NFC South: Fernando Velasco

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The New Orleans Saints will start five drafted players on their offensive line in Thursday night's NFC South showdown against the Carolina Panthers.

The Panthers will start one.

In terms of experience, the Saints will have 41 combined years up front. The Panthers will have one undrafted rookie making his second start and four other players with less than 20 full years combined.

[+] EnlargeTrai Turner
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesTrai Turner, the one starter on Carolina's offensive line who was drafted, was taken in the third round of this year's draft.
It begs the question: Should the Panthers have done more during the offseason to strengthen their line, particularly at tackle?

"No," coach Ron Rivera said. "We felt good coming out of camp, and I thought it showed early on. If we can get everybody healthy and get everybody back, we have a chance."

To be fair, the Panthers (3-4-1) didn’t plan to have four undrafted players starting on the line. Amini Silatolu, a second-round pick in 2012, was the starting left guard before a calf injury sidelined him three weeks ago.

Right guard Trai Turner was drafted in the third round this year.

Carolina also didn’t plan to be this inexperienced. Garry Williams, who had 20 starts since coming to Carolina in 2009, was set to be a backup guard and tackle until he was placed on injured reserve with a back injury.

So injuries have taken a toll. Undrafted rookie David Foucault of Canada, in an idea world, would be on the practice squad. Because the Panthers wanted to protect him from being picked up by another team he was kept on the 53-man roster.

He played 30 snaps in Sunday’s 13-9 loss to Seattle because of injuries.

And it could be worse against the Saints if left tackle Byron Bell (knee, elbow) can’t play. Despite being undrafted out of New Mexico in 2011, he has the second-most starts (48) on the line behind Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil.

But the Panthers did make the conscious decision to go with undrafted players Bell and Nate Chandler at the two tackle positions after making a run at Cincinnati’s Anthony Collins, who signed with Tampa Bay.

They also made the choice to pick wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin in the first round instead of a tackle. It’s hard to debate that since Benjamin, with 38 catches for 571 yards and five touchdowns, is a rookie of the year candidate.

And when you look at the tackles available after the top four went in the first 19 picks, none have done anything to warrant being selected in the first round.

"We’ve got guys that can come in and play winning football," offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. "The hardest thing about it is just getting those guys the quality reps during the course of the week.

"We like the guys we have now. You would like for those guys to have more experience than they have."

The good news is this group hasn’t cost Carolina much. The Panthers rank 27th in the league in offensive line spending. The Jets, Redskins and Falcons rank Nos. 3-5 and they have a combined record of 6-18. The Saints at 3-4 rank eighth.

Is what Carolina has good enough to play winning football?

"It has been good enough to win," quarterback Cam Newton said. "It’s up to people like myself to make things right. There’s been holes to have room to run through, there’s been time to throw the football and it has been opportunities for us to make big plays."

Getting running back DeAngelo Williams back after missing the past four games with an ankle injury should help. He had 106 yards on 25 carries in slightly over five quarters when the line was healthy.

While Newton has been sacked eight times in the last four games, the Panthers are a respectable 15th in the league in sacks allowed per play.

"We have a great group of guys," Chandler said. "Whatever anyone else says really, there’s no place for it to be in our heads. We know we’re a good group, and that’s what we’re going to prove."
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.’’

Cam Newton throwing without difficulty

September, 1, 2014
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton was back throwing on Monday, his first participation in a full practice since suffering fractured ribs during an Aug. 22 exhibition game at New England.

Newton said last Wednesday he had no doubt he would start in Sunday's opener at Tampa Bay, and nothing he did early in practice would dispute that.

The first pick of the 2011 draft, who hasn't missed a start at Carolina, showed no limitation in his throwing motion. He ran between drills, something he didn't do all of last week, and had a full range of motion during stretching.

Newton was wearing a larger flak jacket than the one he was wearing when New England linebacker Jamie Collins stepped on the back of Carolina's franchise quarterback at the end of a 7-yard run to cause the fracture.

He did not appear hindered by that.

Also back at practice after sitting out the exhibition finale at Pittsburgh were defensive ends Charles Johnson (hamstring) and Greg Hardy, (shoulder) and right guard Trai Turner (groin).

Turner started the first two preseason games before suffering the injury. The team released Chris Scott, who started the last two preseason games, on Saturday.

Either Turner or Fernando Velasco, signed in July, is expected to start against Tampa.

Backup quarterback Derek Anderson, who suffered a bruised hand against the Steelers, showed no ill effects from the injury.
The reported release of right guard Chris Scott means the Carolina Panthers are confident the groin injury that sidelined rookie Trai Turner in the past two preseason games won't be an issue for the Sept. 7 opener at Tampa Bay.

Scott appeared to have worked himself into position to challenge Turner for the start, but according to Pro Football Talk, he was released on Saturday as the Panthers trimmed their roster to 53.

When asked on Wednesday about the possibility of Scott starting versus the Buccaneers, coach Ron Rivera said, "Chris worked himself into a good position, and we'll see how it goes."

Scott started eight games last season before a knee injury became an issue.

A fifth-round pick by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2010, the 6-foot-4, 315-pound Scott had issues with conditioning that sidelined him for much of offseason workouts. He failed conditioning tests at Buffalo in 2013, making him available for the Panthers to sign.

The release of Scott also shows Carolina's confidence in Fernando Velasco's ability to play center and guard. Velasco signed with the Panthers in July after suffering a season-ending Achilles injury in Week 14 last season.