an opponent, there's a ceiling on how much he's able to consider the long view.

"It was definitely extra emphasis this week on putting out better film," Ekwonu said. "Really trying to be the backbone of this team, being physical, playing better across the board.

"Except for a couple of plays, I think we overall achieved the goal, especially with the second and third groups. That's a big part of it, but I've got to get better."

Veteran guard Justin McCray has a good view of Ekwonu's progress, and not just because he was a couple of lockers over, as Ekwonu said it.

McCray has been around, now on his fourth different team with Campen (with stops in Green Bay, Cleveland, and Houston before coming here), so he's developed a certain perspective on the league as a whole. And with so much scrutiny on Ekwonu here, McCray knows the scrutiny will come. But he also played with one of the top left tackles in the league in Hosuton's Laremy Tunsil, and said that was the only comp he could think of to his current teammate. The difference was, Tunsil was in his sixth year in the league when McCray met him, and Ekwonu is going into Year 2.

"By the time I caught LT, he had been seasoned, played a lot of football, and found out what really worked for him," McCray said. "I think Ickey's just getting to that point, finding his go-to things. Finding out what works for him."

McCray said he liked that when Ekwonu came in last Monday, he was "locked in" and ready to improve.

"He has all the talent in the world, extremely athletic," McCray said. "Probably the strongest guy on the line. He has all the tools to be great. The thing he has the most of is he wants to. He works at it, he watches film, he asks questions.

"It's not an if thing; it's a when. When he puts it all together, it's going to be a great thing to watch, and he's going to be one of the better tackles in the league."

Chandler Zavala

The 22-year-old Ekwonu's not the only young one with up and down moments. His former college teammate, Chandler Zavala, got the start at right guard and played exclusively with the ones (after they rotated three guys through the week before with Young). This year's fourth-round pick missed much of training camp with a hamstring issue but was encouraged to be on the field for a game for the first time, and it could be the first of many.

The Panthers would prefer to declare a starter at right guard soon, so they can work together this week to be a little more polished heading into the opener. Cade Mays, the previous occupant of that place-holding spot (while Austin Corbett recovers from a torn ACL in last year's finale), was out Friday night with a neck issue.

Reich said that Zavala had a good week of practice last week, showing encouraging signs. That could signal he has a chance to become the guy at that position until Corbett is well, and his first game didn't provide glaring examples he's not ready. He was called for a holding penalty that took a 15-yard completion to Hayden Hurst off the board, but otherwise, it wasn't an egregious debut.

"It felt fun to get back out there. Just to play and do what I do. We played as one," Zavala said. "We just hit the reset button; last week wasn't good enough. We have a standard for ourselves, and we all took it very seriously."

And after allowing five sacks last week (the one by the starters and four more by the rest of the unit), this week's performance showed degrees of improvement. It's still a fairly young group, so McCray said it was important to stabilize things, and quickly.

"Last week was not the standard we wanted to set, and we wanted to get out there and get our things going, get the things and the way we practice going, as a line together," the 31-year-old guard said. "So improving from last week was mandatory. We had to do it. And I think everybody bought into it, came in this week and worked hard, and we put a better product on the field today.

"Everybody in the room is self-motivated. They don't like putting bad things on tape; they don't like when things don't look the way we work for."

Check out scenes from the Panthers' second preseason game against the New York Giants.

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