Cam Newton: 5 Exhibits of Evidence He Has Carolina Panthers on the Right Track
An overall first-round pick ought to have shoulders strong enough to carry a franchise, right?
Especially if he's the quarterback. And especially if that quarterback happens to be 6'5" and 245 pounds, like Cam Newton.
Carolina is one of 20 NFL teams at 1-1 after Week 2 (heck, two divisions are loaded with 1-1 teams)—about as average and ordinary as you can get, right?
There are some concrete and credible signs, though, that Carolina's 1-1 might just be better than another team's 1-1. Week 3 will give us a whole new perspective. It'll help tell us if Carolina's victory means the Panthers are on the rise, or if the New Orleans Saints are just on the decline.
"To set a new standard around here, we had to beat them," Panthers tackle Jordan Gross said of the Saints, whom Carolina hadn't beaten since 2009, "so it was huge for us to get this win."
Here's five indicators—evolving from Carolina's opening-day loss at Tampa Bay, through a home win against New Orleans and into Thursday's clash with the New York Giants—that Newton's Panthers are closer to 2-0 Atlanta than they are to 0-2 New Orleans on the momentum plane.
All quotes were obtained first-hand unless otherwise noted.
Panthers Defense Counters Brees' Quick Strike
A week after Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman efficiently chopped into Carolina's defense in a 16-10 victory in the opener (16-of-24, 138 yards, one touchdown), Carolina watched the Saints' Drew Brees turn the knob to puree on the first series in Week 2.
Brees converted three third downs on the opening drive, spotting running back Darren Sproles for five straight completions before finding tight end Jimmy Graham for a short scoring pass and a 7-0 lead.
Long afternoon, right?
For the Saints offense, yes. Panthers safety Charles Godfrey picked off Brees' next attempt and returned it for a score and a 7-7 game. And although Saints coach Aaron Kromer lauded his team's 54 percent efficiency on third down on the day, he failed to recognize that nearly half of those conversions came on that opening drive.
"With Drew Brees, they're going to have a chance to come back and score points fast," Panthers defensive tackle Dwan Edwards said. "So we definitely had to be on our rush game and stay after them."
New Orleans made good on just four more third downs the rest of the game, and didn't find the end zone again until early in the fourth quarter.
Carolina's defense was able to neutralize New Orleans' fast start, giving the offense the break it couldn't provide in Week 1 at Tampa Bay.
Not a Lot of Sacks, but Plenty of Pressure
The Panthers watched Brees' quick start mire down for two-and-a-half quarters, but still wind up with 325 yards passing.
Or should we say, limit him to 325.
Carolina's defense kept things in front of them, much to the frustration of Kromer and Brees, who had plenty of dinky stuff available for Sproles, and a lesser diet of big-play portions (of Brees' 31 completions, only two went for more than 20 yards).
New Orleans racked up yardage between the 20s, but found the going sticky at best in the red zone, which they reached just once more before the fourth quarter after their opening score.
Godfrey's interception return reversed the mold Brees had set in the opening drive, by putting the Saints behind and allowing Carolina the luxury of dropping safeties and applying pressure primarily with a four-man front.
"We knew that we had to get a few turnovers to beat this team," Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. "We had to make them turn the ball over, but they protect the ball so well. They made a couple mistakes today, and we made them pay for it."
Sproles Went Nuts, but Other Receivers Were Neutralized
Saints back Darren Sproles went a little crazy, honestly (128 yards on 13 receptions), and gave Brees a cool out when the pressure got high. Tight end Jimmy Graham opened the scoring for New Orleans with a short strike, but after that, seemed to find more resistance in the secondary than acceptance, despite a decent seven catches for 71 yards.
Carolina took away much of Brees' big-strike potential in receivers Marques Colston and Lance Moore, who combined for five receptions and 46 yards with no scores.
Sproles and Graham were so active because the top-flight portions of New Orleans' offense were so adequately covered impressively by a Carolina secondary featuring a rookie in cornerback Josh Norman. Norman faced Big South Conference offenses last fall at Coastal Carolina.
It took a couple of sustained drives capped with short rushing scores for New Orleans to add touchdowns again, both in the fourth quarter, long after Carolina had compiled a 21-3 scoring advantage in quarters two and three.
Sufficient pressure from a front four anchored by emerging defensive tackle Dwan Edwards (already with a career-best matching 2.5 sacks on the season) and end Thomas Keiser, who was inactive in Week 1, meant the Panthers didn't have to blitz much, and could drop numbers back in coverage.
"They did a good job of doing that," Saints coach Aaron Kromer said. "Teams obviously don't want to give up the big play, so they play their safeties deeper than you can get, and you check the ball down."
The Run's Strong Again, and the Receiving Corps Deeper
Four yards. Cam Newton has tripped on a scramble and gained more than that. Yet, that was his total on the ground in Week 1 at Tampa Bay.
Things changed during Carolina's third drive against New Orleans. On the drive's first play, Newton rushed right for a 40-yard gain, en route to a career-best day of 71 rushing yards.
With the defense finally concerned with the Newton rush for the first time this season, backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart helped Carolina to 219 rushing yards and a 5.3-yard average per rush. Three of Carolina's five touchdowns were on the ground, too, and another came on a Newton pass to Stewart.
Add to that the bump in play from wide receiver Brandon LaFell (six catches, 90 yards, one rush for 25), and Carolina suddenly is fearsome again when they have the ball.
"Ever since Moose (Muhsin Muhammad) retired, also with Ricky (Proehl) retiring, we've been looking for a guy to step in and step up," said Panthers receiver Steve Smith, who . "I think LaFell has done that. He's grown and he's improving, but we all have to improve. Even myself, I've got things I can improve on."
Luck of the Draw, Great Timing
Sure, the Panthers drew Tampa Bay, with emerging star quarterback Josh Freeman and a new, aggressive defensive scheme in the season opener. Tough luck.
But they then caught a Saints team still reeling from an offseason scandal that ransacked their defense and saw coach Sean Payton suspended for a season. Good luck.
Then they got to stay home for a short week for a prime-time matchup with the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants, who'll have to catch their breath after rallying to beat the Bucs on Sunday.
The Giants will do this with an underwhelming pass rush (three sacks in two games from its front four) and without leading rusher Ahmad Bradshaw and receivers Hakeem Nicks and Domenick Hickson. Better luck.
Plus, Carolina has 10 days to prepare for its next game, against its rival the Atlanta Falcons. Perhaps luckiest of all.
It's a recipe for success—but no guarantee.
"I think as we go back and watch the game (against New Orleans), everybody's happy we got a win, you know that's most important, but when you start looking at the real logistics of the football game, play in and play out, we left a lot of yards and a lot of points on that field offensively, and we know that," Smith said. "We've got to get better."