NFL Nation: Kelvin Benjamin

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton made it to Bank of America on Tuesday this time.

Exactly a week after suffering two small fractures in his lower back when his 1998 pickup truck rolled in a two-vehicle accident on the way to the stadium, Newton was in for treatment to get him ready for his possible return on Sunday against Cleveland.

Newton spent time on the underwater treadmill and was scheduled to throw.

Afterwards, Newton began delivering Christmas cheer with what he called on Twitter his #SantaCam Surprise Sleigh. His elves, according to this picture he tweeted, were backup quarterback/wide receiver Joe Webb and rookie receiver Kelvin Benjamin.

Coach Ron Rivera said on Monday that Newton's status for Cleveland would depend largely on the quarterback's ability to protect himself from further harm. By that he meant Newton had to show the ability to escape pressure and keep a play alive.

Rivera said he would like to make a decision as early in the week as possible on whether Newton or backup Derek Anderson, who led Carolina (5-8-1) to a 19-17 victory against Tampa Bay on Sunday, will start.

He said Newton's status ultimately will come down to what he observes in practice from Newton, as well as what the team doctors and trainers tell him.

Players return to the practice field on Wednesday to prepare for a game the Panthers must win to remain alive in the NFC South playoff chase. Carolina needs to win its final two games and hope the Saints lose against Atlanta or Tampa Bay to repeat as division champs.

Offensive coordinator Mike Shula said he'll have a game plan ready for whichever quarterback plays.

While Shula developed a game plan, Newton continued to deliver Christmas cheer around Charlotte.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin concedes that Mike Evans is better in basketball, telling how the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' first-round pick "killed me" in a game of H-O-R-S-E when both were in Baltimore for a pre-draft visit.

[+] EnlargeMike Evans and Kelvin Benjamin
Don Juan Moore/Getty ImagesSunday's game between Mike Evans' Buccaneers and Kelvin Benjamin's Panthers could go a long way toward determining who's the best rookie receiver.
Benjamin also concedes that Odell Beckham Jr. is better at pingpong, reminding us that the New York Giants rookie beat him during a pre-draft visit in Miami.

But Benjamin doesn't concede that Evans or Beckham, or any of the other receivers from arguably the best draft class in NFL history, is a better football player.

"You can't say 'Who's the better football player?'" Benjamin said. "That's like saying who is better between Calvin Johnson and Dez Bryant. They're good at different things."

So are Benjamin and Evans. They meet Sunday for the second time this season when the Buccaneers play at Bank of America Stadium. One of them or Beckham likely will win the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award, depending on how strongly they finish.

Benjamin and Beckham are tied for second in receptions among rookies with 59. Evans has 57. Evans leads in receiving yards with 935, followed by Benjamin with 848.

Evans also leads in touchdown catches with 10, followed by Benjamin with nine. Beckham has six.

That Beckham has played in four fewer games because of injuries, and made what many have called the catch of the year in a nationally televised Sunday night loss to the Dallas Cowboys, will carry a lot of weight.

If Evans had to choose right now, he'd pick Benjamin or Beckham for the award over himself. Why?

"We have the worst record," he said.

That's not saying a lot. The Bucs are 2-11. The Panthers are 4-8-1, and the Giants are 4-9.

But Evans still likes what Benjamin has done.

"I've watched a lot of film on him with common opponents, and he is a beast," Evans said of 6-foot-5, 240-pound Benjamin. "He is really physical and he makes the 50-50 catches, and he blocks really well, too."

Benjamin wasn't considered one of the elite wide receivers going into the draft. Some had him going in the second round. The experts said there was a big gap between Clemson's Sammy Watkins, who went to Buffalo at No. 4, and Evans out of Texas A&M.

LSU's Beckham (No. 12, Giants) and Oregon State's Brandin Cooks (No. 20, Saints) were considered the next tier.

Benjamin, who went No. 28 to Carolina, was considered more of a project because he had only one good year at Florida State before entering the draft after his redshirt sophomore season.

He hasn't disappointed the Panthers.

"He has been one of the best rookies in the whole league," Evans said.

The class has been one of the best in league history. Carolina coach Ron Rivera compared it to the 1983 quarterback class that produced John Elway, Jim Kelly, Dan Marino and Tony Eason.

Sunday's game between Carolina and Tampa Bay could go a long way in deciding who the best receiver is. Benjamin won the battle in September the first time these teams met this season. He was targeted eight times, collecting six catches for 92 yards, including a spectacular diving 26-yard touchdown catch in which he was blanketed by the defensive back.

Evans was targeted nine times but had only five catches for 37 yards. He has come on strong of late, catching two touchdowns in three of his past six games. He had a career-best 209 yards and two touchdowns in a Nov. 16 victory over the Washington Redskins.

Benjamin isn't keeping score.

"We're all different types of wide receivers," he said. "Overall, we're just one of the great classes to come through it."

At least when it comes to catching passes. Basketball and pingpong, not so much for Benjamin.

"I'm losing, man," he said with a laugh.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers rookie receiver Kelvin Benjamin doesn’t agree with the way the College Football Playoff selection committee is treating his college team.

Florida State, preparing for Saturday’s ACC title game at Carolina’s Bank of America Stadium, fell from third to fourth in the latest rankings, even though it is the defending national champion and only remaining undefeated team.

"That’s just disrespectful, man," Benjamin said. "Florida State always has been [us] against the world. That’s how we looked at it ... us against the world.

[+] EnlargeKelvin Benjamin
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesPanthers receiver Kelvin Benjamin belives his college team Florida State has enough talent to win a second consecutive national title.
"I don’t get it. I feel we should be [No. 1] because we won it last year."

Benjamin helped Florida State go undefeated last season, catching two touchdowns in the ACC title game against Duke at the stadium he eventually would call his NFL home, and the winning touchdown against Auburn with 13 seconds left in the BCS title game.

That the Seminoles are back in Charlotte and back in the national championship picture doesn’t surprise him.

That Benjamin is having a stellar rookie season doesn’t surprise FSU coach Jimbo Fisher.

"He’s got a chance for rookie of the year, doesn’t he?" Fisher said during Friday’s ACC Championship news conference at Bank of America Stadium. "I’ve said that guy is a dynamic guy. You mind if I keep him for a game and y’all go without him?"

Fisher said he tried to text Benjamin when he arrived at BOA, and fondly referred to him as a "big knucklehead," sharing how his youngest son and Benjamin remain close. He even gave Benjamin, listed as 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, an extra inch in height.

"He physically is a gifted as anybody I’ve ever coached," Fisher said. "He can do things in that size and that frame that 5-10, 180 guys could do. But he can do it in a 6-6, 235-pound frame."

Benjamin was excited for the opportunity to see many of his former teammates, including quarterback Jameis Winston. If the rules allow, he planned to take a few players out to eat in Charlotte.

But Benjamin has no regrets about leaving FSU early, even though Carolina (3-8-1) has struggled while the Seminoles have put themselves in position to win a second straight championship.

"I know Jameis would have loved for me to stay, but I knew they had enough talent to do it again," Benjamin said.

The 28th pick of the draft put on quite a show in last season’s ACC title game. He caught a 14-yard touchdown pass from Winston in the second quarter to give the Seminoles a 7-0 lead against Duke.

He added a 54-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter to make it 31-6. He finished with five catches for a team-best 119 yards.

"I knew when I came here I loved Charlotte," Benjamin said.

Benjamin has put on a show in the NFL as well. He’s tied for the lead among rookie receivers with 57 catches, second in receiving yards with 824, and tied for first in touchdown catches with eight.

His numbers are far and away the best for a Carolina rookie receiver, surpassing Keary Colbert’s 2004 season in which he had 47 catches for 754 yards and five touchdowns.

Benjamin says his focus is on finishing strong, beginning with Sunday's game at New Orleans that will keep him from attending the ACC title game. But he’s still keeping an eye on Florida State and the selection committee.

Fisher will continue to keep an eye on Benjamin.

"He has top end speed, ball skill," Fisher said. "He’ll be a top player in this league for a long time."

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin would make a tough critic.

Asked how he graded Sunday night's one-handed touchdown catch by New York Giants rookie Odell Beckham Jr. that some analysts called the best they'd seen, Benjamin left room for a better one.

[+] EnlargeKelvin Benjamin
Jim Dedmon/Icon SportswireKelvin Benjamin has made his own share of spectacular catches this season.
"On a scale of 1 to 10, it was about a 9," Benjamin said Monday.

And what would have taken for Beckham, the 12th pick of the draft, to get that additional point?

"Catch it with no eyes looking," Benjamin said.

To be fair, Benjamin has been just as tough at grading some of his own spectacular catches. The 6-foot-5, 240-pound rookie out of Florida State gave his 26-yard touchdown in the opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers a 7.

"I mean, it was OK," Benjamin said after a fourth-quarter grab in which it was hard to figure out the ball got through the defender and into Benjamin's arms, and how Benjamin even saw it. "I'm pretty sure I'll make greater catches than that down the line."

Benjamin did just that in a Week 2 victory over the Detroit Lions when he twisted his body nearly 180 degrees and caught a one-handed pass similar to Beckham's as he landed just inbounds for a 24-yard pickup.

Then there was a 51-yard catch Benjamin made over the middle against the Seattle Seahawks with arguably the game's best cornerback (Richard Sherman) and safety (Earl Thomas) draped all over him. Sherman came over the top and had his arms around Benjamin's head to the point the ball barely was visible.

And then there was a 22-yard touchdown against the Atlanta Falcons eight days ago. Benjamin, the 28th pick of the draft, had the ball go off his fingertips and up into the air, then hauled it in as he was going out of bounds with the defender draped over him.

Told that catch was ranked below Beckham's on ESPN's "SportsCenter," Benjamin laughed and said, "I'm not an analyst."

He also wouldn't call it the greatest catch he'd ever seen.

"Man, why y'all always try to compare things?" Benjamin said.

But he reiterated Beckham's grab was a "helluva catch."

It just wasn't good enough to get a perfect 10 in his book.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- There are times when Carolina Panthers wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin makes a catch that makes you say "wow," like the juggling 22-yarder falling backward in the end zone during the fourth quarter of Sunday’s 19-17 loss to Atlanta.

At times he drops the routine catch that makes you say "wow" in not such a good way, like the one in the back of the end zone in a 13-9 loss to Seattle that went through both hands.

That kind of inconsistency is why his number of catches (52) to targets (98) isn’t spectacular.

[+] EnlargeConte
AP Photo/Paul SpinelliKelvin Benjamin is second among rookie receivers in receptions (52) and receiving yards (768), and first in TD catches (eight).
But one thing is certain: Feeding passes to the 6-foot-5, 240-pound rookie out of Florida State will continue to be a priority when the Panthers (3-7-1) return from their bye week.

"You’ve got to get him touches, because he gets going," Carolina wide receivers coach Ricky Proehl said. "Just like any great receiver, when you feed him he gets into the game."

The 19-17 loss to Atlanta before the bye week is a prime example. Quarterback Cam Newton targeted Benjamin six times in the first three quarters. Benjamin had two receptions for 26 yards.

The two connected on all seven attempts in the fourth quarter for 88 yards and a touchdown.

"You could ask any receiver that plays the game, when you get involved and get in the rhythm of the game, you get fired up," said Proehl, who played wide receiver for 17 seasons in the NFL. "That’s what we have to do, to make sure we get him involved."

A 53.06 reception-to-target percentage aside, Benjamin is having a spectacular season. He is second among rookie receivers in receptions (52) and receiving yards (768), and first in touchdown catches with eight.

He is not likely to break any rookie records, but his numbers are good enough to make him a strong candidate for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.

"Haven’t looked at it," Benjamin said of the ROY race.

Benjamin is focused on turning around Carolina’s season, which includes five straight losses. He hasn’t given up on passing Atlanta (4-6) and New Orleans (4-6) in the NFC South to win the division and make the playoffs.

He even mentioned Super Bowl hopes.

But first and foremost, he wants to improve.

"I’m not pleased," Benjamin said of his performance thus far. "A lot of games I left a lot on the table. I should have done some things way better."

That goes back to his targets versus completions. To put Benjamin’s success rate in perspective, Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown leads the NFL in receptions with 88 on 123 targets (71.5).

Steve Smith, the player Benjamin has replaced as Carolina’s No. 1 target, is at 59.03.

But everywhere else Benjamin holds an edge on Smith, Carolina’s career leading receiver who was released in March. Now with Baltimore, Smith has 49 catches for 728 yards and four touchdowns.

"The best thing about Kelvin is he understands when he makes mistakes," Proehl said. "A lot of it is focus. He’s down on himself or frustrated, and sometimes it affects his performance."

Part of the frustration stems from being used to success. Benjamin is coming off a 14-0 season and national championship at Florida State in which he caught the winning touchdown for the title.

"It’s a transition for him," Proehl said. "It’s about learning how to deal with adversity, the ups and downs. ... When you preach that and then it happens in a game, where all of a sudden it’s crappy, crappy, crappy, and then he makes a couple of big plays and we’re right back in the game ... it changes the whole outlook and makes him understand you’ve got to play for 60 minutes."

Benjamin might not be pleased with what he’s done so far, but Proehl is.

"He’s on schedule to ahead of schedule," he said. "There’s room to grow, and that’s what we saw when we looked at him. He’s a great talent, and there’s a lot of upside. He’s going to get better."

W2W4: Saints at Panthers

October, 30, 2014
Oct 30
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It’s been a rough season for the entire NFC South, but that doesn’t make tonight’s matchup between the visiting New Orleans Saints (3-4) and host Carolina Panthers (3-4-1) any less critical. The winner will take sole possession of first place as the division’s only .500 team.

The Saints are the hotter team. They just played their best game of the season four nights ago in a 44-23 rout of the Green Bay Packers, and Carolina has lost two straight. But the Saints are 0-4 on the road this season and 2-10 over their past 12 road games, including the playoffs.

That stretch includes a gut-wrenching last-minute 17-13 loss at Carolina in Week 16 of last season, which ultimately decided the NFC South title.

Here’s What 2 Watch 4 in the rematch:

Rookie receivers: Two of the NFL’s leading candidates for Offensive Rookie of the Year will be on display on a national prime-time stage tonight -- New Orleans receiver Brandin Cooks and Carolina receiver Kelvin Benjamin.

Benjamin immediately emerged as Carolina's most dynamic weapon and might have had his best catch to date last week against Seattle. The 6-foot-5, 240-pounder has 38 catches for 571 yards and five touchdowns. Coach Sean Payton said the thing that stands out most is Benjamin’s "catch radius."

Cornerback Keenan Lewis said, "He’s 6-forever. I call him 6-forever. He looks like he keeps growing by the week. He can go up and get the high ball, an extremely gifted athlete who runs good routes."

Cooks’ production has been a little more sporadic since he is playing in a deeper offense. But he just had his biggest performance yet against Green Bay, with six catches for 94 yards and a touchdown and a 4-yard touchdown run. The blazing-fast, 5-10, 189-pounder has added a dimension to the offense, whether he’s running deep routes, screen passes or end-around runs. He has 40 catches for 372 yards and two TDs, plus six carries for 68 yards and a score.

Exploiting the Panthers' offensive line: The Saints’ pass rush has finally started to heat up with eight sacks over the past nine quarters -- including two by Pro Bowl defensive end Cam Jordan this past Sunday. They will need that to continue against an injury-depleted Carolina offensive line that will feature undrafted rookie David Foucault in his starting debut at left tackle.

Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is known as a tough sack because of his combination of size and athleticism. But he’s not impossible to bring down, as the Saints proved by sacking him a total of nine times in the two meetings last season.

Keep feeding Ingram? The Saints mixed the run and pass as well as ever in the Payton-Drew Brees era on Sunday night, with Mark Ingram running for 172 yards and a touchdown, and Brees throwing for 311 yards and three touchdowns (all of them coming on play-action passes).

There is no reason for them to stop feeding Ingram against a Carolina defense that ranks last in the NFL by a wide margin this season, allowing 5.2 yards per rush. But that doesn’t mean the Saints will take the ball out of Brees’ hands.

Brees is still by far the Saints’ biggest asset. After completing 27 of 32 passes against Green Bay, he is once again leading the NFL in completion percentage at 69.5 percent. He just needs to cut down on the costly interceptions that have crept up too often on the road dating to last season. Since the start of last season, Brees has thrown 34 TD passes and 6 interceptions at home, with a 21-15 split on the road.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin had one of those catches in the fourth quarter of Sunday's 13-9 loss to Seattle that was jaw-dropping.

There he was, all 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, going up against the best cornerback in the league in Richard Sherman and arguably the game's best safety in Earl Thomas.

They had him sandwiched.

[+] EnlargeCarolina's Kelvin Benjamin
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images"He's a really good receiver," Richard Sherman said of Kelvin Benjamin. "He's huge and he has a huge catching radius. ... We were in coverage and we were right on top of him. He's going to grow and continue to evolve and do well in this league."
Sherman's arms were draped over Benjamin's helmet to the point visibility was limited. Thomas was grabbing at the rookie's arms.

And Benjamin still came down with the 51-yard catch that ultimately led to a field goal.

"He's a really good receiver," Sherman said. "He's huge and he has a huge catching radius. ... We were in coverage and we were right on top of him. He's going to grow and continue to evolve and do well in this league."

Benjamin also is inconsistent. He dropped what appeared a routine touchdown catch in the back of the end zone in the first half that led to Carolina scoring only six points in three trips inside the red zone.

For every spectacular catch the former Florida State receiver makes, he occasionally lets one get away.

"He is a young guy who is learning," Carolina coach Ron Rivera said. "He is not going to catch every one, though you wish he would. When he gets opportunities he is going to do the best he can to catch them."

But inconsistency isn't why Rivera didn't start his rookie of the year candidate for the first time this season. He never gave a full explanation for the benching -- which amounted to three plays -- other than Benjamin has to show more accountability.

According to Benjamin, that is everything -- from knowing the game plan, not taking off plays or simply making the routine catches.

It is clear that for Benjamin to become the special player Sherman and others believe he will be, he has to start taking care of the little things.

Rivera said the benching was done to send a message. Benjamin said the message was received.

"When I got my chance and got in, I just wanted to make my mark and get the offense going and help the team," Benjamin said.

Benjamin led Carolina with 94 yards receiving on four catches. He was one of the few bright spots offensively on a day when the Seahawks held tight end Greg Olsen to one catch for 16 yards.

But afterwards, it was his not starting and not his spectacular play teammates were being asked about.

"Everybody is accountable on this team," veteran wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery said. "No one guy is bigger than the team. This is a grown-man business. We have to be on everything. He's a guy that is going to make a lot of plays for us. You can't minimize your role. You have to understand the responsibility you have to this team.

"He's going to be OK.'"
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Quarterback Cam Newton didn't have to search hard to answer why the Carolina Panthers were on the short end of Sunday's 13-9 loss to the Seattle Seahawks.

"Two turnovers stick out," Newton said.

Newton had a hand in both, a fumble on Carolina's final full series of the first half and an interception on its first series of the second half. The first turnover kept the Panthers from padding a 6-3 lead. The second allowed the Seahawks to tie the score.

[+] EnlargeCam Newton and Cliff Avril
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonA red zone fumble by Cam Newton, recovered by Cliff Avril, turned out to be a huge missed opportunity for the Panthers.
The fumble was easily the biggest mistake. Newton held the ball too long on a read-option play with running back Jonathan Stewart from the Seattle 14. Defensive end Cliff Avril recovered the fumble.

It magnified Carolina's biggest issue in the game: red zone inefficiency.

The Panthers (3-4-1) were inside the Seattle 20-yard line three times in the first half. They scored six points, settling for a field goal on their first series after having a first down at the 15 and another field goal on their second series after having a first down at the 3.

On each of those drives, the Panthers had a 7-yard loss. On the first down at the 15, Newton slipped while trying to run the read-option. They ended the second promising series with Stewart getting chased backward on third-and-goal from the 1.

Maybe Newton was pressing, as coach Ron Rivera suggested, but those plays certainly magnified an issue Carolina has had in the red zone all season. The Panthers have now scored 12 touchdowns on 26 trips into the red zone. Their No. 23 ranking in red zone efficiency is sure to fall.

To put that into perspective, the Denver Broncos entered the week with 15 touchdowns on 19 trips into the red zone.

"We've got to find a way to get a touchdown," Newton said. "When you get that close, it all goes down the drain if you get just three points. The turnovers -- that's just not playing smart football.

"Fumbling in the red zone, throwing an interception, I have to know better."

Had the Panthers scored a touchdown one of those red zone opportunities, Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson's fourth-quarter magic might not have been enough.

The Panthers defense, which had allowed an average of 34.8 points the past five games, showed signs of last year's efficiency and played well enough to win, but the offense's woes in the red zone turned that into a wasted effort.

"When you get inside the 5, you have to scratch, crawl, spit, grip, find a way," Newton said. "We didn't do a good job of that, and it's happened a lot since I've been here."

It hasn't been as bad as Newton thinks. From 2011, when he was the first player taken in the draft, through last season, the Panthers scored touchdowns on 58.2 percent of their trips inside the red zone. According to ESPN Stats & Information, that ranks sixth.

The league average during that span was 53.6 percent. The Panthers' percentage was 56.6 percent heading into this week.

You can't simply blame Newton for Sunday's woes. The blocking was horrid on two plays after it was third-and-goal from the 1. In between, rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin didn't hang on to a pass in the back of the end zone.

Benjamin said Pro Bowl cornerback Richard Sherman got his hands between his arms on the pass but admitted he should have made the catch.

Wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery said Carolina's red zone woes come down to execution. Newton has no idea why that is happening.

"One thing I know for sure is it's going to take a little more focus on our part to find a way [to score touchdowns]," he said. "Whether from the blocking scheme, the executing, the catching, the throwing accuracy or just running, we have to be better. We know that.

"We don't need anybody to tell us that when we look at the statistics at the end of the game."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Carolina Panthers' 13-9 loss to the Seahawks:
  • Benjamin
    Nobody gave a concrete reason that rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin was held out of the starting lineup beyond "coach's decision," as Benjamin and coach Ron Rivera noted. Benjamin said Rivera didn't give him a specific reason for being benched other than he has to be accountable. Benjamin accounted for 94 of Carolina's 266 yards of total offense on four catches.
  • Rivera often roams through the locker room to keep a pulse on the mood after a tough loss. This was no exception.
  • Quarterback Cam Newton didn't hesitate when asked what was gnawing at him after the loss. He turned immediately to his two turnovers, a fumble on a read-option play and an interception when he was trying to throw an underhanded pass to tight end Greg Olsen. "There were a couple of times that I forced it and it wasn't needed for me to force it," Newton said.
  • For the third straight week Newton made a reference to the "hindsight is 20-20" cliché. Three weeks ago, he said it was 50-50 before correcting it to 20-20. Last week, he got it right at 20-20. But Sunday he was back to 50-50. If the Panthers had scored a touchdown on 50 percent of their three opportunities in the red zone -- they had six points -- they might have won.
  • Linebacker Thomas Davis, who led Carolina's defense with 10 tackles, tried to put into perspective losing a game in which the Panthers held Seattle to 13 points after giving up 37 or more in four of the past five games. "You get excited that we played well defensively," he said. "But at the end of the day, it's a team game."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton doesn't plan to be an "idiot" when it comes to attacking Seattle's Richard Sherman on Sunday.

Newton also doesn't plan to avoid arguably the best cover cornerback in the NFL.

"If the play is called for me to read it to Richard's side, by all means I'm going to do it," Newton said Wednesday. "And I'm going to give each and every receiver an opportunity to make plays.

"I'm not going to force it. I'm not going to be an idiot. I'm going to do a great job of protecting the football and be aggressively patient in taking what the defense gives me."

[+] EnlargeRichard Sherman
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)Richard Sherman will have to work on Sunday, although Cam Newton says he won't force passes Sherman's way.
Although ESPN Stats & Information doesn't track how many times individual corners have been targeted, it does have numbers showing that quarterbacks have successfully thrown to the right side of Seattle's formation -- where Sherman plays -- more this season.

Seattle's opponents already have as many touchdowns (6) throwing to that side as they did in 2014. There has been only one interception to that side, compared to 12 last year.

Completion percentage is up, too -- 69.1 percent in 2014 compared to 55.1 percent last year. Passer ratings to that side have increased from 49.7 percent to 88.9.

The biggest exception was Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who had only 6 passing yards to the right side in a 36-16 loss to Seattle in Week 1.

In Week 2, San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers threw to Sherman's side because he believed wide receiver Keenan Allen could win some of those one-on-one battles. Allen had five catches for 55 yards in San Diego's 30-21 victory.

In Week 6, the Dallas Cowboys threw to Dez Bryant on that side in their 30-23 victory, although Sherman moved around more in that game. Bryant was targeted 10 times. He caught four passes for 63 yards.

In all likelihood, Sherman will draw rookie Carolina wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin a lot on Sunday. At 6-foot-3, Sherman will be the biggest defensive back the 6-5, 240-pound Benjamin has matched up against this season.

Benjamin doesn't appear concerned.

"You can tell he loves the game," said Benjamin, whose 34 catches for 477 yards and five touchdowns lead all Carolina wide receivers. "He brings the passion to it. He has fun. He talks a lot of smack out there, but this is football.

"I'm just going to come out there and match his intensity, play fast and be sound in all my assignments."

While the "smack" might bother some receivers, Benjamin welcomes it.

"I might come off a little harder and block him a little harder, but that's on him -- how much he talks," he said.

Talking is a big part of Sherman's game. He said on live TV after last season's NFC Championship Game that he's "the best corner in the game."

Carolina cornerback Josh Norman says you need that kind of confidence to play the position.

"As an analyst looking in, you probably think, 'OK, that guy. He's always talking. He's cocky. He has a big mouth,'" Norman said. "But at the same time, when you're looking at 4.3 [speed] guys in front of your face running down the field, what are you going to do?

"I hope you're going to be cocky. I hope you have some kind of moxie about yourself. If you don't, you're just going to get torched."

But avoiding Sherman isn't part of Carolina's game plan. Newton understands that to beat the Seahawks, you have to attack not only him, but the entire secondary.

"They have a very dominant secondary, physical secondary that does not hesitate to come downhill and play with reckless abandon and do bodily harm to the opposing team," Newton said. "As a fan of the game, you kind of like watching that from your TV.

"But when you're out there playing the game, you've got to make sure your chin strap is tightened up a little tighter and [you] understand executing the game plan is going to be at a premium this week more than any other week."

The Seattle Seahawks and Carolina Panthers are reeling as they enter Sunday's 1 p.m. ET game at Bank of America Stadium.

The defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks have lost two straight games to fall to 3-3, two games behind Arizona in the NFC West. The defending NFC South champion Panthers have gone 1-2-1 over their past four games and fallen to 3-3-1. They still lead the division because the other three teams have defenses that are just as porous as Carolina's.

Seattle and Carolina are meeting for the third straight year in Charlotte, with the Seahawks winning the previous two by scores of 16-12 and 12-7.

ESPN Seahawks reporter Terry Blount and ESPN Panthers reporter David Newton are here to break this one down for you:

Newton: Terry, the folks in Seattle have to be a bit shocked the Seahawks are .500 and two games out in the division. Is there a sense of concern at this point?

Blount: Nobody is jumping off the Space Needle, but you'd better believe the fans are concerned and a bit bewildered. There is time for the Seahawks to recover, but can they? The team hasn't played well at the line of scrimmage on either side of the ball. They can't get much of a pass rush, and the offensive line has been whistled for 14 penalties in the past three games. Injuries to key starters have hurt them: tight end Zach Miller, center Max Unger, cornerback Byron Maxwell and especially middle linebacker Bobby Wagner, who was playing the best football of his career until suffering a nasty turf toe injury two weeks ago.

You're probably getting this question a lot, but what in heaven's name is going on with the Carolina defense? The Panthers have gone from No. 2 in the NFL last season in points allowed (15.1) to a team that has given up at least 37 points in four games this season. What has been the biggest factor in the dramatic change?

Newton: Not sure the editors will give me the space to fully explain this one. You can start with the loss of defensive end Greg Hardy, who is on the commissioner's exempt list until his domestic violence case is resolved. It's hard to replace everything he did. But it goes much deeper than that. You can also look to the secondary. There are three new starters: strong safety Roman Harper, free safety Thomas DeCoud and cornerback Antoine Cason. They're making every quarterback look like Peyton Manning the way receivers are running free. The lack of a pass rush has hurt. Teams are hitting Carolina with a lot of quick passes to negate the four-man rush, just as I suspect is happening in Seattle. But, as linebacker Thomas Davis said earlier in the week, the Carolina defense as a whole simply isn't playing smart and swarming to the ball as it did last season.

Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson is playing at high level. Where has he shown the most improvement and how will his threat as a runner affect an undisciplined Carolina defense?

Blount: Dave, it's scary to think where the team would be without Wilson. He single-handedly won the Redskins game on Oct. 6, becoming the first quarterback in "Monday Night Football" history to pass for more than 200 yards and run for more than 100. His brilliant 80-yard drive in overtime defeated Denver last month, a game the defense tried to give away at the end of regulation. He's doing almost everything at a higher level now in his third NFL season, but most importantly, he understands where he needs to go with the football more quickly and when to tuck and run. That has been essential considering Wilson had been under duress more than any other QB. Believe it or not, he rarely looks to run. He has to run to avoid pressure. The key for any defense is trying to cut off the perimeter and keep him in the pocket -- easier said than done.

Rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin looks as if he's everything the Panthers hoped he would be as a first-round pick. But do they miss Steve Smith, and do you think Benjamin can be as good as, or better than, Buffalo rookie receiver Sammy Watkins?

Newton: Benjamin hasn't disappointed. He's 13th in the NFL in receiving yards with 477, and his five touchdowns are one more than Smith has in Baltimore. I'm not sure Benjamin would have developed as quickly if Smith were in Carolina. As I've said before, overall the team is better at wide receiver than it was a year ago.

As for where Benjamin stacks up against Watkins, I'd say they're pretty much the same player except Watkins has more explosive speed. But Benjamin runs routes much better than anyone gave him credit for coming out of college. He's a player even Seattle's talented secondary will have to pay extra attention to. And you do that at the expense of leaving open Greg Olsen, who leads all tight ends with 493 receiving yards.

I found the comments by Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin on the Percy Harvin trade interesting. Has that been a distraction, and how will that affect the Seattle offense?

Blount: Baldwin admitted after the St. Louis loss this past weekend that the shock of the Harvin trade, which happened less than 48 hours earlier, had an impact on the way the Seahawks started the game in getting behind 21-3. However, I firmly believe the impact going forward will be a positive one. Harvin's anger issues -- fights with teammates and taking himself out of two games -- were more than anyone could tolerate any longer.

It also was a problem on the field because Seattle revamped its entire offense to revolve around Harvin. The Seahawks got away from what they do best: run the football to set up open receivers downfield. They looked like last year's offense in the second half against the Rams, scoring on three consecutive drives of 80 yards or longer. Wilson set another NFL record, becoming the first player in league history to pass for more than 300 yards and rush for more than 100 in a game. Baldwin had his best game of the season with seven catches for 123 yards and a score. Trading Harvin was addition by subtraction in so many ways.

I'm shocked to see that Cam Newton is Carolina's leading rusher with 190 yards. What has happened to the Panthers' running game?

Newton: You wouldn't be shocked if you looked at all the injuries, a new line and opponents putting eight in the box to stop the run. Panthers all-time leading rusher DeAngelo Williams has missed the past three games with an ankle injury and has played less than six quarters this season. Jonathan Stewart has missed three starts. Mike Tolbert is on injured reserve. If you've heard the names Darrin Reaves, Fozzy Whittaker and Chris Ogbonnaya, you're either related to them or desperate in a fantasy league.

Then there's the line, which took another blow last week when starting right guard Trai Turner suffered a knee and ankle sprain that will keep him out this week. At one point Sunday, undrafted rookie David Foucault, who should be on the practice squad developing, was playing left tackle. I could go on, but I won't.

CINCINNATI -- It's time to start turning our attention to the Cincinnati Bengals' next game.

The Patriots are in the rearview.

On deck: The Carolina Panthers.

Record: 3-2

How they got there
The Panthers will be on the road for a third time this season Sunday when they visit the Bengals. It will be just the second trip they'll make to Cincinnati after visiting Paul Brown Stadium back in 2006. More on that game and others in this series down below. Prior to this week's contest the Panthers opened the year by knocking off the Buccaneers and Lions in consecutive weeks before dropping two straight. Blowout losses to the Steelers and Ravens put Carolina at .500 before last weekend's win over Chicago.

Key players
QB Cam Newton. Like Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, Newton was part of the 2011 draft class that featured several of the league's starting signal-callers. Some like Minnesota's Christian Ponder could be considered busts. But the two playing in this game can't be. Newton is coming off the first playoff appearance of his career. With a down division this year, he could be headed back there.
[+] EnlargeKelvin Benjamin
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesIt didn't take long for rookie Kelvin Benjamin to become an impact player for the Panthers.
WR Kelvin Benjamin. A tall, thick wideout from Florida State, Benjamin is the Panthers' equivalent of a Jimmy Graham-type of player. He has great leaping ability and has already come down with his share of circus catches this season. The rookie has three touchdowns and is averaging 15.3 yards per reception.
LB Luke Kuechly. Through four games the Cincinnati native is leading the league in tackles with 61. Yes, you read that right, 61. The St. Xavier High School product has been wracking up tackles since he was an area prep star, and he continued the trend in college at Boston College, where he was perennially the leading tackler in the ACC. His lateral quickness will be something the Bengals will have to key on this week.

Panthers' base defensive scheme: 4-3

Series history
The series is tied at 2-2. This is only the second meeting the teams will have in Cincinnati after the Bengals visited Carolina three times and went 1-2 in those three games. The Bengals won the last meeting in Cincinnati, 17-14, in 2006. They also won the most recent meeting in 2010 when the teams played in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Week 6 stat to consider
Bengals cornerback and punt returner Adam Jones hates to call for a fair catch. He hates it so much that he hasn't called for a fair catch in 82 punt-return opportunities dating back to Nov. 16, 2006, when he played for the Titans. For perspective, consider that for the 1,094 punts that were returned in the NFL last season, another 636 were fair caught. He didn't have a single one. Jones also ranks second among active players with five career punt-return touchdowns.

Uni watch
For the first time this year, the Bengals are expected to break out the orange jerseys, and they will wear them with black pants. They are 12-5 since 2004 in that combination. According to the team, the Bengals are next slated to wear their orange "specialty" jersey Nov. 2 at home against Jacksonville. The NFL permits teams to wear specialty jerseys twice a season.

Whom to follow
You'll want to be sure to follow my colleague David Newton on the Panthers blog and also on Twitter (@DNewtonespn) for all things Panthers this week. You'll learn much more from David later this week in our game preview.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Carolina Panthers'
31-24 victory over the Chicago Bears:
  • Johnson
    Defensive end Charles Johnson was holding a football that coach Ron Rivera had dropped by his locker a few seconds earlier. To paraphrase, Rivera told Johnson he’s been “wanting one of these, now you’ve got it." Johnson didn’t want a game ball. He wanted a sack. Third on Carolina’s all-time sack list, he didn’t have one in the first four games and was feeling pressure.
  • The best quote came from Johnson as well. Asked about Carolina getting four sacks after having only one the previous two weeks, Johnson said defensive coordinator Sean McDermott came in at halftime and “took the chains off and told us to go eat."
  • Quarterback Cam Newton, before he took off his pads and before he went for treatment, stopped by the locker of rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin to let him know he was going to be “on his ass" this week. Benjamin had a couple of big drops that could have made Newton’s final rating look even better and the win a little easier. It was all playful, though.
  • Wide receiver Philly Brown explained how he was talking to the official about throwing a flag against the Bears for interfering with him catching a first-quarter punt when he noticed the ball on the ground. You might know the rest of the story by now. Brown picked up the ball and returned it 79 yards for his first NFL touchdown. He also ended Carolina’s streak of 164 games, the longest in the league, with no returns for touchdowns.
  • It was hard to tell what made tight end Greg Olsen happier, catching two touchdown passes, beating his former team or having all three of his kids at a game for the first time. Knowing all he’s gone through with his son T.J.’s third surgery on his heart, I’m guessing the kids.
  • A lot of questions about Carolina (3-2) leading the NFC South despite playing horribly the past two weeks.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Kelvin Benjamin was sitting at his locker, being his typical happy-go-lucky self, when he heard the mention of Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith.

"I'm a big fan of Steve's, man," the rookie said of the player he replaced as the top wide receiver for the Carolina Panthers. "I love what he accomplished here. It would have been great for a young wide receiver to come in here and learn under him."

One of the many speculated reasons the 35-year-old Smith was released in March was because his fiery, me-against-the-world attitude wouldn't have been the best environment to nurture and develop a future superstar like Benjamin.

[+] EnlargeKelvin Benjamin
Don Juan Moore/Getty ImagesKelvin Benjamin has 16 catches for 253 yards and two touchdowns through three games.
One of the reasons the Panthers signed veterans Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant was because management felt they would provide a stable environment for a dynamic young receiver like the 6-foot-5, 240-pound Benjamin to grow.

It all made sense at the time.

But after observing Benjamin since Carolina made him the 28th pick of the draft, listening to what the former Florida State star had to say on Thursday about Smith, putting them together might not have been such a bad idea after all.

"He's physical, man," Benjamin said admiringly of Smith. "Physical. He brings the game."

I still believe the Panthers are better overall at wide receiver as a group. But imagine the lineup with Smith opposite Benjamin and tight end Greg Olsen in the middle.

Nothing against Cotchery and Avant, but teams don't consider double-teaming them. Smith, even at 35, still demands an occasional double team, even if he's not a true No. 1 anymore.

His 18 catches for 290 yards and a touchdown leads the Ravens. Cotchery and Avant have 16 catches for 144 yards and a touchdown between them.

Benjamin definitely demands a double team, for his size as much as his ability to make spectacular catches. His 16 catches for 253 yards and two touchdowns rank second on the team.

With Benjamin and Smith on the field you would have to pick your poison.

That would leave even more opportunities for Olsen, who already leads Carolina with 19 catches for 224 yards and two touchdowns.

Yes, this is hindsight. But in hindsight it could have worked, not because Smith would have changed his stripes, but because Benjamin's demeanor would have allowed him to handle whatever Carolina's all-time leading receiver threw at him.

Benjamin truly is happy-go-lucky. Despite a burning intensity to excel, he's as relaxed on the field as he is off it. He doesn't get distracted by the pressure to be Carolina's No. 1 receiver or lose confidence when he drops a pass.

He makes one-handed snags like the ones he made several times during Thursday's practice seem routine.

"Having fun, man," Benjamin said.

If anything, Smith might have learned something from Benjamin in that you don't have to rev the intensity meter all the way up 24-7.

There's no doubt, at least in Benjamin's mind, he could have learned from the 5-9 Smith.

"We're two different types of wide receivers size-wise," Benjamin said. "But he can still teach you things like running routes and how to get off balls. I use all types of people's moves."

The admiration goes both ways. Smith isn't surprised Benjamin has excelled. He playfully described him as a "6-foot-5 Cam Newton with dreads."

"He's very athletic and catches the ball well," Smith said of Benjamin. "It doesn't surprise me what he's done thus far in his ability to catch the ball, because he did that in college."

Benjamin also is diplomatic based on his answer when asked if he and the Carolina offense might have benefited with Smith playing opposite him.

"I mean, I'm not going to say because I don't want to spark nothing," Benjamin said with a big smile. "Who knows?"
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Jerricho Cotchery covered his mouth in a somewhat embarrassed attempt to cover his laughter at the tongue-in-cheek suggestion that he is much calmer than former Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith.

"Steve was one of my favorite players and still is," Cotchery finally said of Smith, a member of the Baltimore Ravens after being released by Carolina in March. "Just the way he plays, it's relentless. I saw him the other night against Pittsburgh, slapping his head, spit coming everywhere."

[+] EnlargeJerricho Cotchery
AP Photo/Phelan M. EbenhackReceiver Jerricho Cotchery has been an ideal fit for the Panthers.
Cotchery doesn't spit when he gets excited -- on or off the field. He is so quiet in the locker room and on the field that you hardly notice he's there. When he wants to make a point he doesn't shout it across the room as Smith sometimes did.

These are all things the Panthers (2-0) liked when they signed Cotchery to a two-year, $5 million deal during the offseason. These are things the Pittsburgh Steelers (1-1) miss about Cotchery as they prepare to face him on Sunday night at Bank of America Stadium.

"I miss everything, from on the field, his football play, his leadership, his awareness, his tenacity, his toughness, off the field having a leader, having a friend around," Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said during a Wednesday conference call.

"He was just such a great teammate and a player, one of the best I’ve ever played with."

Cotchery didn't draw big headlines when Carolina made him the first piece of the puzzle to replace Smith and the team's top four wide receivers from last season. Then 31, he hadn't put up gaudy receiving numbers since he had 71 catches with the New York Jets in 2008.

But the Panthers weren't looking for gaudy. They were looking for a consistent role player that would help develop young receivers such as first-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin.

Cotchery has been that, and Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin isn't surprised.

"Cotchery is an easy guy to like," he said. "He’s a great teammate. He’ll do anything to help the team win, and he’s extremely low-maintenance. I just can’t say enough good, positive things about Jerricho and what he did for us when he was here."

Cotchery won't ever make the spectacular catches like the 6-foot-4, 240-pound Benjamin has in his first two games. But he has been consistent, catching four passes in each game for a combined 76 yards.

He has been a nice complement to Benjamin and tight end Greg Olsen, who leads the team with 14 catches for 155 yards.

And a complement was all the Panthers were looking for.

Cotchery was just looking for a team to wrap up his career. He insists the only team he would have left Pittsburgh for was Carolina, about three hours from where he played college football and met his wife at N.C. State in Raleigh.

There really wasn't much of a choice based on Carolina's offer compared to Pittsburgh's. But Cotchery doesn't feel extra incentive to beat the Steelers because they weren't willing to pay more.

"My incentive is winning the Super Bowl," he said. "They know that over there."

Cotchery has fit in at Carolina from Day 1. Running back De'Angelo Williams nicknamed him "Unc" right away because he "looked like somebody's uncle."

Benjamin accepted Cotchery's guidance immediately.

"He listens," Cotchery said. "It's humbling to have a talented guy like that who can catch the ball and do really good things on the field, and he really listens to your advice. I credit him for that."

Credit the Panthers for signing Cotchery.


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