NFC South: Carolina Panthers

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen is having a career season. The Seattle Seahawks are having a nightmarish season against tight ends.

On paper, this seems like an area the Panthers can exploit on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium.

Olsen won’t go that far.

“Teams happen to have hit some big plays to the tight end, but there’s nothing on tape that jumps out and says, ‘Oh, man, that’s something we have to attack,’ ’’ he said of facing Seattle.

The Seahawks have faced more than their share of Pro Bowl-caliber tight ends thus far. Among them are San Diego’s Antonio Gates and Denver’s Julius Thomas, who are tied for the NFL lead in touchdowns with nine after Gates scored two against the Broncos on Thursday night.

But there’s no denying the tight end has been an effective weapon against the Seahawks. Seattle has given up a league-high eight touchdowns against tight ends and opposing quarterbacks have a rating of 99.1 -- only two teams have allowed a higher rating -- when throwing to the tight end.

Tight ends have a compiled completion percentage of 73.7 against Seattle, according to ESPN Stats and information. Only five teams have allowed a higher percentage.

San Diego, Denver and Dallas each had two or more touchdown passes to tight ends against Seattle. Gates had seven catches for 96 yards and three touchdowns in a Week 2 victory over the Seahawks.

Denver tight ends Thomas and Jacob Tamme scored a touchdown each against Seattle, as did Dallas’ Jason Witten and Gavin Escobar.

There’s every reason to think Olsen will be a major weapon on Sunday. He leads all NFL tight ends in receiving yards with 493 and is tied with Chicago’s Martellus Bennett for first in catches with 41.

Olsen is coming off a regular-season career-high 105 yards on eight catches in Sunday’s 38-17 loss to Green Bay. He also has five touchdown catches.

But Olsen isn’t predicting a monster game on Sunday.

“I don’t think there is anything that makes them susceptible," he said. “They’ve played some good guys. I don’t think that’s a weakness of theirs."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Ron Rivera turned on the film and liked what he saw. Players were swarming to the runner and pressuring the quarterback. They were making crisp, physical tackles and maintaining containment.

They were disciplined.

The Carolina Panthers coach was watching last year's opener against Seattle when the defenses for both teams looked special.

My how things have changed.

The Seahawks (3-3) and Panthers (3-3-1) finished last season ranked first and second in total defense. Heading into Sunday's rematch at Bank of America Stadium, the Seahawks look average.

[+] EnlargeRon Rivera
AP Photo/Bill HaberRon Rivera's defense has gone from from second in yards allowed per game in 2013 to 27th this season.
The Panthers look horrible.

"As a team, one side of the ball is who they are," Rivera said. "And they haven’t been that way, and neither have we."

Statistics support this. Seattle has gone from first in yards allowed per game to eighth; from first in points allowed to 19th; from first in quarterback pressure percentage to last; from first in opposing quarterback rating to 25th; and from tied for eighth in sacks to tied for 27th.

The Panthers have gone from second in yards allowed per game to 27th; from second in points allowed to 29th; from first in sacks to tied for 16th; from 12th in quarterback pressure percentage to 29th; and from seventh in opposing quarterback rating to 24th.

The points-allowed differential is staggering. Seattle has gone from surrendering 14.4 points a game to 23.5. Carolina has gone from giving up 15.06 points a game to 27.9.

In terms of defensive efficiency, Seattle has gone from first to last. Carolina has gone from third to 30th.

In case you're wondering what defensive efficiency is, here's the explanation from ESPN Stats & Information: It's expected points added (EPA) -- the sum of the differences between the expected points before the play and after the play, based on historical data.

For example, if you have a first-and-10 from the 25-yard line your EP is about plus-one. If you then complete a pass to your opponent's 1, your EP is about plus-six. So the EPA on that play is plus-five.

The simpler explanation: Carolina and Seattle have not been efficient.

It's hard to imagine another defensive struggle like they've had the past two seasons, Seattle winning 12-7 in 2013 and 16-12 the year before.

"We expected to really play lights-out defense, and I know that they did too," Seattle coach Pete Carroll said. "When it doesn't feel like that, it frustrates you. The coaches are all working hard, the players are all working hard, and everyone is busting their tails and it's not coming out exactly like you want.

"It's frustrating and it just generates -- I'm sure same as us -- a great focus to do better and clean things up and be more precise about the things we're doing."

Some things can be explained by changes in personnel. The Panthers are without sacks leader Greg Hardy, who is on the commissioner's exempt list until his domestic violence case is heard. They also had to replace three-fourths of their secondary.

The Seahawks lost 11.5 sacks and 90 tackles from last year's line: defensive ends Chris Clemons and Red Bryant for salary-cap reasons and tackle Clinton McDonald in free agency. They lost cornerbacks Brandon Browner and Walter Thurmond to free agency.

Then there's the opposition. Teams have figured out the best way to negate the pressure both teams get from their front four is by attacking with quick passes.

When asked the biggest difference between this year's team and the Super Bowl team, Carroll didn't hesitate.

"Really it’s the results of what's going on defense," he said.

The same for Rivera.

Going back and looking at last year's Seattle tape won’t solve all the issues, but it served as a good example of how the defense looked when playing sound fundamentals.

"It's just our defense flying to the ball," Carolina tackle Star Lotulelei said. "Everybody getting to the ball and finishing on plays. It's that simple. We looked at the film from last week (a 38-17 loss at Green Bay) and that was something that was missing. I don't know why it's been missing, but it has and that is what we need to get corrected."

Rivera hopes looking back will help the Panthers moving forward.

"Looking at last year's Seattle game helped us in terms of what we need to do, where we need to get to," he said. "There were a couple of technique things that you look at and say, 'Wow, I see this. We're not doing this. Let's take a look at that.'

"Just understanding what we need to do. Consistency is the name of the game, and we have not been that."

My how things have changed.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Debating who is better between Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers really isn’t a debate.

Statistically, Wilson wins almost every category.

Perhaps the debate should be on whether Wilson would have gotten a chance to develop into a Super Bowl winning quarterback had the Panthers drafted him in 2012 instead of Seattle.

Actually, that wouldn’t be much of a debate, either. The Panthers were and are committed to Newton.

But Carolina did look at the quarterback it will face on Sunday as a potential backup for Newton, the first pick of the 2011 draft. Panthers management believed Wilson’s running ability made him a good candidate to run a similar offense to Newton, should Newton get hurt.

The Panthers just weren’t willing to use a third-round pick on the 5-foot-11 dynamo, as Seattle did. They only were looking at him as a late-round pick if he fell that far.

So Wilson likely would have wasted away on the bench, just as he would have at New Orleans, Green Bay and San Diego, three other teams that showed interest before the draft.

“This league is like that, being in the right place at the right time," said Carolina backup quarterback Derek Anderson. “It’s not necessarily if you have the ability or don’t have the ability. I’ve got buddies that played just a couple of years in this league, but easily could have played 10.

“The situation by him going there worked perfect."

It worked out well for both teams. Newton has been a two-time Pro Bowl selection, leading Carolina to a 12-4 record last season. Wilson is a two-time Pro Bowl pick with a Super Bowl ring.

“I remember the Carolina Panthers talking to me and the GM and the coaching staff and all that in terms of trying to bring me in for the Panthers," Wilson recalled. “Obviously, I wanted to play. I believed that my height didn’t define my skill set.

“It has worked out well for me. Just to be in the NFL is an amazing thing; you don’t take that for granted."

Wilson has a 27-11 record as a starter, including a victory over Denver in the Super Bowl. Newton has a 27-26-1 record and is 0-1 in the playoffs.

Wilson has completed 64 percent of his career passes for 62 touchdowns. Newton is at 59.9 percent for 72 touchdowns in 16 more starts.

Newton’s biggest edge over Wilson is in rushing touchdowns. He has 29 to Wilson’s eight. The Panthers use Newton more on goal-line runs because of his size.

But in terms of rushing average, Wilson is at 5.9 yards per attempt to Newton’s 5.5.

Many will say they are the same player – minus six inches in height – because they both run. But Wilson picks up more of his rush yards off scrambling. Newton has more plays designed for him to run out of the read option.

“Some of the things that he does I don’t necessarily try to do, just because of the size difference he has over me," Wilson said.

Newton says Wilson is fun to watch, but reiterates they’re two different players. Wilson has a lot of admiration for Newton.

That the two never competed for a spot is a plus.

“A lot of times you get picked wherever somebody takes you, and for me, I was prepared to go wherever," Wilson said. “But I just believed that where I was selected I was going to make 31 other teams regret it, and that was my mindset.”
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly says he didn’t get a personal apology from the league, which has admitted it made a mistake when referees ejected the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year from Sunday’s 38-17 loss at Green Bay.

That wasn’t his goal.

“I didn’t get fined," Kuechly said on Thursday, his first public comment on the league admitting a mistake was made. “That was the big news, and that’s what I was hoping for, so that made me happy."

“It put a big smile on my face, and that’s all I could really hope for."

Kuechly swung his arm as he was being restrained from behind by back judge Steve Freeman with 1:39 left in the third quarter.

Kuechly said he wasn’t aware it was Freeman that grabbed him, adding he simply was trying to free himself from the scrum when he made contact with the official. He said there was no malicious intent or attempt to make contact with an official.

Coach Ron Rivera said the league contacted him on Tuesday to say Kuechly shouldn’t have been ejected and that he wouldn’t be fined.

“What it came down to was I didn’t get fined, and I appreciate that," Kuechly said. “I was hoping for one thing and one thing only, and not to get fined. I’m very pleased with that."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton doesn't plan to be an "idiot" when it comes to attacking Seattle's Richard Sherman on Sunday.

Newton also doesn't plan to avoid arguably the best cover cornerback in the NFL.

"If the play is called for me to read it to Richard's side, by all means I'm going to do it," Newton said Wednesday. "And I'm going to give each and every receiver an opportunity to make plays.

"I'm not going to force it. I'm not going to be an idiot. I'm going to do a great job of protecting the football and be aggressively patient in taking what the defense gives me."

[+] EnlargeRichard Sherman
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)Richard Sherman will have to work on Sunday, although Cam Newton says he won't force passes Sherman's way.
Although ESPN Stats & Information doesn't track how many times individual corners have been targeted, it does have numbers showing that quarterbacks have successfully thrown to the right side of Seattle's formation -- where Sherman plays -- more this season.

Seattle's opponents already have as many touchdowns (6) throwing to that side as they did in 2014. There has been only one interception to that side, compared to 12 last year.

Completion percentage is up, too -- 69.1 percent in 2014 compared to 55.1 percent last year. Passer ratings to that side have increased from 49.7 percent to 88.9.

The biggest exception was Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who had only 6 passing yards to the right side in a 36-16 loss to Seattle in Week 1.

In Week 2, San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers threw to Sherman's side because he believed wide receiver Keenan Allen could win some of those one-on-one battles. Allen had five catches for 55 yards in San Diego's 30-21 victory.

In Week 6, the Dallas Cowboys threw to Dez Bryant on that side in their 30-23 victory, although Sherman moved around more in that game. Bryant was targeted 10 times. He caught four passes for 63 yards.

In all likelihood, Sherman will draw rookie Carolina wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin a lot on Sunday. At 6-foot-3, Sherman will be the biggest defensive back the 6-5, 240-pound Benjamin has matched up against this season.

Benjamin doesn't appear concerned.

"You can tell he loves the game," said Benjamin, whose 34 catches for 477 yards and five touchdowns lead all Carolina wide receivers. "He brings the passion to it. He has fun. He talks a lot of smack out there, but this is football.

"I'm just going to come out there and match his intensity, play fast and be sound in all my assignments."

While the "smack" might bother some receivers, Benjamin welcomes it.

"I might come off a little harder and block him a little harder, but that's on him -- how much he talks," he said.

Talking is a big part of Sherman's game. He said on live TV after last season's NFC Championship Game that he's "the best corner in the game."

Carolina cornerback Josh Norman says you need that kind of confidence to play the position.

"As an analyst looking in, you probably think, 'OK, that guy. He's always talking. He's cocky. He has a big mouth,'" Norman said. "But at the same time, when you're looking at 4.3 [speed] guys in front of your face running down the field, what are you going to do?

"I hope you're going to be cocky. I hope you have some kind of moxie about yourself. If you don't, you're just going to get torched."

But avoiding Sherman isn't part of Carolina's game plan. Newton understands that to beat the Seahawks, you have to attack not only him, but the entire secondary.

"They have a very dominant secondary, physical secondary that does not hesitate to come downhill and play with reckless abandon and do bodily harm to the opposing team," Newton said. "As a fan of the game, you kind of like watching that from your TV.

"But when you're out there playing the game, you've got to make sure your chin strap is tightened up a little tighter and [you] understand executing the game plan is going to be at a premium this week more than any other week."
The Seattle Seahawks and Carolina Panthers are reeling as they enter Sunday's 1 p.m. ET game at Bank of America Stadium.

The defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks have lost two straight games to fall to 3-3, two games behind Arizona in the NFC West. The defending NFC South champion Panthers have gone 1-2-1 over their past four games and fallen to 3-3-1. They still lead the division because the other three teams have defenses that are just as porous as Carolina's.

Seattle and Carolina are meeting for the third straight year in Charlotte, with the Seahawks winning the previous two by scores of 16-12 and 12-7.

ESPN Seahawks reporter Terry Blount and ESPN Panthers reporter David Newton are here to break this one down for you:

Newton: Terry, the folks in Seattle have to be a bit shocked the Seahawks are .500 and two games out in the division. Is there a sense of concern at this point?

Blount: Nobody is jumping off the Space Needle, but you'd better believe the fans are concerned and a bit bewildered. There is time for the Seahawks to recover, but can they? The team hasn't played well at the line of scrimmage on either side of the ball. They can't get much of a pass rush, and the offensive line has been whistled for 14 penalties in the past three games. Injuries to key starters have hurt them: tight end Zach Miller, center Max Unger, cornerback Byron Maxwell and especially middle linebacker Bobby Wagner, who was playing the best football of his career until suffering a nasty turf toe injury two weeks ago.

You're probably getting this question a lot, but what in heaven's name is going on with the Carolina defense? The Panthers have gone from No. 2 in the NFL last season in points allowed (15.1) to a team that has given up at least 37 points in four games this season. What has been the biggest factor in the dramatic change?

Newton: Not sure the editors will give me the space to fully explain this one. You can start with the loss of defensive end Greg Hardy, who is on the commissioner's exempt list until his domestic violence case is resolved. It's hard to replace everything he did. But it goes much deeper than that. You can also look to the secondary. There are three new starters: strong safety Roman Harper, free safety Thomas DeCoud and cornerback Antoine Cason. They're making every quarterback look like Peyton Manning the way receivers are running free. The lack of a pass rush has hurt. Teams are hitting Carolina with a lot of quick passes to negate the four-man rush, just as I suspect is happening in Seattle. But, as linebacker Thomas Davis said earlier in the week, the Carolina defense as a whole simply isn't playing smart and swarming to the ball as it did last season.

Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson is playing at high level. Where has he shown the most improvement and how will his threat as a runner affect an undisciplined Carolina defense?

Blount: Dave, it's scary to think where the team would be without Wilson. He single-handedly won the Redskins game on Oct. 6, becoming the first quarterback in "Monday Night Football" history to pass for more than 200 yards and run for more than 100. His brilliant 80-yard drive in overtime defeated Denver last month, a game the defense tried to give away at the end of regulation. He's doing almost everything at a higher level now in his third NFL season, but most importantly, he understands where he needs to go with the football more quickly and when to tuck and run. That has been essential considering Wilson had been under duress more than any other QB. Believe it or not, he rarely looks to run. He has to run to avoid pressure. The key for any defense is trying to cut off the perimeter and keep him in the pocket -- easier said than done.

Rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin looks as if he's everything the Panthers hoped he would be as a first-round pick. But do they miss Steve Smith, and do you think Benjamin can be as good as, or better than, Buffalo rookie receiver Sammy Watkins?

Newton: Benjamin hasn't disappointed. He's 13th in the NFL in receiving yards with 477, and his five touchdowns are one more than Smith has in Baltimore. I'm not sure Benjamin would have developed as quickly if Smith were in Carolina. As I've said before, overall the team is better at wide receiver than it was a year ago.

As for where Benjamin stacks up against Watkins, I'd say they're pretty much the same player except Watkins has more explosive speed. But Benjamin runs routes much better than anyone gave him credit for coming out of college. He's a player even Seattle's talented secondary will have to pay extra attention to. And you do that at the expense of leaving open Greg Olsen, who leads all tight ends with 493 receiving yards.

I found the comments by Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin on the Percy Harvin trade interesting. Has that been a distraction, and how will that affect the Seattle offense?

Blount: Baldwin admitted after the St. Louis loss this past weekend that the shock of the Harvin trade, which happened less than 48 hours earlier, had an impact on the way the Seahawks started the game in getting behind 21-3. However, I firmly believe the impact going forward will be a positive one. Harvin's anger issues -- fights with teammates and taking himself out of two games -- were more than anyone could tolerate any longer.

It also was a problem on the field because Seattle revamped its entire offense to revolve around Harvin. The Seahawks got away from what they do best: run the football to set up open receivers downfield. They looked like last year's offense in the second half against the Rams, scoring on three consecutive drives of 80 yards or longer. Wilson set another NFL record, becoming the first player in league history to pass for more than 300 yards and rush for more than 100 in a game. Baldwin had his best game of the season with seven catches for 123 yards and a score. Trading Harvin was addition by subtraction in so many ways.

I'm shocked to see that Cam Newton is Carolina's leading rusher with 190 yards. What has happened to the Panthers' running game?

Newton: You wouldn't be shocked if you looked at all the injuries, a new line and opponents putting eight in the box to stop the run. Panthers all-time leading rusher DeAngelo Williams has missed the past three games with an ankle injury and has played less than six quarters this season. Jonathan Stewart has missed three starts. Mike Tolbert is on injured reserve. If you've heard the names Darrin Reaves, Fozzy Whittaker and Chris Ogbonnaya, you're either related to them or desperate in a fantasy league.

Then there's the line, which took another blow last week when starting right guard Trai Turner suffered a knee and ankle sprain that will keep him out this week. At one point Sunday, undrafted rookie David Foucault, who should be on the practice squad developing, was playing left tackle. I could go on, but I won't.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The decision to cut veteran defensive back Charles Godfrey on Tuesday left two impressions on the Carolina Panthers' locker room.

No. 1, nobody’s job is safe.

No. 2, Godfrey wasn’t cut out to be a cornerback.

But the first impression was the strongest for a Carolina defense that has allowed 37 or more points in four of the last five games and gone from one of the best in the league to one of the worst.

“It’s definitely hard to see him go, but at the same time we know it’s a business," said James Dockery, who will replace Godfrey as the nickel cornerback until rookie Bene’ Benwikere returns from an ankle injury.

“And if we don’t perform, it could be any one of us."

Free safety Thomas DeCoud agreed.

“It’s just a wake-up call," he said. “You know anybody’s number can be called. It’s the nature of the business, what we signed up for. You’ve got to take it with a grain of salt and keep fighting."

If that’s the message players got, coach Ron Rivera isn’t complaining.

“Any time moves are made and different things you do get player’s attention, it’s always a positive," he said. “This business really is about production. It’s tough sometimes, for whatever the reason being. The unintended consequences sometimes can be valuable."

Godfrey played safety from 2008 until his 2013 season ended with an Achilles injury in Week 2 He took a $4 million cut in salary during the offseason and was moved to cornerback.

He was the starting nickel corner the past two weeks with Benwikere sidelined.

He didn’t produce. He had three missed tackles in Sunday’s 38-17 loss at Green Bay and was victimized repeatedly on third down the previous week in a 37-37 tie against Cincinnati.

That’s where the second impression came in for several players.

“He was kind of out of position," cornerback Josh Norman said. “I think we all knew that. But at the same time, it’s one of those things where it’s the nature of the business. It’s the nature of the beast. It sucks when that happens. You’ve got to find a way to bounce back from it, which I know Godfrey will.

“He’s a safety, man. He can play it. He started in this league for how many years? That’s hard to do.”
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – That backup quarterback Derek Anderson has appeared in three of the last five games for the Carolina Panthers normally would be a good sign.

Not this year.

Anderson played in eight games the past three seasons at Carolina. Six of his appearances were in mop-up roles at the end of blowout victories. Two were in mop-up roles at the end of blowout losses.

The Panthers (3-3-1) haven’t had any blowout wins this season.

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
AP Photo/Tom LynnCam Newton doesn't like to come off the field, but he's being protected in blowout games by coach Ron Rivera.
So when Anderson has replaced Cam Newton, as he did Sunday in the fourth quarter of a 38-17 loss at Green Bay, it was for all the wrong reasons as far as the starter is concerned.

“It’s frustrating," Newton said on Wednesday. “It’s not frustrating coming out the game. It’s more frustrating that the product that you put out there didn’t keep your team in the game."

Carolina coach Ron Rivera understands quarterbacks like to finish what they start regardless of the situation. Had this been 2011, when the Panthers made Newton the first pick of the draft, Rivera would have left his franchise quarterback on the field.

“Early on in Cam’s career I would have left him in because he needed the development," Rivera said. “I don’t think he needs the development. But in light of the circumstances, we can’t expose him."

The circumstances are Newton is coming off ankle surgery in March and fractured ribs in August. The circumstances are Carolina has been without its top three running backs much of this season due to injuries and could be without two starters on the offensive line on Sunday against Seattle.

“He understands," Rivera said of Newton. “He gets it. He knows that there’s a certain point in a game like that, that the best thing is to take a step back, evaluate and protect him. I have to do that. It’s a long season.

“With everything that we’ve gone through, the last thing I would like to do is keep a guy in and have him get hurt. Honestly, I don’t really want to do it under those circumstances. I want to do it on the other circumstances when we’re winning."

If Newton comes out of Sunday’s game against the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks, he hopes it because the Panthers have a big lead. He understands to do that, the offense will have to start faster than it did against Green Bay and several other opponents.

While there’s been a lot of piling on the defense for giving up 21 first-quarter points against the Packers, it should be noted that the offense also wasn’t good.

Carolina gained only 5 yards in the first quarter, going three-and-out on its first two drives and picking up its only first down in the quarter on a penalty.

The Panthers finished the first half with just 113 yards and three points. Newton had a passer rating of 66.1, while Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers had a rating of 153.4.

“My main focus on everything that is going into this week is starting fast and executing the whole game," Newton said.

If he doesn’t, Anderson will have had as many relief appearances by the halfway point of this season as he had all of last season.

“Sunday vs. Green Bay was unacceptable," Newton said. “And it’s my job to make sure that ship is driving straight."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The Carolina Panthers really did defensive back Charles Godfrey a favor by letting him stay on the roster as long as they did.

Were the seven-year veteran not considered a positive influence in the locker room and just an all-around good guy, he might have been gone at the end of training camp.

But ultimately, Godfrey was judged on performance.

And his performance didn’t cut it.

That rookie Bene' Benwikere was made the starting nickel cornerback after the first game should have been a hint. The Panthers moved Godfrey from safety to corner during the offseason, believing his coverage and run-stopping skills would be a plus.

It turned into a negative, and that never was more evident than two weeks ago against Cincinnati, as it was painfully obvious Godfrey couldn’t keep up with the slot receivers.

Five times on pass plays of third-and-6 or longer, the Bengals picked up a first down on Godfrey, who started at nickel because Benwikere suffered an ankle injury the week before.

In Sunday’s 38-17 loss at Green Bay, Godfrey had a three of a team season-high 11 missed tackles.

Godfrey helped the Panthers by taking a $4 million pay cut during the offseason to avoid being cut -- his cap number was $7.1 million. But ultimately, he couldn’t help them on the field.

The Panthers need more speed at not only the nickel position, but the secondary overall. It has been a shell of the unit from a year ago. Benwikere, who is doubtful for Sunday’s game against Seattle, will provide that speed when he returns.

That the Panthers were willing to cut Godfrey and take a chance on James Dockery, who recently was re-signed after being cut at the end of training camp, pretty much said it all.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Barring what at the moment looks like an unlikely trip to the Super Bowl, the Carolina Panthers have no chance to face Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning this season.

But over the last five games the Carolina defense has surrendered Manning-like numbers to starting quarterbacks.

Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger, Baltimore’s Joe Flacco, Chicago’s Jay Cutler, Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton and Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers had a cumulative 118.7 passer rating against Carolina.

Manning leads the league with a 118.2 rating.

[+] EnlargeRussell Wilson
AP Photo/L.G. PattersonCarolina's defense has had issues stopping quarterbacks and now must face the dual-threat ability of Russell Wilson this week.
It gets worse. Next up is Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson, who ranks fifth in the league with a 101.9 passer rating and leads all quarterbacks with 327 yards rushing.

While Rodgers was completing a gaudy 19 of 22 passes for 255 yards and three touchdowns against Carolina on Sunday, Wilson was making NFL history with 313 yards passing and 106 yards rushing in a loss to St. Louis.

It was the first time an NFL quarterback surpassed 300 yards passing and 100 yards rushing in the same game. It also gave Wilson an NFL-record three games with 200 yards passing and 100 yards rushing in the same game.

He’s done it twice in the last three games.

Having Wilson next on the schedule doesn’t bode well for a Carolina defense that ranks 22nd against the pass and 26th against the run -- a defense that Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis said on Monday isn’t competing hard enough and swarming to the ball.

“He’s a quarterback that is very versatile and does a great job of getting out of the pocket and creating plays and extending plays downfield," Davis said. “As a defense you have to understand that we are in a situation where you can't leave guys or take plays off and think he’s down.

“You have to compete until the whistle is blown."

Davis said the Panthers (3-3-1) haven’t been doing that. That explains why the defense is averaging about three more missed tackles the past five games than it averaged last season. That explains why the team shook things up Tuesday, releasing veteran defensive back Charles Godfrey after he missed three tackles against Green Bay and was victimized repeatedly on third down the week before at Cincinnati.

That also explains why teams are gashing Carolina for big plays.

Wilson is a big-play threat in the running and passing games. Against the Rams, he had a 19-yard touchdown run and two other runs of 10-plus yards, including a 52-yarder.

Three weeks ago against Washington, Wilson had four runs of 10-plus yards and two of 20-plus.

It will be key for Carolina to keep him contained and pressure him.

“He’s going to make plays," Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said. “These quarterbacks we’ve faced are elite quarterbacks ... and then you go against Russell Wilson. Every week you’re getting an upper-echelon quarterback.

“That’s the challenge, and our players have to know it and embrace it. Everyone’s got to have a part to it. The coverage has to be tight, the front has got to trap the quarterback and then we have to stay disciplined with that rush.”

If not? Davis summed that up best.

“We have some really big games coming up," he said. “But first and foremost we have to go out and do our jobs against Seattle or the outcome won’t be any different than the one we had this past weekend."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The NFL got it right by admitting an official made a mistake in ejecting Carolina Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly in the third quarter of Carolina's 38-17 loss at Green Bay on Sunday.

Kuechly did nothing wrong. The reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year simply threw up his left arm when grabbed at the waist from behind by back judge Steve Freeman after being separated from a scrum following a fumble.

Kuechly didn't know -- and had no way of knowing -- it was an official, having already been pulled from the pile by a player.

It was totally inadvertent contact. No punch was thrown. There was no malicious intent.

The league apparently saw the same thing. According to ESPN's Ed Werder, a source said Carolina coach Ron Rivera has been told a mistake was made and Kuechly would not be fined.

That Kuechly is one of the most mild-mannered players in the league -- except when it comes to tackling -- had nothing to do with the uproar about the ejection. It simply was wrong.

It was so wrong that one Green Bay fan took the time to find my email address to express outrage. I'll share because it likely sums up the thoughts of many on this. It read:

"I watch arrogant players get away with nasty plays every week; this was not one of those. This was my post via Facebook at the end of your internet article; please feel free to share it if it will make a difference for an outstanding player.

"I am a Packer fan and I feel totally sorry for Kuechly. It is clear that he thought another player was pulling at him; and as soon as he realized it was an official, he became docile. There is no evidence to support the ejection, nor is there evidence to support a fine. I have seen good men taken down for actions that were not really their own; this is one of them. Kuechly: if you are reading this, please don't let the ultimate enemy win. Continue to be a quality, caliber player regardless of the egoism that is the basis for this call. I am truly sorry for you from the bottom of my heart."

Panthers linebacker Chase Blackburn felt so strongly about it that he told The Charlotte Observer he would be disappointed if the league didn't issue a statement on it.

"Officials are held accountable too," said Blackburn, who is also Carolina's NFL Players Association representative. "That's how I look at it."

The league apparently agreed.

The Film Don't Lie: Panthers

October, 21, 2014
Oct 21
A weekly look at what the Carolina Panthers must fix:

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers had a passer rating of 154.5 -- 158.3 is perfect -- in Sunday’s 38-17 victory over Carolina. Over the past five games the average quarterback rating against the Panthers is 118.7. To put that in perspective, that’s higher than Peyton Manning’s league-best 118.2 rating.

Now Carolina must face Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson, who ranks fourth in the NFL in passer rating at 101.9. Wilson leads all quarterbacks in rushing yardage with 327 and faces an undisciplined Carolina defense that ranks 26th against the run. When you include running, as ESPN Stats & Information does for its quarterback rating, the Panthers have allowed a total quarterback ranking of 82.7 over the past five games. Only four teams have been worse. Not since 2006 have the Panthers had a five-game stretch in which the opposing QBR was at least 70.

They didn’t have one pass defensed against Rodgers, who had as many incompletions (3) as he did touchdowns. The Panthers have allowed 15 touchdown receptions in seven games after allowing only 17 all of last season. All these numbers are alarming. Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said Carolina has to change the brand of defense it is playing. He pointed to a lack of effort, particularly when it comes to missed tackles and yards after the catch. The Panthers are giving up an average of 140 yards after the catch this season, compared to 106 a year ago.

It’s a fix that can be made only with better technique and effort.

“It speaks to the consistency," McDermott said. “I know this -- we have to get it back. We’ve got to do a better job of swarming to the ball carrier."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- One of the interesting moments following Sunday’s 38-17 loss at Green Bay came when Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera was asked if he planned any personnel changes.

Rivera stared at the reporter for a second, then said, "I played everybody we had."

The snap count reveals just that.

Rivera actually played some more than he ever imagined due to injuries on the offensive line. Undrafted rookie David Foucault wound up with 30 snaps (42 percent of the plays) at left tackle after Byron Bell suffered an elbow contusion.

The Canadian player is considered a project at 6-foot-8 and 305 pounds. He likely would have been on the practice squad this season to develop, but the Panthers were afraid another team might snatch him up. He had only 11 snaps prior to Sunday.

That he had to face one of the league’s elite pass-rushers in linebacker Clay Matthews was unfortunate. According to Pro Football Focus, Foucault graded out at a minus-4.3. Bell didn’t do all that much better, grading out at minus-2.4 in 41 snaps.

"He got beat a few times, one on a bull rush where he got pushed all the way back to the quarterback and then another a guy tried to dip him and he was able to wash," Rivera said. "But you see the potential and growth."

Guard Andrew Norwell, an undrafted rookie out of Ohio State, had been inactive the first six games. He played 60 snaps (87 percent) when right guard Trai Turner went down with an ankle and knee injury in the first quarter.

Only two players -- right tackle Nate Chandler and left guard Fernando Velasco – played more on offense.

If starting left guard Amini Silatolu (calf) doesn’t return this week against Seattle, either Norwell or Chris Scott -- currently on the practice squad -- likely will get the start there. If Silatolu is back, Velasco will move from the left to right side.

Rivera said Norwell, 6-6, 310 pounds, was "fun to watch." So did offensive coordinator Mike Shula, talking about how physically imposing Norwell is when he uses proper technique.

Again, not the players either expected to be protecting quarterback Cam Newton and producing an effective running game.

Defensively, Rivera didn’t have many options and used them all. Rookie strong safety Tre Boston took his first nine snaps of the season. The former North Carolina standout missed most of the offseason workouts and training camp recovering from a sports hernia.

He was another player the Panthers didn’t want to risk losing by placing him on the practice squad.

Cornerback James Dockery, cut at the end of training camp and re-signed two weeks ago when Josh Norman suffered a concussion, got seven snaps. Don’t be surprised to see him get a few more opportunities at nickel corner until rookie Bene’ Benwikere (ankle) returns.

Veteran Charles Godfrey, who replaced Benwikere, appears better suited at safety. Godfrey was responsible for three of the team's season-high 11 missed tackles against Green Bay.

Now you see why Rivera stared. Between injuries and poor play, he’s really out of options when it comes to personnel moves.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers could have running back DeAngelo Williams back on the practice field Wednesday, coach Ron Rivera said Monday.

Williams has missed the past three games with a high ankle sprain suffered in the first half of a Sept. 28 loss at Baltimore. The team’s all-time leading rusher hasn’t participated in practice since.

Williams walked through the locker room Monday with no visible signs of a limp, but there was tape on his right ankle.

The Panthers' offensive line has several injury situations to work through this week. Rookie right guard Trai Turner has a sprained ankle and knee and likely won’t be available for next Sunday’s game against Seattle.

Turner suffered the injury in the first half of Sunday’s 38-17 loss at Green Bay.

Left tackle Byron Bell suffered an elbow contusion that doesn’t appear to be serious. His status for the Seattle game will be determined later in the week, but Rivera sounded optimistic on his availability.

Left guard Amini Silatolu, who missed Sunday’s game with a calf injury, could return this week.

Rivera didn’t sound optimistic that nickel cornerback Bene Benwikere, who missed his second straight start with an ankle injury, would return. But he said Benwikere would replace Charles Godfrey in the lineup when he does.

Rivera remained in wait-and-see mode on whether Josh Norman, who has missed two games with a concussion, would return as a starting cornerback.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Colin Cole took a moment on Sunday to reflect on his 2010 season with the Seattle Seahawks.

It had nothing to do with the defending Super Bowl champions coming to Charlotte this week.

It had everything to do with perspective.

The 2010 Seahawks went 7-9 during the regular season, which was good enough to win the NFC West in a tiebreaker over the St. Louis Rams. They went on to beat an 11-5 New Orleans team 41-36 in the first round of the playoffs.

Cole brought that season up to remind that as bad as the Panthers (3-3-1) looked in a 38-17 loss to the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field, they remain in first place in the NFC South.

On a day when nothing went right for Carolina, the New Orleans Saints blew a fourth-quarter lead in a 24-23 loss at Detroit and Atlanta was pounded 29-7 by the Baltimore Ravens.

That left the Saints at 2-4 and the Falcons at 2-5.

The only NFC South team that didn't lose was 1-5 Tampa Bay, and the Buccaneers were on a bye.

"It's very positive that every team lost," Cole said.

That's about the only positive thing that came out of Carolina's loss, leaving the Panthers 1-2-1 in their last four games. The defense was horrible and the offense wasn't much better.

"Somehow we're still in first place, which is great, but by no means a reflection of how well we're playing at times," tight end Greg Olsen said. "It really is a week-by-week league."

And this week, the Panthers face a 3-3 Seattle team that has lost two straight and three of its last five games to fall two games out of first place in the West.

"You've got to put all your efforts into each game and try to get one win at a time," Olsen said. "You don't worry about stretches. You don't worry about who you have in a couple of weeks. You worry about the immediate.

"We've got a long time before we have to worry about the division, but it's nice that during some of these bad weeks we caught some breaks with the other teams struggling, too."

The Panthers may be playing bad defense, giving up 37 or more points in four of their last five games, but the rest of the division also is porous defensively.

It's so bad that former Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith called the NFC South a "finesse division" after the Ravens made the cumulative score 115-34 against Carolina, Tampa Bay and Atlanta this season.

Smith wasn't saying that a year ago, when Carolina had the league's second-ranked defense en route to a 12-4 record and the NFC South title. But that's another story.

The story of this season's division race looks much like the one Seattle had in 2010. The way things stand, seven wins might be enough to win it.

And as quarterback Cam Newton reminded, it's too early to call the situation critical as bad as the loss looked and with injuries continuing to mount -- now on the offensive line with left tackle Byron Bell (elbow) and right guard Trai Turner (ankle sprain) in question.

"What we going to do? Quit?" Newton said. "Absolutely not. We've got to keep going, keep fighting. We'll find a way to get out of this."

Because the rest of the NFC South keeps losing, the Panthers have time to do that.

"Hey, we'll take it how we can get it," free safety Thomas DeCoud said. "But we want to start winning some football games.