GLENDALE, AZ - SEPTEMBER 11: Quarterback Cam Newton #1 of the Carolina Panthers celebrates his first rushing touchdown against the Arizona Cardinals in the NFL season opening game at the University of Phoenix Stadium on September 11, 2011 in Glendale, Arizona. Arizona won 28-21. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)
I'm not sure when the last time I saw a Carolina Panthers game was, so I needed to learn more about their team. And I really needed to learn more about QB Cam Newton after he had one of the best games in the past 20 yards by a rookie quarterback. Not a rookie QB in his first game, but a rookie quarterback at any time during his first season.
The Panthers only lost to the Cardinals by 7 points, but Football Outsiders ranked them as only the 27th best team last Sunday. The Green Bay Packers come in at No. 9 overall, which is fair since the defense was a bit torched by QB Drew Brees. The Panthers offense graded out as average (they weren't able to run the ball: only 2.7 yards per carry as a team), and their defense (28th) and special teams (30th) really dragged them down. The scoreboard could have been a lot worse for the Panthers because the Cardinals blew a couple of early scoring opportunities. They had the ball inside the 10 yard line twice in the first half, and came away with zero points (missed FG and a fumble). And Newton's 2nd TD pass came a few plays after an INT was overturned due to a very weak roughing the passer penalty.
Their best player against the Cardinals was easily Newton. His biggest asset right now is his touch on deep passes. He had some nice highlight reel passes to WR Steve Smith, but he also did a nice job on sideline routes to TEs Jeremy Shockey and Greg Olsen. And he's got such a strong arm that he can hit these receivers deep and in stride.
But there's still a lot of rookie in him. He locked onto his primary receiver, and he wasn't very good at looking off of him. Also, nearly every pass he threw was too high. So it helps that three of his top receivers (Shockey, Olsen, and WR Brandon LaFell) are 6-2 or taller. Also, Newton is a great runner, but he could have been better at escaping the pressure when he was flushed from the pocket. He admitted in the press game news conference that he was holding the ball too long.
The worst news on defense was that they lost ILB Jon Beason for the season with a torn Achilles. But backup ILB Dan Conner looked fine as his replacement, and I don't expect they'll struggle too much without Beason. Their biggest problem on defense was that their players weren't winning the one-on-one battles. They got no pressure on the quarterback outside of DE Charles Johnson and DE Greg Hardy, and they allowed RB Beanie Wells to run for 5 yards per carry. In the second half, they started to get creative with their blitz packages which led to huge TD passes to TE Jeff King and WR Early Doucet after the blitz didn't get to QB Kevin Kolb in time.
Despite a surprising performance against the Cardinals, the Panthers are still one of the worst teams in the NFL. The Packers secondary needs to get their act together after a rough season opener because Newton can make some big plays against them, but we all know that they can play better than they did last week. There should be a lot of excitement in Carolina this week, after a big game from Newton and with the defending champs coming to town, but the Packers are certainly up to the challenge.