Sizing up the Panthers after a trying first half

Defense, wide receivers are strengths of team, grades say

jperson@charlotteobserver.comNovember 7, 2012 

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Carolina Panthers' DeAngelo Williams (34) has the ball stripped from him by Seattle Seahawks' Brandon Browner (39) in the second half at Bank of America Stadium October 7, 2012. Seattle won 16-12. David T. Foster III-dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

DAVID T. FOSTER III — dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

At the season’s halfway point, the Panthers (2-6) already have endured the firing of their general manager, a five-game losing streak and a sophomore slump that has affected not just quarterback Cam Newton, but the entire offense under second-year coordinator Rob Chudzinski.

The defense?

With the exception of a nationally televised beat-down by the Giants and a last-minute meltdown against Atlanta, Sean McDermott’s group has kept the Panthers competitive despite season-ending injuries to cornerback Chris Gamble and linebacker Jon Beason.

Go figure.

The Observer grades the Panthers’ position groups, Ron Rivera and his coaching staff and the front office over the season’s first half.

QUARTERBACK C

Newton has taken a step back this season. His completion percentage (57.0) is down from his rookie of the year campaign. So is is his passer rating of 77.7, which ranks ahead of only Mark Sanchez, Matt Cassel, rookie Brandon Weeden and John Skelton.

Chudzinski took some of the zone-read responsibilities off Newton’s plate two weeks ago, and that seems to have helped. Newton played a smart, turnover-free game in last week’s win at Washington, though he still continues to miss open receivers.

In addition to his mechanics, the Panthers need Newton to improve as a leader. He has done less sideline sulking in recent weeks, and he has played with an enthusiasm that can be contagious, especially if the Panthers start winning.

RUNNING BACKS D

DeAngelo Williams drew interest from at least one playoff-contending team at the trade deadline. But the Panthers were not going to give away a back they have invested $43 million in for a low-round pick.

Williams, who lost his starting job to Jonathan Stewart two weeks ago, is averaging 3.7 yards a carry – more than a yard off his career average. But he still has speed on the edge, as evidenced by his 30-yard touchdown run against the Redskins – inadvertent whistle or not.

Stewart is averaging 3.8 yards a carry, but he runs hard and hangs on to the ball. Neither back has sniffed a 100-yard game, though the touches have not exactly been plentiful.

The Panthers’ shift to a more traditional rushing attack has meant more work for Stewart.

RECEIVERS B-minus

Even at 33, Steve Smith remains the team’s most dangerous deep threat and its toughest player pound-for-pound. Smith will continue to see coverages rolled his way until Brandon LaFell develops more consistency. Some of that falls on Newton, who at times locks in on Smith instead of looking to secondary targets.

Louis Murphy has caught only 10 passes as the No. 3 wideout. It will be interesting to see how the Panthers use David Gettis, a speed receiver who was activated Tuesday after missing the past 24 games due to injury.

Tight end Greg Olsen was under-utilized until the Washington game.

OFFENSIVE LINE C-minus

Losing Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil was a big blow to a unit that starts a rookie in left guard Amini Silatolu and a second-year player in right tackle Byron Bell. Chudzinski’s move to more I-formation looks and between-the-tackles runs is dependent on the front five getting a good push. So far that has not been the case.

The Panthers knew there would be growing pains with Silatolu, who made the jump from Division II to the NFL. Silatolu has been dogged by the penalties and missed assignments that dogged Bell last season.

Even after the line gave up no sacks against the Redskins, Chudzinski said there likely would be more tweaks up front.

DEFENSIVE LINE A

The Panthers’ front four has exceeded expectations. Ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy have emerged as one of the league’s best pass-rushing tandems, while tackles Ron Edwards and Dwan Edwards have been the run-stuffers the Panthers lacked last year. Dwan Edwards, signed off the scrap heap after Buffalo cut him, has shown an ability to get off blocks and make plays. His inside push has resulted in five sacks and forced quarterbacks to step into the outside rush of Johnson and Hardy, who have combined for 14 sacks.

LINEBACKERS B-plus

Former general manager Marty Hurney was often criticized for his later-round draft picks. But he nailed the first-rounders, including Luke Kuechly, the No. 9 overall pick this year. Imagine where the Panthers would be without Kuechly after Beason went down to season-ending injuries for the second year in a row.

Kuechly has averaged 15.3 tackles a game since taking over for Beason in the middle and is on pace to break the single-season record set by James Anderson in 2011. Kuechly occasionally bites too hard on play-action and gets out of position, but he never misses tackles.

Thomas Davis has given the Panthers more reps and production than anyone expected after three ACL surgeries. Rivera and McDermott have to be careful to get Davis rest during the week and not over-tax his knee.

DEFENSIVE BACKS C

The play of the defensive line has allowed McDermott to rush four and keep the secondary in zone coverages that give rookie Josh Norman and Captain Munnerlyn, who replaced Chris Gamble, more cushion.

Norman has had his rough moments – against Eli Manning and on Chicago’s final drive – but for the most part has been solid.

Free safety Haruki Nakamura cost the Panthers a win in Atlanta, and now comes out in obvious passing situations in favor of Sherrod Martin. The rotation was effective against the Redskins, but this is still an area of concern.

SPECIAL TEAMS B-minus

The coverage teams have made huge strides under special teams coordinator Brian Murphy, whose plan to keep the ball away from the Bears’ Devin Hester was sound. At least until rookie punter Brad Nortman shanked a 6-yarder that swung momentum.

With another shank last week at Washington, Nortman saw his net average drop to an NFL-worst 35.9 yards. Justin Medlock’s only miss in eight field goal tries was a 50-yarder, but he’s a big reason the Panthers give up the fewest kickoff return yards in the league.

It’s time to give rookie returner Joe Adams another chance.

COACHING D

While the preseason expectations were too high, this team still has underachieved. The close losses have haunted Rivera, and could be the reason he’s gone when the new general manager gets to start fresh.

In nearly every one of those one-score losses, Rivera had a chance to go for the jugular and decided to play it safe. The criticism of Rivera’s sideline stoicism would be muted if the Panthers were 5-3 or even 4-4.

But they’re not. And as Rivera has said several times since Hurney was fired, he’ll be the next to go if the Panthers don’t “trend upward,” in the second half.

FRONT OFFICE D

After a dismal 2011 draft on the seven picks after Newton at No. 1, Hurney and his scouts found four immediate starters this year – Kuechly, Norman, Silatolu and Nortman. In addition, rookie DE Frank Alexander has shown a knack for knocking down passes.

But the decision to re-sign both Williams and Stewart to big extensions – and then give them fewer than 10 carries a game – is a sign of either shortsightedness or a disconnect between the front office and coaching staff. Or both.

Free agent acquisitions Nakamura and fullback Mike Tolbert have made a minimal impact, although pro scouting director Mark Koncz got a steal in Dwan Edwards.

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