Reporter Joseph Person grades the Carolina Panthers’ performance against the Falcons.
B QUARTERBACK : Cam Newton wasn’t as sharp as he’d been the previous three games. He was intercepted twice in the first half – on an underthrow to Ted Ginn Jr. and just before halftime when he didn’t put his throw-away out of the end zone. But Newton still threw for 249 yards and a touchdown, and ran for another score.
B- RUNNING BACKS : Jonathan Stewart, in his first action since last November, looked more comfortable as the game wore on. Stewart ran for a team-high 43 yards, averaged 4.8 yards on nine carries, and also caught three passes for 22 yards. Fullback Mike Tolbert scored his fifth touchdown over the past four games, on a 4-yard run.
B RECEIVERS : Brandon LaFell caught six passes for 74 yards and recovered his own fumble on a 30-yard play that set up a touchdown. Tight end Greg Olsen added four catches for 66 yards and a touchdown – a 14-yarder on a play-action pass on fourth-and-1 in the second quarter.
B- OFFENSIVE LINE : The line held up well despite losing right guard Chris Scott (knee) and his backup Jeff Byers (ankle) to injuries during the same series in the second quarter. Nate Chandler, who hadn’t practiced at guard since training camp, filled in and said he didn’t have any mental errors. Newton was sacked just once.
B DEFENSIVE LINE: With Matt Ryan getting rid of the ball quickly, the front four didn’t get a ton of pressure on him. But the line was tough against the run, helping hold Steven Jackson to 57 yards on 13 carries. Defensive end Charles Johnson had the lone sack, and rookie defensive tackle Kawann Short had a tackle for loss.
A LINEBACKERS: Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis had an interception apiece and combined for 15 tackles. Kuechly made a nice break on a pass to tight end Tony Gonzalez and Davis dived to pick off a pass deflected by safety Quintin Mikell. Chase Blackburn played with a foot injury he aggravated last week.
B DEFENSIVE BACKS: The safeties (and linebackers) did a better job against Gonzalez in the second half, holding him to one catch for 4 yards. Drayton Florence’s 38-yard interception return for a touchdown capped the win, and starting cornerbacks Captain Munnerlyn and Melvin White were mostly solid against the Falcons’ banged-up receiving corps.
B SPECIAL TEAMS: Graham Gano stayed perfect on the season with two more field goals, including a season-best 55-yarder that he did not hit perfectly. Ginn’s season-long, 24-yard punt return gave the Panthers great field position and led to a touchdown.
B COACHING: Another fourth-and-1, another good decision by Ron Rivera and successful call by offensive coordinator Mike Shula. The Panthers might be beating bad teams, but they’re beating them with ease – by an average of 24 points. The next two weeks against San Francisco and New England will be interesting.