Reporter Joseph Person grades the Carolina Panthers’ performance against the Falcons.
C- QUARTERBACK : For three quarters, Cam Newton looked like the player who’d spent the past month overthrowing his receivers and not trusting his pass protection. Newton threw two interceptions and was on pace for a career-low passer rating before rallying for two fourth-quarter touchdown passes. Newton had the Panthers in position to win, it just shouldn’t have taken him so long to get there.
C- RUNNING BACKS : It was telling that with the game on the line at a couple of points in the fourth quarter, the Panthers had journeyman back Fozzy Whittaker in the game ahead of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. Although no one put up big numbers, the Panthers ran for 106 yards as a team. Newton was responsible for 30 yards, half of which came on one carry.
C RECEIVERS : For much of the game, the receivers were having trouble getting separation, as they did against the Eagles. But good things happened when the Panthers took a couple of deep shots. Kelvin Benjamin made a great catch going to the ground for a 22-yard touchdown, and Philly Brown followed by blowing past a Falcons defensive back for a 47-yard score that gave the Panthers a 17-16 lead.
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B OFFENSIVE LINE : Rookie guard Trai Turner nearly got Newton decapitated when he appeared to turn the wrong way on the Panthers’ first offensive snap. That gave Tyson Jackson a free shot at Newton, who absorbed a helmet-to-the-jaw hit that drew a penalty on Jackson. But the line, using its sixth combination in as many games, played much better after that, giving up only two sacks after allowing nine vs. the Eagles.
B DEFENSIVE LINE : Defensive end Charles Johnson, as he usually does, had one of his better games against his home-state Falcons. Johnson had six tackles and one of two sacks on Matt Ryan, who was dropped for a 2-yard loss by Mario Addison in the first half. Dwan Edwards did a nice job getting an interior push as the Panthers played without second-year DT Star Lotulelei.
A LINEBACKERS : Thomas Davis had a game-high 12 tackles and changed the momentum with his big hit on receiver Devin Hester, forcing a fumble that Luke Kuechly recovered. Kuechly finished with 11 tackles and rendered Atlanta’s check-down passing game virtually nonexistent with a number of good tackles and pass breakups on the Falcons’ backs and tight ends.
C DEFENSIVE BACKS : Cornerback Josh Norman kept Julio Jones in check, holding the Pro Bowl wideout to six catches for 59 yards, with a long of 11. Norman was particularly effective anticipating the bubble screen, beating the blocker and disrupting the rhythm of one of the Falcons’ signature plays. Strong safety Roman Harper had another long day, picking up a personal foul when he shoved Roddy White’s head into the ground after a completion.
D SPECIAL TEAMS : The Panthers did not sign Graham Gano to a four-year, $12 million extension during the offseason to miss 46-yard field goals with the game on the line. That’s a kick Gano has to make. A week after giving up a 65-yard, punt return touchdown to Darren Sproles, the Panthers had a well-executed plan against Devin Hester, who wasn’t given a chance at a single return.
D COACHING : Ron Rivera went too conservative before Gano’s kick, with offensive coordinator Mike Shula calling three consecutive running plays. Rivera wanted the Falcons to use all their timeouts, while getting Gano a little closer. But the way Newton was moving the ball through the air, Rivera should have stayed aggressive in a game the Panthers had to have.