Five takeaways from the Carolina Panthers’ 28-16 exhibition win against the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday night:
1. Cam Newton and the receivers need more time together.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera didn’t say what his plan is for Newton in Friday night’s exhibition at New England, but it’s clear Newton needs more time to jell with his new receiving corps before the Panthers open the season at Tampa Bay on Sept. 7.
Jason Avant said receivers broke off routes before Newton was expecting them to, and Newton was disappointed he couldn’t connect with Kelvin Benjamin when the rookie got a step on a Chiefs cornerback on a go route.
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The Panthers have been careful not to push Newton too hard or too fast in his recovery from offseason ankle surgery, and no one is suggesting he play the whole game against the Patriots.
But Newton and his receivers would benefit from more full-speed game reps together.
2. Byron Bell has held down the left side capably.
There was much hand-wringing among Panthers’ fans and observers when it was clear Bell was the heir apparent to Jordan Gross at left tackle. Bell had trouble at times dealing with speed rushers during his three years at right tackle, and the concern was it would be a jail-break on Newton’s blind side when Bell took over.
That hasn’t happened.
Bell, who worked with his old boxing trainer during the offseason, has not allowed a sack in two exhibitions against a pair of strong pass-rushing teams in Buffalo and Kansas City. He will have stiffer regular-season tests ahead, but Bell’s start has been encouraging.
3. The undisciplined play has to stop.
Twice in recent days Rivera has blamed himself for setting a bad tone in January’s playoff loss to San Francisco by getting too caught up in the emotion of the game.
Personal foul penalties on defensive backs Mike Mitchell and Captain Munnerlyn led to field goals on the 49ers’ first two series. Cornerback Josh Thomas later was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct, for what appeared to be a punch at a San Francisco receiver.
The emotional outbursts have carried into this season. Cornerback Josh Norman got in the face of Chiefs receiver Dwayne Bowe, and had to be pulled back by linebacker Thomas Davis. Rivera immediately benched Norman, who’s been a regular in the coach’s doghouse.
But Rivera needs to make sure Benjamin gets the message, too. Benjamin was jawing from the start of Sunday’s exhibition, and eventually lost his cool and picked up a 15-yard penalty after head-butting and shoving cornerback Chris Owens.
4. This hasn’t looked like last year’s defense.
Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott talked at training camp about starting from scratch in 2014, even as some of his players crowed about going after the league’s single-season sacks record and improving on last season’s No. 2 ranking.
The first-team defense has been gashed pretty good in the first quarter of each of the first two exhibitions, giving up a total of 200 yards and 10 first downs. That they escaped allowing only a field goal each time was little solace to Rivera, who says the problems have been across the board.
To illustrate his point, Rivera mentioned middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, saying the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year blew his assignment on the Chiefs’ first offensive play – an 11-yard run by Knile Davis.
Several defensive starters have been sidelined by injuries.
Defensive end Charles Johnson has been slowed by a pulled hamstring, outside linebacker Chase Blackburn is out with a back problem and strong safety Roman Harper has yet to suit up in an exhibition because of turf toe.
5. That said, the corners can tackle.
McDermott talks often about the need for the cornerbacks to be good tacklers in his zone-heavy scheme. Starting corners Antoine Cason and Melvin White showed good form against the Chiefs with a team-high six tackles apiece.
On consecutive completions by Alex Smith in the first quarter, Cason came up with solo hits to throw a receiver for a loss.
On third-and-goal from the Panthers’ 3 in the third quarter, White made a textbook tackle on the speedy De’Anthony Thomas to drop him for a 4-yard loss.