Reporter Joseph Person grades the Carolina Panthers’ performance against the Falcons.
B+ QUARTERBACK : So much for that gimpy ankle. Cam Newton made his mark Sunday with his legs, running 12 times for 72 yards – both season highs. Newton continuously scrambled away from trouble and moved the chains. He again was high on many of his throws, but his 7-yard strike to tight end Greg Olsen was on a rope.
B- RUNNING BACKS : DeAngelo Williams accounted for 106 yards – more than half on a 56-yard catch-and-run on which he fumbled. Cornerback Melvin White bailed Williams out (see below) two plays later. Mike Tolbert only carried seven times, but his 17-yard rumble in the first half set up Newton’s touchdown pass to Ted Ginn Jr.
D RECEIVERS : Life without Steve Smith, who sat with a sprained knee ligament, was rough. Brandon LaFell was targeted five times and finished with no catches, and Domenik Hixon and Ginn failed to make much of an impact either (except for Ginn’s touchdown catch). The three leading receivers were Olsen and the two running backs.
C+ OFFENSIVE LINE : Newton was sacked only once but he was forced to run out of the pocket on several other plays. He had all day to throw, however, on the go-ahead touchdown pass to Olsen in the third quarter. The Panthers rushed for 134 yards – but Newton supplied more than half of that yardage.
A DEFENSIVE LINE : Something about playing in the Georgia Dome brings out the best in the Panthers’ defensive ends. Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson combined for six of Carolina’s team-record nine sacks of Matt Ryan. Hardy had four of them, breaking Johnson’s single-game mark of 3.5, established last year in Atlanta. Star Lotulelei, Mike Mitchell and Frank Alexander had a sack apiece.
B LINEBACKERS : Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis would have been hard pressed to match their production from the New Orleans game, but they were solid enough. Kuechly led the Panthers with 10 tackles and Davis added six. Both had one tackle for loss.
B DEFENSIVE BACKS : Strong safety Quintin Mikell let Roddy White get behind him for a 39-yard touchdown catch. Other than that, the secondary was sound. White stole momentum back for the Panthers after Williams’ fumble by correctly anticipating a quick out by Harry Douglas, intercepting Ryan and returning it 8 yards for a touchdown. Captain Munnerlyn made seven tackles, and Mitchell had several big hits, including a sack of Ryan.
B SPECIAL TEAMS : Graham Gano booted all four of his kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks. Brad Nortman averaged 48.7 yards per punt, although former Panther Robert McClain had a couple of nice returns. Ginn averaged 11 yards per punt return and gained 31 yards on his only kickoff return.
A COACHING : Remember when Ron Rivera couldn’t win close games? The Panthers notched their fifth consecutive win in games decided by a touchdown or less, improving to 7-14 in such games. With Rob Chudzinski reportedly out after just one season as Cleveland’s head coach, his successor Mike Shula will be coaching in a playoff game in two weeks.