Reporter Joseph Person grades the Panthers’ performance against the Chicago Bears.
B- QUARTERBACK: Cam Newton kept the ball on a couple of zone-read plays. But it was in the pocket where Newton was at his best, leading touchdown drives at the end of both halves – the game winner was on a short field – on a day when he had two turnovers and overshot rookie Kelvin Benjamin several times. Newton wasn’t great, but he was good when it counted.
C RUNNING BACKS: Rookie Darrin Reaves and newcomer Chris Ogbonnaya, filling in for DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, each averaged about 3 yards a carry. But they contributed in other ways. Reaves gained 16 yards on a screen pass on a touchdown drive that Ogbonnaya capped with a 1-yard run. Also worth noting: Neither had a fumble.
B RECEIVERS: Benjamin had a couple of drops and lost a fumble in the first half. The first-round pick was targeted 11 times but caught just three passes for 38 yards. Jason Avant and Jerricho Cotchery had catches on the TD drive before halftime. But the big story was tight end Greg Olsen, who bounced back from a two-catch game at Baltimore to burn his former team for six catches and two touchdowns, including the game winner.
C OFFENSIVE LINE: The protection firmed up in the second half when the Panthers went to the no-huddle, which seemed to get the Bears’ defense a little winded and prevented Chicago from making substitutions. Defensive tackle Ego Ferguson had two tipped passes when lined up across from center Ryan Kalil. And left tackle Byron Bell was called for a hands-to-the-face penalty against Jared Allen that looked questionable.
B DEFENSIVE LINE: Charles Johnson emerged from a season-long funk with his first sack and a fumble recovery that sealed the game. But it was a group effort up front led by second-year tackle Kawann Short, who recorded a sack and had a hand in two turnovers. The front four was responsible for all four sacks on Jay Cutler.
A LINEBACKERS: Luke Kuechly was back to his all-over-the-field ways, finishing with a game-high 15 tackles. Kuechly was less effective when he blitzed but was instrumental in the defense’s solid play after the letdowns vs. Pittsburgh and Baltimore. Thomas Davis chipped in with eight tackles and did a nice job corralling Matt Forte on several of his catches out of the backfield.
B DEFENSIVE BACKS: The secondary thought it would get a chance to make plays against Cutler, whom Johnson called a “gunslinger.” The group was right. Cutler twice overshot receivers on deep throws down the middle, resulting in interceptions by safeties Roman Harper and Thomas DeCoud. Cornerback Antoine Cason had a key strip of Forte to set up the Panthers’ game-winning score.
B SPECIAL TEAMS: Every punt return is an adventure with rookie Philly Brown, but the undrafted free agent showed great awareness in grabbing a loose ball and returning it 79 yards for a touchdown for the game’s first score. Ron Rivera said the blocking needs to improve in front of Brown, who later had another fumble the Panthers recovered. Graham Gano tied the game with a 44-yard field goal with 4:29 left.
B COACHING: Rivera notched his first coaching victory against his former team, then was quick to give praise to both coordinators. Mike Shula’s move to the hurry-up paid dividends in the second half, and defensive chief Sean McDermott did a nice job varying his schemes and coverages in the second half.