NFC South: Carolina Panthers

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- One of the interesting moments following Sunday’s 38-17 loss at Green Bay came when Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera was asked if he planned any personnel changes.

Rivera stared at the reporter for a second, then said, "I played everybody we had."

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Rivera
The snap count reveals just that.

Rivera actually played some more than he ever imagined due to injuries on the offensive line. Undrafted rookie David Foucault wound up with 30 snaps (42 percent of the plays) at left tackle after Byron Bell suffered an elbow contusion.

The Canadian player is considered a project at 6-foot-8 and 305 pounds. He likely would have been on the practice squad this season to develop, but the Panthers were afraid another team might snatch him up. He had only 11 snaps prior to Sunday.

That he had to face one of the league’s elite pass-rushers in linebacker Clay Matthews was unfortunate. According to Pro Football Focus, Foucault graded out at a minus-4.3. Bell didn’t do all that much better, grading out at minus-2.4 in 41 snaps.

"He got beat a few times, one on a bull rush where he got pushed all the way back to the quarterback and then another a guy tried to dip him and he was able to wash," Rivera said. "But you see the potential and growth."

Guard Andrew Norwell, an undrafted rookie out of Ohio State, had been inactive the first six games. He played 60 snaps (87 percent) when right guard Trai Turner went down with an ankle and knee injury in the first quarter.

Only two players -- right tackle Nate Chandler and left guard Fernando Velasco – played more on offense.

If starting left guard Amini Silatolu (calf) doesn’t return this week against Seattle, either Norwell or Chris Scott -- currently on the practice squad -- likely will get the start there. If Silatolu is back, Velasco will move from the left to right side.

Rivera said Norwell, 6-6, 310 pounds, was "fun to watch." So did offensive coordinator Mike Shula, talking about how physically imposing Norwell is when he uses proper technique.

Again, not the players either expected to be protecting quarterback Cam Newton and producing an effective running game.

Defensively, Rivera didn’t have many options and used them all. Rookie strong safety Tre Boston took his first nine snaps of the season. The former North Carolina standout missed most of the offseason workouts and training camp recovering from a sports hernia.

He was another player the Panthers didn’t want to risk losing by placing him on the practice squad.

Cornerback James Dockery, cut at the end of training camp and re-signed two weeks ago when Josh Norman suffered a concussion, got seven snaps. Don’t be surprised to see him get a few more opportunities at nickel corner until rookie Bene’ Benwikere (ankle) returns.

Veteran Charles Godfrey, who replaced Benwikere, appears better suited at safety. Godfrey was responsible for three of the team's season-high 11 missed tackles against Green Bay.

Now you see why Rivera stared. Between injuries and poor play, he’s really out of options when it comes to personnel moves.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers could have running back DeAngelo Williams back on the practice field Wednesday, coach Ron Rivera said Monday.

Ponder
Williams
Williams has missed the past three games with a high ankle sprain suffered in the first half of a Sept. 28 loss at Baltimore. The team’s all-time leading rusher hasn’t participated in practice since.

Williams walked through the locker room Monday with no visible signs of a limp, but there was tape on his right ankle.

The Panthers' offensive line has several injury situations to work through this week. Rookie right guard Trai Turner has a sprained ankle and knee and likely won’t be available for next Sunday’s game against Seattle.

Turner suffered the injury in the first half of Sunday’s 38-17 loss at Green Bay.

Left tackle Byron Bell suffered an elbow contusion that doesn’t appear to be serious. His status for the Seattle game will be determined later in the week, but Rivera sounded optimistic on his availability.

Left guard Amini Silatolu, who missed Sunday’s game with a calf injury, could return this week.

Rivera didn’t sound optimistic that nickel cornerback Bene Benwikere, who missed his second straight start with an ankle injury, would return. But he said Benwikere would replace Charles Godfrey in the lineup when he does.

Rivera remained in wait-and-see mode on whether Josh Norman, who has missed two games with a concussion, would return as a starting cornerback.
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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Colin Cole took a moment on Sunday to reflect on his 2010 season with the Seattle Seahawks.

It had nothing to do with the defending Super Bowl champions coming to Charlotte this week.

It had everything to do with perspective.

The 2010 Seahawks went 7-9 during the regular season, which was good enough to win the NFC West in a tiebreaker over the St. Louis Rams. They went on to beat an 11-5 New Orleans team 41-36 in the first round of the playoffs.

Cole brought that season up to remind that as bad as the Panthers (3-3-1) looked in a 38-17 loss to the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field, they remain in first place in the NFC South.

On a day when nothing went right for Carolina, the New Orleans Saints blew a fourth-quarter lead in a 24-23 loss at Detroit and Atlanta was pounded 29-7 by the Baltimore Ravens.

That left the Saints at 2-4 and the Falcons at 2-5.

The only NFC South team that didn't lose was 1-5 Tampa Bay, and the Buccaneers were on a bye.

"It's very positive that every team lost," Cole said.

That's about the only positive thing that came out of Carolina's loss, leaving the Panthers 1-2-1 in their last four games. The defense was horrible and the offense wasn't much better.

"Somehow we're still in first place, which is great, but by no means a reflection of how well we're playing at times," tight end Greg Olsen said. "It really is a week-by-week league."

And this week, the Panthers face a 3-3 Seattle team that has lost two straight and three of its last five games to fall two games out of first place in the West.

"You've got to put all your efforts into each game and try to get one win at a time," Olsen said. "You don't worry about stretches. You don't worry about who you have in a couple of weeks. You worry about the immediate.

"We've got a long time before we have to worry about the division, but it's nice that during some of these bad weeks we caught some breaks with the other teams struggling, too."

The Panthers may be playing bad defense, giving up 37 or more points in four of their last five games, but the rest of the division also is porous defensively.

It's so bad that former Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith called the NFC South a "finesse division" after the Ravens made the cumulative score 115-34 against Carolina, Tampa Bay and Atlanta this season.

Smith wasn't saying that a year ago, when Carolina had the league's second-ranked defense en route to a 12-4 record and the NFC South title. But that's another story.

The story of this season's division race looks much like the one Seattle had in 2010. The way things stand, seven wins might be enough to win it.

And as quarterback Cam Newton reminded, it's too early to call the situation critical as bad as the loss looked and with injuries continuing to mount -- now on the offensive line with left tackle Byron Bell (elbow) and right guard Trai Turner (ankle sprain) in question.

"What we going to do? Quit?" Newton said. "Absolutely not. We've got to keep going, keep fighting. We'll find a way to get out of this."

Because the rest of the NFC South keeps losing, the Panthers have time to do that.

"Hey, we'll take it how we can get it," free safety Thomas DeCoud said. "But we want to start winning some football games.
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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The forecast didn't call for snow during the Green Bay Packers' 38-17 victory over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday at Lambeau Field, but there was a snowball effect.

It started on the fifth play. The Packers faced third-and-12 from their 28.

Offsides. Third-and-7.

Offsides. Third-and-2, negating an interception.

Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers then scrambled for 3 yards and a first down. He then completed a pass in the flat to Jordy Nelson, who slipped away from cornerback Antoine Cason and easily avoided safety Roman Harper.

Fifty-nine yards later, touchdown.

It snowballed from there. The defense that finished second in the NFL a season ago made one mistake after another. There were too many men on the field, giving the Packers a first down on their second possession, which seven plays later turned into a touchdown.

Safety Thomas DeCoud was called for unnecessary roughness -- leading with his helmet -- following a 14-yard reception on Green Bay's next possession. Two plays later, another touchdown.

Less than 12 minutes into the game the Packers were up 21-0 with 172 yards of total offense.

"I don't think the defense gave us an opportunity to win in the first quarter, and I am disappointed," said Carolina coach Ron Rivera, stating the obvious.

It steadily got worse. The snowball kept rolling until it turned into a bona fide avalanche.

When all was said and done, the Panthers (3-3-1) allowed 37 or more points for the fourth time in five games. Rodgers finished with as many touchdown passes as incompletions (three). It began in the first quarter, when he was 10-for-11 for 132 yards and three touchdowns.

The Carolina defense was so bad it seems wrong to keep comparing it to last season's unit.

The 2013 defense gave up 241 points in 16 games. This group already has given up 195 in seven games.

That's 15.06 points per game a season ago, and 27.85 points a game this season.

At this rate, Carolina will give up 445 points.

There are only so many times Rivera and players can blame this on gap control and trying to do too much. There are only so many times they can say what happened was "self-inflicted," as Rivera did to begin his postgame news conference.

There is something fundamentally wrong, even though Rivera said the unit is good enough to compete.

"They should be," he said. "We have six out of seven guys back from our front [seven]. We have a couple of veteran safeties that are capable, and you would like to believe that our corners can do the job. We'll find out."

They haven't done their job. There is no sign they will.

Not that the offense was much better on this overcast day. The first three drives ended in three-and-outs and the first five ended in punts. Carolina had only 5 yards of total offense in the first quarter.

But the defense never gave the offense a chance to overcome its slow start because it couldn't get out of the way of its own mistakes.

"We've got to stop shooting ourselves in the foot," DeCoud said.

There are no excuses for the offsides penalties. The Panthers practiced for Rodgers' hard count all week with noise.

There is no excuse for having 12 men on the field.

But what's just as alarming as the mental errors are the missed tackles. A team that was one of the league's best a season ago looks no better than a college team, at times letting the ball carrier get past the first or second defender.

This one got so bad that middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, was ejected for making contact with an official late in the third quarter.

"We had them exactly where you want them on the first drive," Kuechly said. "Sack. Drop them back, third down and 12.

"A good offense like them, you get them three-off on that first drive it throws a little momentum for us."

Instead, it snowballed the other way.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Carolina Panthers' 38-17 loss to the Packers:
  • Kuechly
    There was a lot of disbelief that middle linebacker Luke Kuechly was ejected after making contact with an official in the third quarter. Kuechly said he wasn't even aware it was an official grabbing him from behind when he raised his elbow to separate himself from the scrum. Linebacker Thomas Davis said he has seen way worse that hasn't resulted in an ejection.
  • Coach Ron Rivera and several players used the term "self-inflicted" to describe all the penalties, missed tackles and mistakes that led to a 21-0 deficit in the first 12 minutes.
  • "Somehow we're still in first place. That's not a reflection how we're playing," tight end Greg Olsen said when reminded the Panthers (3-3-1) remain in first place in the NFC South after second-place New Orleans (2-4) and Atlanta (2-5) also lost. Last-place Tampa Bay (1-5) was the only division team that didn't lose. The Buccaneers had a bye.
  • Right guard Trai Turner was sitting at his locker with his left foot in a boot. Turner sprained his ankle in the first quarter and did not return. He's not sure how serious the injury is.
  • There was no sign of left tackle Byron Bell, who left in the second half with an elbow injury and did not return.

Rapid Reaction: Carolina Panthers

October, 19, 2014
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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- A few thoughts on the Carolina Panthers' 38-17 loss to the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field:

What it means: This may have been one of those season-on-the-brink moments for the Panthers (3-3-1). Between penalties, mental errors and bad decisions, they were terrible offensively and defensively. Their only saving grace at the moment is that the rest of the NFC South is a mess. This one got away from Carolina before the cheese curds got cold. The Panthers were outgained 172-5 and outscored 21-0 in a disaster of a first quarter. They gave up 37 or more points for the fourth time in the last five games. They committed eight penalties for 55 yards in the first half. It was such a foregone conclusion early that Cam Newton never was a factor. There was nothing positive to take from this one.

Stock watch: The entire defense, big arrow down. Just when you thought this group couldn’t play any worse, it did. The first quarter was one of the worst in team history. The Panthers gave up 172 yards and three touchdowns to trail 21-0 just 13 minutes into the game. They also had four penalties for 30 yards. This sums it up: The defense could have gotten out of the first series unscathed but had consecutive offside penalties after it was second-and-20, one of which negated an interception. On Green Bay’s second drive, the Panthers had too many men on the field on third-and-3. I haven’t even mentioned all the missed tackles. To say this unit is a shell of the one that finished second in the league a season ago is an understatement. It was so bad that reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly was ejected in the third quarter after making contact with an official trying to separate him from a pile.

Wild card: Not to be lost in the wreckage, tight end Greg Olsen had another strong showing. He caught eight passes for 105 yards as he continues on a pace for career numbers. Even if the Panthers don’t turn things around, Olsen is playing at a Pro Bowl level.

Game ball: Not that anybody really deserves one, but I’ll give it to punter Brad Nortman. He kicked more times in the first half (five) than many punters do for a game. He finished with seven punts for an average of 53.9 yards, including a 67-yarder.

What’s next: The Panthers return home from two road games to face the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks. Seattle (3-3) has won the last three games in the series, including a 12-7 victory at Bank of America Stadium in last year's opener.

W2W4: Panthers vs. Packers

October, 19, 2014
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The Carolina Panthers are 2-0 versus the NFC North this season and have won three straight against the division. The Green Bay Packers have won six straight against NFC South opponents.

Something will have to give when the defending NFC South champion Panthers (3-2-1) face the defending NFC North champion Packers (4-2) on Sunday at Lambeau Field.

Here are three things to keep an eye on in the 1 p.m. game:
  • Aaron Rodgers. No quarterback in the league is playing at a higher level. He has 15 touchdowns to only one interception and a passer rating of 111.4 that ranks second in the NFL. He’ll be facing a defense ranked 26th overall and 20th against the pass. According to Pro Football Focus, he’ll be facing two cornerbacks -- Antoine Cason and Melvin White -- against whom quarterbacks have racked up passer ratings of 113.1 and 126.1. Pressure doesn’t bother Rodgers much, either. As Carolina coach Ron Rivera said, Rodgers is as efficient outside the pocket as he is in it.
  • The read-option. The Packers rank last in the NFL at stopping the run, and in particular have struggled against the read-option. Carolina quarterback Cam Newton is one of the best at running the read-option when healthy. He finally was considered healthy enough to run it last week and rushed 17 times for 107 yards. The best way to stop Rodgers (see above) is to keep the ball out of his hands. Carolina’s best chance is for Newton and the offense to run off time with long drives. Ending with touchdowns would help.
  • Get off the field. The defense has struggled to do that, one reason it ranks 23rd or worse in four major categories. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Panthers have given up first downs on third down at a higher rate (50 percent) than every team in the league not named the Raiders (51.4 percent). Last week, Cincinnati was 6-for-7 on third down in the first half and 10-for-16 for the game. If that happens against Aaron Rodgers it will be a long day.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Richard Rodgers remembers the day his son first humbled him. Richard Rodgers Jr. was 17 or 18 and they were on the basketball court in the driveway at home. Until that moment, the kid never had won.

Then it happened, a moment most fathers dread.

“That was my last physical competition with him," the special-teams coordinator for the Carolina Panthers said on Friday. “That’s why I had to switch to pingpong, where I had the upper hand."

Rodgers and Rodgers Jr., a rookie tight end for the Green Bay Packers, will be in a competitive situation again on Sunday at Lambeau Field.

It’s a game both pointed to immediately when the NFL schedule was released. It’s one the elder Rodgers says both have been “anxiously awaiting."

[+] EnlargeRichard Rodgers
Mike Roemer/AP PhotoPackers tight end Richard Rodgers says he's looking forward to playing catch with his father, the Panthers special-teams coach.
The younger Rodgers told ESPN.com’s Rob Demovsky he just wants to play a simple game of catch with his dad before the game to make up for some of those moments they missed when dad was too busy watching film and he was playing.

The elder Rodgers had been doing a good job of hiding how emotional the game will be until he heard that.

“Now that’ll get me," he said.

There will be plenty of family support for this one. Rodgers’ wife, mother and mother-in-law will be there. It will be his mother’s birthday to add to the festive mood.

Other family members will be there, too. They all plan to go to dinner together on Saturday.

“It’ll be a good little reunion," the senior Rodgers said.

Football might come up in conversation, but not specifics about the game. If his son wants to talk about losing his starting job last week to Andrew Quarless, the elder Rodgers will listen.

But he doubts it will come up, or he’ll be asked for advice on how to handle it.

“He understands the game," said Rodgers Sr., who joined the Panthers in 2012. “Some see it as a lost job. I see it as they’re using him as they need to as a rookie. He’s still on the field playing a lot of plays and being a part of what they’re doing. He understands that. He’s fortunate enough to be in a starting role at all being a rookie coming into the National Football League."

Being around a father who not only coached the game but played it – a defensive back at California (1980-83), the same school his son became a star -- helped.

“He understands what’s going on, and I don’t ask him in depth about how they do things," Rodgers Sr. said. “He’s been my son for a long time. We have an unwritten rule. His coaches are his coaches. I’m his dad."

Dad still doesn’t like losing to son, whether it’s on the field or now in pingpong.

“I win in pingpong," the elder Rodgers said. “I guess the family can root for him in the game and we can win."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Dom Capers was running late, but not like he was 20 years ago when weather delayed his trip into Charlotte to be introduced as the first coach of the Carolina Panthers.

He was late because of a meeting with his defensive staff at Green Bay in preparation for Sunday’s game against Panthers.

For one as meticulous as Capers, who as a boy edged the sidewalks at his parent’s home with a fork, being on time is a big deal.

[+] EnlargeDom Capers
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsPackers defensive coordinator Dom Capers knows containing Cam Newton will be a big challenge.
So were those early years as Carolina’s coach.

“As I was looking at the game tape this week I saw the 20th [anniversary logo] on the stadium field,’’ said Capers, Green Bay’s defensive coordinator since 2009. “It’s just hard to believe it’s been that much time since we got started down there.’’

Capers, 64, entered the organization with a tough edict: Win a Super Bowl. Team owner Jerry Richardson wanted to win it in 10 years. Capers spoiled him early, winning an expansion-record seven games in 1995 and advancing to the NFC championship game at Green Bay in his second season.

The Panthers appeared close, so they signed a few aging veterans -- Sean Gilbert and Kevin Greene, to name a couple -- over the next couple of years to help get them over the hump.

Instead, they went backwards, going 7-9 and 4-12 before Capers was let go after the 1998 season. Capers’ one regret was that he didn’t build for the future with younger players.

“It kind of worked against us a little bit,’’ Capers said of his early success that included a 9-0 home record in 1996. “We opened up the new stadium and won every game and beat the defending Super Bowl champs. When you’re playing to go to the Super Bowl in your second year they expect you to be in it your third year.

“Quite frankly, we brought in some veteran players and they were good players and got us off to a good start. But they got old at the same time and we didn’t have enough young players to pick up the slack.’’

Capers has a lot of fond memories from his time at Carolina, from working that first season in the bowels of Winthrop Coliseum to playing home games two-plus hours away at Clemson University while what is now Bank of America Stadium was under construction.

“Actually, Clemson turned out pretty good for us,’’ said Capers, recalling Carolina went 5-3 on campus.

Capers was a fourth-down gambler long before there was a “Riverboat’’ Ron Rivera. In Carolina’s inaugural game at Atlanta, he went for the two-point conversion and the win trailing 20-19 with 26 seconds left.

It worked, but was negated by a false start. With the penalty, Capers settled for the tie and an overtime he eventually lost, 23-20.

The Panthers went on to lose their first five games. It didn’t look like Capers would make it past his first season. Then they beat the New York Jets 26-15 at Clemson, in large part because middle linebacker Sam Mills intercepted a shovel pass and returned it for a touchdown.

Carolina ran off four straight wins, beating the defending Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers and New England Patriots in consecutive road games.

The Panthers finished 7-9 and then went 12-4 in 1996, earning a first-round bye and date with defending Super Bowl champion Dallas at home. They won 26-17, moving them within a win at Green Bay of the Super Bowl.

They lost 30-13 after leading early. Green Bay went on to win the Super Bowl.

“They had quite a team that year,’’ Capers said of Green Bay.

Capers is trying to help build that kind of team at Green Bay again. Beating his former team is the next step.

“Obviously, it starts with the quarterback,’’ he said.

Capers was referring to Cam Newton, the franchise quarterback that Kerry Collins never became at Carolina because of off-the-field issues.

“The game he played last week against Cincinnati catches your attention,’’ Capers said of Newton. “Anytime the quarterback accounts for 391 of the 431 yards you know he’s doing something right.

“He’s certainly a franchise quarterback. He can do everything. He’s got a big arm. He can throw the ball to anyplace on the field and he’s a good athlete, bigger than some of those athletes he’s going against.’’

The Panthers have the young base now that they didn’t have under Capers in Newton and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

“They’ve got a lot of good players,’’ Capers said. “Probably looking back, I wish we had gone a little bit of a younger route.’’
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Perhaps Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera should challenge his struggling defense the way he did his offensive line last week.

The offensive line certainly stepped up.

A unit that had given up an average of four sacks and produced an average of only 65.2 yards rushing in the previous four games surrendered no sacks and helped generate 147 yards rushing in a 37-37 tie against Cincinnati.

Granted, the return of quarterback Cam Newton as a running threat helped.

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesThe Panthers' offensive line didn't allow Cam Newton to be sacked by the Bengals.
But even before Newton took off for 98 of his 107 yards in the second half, the line was protecting better and opening up holes. Having their manhood challenged was the key.

“He challenged us to come out and be physical at the start of practice [last week] and it carried over to the game,’’ left tackle Byron Bell said as the Panthers prepare for Sunday’s game at Green Bay. “He just told us his opinion and we have to accept it.

“A lot of people are going to say what they want, but when the head coach says something to us ... we picked up the challenge very well.’’

What were “people’’ saying? That Carolina’s line was too soft, that it really was the weakness of the team as many projected it would be before the season.

“We’re not soft, and we do have good backs,’’ said right tackle Nate Chandler, referring to the backfield that has been decimated by injuries. “No matter who is back there, the main focus is if we block the guys we’re supposed to block there’s going to be holes and room to run.’’

As long as the line became more physical, that is.

“I just feel the execution of certain stuff, getting onto the next level with the linebackers, taking care of the down linemen, there were just things we needed to tighten up,’’ Chandler said. “We let it loose last week. We just need to play with a little edge to ourselves, and I feel we did that.’’

Guard Fernando Velasco has been in the NFL since 2008, and this was the first time he’d been a part of a group that had been challenged to be physical.

“When you get called out or what not, you want to step up to the challenge,’’ said Velasco, who will start at left guard with Amini Silatolu nursing a calf injury. “You’ve got to look yourself in the mirror and find out what you can do better in your game. You’ve got to go out and just man up and play ball.’’

Keeping Newton clean remains the top priority. Before Sunday he was under constant pressure, often having to rush throws or take sacks that took the Panthers out of scoring position because the pocket collapsed so fast.

Against the Bengals, he was forced out of the pocket a few times but never tackled.

“Every game that we don’t get him hit is a plus for us,’’ Bell said. “He’s playing good football. He’s on time with the ball, receivers are getting open, so it’s big time [keeping him clean] all the way around.’’

Rivera was pleased.

“I just told them last week wasn’t good enough,’’ he said. “I thought they responded very well.’’

Asked if the 26th-ranked defense, which has allowed an average of 34 points the last four games, had received a similar challenge this week in preparation for quarterback Aaron Rodgers and company, Rivera’s jaw grew tight.

“I challenged everybody,’’ he said. “I challenged everybody to get better.’’
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton statistically is off to the best start of his NFL career.

Newton
Newton
 Despite a new set of wide receivers and a revamped offensive line, despite dealing with offseason ankle surgery and fractured ribs in training camp, the fourth-year quarterback has a quarterback rating of 65.2 through his first five games.

That’s significantly better than his rating of 47.0 as a rookie in 2011 and 44.9 the past two seasons, according to ESPN Stats and Information.

Newton is coming off a season-high 82.9 quarterback rating in a 37-37 tie against Cincinnati.

Coach Ron Rivera said Newton is playing better than ever.

“In a roundabout way, as some people like to say around here, it’s like a forward fumble that he went through the whole surgery with the ankle when he did,’’ Rivera said of the left ankle that was repaired in March. “If you look at his technique, the base fundamentals he uses, how he goes through things now, he’s very proficient.

“This may have been that next big step that we’re all looking for him to take.’’

Newton has thrown seven touchdowns to only two interceptions for a career-best 3.5 ratio since missing the opener with fractured ribs. He began with a ratio of 1.8 in 2013, 1.2 in 2011 and 0.8 in 2012.

That the Panthers (3-2-1) unleashed Newton as a runner against Cincinnati should make him better. He rushed 17 times for 107 yards against the Bengals, but also completed 29 of 46 pass attempts for a season-high 284 yards and two touchdowns.

Newton has done all of this without all-time leading receiver Steve Smith, who was released in March.

The emergence of rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who may miss Sunday’s game at Green Bay with a concussion, has been one factor. Benjamin has 31 catches for 416 yards and four touchdowns.

Tight end Greg Olsen also has emerged as a Pro Bowl candidate. His 33 catches for 388 yards and five touchdowns has him on pace for career highs.

But Newton has been the key. He has a 92.3 passer rating, completing 61.7 percent of his passes. Since Week 6 of 2013, Newton has a 92.5 passer rating.

Newton is spreading the ball around better than ever. He threw to 10 different receivers against Cincinnati and to nine different receivers the week before against Chicago.

Last season, Newton never threw to more than seven different receivers in a game and averaged 6.1 a game.

As tight end, Olsen has said repeatedly the last few weeks, Newton is “throwing the ball as good, if not better, than he’s ever thrown the ball.’’

“And that’s saying a lot,’’ he added.

Wide receiver Jason Avant hasn’t been here the past three seasons to compare, but he’s been impressed.

“The crazy thing about this game, when you have an injury, it can cause you to do two things,’’ he said. “One, which Cam has done, to use it as a point to strengthen other areas, such as the passing game.

“Or you can just tank it. And he’s not a tank it-type person.’’

Newton could be called on to run more against a Green Bay defense ranked last in the NFL against the run.

“The things we do see on film, we have to take full advantage of it,’’ Newton said. “This is a very athletic bunch. We know that. Anything that possesses an edge on our end, we’re going to try to target that as best as possible.’’

That Newton didn’t feel unusually sore after the 17 carries was a good sign.

“When I looked up after the game I didn’t realize I had 17 rushes,’’ he said. “But if that’s what it takes to win, I’m willing to do it all over again.’’

At the level he’s playing, there’s no reason to doubt him.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Kelvin Benjamin continues to progress through the concussion protocol, leaving the Carolina Panthers hopeful the rookie wide receiver will play in Sunday’s game at Green Bay.

 Benjamin did not participate in Thursday’s practice, but was back on the field after being a no-show on Wednesday.

The 28th pick of the draft suffered the concussion on a second-quarter hit from Cincinnati linebacker Vontaze Burfict. He passed a sideline concussion test and finished the game, but complained of a headache when he arrived at the stadium on Monday.

“He continues in the protocol,’’ coach Ron Rivera said. “He did very well with the independent [doctor on Wednesday], and then today he did the next step with our guys and seemed to be doing very well.

“We’ll see how he’s doing tomorrow. Hopefully, he passes. If he does, great.’’

Several players expressed optimism that Benjamin, whose 31 receptions leads Carolina wide receivers, would play. If not, Brenton Bersin and Philly Brown would replace him in the rotation.

“It would be considerable, in light of who he is for us,’’ Rivera said of what it would mean to lose Benjamin for a game. “I will say I really do believe the other guys have stepped up and played well.

“With the quarterback [Cam Newton] back playing the way he’s capable and being healthy, relatively healthy, I feel good about what we can do offensively.’’

Running back Jonathan Stewart practiced full for the second straight day after missing the past three games with a knee injury. Rivera remains optimistic that Stewart will start against Green Bay.

With Fozzy Whittaker (quad) and Darrin Reaves (calf) missing Thursday’s practice, Rivera said the rotation on Sunday would be Stewart, Chris Ogbonnaya and whoever is healthy.

“Looked very good and still very confident in him,’’ Rivera said of Stewart. “He had a really nice practice. He took an increased amount of reps, so we’re feeling pretty confident now.’’

Rivera remained in a “we’ll see’’ mode on cornerback Josh Norman, who missed the Cincinnati game with a concussion and has practiced on a limited basis this week.

Linebacker Chase Blackburn, who missed his second straight practice, said the knee he injured on Sunday is improving. Rivera expressed concern on Wednesday that Blackburn may miss a few games.

Left guard Amini Silatolu (calif) and nickel cornerback Bene’ Benwikere (ankle) are not expected to play.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The president of the NFL Players Association did not appreciate the use of “mild’’ connected to a concussion as Carolina coach Ron Rivera used on Wednesday in describing wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin’s status.

So Eric Winston took to Twitter to express his feelings.


Winston is correct. ESPN injury analyst Stephania Bell said any concussion should “just be called a concussion. Period."

“There is no grading system in use currently as past ones have been found to be ineffective when it comes to clinical correlation," Bell wrote in an email.

But Bell applauded Benjamin for telling team officials on Monday he had a headache that appeared to be linked to a hit he took from Cincinnati linebacker Vontaze Burfict during Sunday’s 37-37 tie.

Benjamin returned to the game in the second quarter after going through the league’s sideline concussion protocol. After being re-evaluated on Monday, the first-round pick out of Florida State was placed again into the concussion protocol and his status for Sunday’s game at Green Bay is in doubt.

Benjamin leads Carolina wide receivers with 31 catches for 416 yards and four touchdowns.

“It's not unusual for symptoms to have a delayed presentation," Bell said. “This also reminds us why sideline tools [are] not 100 percent perfect. They're very good, not perfect. And the injury itself makes it hard to have a perfect tool.

“The important thing is that he reported the symptoms the next day. Deserves a lot of praise for that. The medical staff is responding appropriately. Once he is diagnosed with a concussion (no descriptor needed), he then must progress through identical concussion protocol as all players do."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart says he will play in Sunday’s game at Green Bay.

Stewart
Stewart has missed the past three games with a left knee sprain suffered against Pittsburgh. His presence will add experience to a backfield that has been besieged by injuries.

"Jonathan looked good," coach Ron Rivera said on Wednesday, adding he expects Stewart to play against the Packers. "We’ll see how he is [Thursday], but he took the majority of the reps. He took all the reps that were slated for him as well.

"I’m excited to see him on the football field and hopefully there’s no residual and he’ll be ready to roll again at practice."

The Panthers rank 28th in the NFL in rushing with 521 yards, but 107 of that came on Sunday against Cincinnati from quarterback Cam Newton.

DeAngelo Williams, who has missed the past two games and is expected to miss at least two more, leads all Carolina running backs with 106 yards on 25 carries. Stewart is next with 88 yards on 29 carries.

The Panthers will be facing a Green Bay defense ranked last in the NFL against the run, allowing 154.5 yards a game.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Imagine how the struggling Carolina Panthers defense might look if it had a 6-foot-7, 287-pound Pro Bowl linebacker with 120.5 career sacks ready to slide in as the starter on the left side when Greg Hardy went on the commissioner’s exempt list.

It could have happened.

Julius Peppers was prepared in March to consider a return to Carolina, where from his rookie season in 2002 to 2009 he had 81 sacks, a total that still stands as a team record. In stepped the Green Bay Packers, who play host to the Panthers on Sunday.

They offered Peppers, 34, a three-year, $26 million deal and the opportunity to be a standup outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme that Peppers always wanted to be while at Carolina.

Despite the opportunity to return to his home state, he couldn’t resist signing with the Packers.

Had the Panthers known the impending woes of Hardy, who in May was arrested on domestic violence charges and in September was placed on the commissioner’s exempt list until his case is resolved, they might have offered more money.

“Well, yeah,” Carolina coach Ron Rivera said on Wednesday. “In hindsight, absolutely. .... You also have to understand what Green Bay did, coming up with as much as they did. If somebody is going to offer you that kind of money, you’ve got to take it.

“So we never really had the opportunity once all those numbers started getting thrown around.”

[+] EnlargeJulius Peppers
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesJulius Peppers, shown returning an interception on Oct. 2, is still an impact player in his 13th season.
Peppers isn’t sure how far talks with Carolina got, saying the Panthers were one of “several potential landing spots.”

“I was never over there for a visit,” he said. “I never talked to any of the coaches. It didn’t get very far for me personally.”

Peppers was – and in some ways still is -- a living legend in the Carolinas. He played high school football in Bailey, N.C., went to the University of North Carolina and then was selected by the Panthers with the No. 2 pick of the 2002 draft.

He then became the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year after a 12-sack season and an eight-time Pro Bowl selection, five of those with the Panthers.

But in the end he needed to get away from Carolina to grow as a person and a player. It wasn’t a particularly good breakup. Peppers left Carolina for Chicago in 2010 feeling unwanted. At the time he called the departure a “little sour.”

Peppers and former general manager Marty Hurney had issues.

“How can you say you want to be somewhere when you’re really not sure if they want you there because they’re not even talking to you?” he said during a 2010 interview.

The disconnect between Carolina and Peppers began after the Panthers offered to make him the league’s highest-paid defensive player after he was held to a career-low 2.5 sacks in 2007.

Peppers rejected the deal.

“I didn’t really feel the sincerity behind that deal,” he said at the time.

Peppers responded with a career-best 14.5 sacks in 2008, then announced he wanted to play elsewhere. The Panthers instead placed the restrictive franchise tag on him in 2009.

When Peppers finally got his freedom, Chicago signed him to a six-year, $91.5 million deal -- $42 million guaranteed. The Bears released Peppers in March to avoid a $20 million hit against the salary cap.

That’s when the Panthers showed interest. Peppers was willing to listen, having moved past his feelings about his former team after they played in 2010.

“I’ve grown a lot since I left Charlotte,” said Peppers, who still has a home just outside of Charlotte in Mooresville. “I let bygones be bygones and I’m moving forward, just as they are.”

Peppers hasn’t given any thought to how the Panthers could have used him to replace Hardy. He’s focused on being a standup linebacker, something he asked to do when at Carolina.

“I was looking for a change in my life in general,” he said. “But as far as the football thing, that was one of the things that I wanted to do. I didn’t want to look back at the end of my career and say, ‘I wish I could have tried this or I wish I could have done that.’ “

Peppers would have been a short-term fix to the Hardy situation because of his age. But there’s no doubt he could have had an impact on a Panthers defense that has gone from second in the NFL a year ago in total defense to 26th.

Carolina tight end Greg Olsen said Peppers still is a premier defensive lineman.

“If you were creating a guy from scratch, he’s pretty much what you’re looking for, and we’ve got to account for him,” he said.

Rivera said Peppers still is a “dynamic player.”

“I saw the interception against Minnesota, and for a second was trying to figure out who the linebacker was, and then the realization it was him,” he said. “You would always love to have a quality player like that on your roster.”

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