Carolina Panthers

Panthers coach Rivera likes what he sees in first exhibition

This wasn’t Riverboat Ron going all-in on every fourth-and-short two years ago in Minnesota. It wasn’t even Calculated Risk Ron.

This was more like Actuary Ron, whose decision to stick with quarterback Cam Newton and the first-team offense past the first quarter in Friday’s exhibition opener at Buffalo came down to simple numbers: Panthers coach Ron Rivera thought his offensive starters needed more than eight snaps.

It turned out to be a prudent decision, as Newton uncorked a couple of pretty deep throws and the offense exited on a high note after Newton found Kelvin Benjamin in the corner of the end zone six minutes into the second quarter.

The Panthers went on to beat Buffalo 25-24 on a late touchdown run by Brandon Wegher and an ensuing 2-point conversion.

But the fourth-quarter mop-up action mattered little compared to the stop-and-start performance by the first-string offense.

And after Newton survived an offseason gantlet that included an Aussie rules football practice, a flag football tournament in Atlanta and a knockerball match against teammate Josh Norman earlier this week, Rivera figured he was well equipped to handle another series against Mario Williams and the rest of the Bills’ formidable defensive line.

“We got the ball vertical. When we do that we give ourselves a chance, and that’s big,” Rivera said. “And the protection was there. I really like what the offensive line did. This was a good defensive front and I was very pleased to see what our guys did.”

There were some other developments, good and bad, for the Panthers:

▪ With Greg Hardy in Dallas and Charles Johnson tweeting commentary from Charlotte, the pass rush was nonexistent.

▪ The addition of several so-called special teams aces did little to improve the coverage teams, on this night anyway.

▪ After Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly sat down after six plays, A.J. Klein and the second-team linebackers had a solid showing.

▪ The same could not be said for the second-team secondary.

▪ Backup quarterback Derek Anderson and second-round pick Devin Funchess were in sync on a couple of long completions.

But the biggest takeaway was the play of the offense on its third series after looking feeble on its first two, during which the Panthers managed 16 yards on eight plays.

Rivera planned to play Newton and Co. for only the first quarter. But it would have been a disappointing trip had the Panthers traveled to upstate New York for one first down from its first-team offense.

Rivera was glad to see first-year Bills coach Rex Ryan stuck with his defensive starters for a third series, too.

Newton had completed 1-of-6 passes for 15 yards on the first two series. The third series didn’t start swimmingly either when running back Fozzy Whittaker (subbing for Jonathan Stewart, who had the night off) was dropped for a 3-yard loss.

But on second-and-long, Newton targeted Kelvin Benjamin deep down the left sideline. In an exhibition game against Buffalo last year, Benjamin beat Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore for a touchdown on the same route.

This one didn’t produce a score, but it did move the chains when Gilmore, who played at Rock Hill South Pointe, was whistled for pass interference.

The flag seemed to spark to Newton, who found Benjamin and Ted Ginn for 19 and 38 yards on his next two throws (the Benjamin completion was negated somewhat by his taunting penalty).

By the time Newton hit Benjamin for the 2-yard score, he’d completed all four passes on the drive for 68 yards and the TD.

Night over.

Just as important as Newton’s showing on his final drive was the protection he received.

It wasn’t perfect, but it was pretty good. And against Williams, Jerry Hughes and Marcell Dareus, the Panthers will take pretty good.

Left tackle Michael Oher, who was tasked with keeping Hughes off Newton’s back side, was pleased with the line’s play but thinks the technique can be better.

“Preseason you want to end on a good note. You want to look good and you want to look clean out there,” Oher said. “It was good to score a touchdown, but I’m pretty sure once we see the film there’ll be a lot of things we need to work on.”

The rushing attack minus Stewart was pretty dreadful while the starters were in: Whittaker managed 3 yards on five carries.

But Benjamin liked the way the offense rallied.

“We wanted to come out and get that train going out there,” Benjamin said in the visitors locker room. “Might’ve been (because it was) our first game, I feel like we came out a little slow as an offense. But we picked it up. So that’s the good note to end on.”

Joseph Person: 704-358-5123, @josephperson

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