NFC South: Cam Newton

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera didn’t call out just any ol’ player during a Monday team meeting in which he wanted to stress what it would take to end a two-game losing streak.

He called out his two most high-profile players.

He called out quarterback Cam Newton and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly.

Newton
Newton
Kuechly
“And I wouldn’t say called out is the right word," Rivera said on Wednesday. “I put their numbers up and explained who they are to us; these are the guys we need to play well, to do the things we need to give us an opportunity to win.

“We know who our guys are, and these guys have to know we’re counting on them. It’s important. It’s about being held accountable."

Rivera said he also took responsibility for Carolina (2-2) losing its last two games to Pittsburgh and Baltimore by a combined 75-29 after beginning the season with victories over Tampa Bay and Detroit.

But Rivera, a former Chicago Bears linebacker, understands winning begins with players. And he wanted his best to know they have to raise their performance, beginning with Sunday’s 1 p.m. game against the Bears.

Not that either Newton nor Kuechly has played poorly. Newton is ahead of his career completion percentage at 63.8 and hasn’t thrown an interception despite being limited as a runner while recovering from offseason ankle surgery and fractured ribs suffered in August.

Kuechly, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, leads the team with 43 tackles.

But Rivera wants more.

“When we’re in certain situations, circumstances, make a play, come through, do something extraordinary," Rivera said. “And they’re capable of that. We know that. We can’t make mistakes. They’re the guys that have to be perfect. I did that to let them know I believe in them."

As an example, Rivera cited the interception Kuechly didn’t make late in the first half with the Panthers trailing 21-7. Had Kuechly come down with the ball, he could have scored and given Carolina momentum going into halftime.

“It’s an opportunity that he had," Rivera said. “He could have made the play."

Rivera didn’t say so, but he likely pointed to the sack Newton took on the game’s first series that took Carolina out of field goal position. Or the snap Newton missed with the Panthers in scoring position early in the third quarter.

“We have to be ready at the right time to make those plays," Rivera said.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. The Carolina Panthers’ first quarter report card after a 2-2 start:

Offensive line

Left tackle Byron Bell and right tackle Nate Chandler have struggled big-time in run blocking and pass protection. In Sunday’s 38-10 loss to Baltimore, they gave up a combined three sacks, five hurries and graded a negative in run blocking, according to Pro Football Focus. The interior line hasn’t performed well either as Carolina ranks 29th in rush offense.

Grade: D

[+] EnlargeKelvin Benjamin
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesRookie Kelvin Benjamin has been one of the few bright spots on offense.
Wide receivers

Remember when this was a big concern in March after the Panthers let all-time leading receiver Steve Smith go? It’s the least of their problems. Rookie Kelvin Benjamin has 21 catches for 329 yards and three touchdowns. Veterans Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant have been solid with a combined 23 catches. No worries here.

Grade: B

Tight ends

Greg Olsen has been arguably the team’s most consistent offensive player in terms of run blocking and receiving (21 catches, 254 yards, 2 TDs). But Ed Dickson, signed as a free agent from Baltimore, hasn’t caught a pass after looking like he would be a huge weapon in training camp. Thus, the minus.

Grade: B-

Running backs

This is a hard position to grade because of injuries and poor line play. DeAngelo Williams has looked decent when healthy, rushing for 106 yards on 25 carries. The problem is he’s missed two games completely and played less than two quarters on Sunday before going down with a foot injury that has him doubtful for this week against Chicago. Mike Tolbert (fractured knee) is on short-term injured reserve, and Jonathan Stewart (knee) missed last week’s game. But even before their injuries they did little. Again, the run offense ranks 29th.

Grade: D

Quarterback

Cam Newton has completed 63.3 percent of his passes for three touchdowns with no interceptions. The Panthers will take that all season, although they’d like a few more touchdowns. What keeps this grade from being better is Newton has been non-existent in the run game and has failed to lead the team to a first down in the red zone.

Grade: C-

Defensive line

Had I graded this group after the first two games they would have gotten an A. But after collecting only one sack in the last two games and getting very little pressure at all on the quarterback, after being gashed for almost 400 yards rushing the past two weeks, what was a strength has become a concern. Do they miss DE Greg Hardy, on the commissioner’s exempt list until his domestic violence case is resolved? Apparently.

Grade: D+

Kuechly
Linebackers

Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly still collects tackles better than almost anybody else in the NFL. But even the reigning Defensive Player of the Year has made mistakes the past two weeks to bring this grade down. Again, injuries make it tough to grade. Weakside linebacker Thomas Davis wasn’t himself in Week 3 with a hip injury and he didn’t play against Baltimore with a hamstring injury.

Grade: B-

Secondary

Opponents have caught eight touchdowns in four games against this group. Right cornerback Melvin White has been benched in favor of Josh Norman after losing containment on former Panthers receiver Steve Smith twice for touchdowns against Baltimore. Like the defensive front, this group might have gotten an A after the first two games. Not now.

Grade: C-

Special teams

Graham Gano is 8 for 9 on field goal attempts and has made all five PATs. Punter Brad Nortman has been arguably the team’s biggest weapon, averaging 47.8 yards. The reason this isn’t an A is because coverage hasn’t been great. Nortman’s net average ranks 10th in the NFC. The return game has been average, as well. Philly Brown’s muffed punt against Pittsburgh ended any chance Carolina had of rallying.

Grade: B-

Coaching

Coach Ron Rivera has been forced to make some tough decisions, from holding out Newton in the opener to give his fractured ribs an extra week to recover to putting Hardy on the inactive list in Game 2 under an avalanche of pressure regarding his domestic violence case, to working to put Hardy on the commissioner’s exempt list. The problem is the Hardy moves appear reactionary to what Minnesota did with Adrian Peterson. The loss of discipline on defense and two 12-men-on-the-field penalties against Baltimore also stand out.

Grade: C-

Overall
The Panthers may be tied for the NFC South lead with a 2-2 record, but this team has major issues moving forward that have to be corrected immediately.

Grade: C-minus

The Film Don't Lie: Panthers

September, 30, 2014
Sep 30
11:00
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A weekly look at what the Carolina Panthers must fix:

The Panthers have the NFL's worst red zone offense, scoring only three touchdowns in 10 trips inside their opponent's 20-yard line. They were 0-for-3 in Sunday's 38-10 loss at Baltimore. Next up is Chicago with the sixth-best defense in red zone efficiency, allowing touchdowns only 45 percent of the time.

The film shows Carolina's ineptness comes from mistakes and the inability to consistently create third-and-short. On Sunday's opening drive, the Panthers had a first down at the Ravens' 19. The first play was a run for no yards and the second a 2-yard gain. On third-and-8, wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin pushed off the defender to negate a catch near the first-down marker. On third-and-18, quarterback Cam Newton took an 12-yard sack that was unavoidable because there was so much pressure coming from the left and right side.

Carolina punted and came away with no points.

On their first drive of the second half, the Panthers had first down at the Baltimore 18. After runs of 3 and 4 yards, Newton missed the snap out of the shotgun, recovered it and scrambled out of bounds for an 8-yard loss.

Three points.

It's a common theme. In four trips inside the red zone during a Week 2 win against Detroit the Panthers had four plays for negative yards, one on a sack and three on runs. They began the season 0-for-4 on third down attempts inside the red zone and didn't make one against the Ravens.

The good news for Carolina is Chicago has allowed opponents 20 trips inside the red zone. That's the second most in the NFL behind Oakland with 21.

The bad news is Carolina is unwilling to turn Newton loose in the run game while he still recovers from offseason ankle surgery and fractured ribs suffered in August. Newton has been a big factor in the red zone with his legs the past three seasons, third only to running backs Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch in rushing touchdowns with 28.

He's not now. That's a factor. But the biggest factor, coach Ron Rivera said, is "it's self-inflicted."

Time to unleash Cam Newton once again

September, 29, 2014
Sep 29
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It's becoming a regular segment of Ron Rivera's Monday afternoon news conferences.

When will you turn quarterback Cam Newton loose?

Each week the Carolina Panthers coach indicates Newton, who underwent left ankle surgery in March and suffered fractured ribs in August, is getting healthier and closer to that moment. But each Sunday the play-calling does nothing to show Newton has reached that point.

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesCam Newton has rushed for only 33 yards in his three games this season.
Over the past two weeks against Pittsburgh and Baltimore he has rushed a combined four times for 14 yards. In three starts, a player who accounted for 31.1 percent of Carolina's rushing the past three years, has 33 yards on eight carries. That's about one percent of the rush offense.

Newton has become such a fixture in the pocket that it looks like he's almost scared to run.

Rivera said it's tempting to turn Newton loose. It has to be more so after consecutive losses in which the Panthers have been outscored 75-29.

"But we have to do things the right way,'' Rivera said on Monday, 24 hours after Newton rushed two times for 7 yards in a 38-10 loss at Baltimore. "You don’t want to unleash him unless he’s ready to be unleashed.

"We’ve got to listen to what the trainers and doctors are saying, and we’ve got to listen to what he’s telling us.''

Newton's lack of mobility isn't the only reason the Panthers rank 29th in rushing and 32nd in red zone efficiency. The offensive line has been way too inconsistent and injuries have sidelined the top three running backs -- DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert -- for much of the year.

But the shackles on Newton have at least contributed to the struggles in both areas. His 28 rushing touchdowns over the past three years rank third only to running backs Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch.

"I wish I could say, 'Hey! We're going to cut him loose this week!' '' offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. "I don't want to lie to you.' That's something we're going to talk about this week. It's something we have to monitor every week for sure. But he's getting healthier and ... we'll see.''

It's understandable the Panthers are being cautious. It's well documented that Newton has been hit more than twice as many times (467) as any other quarterback over the past three seasons.

It's also well documented that the Panthers want to cut back on those hits.

But there comes a point where Carolina has to let Newton be who he is, and that's a quarterback who makes plays with his legs and his arm. If they don't then forget about signing him to a long-term deal.

“It’s very hard,'' Rivera said of holding Newton back. "You can see it. You just know he wants to cut loose and do certain things. You can feel it, and a lot of times you see him start to do it, but it’s coming. We’ve got to do this the right way.”

That has been the theme since Newton sat out the first game to give his ribs one extra week to heal.

The upside to this is Newton is completing 63.8 percent of his passes, up from his 60.0 career percentage. He hasn't thrown an interception. He has made throws, such as the 26-yarder to Jerricho Cotchery in which he threaded the ball past the cornerback on Sunday, he wouldn't have made four years ago.

But he's still getting hit a lot. He has been sacked nine times in three games, putting him on pace to be sacked 45 times in 15 games. He was sacked 43 in 16 a year ago.

If Newton is going to get sacked, he might as well do it while attempting to gain yardage.

Maybe this will be the week.

"As he gets healthier and healthier, the offense is going to start to expand,'' Rivera said. "That’s the best part, too. That for us is a huge plus. But if we don’t take care of what we need to get corrected running the ball and stopping the run, it’s going to be a long season for us.

"These are things that we know, these are objectives we have, and we’re going to work on those things.”
BALTIMORE -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Carolina Panthers' 38-10 loss to the Baltimore Ravens:
  • Smith
    There was not a lot of reaction from the Panthers to former Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith saying he's "35 years old and I ran around those boys like they were schoolyard kids." As cornerback Josh Norman and safety Charles Godfrey said, "Steve is going to be Steve."
  • More Norman on Smith, who as he had been all week remained a topic of conversation after catching seven passes for 139 yards and two touchdowns: "I'm tired of hearing about it. He did what he did and we did what we did."
  • Quarterback Cam Newton admitted he has to do a better job of getting rid of the ball instead of taking a sack like the one that took Carolina out of field goal range on its first drive. He also tried to take a positive approach, saying, "We're OK. We'll be OK." It kind of sounded like wishful thinking.
  • Fullback/tight end Richie Brockel walked to the bus with a walking boot on his right foot. "We'll know more tomorrow," he said.
  • Linebacker Thomas Davis (hamstring) said he was a few yards away on a running drill from showing the burst trainers were looking for to allow him to play. He vowed to be back next week for Chicago.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It's time for the Carolina Panthers to unleash their secret weapon on the Baltimore Ravens.

Richie "The Mauler" Brockel.

Brockel is a tight end/fullback who, at 6-foot-1 and 255 pounds, is one of the toughest players on the roster. He practices and plays with an attitude. You could see it best during training camp when he consistently handled the team's top linebackers in one-on-one drills.

[+] EnlargeCarolina's Richie Brockel
Jason Bridge-USA TODAY SportsCould Richie Brockel find a role similar to the one occupied by Brad Hoover?
Carolina's running game needs an attitude, particularly if it's not going to unleash quarterback Cam Newton.

What better player to take a chance on, particularly with Jonathan Stewart (sprained knee) likely out, Mike Tolbert (fractured leg) on short-term injured reserve and DeAngelo Williams nursing a hamstring injury that has kept him out of the last two games.

The Panthers could rely on undrafted rookie Darrin Reaves, but my vote goes to Brockel.

"I'm ready,'' the former Boise State player said.

Don't laugh. Just check out your Carolina media guide and look for the name Brad Hoover.

Late in the 2000 season, the Carolina backfield was decimated by injuries to Tshimanga Biakabatuka and William Floyd heading into a Monday night game against Green Bay.

In stepped Hoover, a 6-0, 245-pound fullback who had been signed as an undrafted rookie out of Western Carolina. A kid considered too slow to play in the NFL, he basically was the last hope at running back.

He carried 24 times for 117 yards and caught three passes for 41 yards as the Panthers shocked Brett Favre and the Packers 31-14.

Brockel's rushing résumé heading into Baltimore isn't as good as Hoover's. Since carrying three times for 12 yards as a rookie in 2011, he has one carry for 1 yard.

He's caught only four passes for 25 yards.

But what defines Brockel is toughness and determination. He rides his bicycle to the stadium on most days instead of driving. To supplement his income, he spent part of his offseason doing income taxes for an accounting firm.

"Richie is a jack of all trades,'' coach Ron Rivera said during camp. "He does the dirty work. There's a toughness about Richie too that I like that helps transfer over to his teammates.''

Again, the running game needs that.

"Running the football in the NFL is all about attitude,'' Brockel said. "You've got to have it in your head you're going to win on every play. When you have the ball in your hands you've got to have the attitude you're not going to get taken down.

"It starts up front and goes all the way back to the running backs. If they all have that mindset then that's when you run the ball effectively.''

The Panthers haven't run effectively. In two of their three games they fell short of 100 yards, something they did in only two of 16 games last season.

Their 72.3 yards rushing per game ranks 29th in the league and is more than 50 yards less than a year ago. According to ESPN Stats & Information, their 3.2 yards per rush is the second-lowest average through the first three games in team history.

Williams will be a boost unless he suffers a setback between now and Sunday. He brings, as Newton said, confidence to a unit with a lot of new players.

But Williams' strength is getting to the corner. Brockel is a straight-ahead bruiser.

"Without a doubt, let Richie run the ball,'' tight end Ed Dickson said.

Rivera doesn't sound convinced. While he agrees Brockel can do some of same the things as Tolbert -- protect the quarterback, lead block and catch out of the backfield -- "he's not as nimble of a runner as Mike.''

The Panthers don't need nimble. They need positive yards.

"I can go straight ahead, I can cut back and I can find the hole,'' Brockel said.

Enough to match what Hoover did on MNF in 2000?

"It would be a sight to be seen,'' Brockel said. "If it comes to that, it could probably end up happening.''
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers have bigger issues than the length of quarterback Cam Newton's capri-style pants following Sunday night's 37-19 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

But since his pants came up -- no pun intended -- in a GQ magazine post and other social media venues, let's address them.

Cam Newton
Photo/Bomani JonesWas Cam Newton trying to make a fashion statement Sunday night?
Let me start with saying I appreciate Newton's style. He has, as he likes to say, swag. He's a risk-taker, which is more than we can say about him on the field lately, in terms of running.

I appreciate him raising the style bar in Charlotte, where you'll still see the occasional pair of overalls on the street. Newton's style probably is better suited for a big city than the Queen City, where fashion tends to lag about five years behind.

But these capris -- or man-pris as some are calling them -- might be a bit over the top. When you consider how far the bottom of the pants were from Newton's slippers, they were a lot over the top.

The 6-foot-5 quarterback with the "MADE Cam Newton" line at Belk MADE such an impression with his pants that it got a mention on ESPN's "Monday Night Countdown's" "C'mon Man!'' segment and got the following write-up by GQ's Jake Woolf:
"You'll be hard-pressed to find a bigger advocate of the 'Shorter Pants for Men' movement than us. We always say pants on your suit should have no break, and we're all about flashing some ankle in casual looks. But there is such a thing as taking it too far. One such example is Cam Newton, who after taking a 37-19 beating at the hands of the Steelers, showed up to the press conference in what we might call capri pants. Cam is a tall dude, so we know it can't be easy to shop for pants, but this looks like premeditated croppery. There's a few other things that aren't working that well here, but we won't pick on the guy."

Maybe Newton thought a big storm had come up and wore the pants in case he stepped in a puddle. Maybe he grabbed an old pair of pants that wide receiver Steve Smith (5-9) left behind after being cut and signed by Baltimore, Sunday's opponent.

Maybe we should just focus on the ankle and rib injuries that have turned the running quarterback into a pocket passer.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- In order to protect quarterback Cam Newton, the Carolina Panthers may be hurting themselves.

Newton is on pace to rush 45 times for 195 yards this season. He averaged 121 carries for 677.3 yards rushing the past three seasons when he led all NFL quarterbacks in that category.

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
AP Photo/Bob LeveroneThrough three games, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is rushing for less yardage this season than he was at the same point in 2013.
He rushed only twice for seven yards in Sunday night's 37-19 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. He said the game plan didn't really call for him to run.

As a result, the Panthers are averaging 72.3 yards rushing per game, or 54.3 yards less than they did a season ago when they were one of the top running teams in the league. Only Oakland, Jacksonville and Chicago, which plays Monday night, are averaging fewer.

The Panthers want to limit Newton's running because he underwent left ankle surgery in March and suffered fractured ribs in August that forced him to miss the opener at Tampa Bay. That means opponents can focus on the backs without worrying about Newton taking off.

So it begs the question?

Can the Panthers be an effective running team without Newton carrying 31.1 percent of the running game as he did the past three seasons?

"We know that he was a big part of what we do," coach Ron Rivera said on Monday. "The thing that this shows us is we can't rely on him all the time. So now we've got to find other answers and ways to do that."

That may be easier said than done. Leading rusher DeAngelo Williams has missed the past two games with a hamstring injury. Jonathan Stewart is questionable for Sunday's game at Baltimore with a severe knee sprain and Mike Tolbert is out with a hairline fracture in his right leg.

If Williams can't return, and with Fozzy Whittaker hampered by a quad injury, that leaves the running game in the hands of Darrin Reaves, who was signed from the practice squad on Saturday.

It may be time for Newton to help.

There's risk. The offensive line has been underwhelming the past two weeks. The Steelers manhandled them with a series of stunts and blitzes, sacking Newton three times and hitting him six more times.

Rivera said he was not pleased with that, "by no stretch of the imagination."

"He took a shot on the sideline that I was a little disappointed in," said Rivera in explaining why he wants Newton running less. "He's gonna take those shots. Again, one of the things we want to do this year is eliminate those or limit them."

In the same breath, Rivera said, "We've got to understand the way he plays."

Newton always has played with his arm and his legs. It made him special. To protect him, the Panthers have made him one-dimensional. They have made the offense one-dimensional.

"Right now he's not quite where we need him," Rivera said. "He will get there. The thing we have to do in the meantime is pick it up. Other people around him have got to play ... play well."

That sounded like a challenge to the offensive line. That the Panthers didn't really run the read option against Pittsburgh, that Newton never attempted to run other than his two scrambles, put more pressure on the line to be flawless.

It was far from that.

"The disappointing thing about this is he was 24 for 35, 250 yards, one touchdown and a quarterback rating of 98.5," said Rivera, reading Newton's passing statistics against Pittsburgh. "If you tell me that's what he's going to average throughout the year, I'd take that every day of the week. You're going to win more football games, I believe."

Newton's quarterback rating is 99.4 in two games, compared to a high of 88.8 last season. The difference has been his running. He simply hasn't done it.

The Panthers apparently are in no rush to turn him loose, either.

Asked whether the running game can be the same without Newton being a threat, Rivera said emphatically, "It's going to have to."
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Colin Cole breathed a deep sigh.

"I can't wait to see the film to see what happened," he said after Sunday night's 37-19 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in a prime-time telecast.

The easy answer to what happened? Nothing good.

A defense that had given up only 172 yards rushing in the first two games combined gave up 264, and for the first time since 2001 against the St. Louis Rams allowed two backs to rush for more than 100 yards in the same game.

According to ESPN Stats & Information data, the Panthers also gave up two runs of more than 50 yards in the same game for the first time since 2001.

An offense that prides itself on being able to run managed a mere 42 yards against a defense that had allowed an average of 174 yards rushing in two games.

A quarterback that prides himself on being able to avoid pressure and give the running game a boost was held to a career-low two rush attempts for 7 yards. Cam Newton also was sacked three times and hit at least six more.

It was a complete meltdown for the Panthers (2-1), who played nearly flawlessly in all phases in the first two games.

From head coach Ron Rivera to Newton, they insisted it wasn't from a lack of focus during a week that was interrupted on Wednesday with defensive end Greg Hardy going on the commissioner's exempt list until his domestic violence case is resolved.

"We don't want anyone to feel pity for us being that we went through something that any other team didn't," Newton said.

That's good, since Hardy plays one position and the Panthers had breakdowns at almost every one.

Newton said the Panthers looked "out of sync."

No kidding. The defense that had allowed more than 20 points only once in the past 14 regular-season games -- at New Orleans last season, a 31-13 loss also on a Sunday night -- was practically unrecognizable.

Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount conjured up memories of Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier. Bell rushed 21 times for 147 yards, including an 81-yarder when the Panthers had Pittsburgh in a second-and-22 situation from their own 8 and trailed only 16-6.

Blount had 118 yards on 10 carries, including a 50-yarder.

Nobody had the answers for how that happened any more than they had answers for why the offensive line couldn't move what, until Sunday, was one of the worst defensive fronts in the league.

Players used phrases such as inconsistent. Lack of communication. Poor timing.

Whatever it was, this film is being passed around the league as the best way to beat a team that CBS analyst Boomer Esiason said earlier in the day was the best team in the NFL at that moment.

Not at this moment.

The Steelers exposed the offensive line, the biggest weakness for Carolina heading into the season, like no other team thus far. But the defensive front seven has been solid, even without Hardy.

Perhaps the best thing the Panthers can do is not watch this film. They didn't do enough good things to look at a second time, and watching the bad things again might cause nightmares.

Even Luke Kuechly, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, looked average at times against Pittsburgh's quick screens and runs up the middle.

To make matters worse, the Panthers next face a Baltimore (2-1) team that beat the Steelers 26-6 last week and have a certain wide receiver that remains angry the Panthers released him in March.

Yes, somewhere Steve Smith is drooling for this opportunity.

The only positive is Carolina is 2-1 instead of 1-2 as it was a year ago en route to starting 1-3.

"It's a long year," tight end Greg Olsen said. "We know better than anybody. We have to get back and fix our mistakes first before we worry about who we're going to play, and go from there."
PITTSBURGH -- Ben Roethlisberger dismissed comparisons with Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton earlier this week, though not because the Steelers quarterback has won two Super Bowls while Newton has yet to win a playoff game.

“He’s a lot better athlete than I am. He can throw it further than I can,” Roethlisberger said. “So I don’t know where the comparisons are. I guess they just say [that] because he’s big, and he’s bigger than me, too. So I guess I’ll take that as a compliment, that coaches compare me to him.”

The Steelers gave the hard sell this week when it comes to Newton, the former Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 overall draft pick.

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
AP Photo/Mike McCarnCam Newton, at 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds, presents a big challenge to the Pittsburgh Steelers defense.
And certainly containing the fourth-year veteran, who has been battling a rib injury, will be critical to the Steelers against the 2-0 Panthers on Sunday night at Bank of America Stadium.

Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau called Newton the “quintessential modern quarterback” because he can beat teams with his arm and his legs.

Newton already has thrown for more than 11,500 yards, and the 6-foot-5, 245-pound quarterback has rushed for more than 2,000 yards and is averaging 5.6 yards per carry for his career.

When veteran Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor refers to Newton as “Cam Mutant,” it is actually the ultimate sign of respect.

“It’s rare when you find a quarterback that has a basketball build, a LeBron [James] build,” Taylor said. “He can make all the throws, and it’s going to take more than one guy to get him down.”

What has drawn the Newton and Roethlisberger comparisons is that each is hard to get on the ground, even when the pocket collapses around them.

And Newton, as athletic and fast as he is, isn’t just a threat to run when teams blitz him.

The former Auburn star has improved steadily against the blitz, as he showed last Sunday. In the Panthers’ 24-7 victory over the Detroit Lions, Newton completed 9 of 11 passes when Detroit sent at least five pass-rushers after the quarterback, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

“He’s a much better passer than maybe people give him credit for,” LeBeau said. “He can throw the pocket balls, but I would never call him a pocket passer. He can do it all, and he’s a big guy. We’ll have to play well to keep this offense in check. I think we can do it, but we’ll have to play well.”

Jerricho Cotchery is in his first season with the Panthers after playing for the Steelers from 2011-13.

The veteran wide receiver pleaded the fifth earlier this week when asked whether there are comparisons between Newton and Roethlisberger.

“You see the ball coming out of their hands, and they are both big guys,” Cotchery said, “But as far as comparing all of their other skills, I don’t want to get into that. I just want to be respectful when it comes to both of those guys.”
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera admits opponents might not respect the running of Cam Newton as much as they have the past three seasons with the quarterback continuing to recover from injuries.

But Rivera has no doubt opponents still respect Carolina's running game.

“You look at the last game we played and they had nine [players] in the box, eight in the box a lot," said Rivera, referring to Sunday's 24-7 victory over Detroit. "They respect the run game."

Tampa Bay also loaded up to stop the run in the opener, a 20-14 Carolina victory in which the Panthers played without Newton, who was sidelined with fractured ribs.

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsWith DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert hurting, Cam Newton might take off running a little more on Sunday night.
That, in part, explains why the running game has struggled. Carolina is averaging 87.5 yards in two games, compared to 126.6 yards a game last season.

Leading rusher DeAngelo Williams sat out the Detroit game with a hamstring injury and is questionable for Sunday night's game against Pittsburgh, and that also is a factor.

There also has been a lack of communication up front.

Then there's Newton. His four rushes -- including one kneel-down -- for 19 yards against Detroit tied a career low.

Newton averaged 5.8 carries and 42.3 yards per game the last three seasons. His 2,032 rushing yards and 28 touchdowns in the past three seasons are by far the most of any NFL quarterback.

With Williams and running back/fullback Mike Tolbert (chest contusion) banged up, there might be more of a temptation for Newton to run against a Pittsburgh defense that is surrendering 170 yards rushing a game.

Don't be surprised if the Panthers turn the quarterback loose more than they did against Detroit. Newton looked as healthy as he has in months on Friday, not wearing the flak jacket during a practice in shorts.

"I never go into a game trying to force the issue," Newton said. "My main focus is always take what the defense gives me. If it's a scramble, I'm going to take it. If it's a run that coach calls, I'm going to take it. Trying to execute this offense as best as I can."

As good as Newton looked Friday, Rivera doesn't believe his quarterback will feel 100 percent until sometime in February, after the season is over, because of the pounding he'll take.

Coming into the season, Newton had been hit more than twice as many times (467) as any other quarterback the past three years.

Newton remains adamant he won't change his style and slide instead of diving forward for extra yardage. He didn't slide against Detroit.

"The bigger issue is me staying healthy, staying away from big hits, as I always have," Newton said. "When that's all the defense gives me, get down and get down fast."

Steelers vs. Panthers preview

September, 19, 2014
Sep 19
8:00
AM ET

The Carolina Panthers are 2-0 despite playing their opener without starting quarterback Cam Newton and their second game without Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy, who on Wednesday was placed on the commissioner's exempt list.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are 1-1 after losing 26-6 to the Baltimore Ravens in prime time.

Carolina defeated the Steelers 10-0 in Pittsburgh in the preseason finale for both teams, when few starters were on the field. Now these teams will see how they match up for real. ESPN Panthers reporter David Newton and ESPN Steelers reporter Scott Brown are here to break this one down:

Newton: Scott, the Panthers have forced a league-best six turnovers in the first two games, and the Steelers haven't forced one. Pittsburgh also committed three against Baltimore. Do you see that being a big factor Sunday night?

Brown: Absolutely. The Steelers have to take care of the football against an opportunistic Panthers defense, and they have to start taking the ball away. It has been an issue the past three-plus seasons; the Steelers haven't won a playoff game since 2010 in large part because they have consistently lost the turnover battle.

The Steelers signed former Panthers free safety Mike Mitchell to give them a speedy playmaker on the back end of their defense, but he has not flashed in the first two games. I'm sure Mitchell would love nothing more than to make a couple of what Steelers coach Mike Tomlin calls splash plays Sunday night against his former team.

How is former Steelers receiver Jerricho Cotchery fitting in for the Panthers and how much of a positive influence has the 11th-year veteran been for promising rookie Kelvin Benjamin?

Newton: From a leadership standpoint, I'd have to give Cotchery an A. It's a much different climate on the field and in the locker room with Cotchery instead of Steve Smith, as you probably can imagine. Benjamin has all the physical tools at 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds -- not to mention hands the size of a catcher's mitt. Having Cotchery and Jason Avant there to mentor him on how to block and handle not being a part of the play has been important. The improvement Benjamin made on the little things from Week 1 to 2 was noticeable.

There is not much Cotchery or anybody can teach Benjamin about catching, though. In each of the first two games, he has made the type of phenomenal catch Cotchery and Avant probably only dream about. I have to admit I was starting to get skeptical of what Cotchery would offer on the field after the preseason. But in the first two games he has eight receptions for 78 yards. He is a nice complement to Benjamin and tight end Greg Olsen, who has been outstanding.

The Steelers have struggled to stop the run so far. The Panthers have struggled to run, and that is a big part of their game. What has been the problem on Pittsburgh's side?

Brown: Wait a second, here. Are you trying to tell me that Jonathan Stewart and De'Angelo Williams aren't Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier? Tomlin sure made them sound like a fabled running back tandem this week. And since no coach has ever employed hyperbole in talking up an upcoming opponent, I'm going to assume Carolina's problems running the ball are an aberration.

Seriously, whatever Carolina's struggles have been running the ball might simply be fixed by playing against a defense that always used to stuff the run. The Steelers haven't been good against the run since 2012, which was, not coincidentally, five-time Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton's final season with the team.

Hampton rarely lost ground while clogging the middle of the defense and often commanded double-teams. The Steelers' current defensive line has not consistently tied up blockers or maintained assigned gaps and, through two games, Pittsburgh has given up 170 rushing yards per game. The line simply has to start winning more battles up front for the run defense -- and the Steelers' defense as a whole -- to show significant improvement.

Cam Newton is a running threat. Does the Carolina quarterback gain most of his rushing yards after escaping a collapsing pocket, or will Carolina run some read-option with him?

Newton: What? No comparing Newton to Y.A. Tittle? Seriously, it's a combination of both, and the healthier Newton gets with his fractured ribs the more he will run. He took off for 13 yards Sunday on a read-option play that was similar to, if not exactly like, one coach Ron Rivera said his quarterback should have handed off on in practice to protect the ribs.

The left ankle that was surgically repaired in March still isn't completely healed, which might explain why Newton looked somewhat awkward at times running against the Lions. But what makes him a weapon is you don't know when he's going to take off, whether it's a scramble when the pocket collapses or the read-option. He also refuses to slide and protect himself, as we saw last week. If the Steelers are as bad as you say at stopping the run, I'm sure Newton will take a few shots at them with his legs.

What about Ben Roethlisberger? Is Big Ben still a quarterback who can carry a team?

Brown: He'd better be able to carry the Steelers because Roethlisberger is the biggest hope they have of returning to the playoffs after consecutive 8-8 seasons. I think he is still playing at a high level and I'm not ready raise serious concerns about Roethlisberger and the offense, although the Steelers have managed just nine points in their past six series. If the offensive line holds up, the Steelers are going to score points with the talent they have at the other skills positions, such as receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le'Veon Bell.

David, where are the Panthers vulnerable, and are you surprised by their 2-0 start?

Newton: I'll answer the second part first. Not really. I actually picked them to start 3-0. The defense really is as good as advertised, and I figured that would be enough at Tampa Bay and at home against Detroit. But I was surprised that Newton didn't play in the opener and that the offense played so well without him. I've been saying since early in organized team activities that Carolina is better at wide receiver than it was a year ago, and so far that group has proved me right.

As far as vulnerability, the lack of a running game has to be concerning. The Panthers want to control the clock and want to keep the pressure off of Newton having to run. Without a running game, that gets tough. It will also be interesting to see whether Hardy's situation ultimately becomes a distraction. So far, it appears to have galvanized the locker room.

Cam Newton: 'Sensei of Nicknames'

September, 18, 2014
Sep 18
7:15
PM ET
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Cam Newton has a new title.

"I just call myself the 'Sensei of Nicknames,'" the Carolina Panthers quarterback said on Thursday.

Newton
Newton
Newton found himself apologizing for the last nickname he made up. If you missed it, he jokingly referred to Detroit defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh as "Donkey Kong Suh" before Sunday's game against the Lions.

"If anything I was trying to say it as a compliment of him wreaking havoc," Newton said after the 24-7 victory. "Me going forward, I should have called him 'Wreck-it Ralph.'"

With the "Donkey Kong Suh" controversy behind him, Newton made sure he didn't deliver any potential insults to the Pittsburgh Steelers, who play the Panthers at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday night.

But he dished out plenty of nicknames he has derived for teammates.

"You ready?" Newton said when asked about the ones he's most proud of. "OK, here we go. We've got Joe Smo, obviously. We've got DA, Go Meister. We've got Tub of Goo. We've got Plate of Paste. We've got Chunky Soup. We've got Pinky. We've got Benji. We've got Schmoo. We've got Bando. We've got Rhino. We've got BBell. We've got Mauler. We've got Swoll Bones. We've got Ed, Edd and Eddy. We've got Mucus. We've got Javante. J-Co.

"Mucus is [practice-squad receiver] Marcus Lucas. If you mix them all together you get Mucus. Yeah, I take pride in having nicknames."

For fun, try and match the nickname with the Carolina player and send your response to me on Twitter at @DNewtonESPN. Those I'm unsure of I'll verify with the other Newton.

As for Newton's favorite nickname for himself after "Sensei of Nicknames"?

"Ace Boogie," the first pick of the 2011 draft said of the nickname he gave himself a couple of years go.

Newton obviously was in a good mood after Sunday's successful 2014 debut following an offseason hindered by ankle surgery in March and fractured ribs in August.

When asked if it was good psychologically for him to run for a first down the first time he kept on the read option, he said, "Just to see yourself get a first down, I think it does something to your swag, wouldn't you say?"

Add the "Sensei of Swag" too?

Too much.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Catching up on the non-Greg Hardy happenings around the Carolina Panthers:
  • Alexander
    Defensive end Frank Alexander, suspended for the first four games for violating the league's substance abuse penalty, made a rare appearance in the locker room on Wednesday.
    But Alexander isn't one of the players that had his penalty reduced or revoked by the NFL's new performance-enhancing drug policy. He is still out through the Sept. 28 game at Baltimore.

    When he returns, Alexander likely will play a big role in replacing Hardy (sorry, not all of this is non-Hardy), who was placed on the NFL commissioner's exempt list on Wednesday until his domestic violence case is resolved.

    At 6-foot-4 and 270 pounds, Alexander is closer to the all-around player Hardy was. Wes Horton, who started in Sunday's 24-7 victory against Detroit when Hardy was deactivated, played mostly on first and second down as a run-stopper. Mario Addison, who had 2.5 sacks against the Lions, came in on third down and passing situations.

    Coach Ron Rivera calls Addison a "situational player."

    Alexander, Rivera's most valuable player during training camp, is an every-down player. Though he is not able to practice, he is able to remain around the team during his suspension to keep up with what the defense is doing.

    "I don't want to really talk about this right now," Alexander said. "I'll get to it [when I'm back]."
  • According to ESPN Stats and Information, Carolina quarterback Cam Newton had one of his better games against the blitz in Sunday's victory. In his first start of 2014 after missing the opener with fractured ribs, Newton completed 9 of 11 pass attempts for 101 yards when Detroit blitzed. That was the second-highest completion percentage of Newton's career in that situation.
  • Pittsburgh Steelers fans traditionally have purchased large numbers of tickets for games against the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium. There have been some games in which there appeared to be more fans with "Terrible Towels" than those wearing Carolina blue. So backup quarterback Derek Anderson made a plea to the home crowd on Twitter heading into Sunday night's primetime game against the Steelers.

    .

    Said Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin: "Derek must be calling on his Cleveland experience. It’s something that we appreciate. It’s not something we take for granted. We realize that there’s responsibility that comes with that, and the responsibility is to entertain our fans and we take that very seriously."
    Stay tuned.
  • Pittsburgh safety Mike Mitchell, a big part of Carolina's No. 2-ranked defense a year ago, told "The Charlotte Observer" there is a big drop-off in the Panthers' pass-rush without Hardy.

    "Absolutely," Mitchell said. "He’s one of the better pass-rushers in the National Football League. I don’t think they’re going to get better not having him play. That would be ludicrous."

DeAngelo Williams ready to return

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
6:40
PM ET
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers expect all-time leading rusher DeAngelo Williams to return to practice on Wednesday and be ready for Sunday night's game against Pittsburgh.

Ponder
Williams
Williams missed Sunday's 24-7 victory against Detroit that improved Carolina to 2-0 with a thigh injury that flared up after Wednesday's practice.

Without him, the Panthers rushed for only 62 yards, the team's fewest since Week 10 of the 2012 season when it had 52 yards on 21 carries against Denver. Thirty-seven of those came from Jonathan Stewart, and 22 of those came on one run.

"It was a tough day,'' Carolina coach Ron Rivera said on Monday.

Rivera hopes Williams, who led the team in rushing with 72 yards on 14 carries in the opener, will provide a boost. If anything, he will restore depth to a unit that saw Mike Tolbert suffer a shoulder contusion in the second half and Fozzy Whittaker go down with a quad injury.

Rivera said Whittaker would be listed as week to week. Tolbert appears all right.

Quarterback Cam Newton jokingly limped into the locker room when he noticed reporters watching him. Newton underwent offseason ankle surgery in March and fractured his ribs during an Aug. 22 exhibition game that forced him to miss the opener at Tampa Bay.

Rivera said Newton's foot was a little sore, actually calling that a good thing.

"Because it’s more sore than his back,” Rivera said. “Which is good. At least, I think it’s good. He’s moving around pretty good and he’s feeling pretty good about himself.

"I thought he played a heckuva football game.”

Newton completed 22 of 34 pass attempts for 281 yards and a touchdown. He also rushed four times for 19 yards.

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