When Panthers coach Ron Rivera talked about playing young guys against Atlanta, he couldnt have imagined it would be as many as he did.
Injuries at safety and the benching of rookie cornerback Josh Norman left the Panthers with a patchwork secondary in the second half Sunday. But the unproven defensive backs held on as did the Panthers, knocking off the Falcons 30-20.
After free safety Haruki Nakamura left with a groin injury, the Panthers were down to their fourth and fifth safeties rookie D.J. Campbell and special-teams ace Colin Jones. Second-year cornerback James Dockery, whose previous NFL experience was one series in a game with Cleveland last season, played the second half in place of Norman.
Norman, who started the first 12 games before Sunday, was vague about the reason for his benching.
Really no comment on the issue, Norman said. Its just something were going through and Ill leave it at that for right now.
Rivera said he wanted to give other players a shot.
Dockery, signed in October after the Browns cut him, was on the scout team last week before being thrust into the action. His assignment: Match up with Julio Jones and Roddy White.
After replacing Nakamura, Jones could be seen asking advice from Campbell, a seventh-round pick making his first start.
When I first got out there it was a little nerve-wracking, Jones said. But I kind of settled down a little bit after I got a few plays under my belt.
NAKAMURA UPDATE: Nakamura has been playing with a left groin injury, and fears he may have torn it after hearing it pop. Nakamura was on crutches after the game.
Its something Ive been dealing with, just working through it. Weve done all sorts of different treatments, Nakamura said. Something popped and well see (Monday).
Free safety Sherrod Martin went on injured reserve last week after tearing knee ligaments. Starting strong safety Charles Godfrey did not play because of a back injury. The Panthers also were without four starters: running back Jonathan Stewart, receiver Brandon LaFell, defensive tackle Dwan Edwards and linebacker James Anderson.
HEADS IT IS: After going 0-for-13 in coin flips this year, the Panthers finally won one. The Falcons called tails; it was heads. Let the wild rumpus begin.
Ive never heard a crowd cheer so loud for winning a coin toss. It was hilarious, said offensive lineman Jordan Gross, who raised both hands when the officials made the call. I was pumping my fist. It was awesome. We win the toss, we get the ball, we score a touchdown, defense stops them, we score another couple of field goals. It was a good day overall.
• The first quarter was a blur. It took just 27 minutes to play the first 15 minutes, largely because the Panthers were successful in moving the ball on the ground.
• Good challenge call by Ron Rivera in the fourth quarter after a pass to Louis Murphy was ruled incomplete. Rivera threw the challenge flag before a big-screen replay, but he was vindicated when the incomplete call was overturned, resulting in a Carolina first down.
• According to a graphic during the FOX broadcast, the Panthers became the last team in the NFL to score in the final two minutes of either half this season. Graham Ganos 31-yard field goal as time expired in the first half was the teams first points in the final two minutes.
• What will be most remembered about the Panthers running game Sunday was Cam Newtons 72-yard touchdown run, but it should also be noted it was the first time in 24 games they had a 100-yard rusher. Newton finished with 116. The last time was in Week 5 of the 2011 season, when DeAngelo Williams had 115 rushing yards against New Orleans.
By the numbers
3 Consecutive games the Panthers have gone without making a turnover.
9:17 Time the Panthers used on their second scoring drive, taking 17 plays on their way to a 24-yard Graham Gano field goal.
11 Number of rushing plays the Falcons ran.
43 Number of 100-yard receiving games for Steve Smith after he caught seven passes for 109 yards. He is tied for 10th all-time in 100-yard games.
110.1 Cam Newtons passer rating against the Falcons.
• Its easy for a person to talk about what were going to do, what theyre going to do. Actions speak way louder than words. Ive heard that a ton of times in my life and hes a prime example of that, and enduring the circumstances with injuries. But in this particular year he set a goal for himself that he wanted to play Atlanta twice and he did and had a great game in both of them. Cam Newton, on Thomas Davis
• We didnt get the kind of performance that we needed to have in all three phases of the game. We didnt execute up to our standards, particularly on third down on both sides of the ball.
Atlanta coach Mike Smith
• You guys heard Greg Hardy and I wanted to let him know I had his back 100 percent. Regardless of the outcome I was going to come 100 miles an hour.
Frank Kearse, who had a first-quarter sack of Matt Ryan
Staff writer Jonathan Jones contributed to this article.