Reporter Joseph Person grades the Carolina Panthers’ performance against the Saints.
A QUARTERBACK: The way Cam Newton was threading passes and finding running lanes on the opening drive, it looked early on like he’d have a big day. Newton had his best performance since the Cincinnati game in Week 6. He threw for 226 yards and three touchdowns, ran for 83 yards and another score and finished with a season-high 114 passer rating.
A RUNNING BACKS: Jonathan Stewart is a rhythm back who – because of DeAngelo Williams’ broken hand – had the opportunity to get into a rhythm. Stewart ran 20 times for 155 yards, the second-highest total of his career. Stewart’s 69-yard touchdown bolt early in the second half was a career long and started Saints fans streaming toward the exits.
B+ RECEIVERS: Tight end Greg Olsen caught a career-high 10 passes (out of 11 targets) for 72 yards and a touchdown after having his knee drained three times last week. Five other wideouts and tight ends caught passes. Rookie Philly Brown had three catches for 42 yards before leaving with a shoulder injury. His status is uncertain.
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A OFFENSIVE LINE: The line gave up no sacks for the first time since the Week 6 tie at Cincinnati, which happened to be the last time Newton played well. Newton said if he was hit in the pocket against the Saints, he didn’t remember it. Center Ryan Kalil called it the most complete performance by the line all season.
B DEFENSIVE LINE: The front four had both sacks against Drew Brees – one each by defensive end Mario Addison and defensive tackle Kawann Short. The line had a total of six hits on Brees, and defensive tackle Dwan Edwards batted a Brees pass down at the line of scrimmage.
B LINEBACKERS: Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly had seven tackles and two pass breakups. Outside linebacker Thomas Davis added five tackles and a pass defense, which came on a throw to tight end Jimmy Graham. Davis said last week the Panthers couldn’t let Brees run the score up on them, then held up his end.
A DEFENSIVE BACKS: The secondary, starting two rookies in cornerback Bené Benwikere and safety Tre Boston, kept Brees in check. Benwikere made a diving catch to intercept Brees in the first quarter, and nearly had a second pick when he made another great break on a ball. Cornerback Josh Norman forced a fumble on the Saints’ first series, and former New Orleans safety Roman Harper had three pass breakups, matching his season total before the game.
C SPECIAL TEAMS: A week after having two punts blocked for touchdowns in the loss at Minnesota, the punt team had another tough day. Jalen Saunders had punt returns of 30 and 32 yards to give the Saints good field position. Brad Nortman finished with a net punting average of 22.5 yards. Graham Gano had touchbacks on seven of his eight kickoffs.
B COACHING: Offensive coordinator Mike Shula had an effective script for the opening series, and Newton executed it perfectly. Shula sometimes misses opportunities for play-action passes. But he called one in a great spot to get Olsen open for a 16-yard touchdown catch near the end of the first half. Sean McDermott’s defense has been on an upswing the last three games.