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2013 CAROLINA PANTHERS

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Rookie DT Star Lotulelei becoming more effective for Carolina Panthers following Thursday’s game

Just minutes after Ron Rivera told the media that rookie defensive tackle Star Lotulelei had the best game of his young NFL career, Lotulelei stayed modest.

He racked up four tackles, three for a loss, and a sack of Super Bowl XLVII MVP Joe Flacco on Thursday night in the Panthers’ 34-27 victory against the Baltimore Ravens, but he believes his performance still needs to be better.

“It was OK. It was good productivity-wise,” Lotulelei said. “I made a couple plays. But assignment-wise I still have to clean some things up and technique-wise I have to clean some things up with my pass rush and staying in my gap. I made some plays but still got to keep working to get better.”

The Panthers drafted Lotulelei with the 14th overall pick in April’s draft with the hope that he could be a run-stuffing defensive tackle to fill the void on an otherwise stout front seven.

After needing about a quarter to settle in against a mostly no-huddle Ravens offense, Lotulelei made his presence felt in the Ravens’ fourth series. He tackled Ray Rice for a loss of 3 yards on the first snap, got a nice pass rush on Flacco on second down and took down Rice 3 yards behind the line again later in the drive.

“He seemed to be stout at the point (of attack),” Rivera said. “He seemed to penetrate and get the ball going sideways. The one thing, when they hit us a couple of times, the ball was going downhill. If you can make the ball bounce sideways, you give our linebackers an opportunity to run and make plays.”

Lotulelei’s biggest weakness has been a consistent pass rush, but that started to come together against the Ravens. He sacked Flacco on a third-and-6 in the third quarter after continuing to have his way with Baltimore’s starting left guard Kelechi Osemele.

Fellow rookie tackle Kawann Short also got a sack when he beat the right guard and took down Flacco. The second-round pick finished with three tackles, all of which went for losses.

“It actually feels like (the game) is slowing down,” Short said. “I’m just trying to go 100 miles per hour. They tell us if you mess up, mess up going 100 miles per hour.”

Here are nine other observations from Thursday night:

•  Byron Bell struggled at right tackle. In the first series he allowed one quarterback pressure, and it would have been two had the play not been called back because of his illegal formation penalty. The Panthers’ rushing game was weak, and it was weakest on runs to the right side of the line.

•  Because of his speed, corners tend to give Ted Ginn Jr. a lot of cushion on the line of scrimmage. That means on some stop routes, Ginn usually sits and waits on a pass longer than most receivers. His 9-yard catch in the first quarter was exactly that.

•  Rivera had a 15-play limit for linebacker Jon Beason in his first live-game action in nearly a year. Beason was taken out after 14 snaps but said he wanted more. Rivera was impressed with how well Beason moved after just three practices, and he chalked some of that up to Beason paying attention and staying involved in practices when injured.

•  Running back Armond Smith kicked linebacker Albert McClellan in the fourth quarter of the game and was ejected.. Smith will likely be fined by the league, and a disappointed Rivera said Smith was “very apologetic” after the incident.

•  Ginn’s 74-yard punt return was a shot in the arm to Carolina, but what made it more impressive was the fact that gunner Chykie Brown, the only would-be tackler that Ginn had to shake, went untouched down the field despite Haruki Nakamura and Josh Norman covering him at the line of scrimmage.

•  The first-team offense hasn’t exactly wowed anyone, but Cam Newton was engineering a nice two-minute drill at the end of the first half. The Panthers went from their own 35 to Baltimore’s 36, but Brandon LaFell’s drop on third down stalled the drive and forced a field goal.

•  Rookie running back Kenjon Barner got his first in-game snaps with Newton, and on his second play Newton had to direct the rookie on which side of him to stand. Barner, who injured his foot at the end of the first half but said afterward he’d be OK, has to work on his blitz pick-up and pass protection.

•  Flacco doesn’t throw a lot interceptions – he’s never had more than 12 in a season – but Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Thursday night that Flacco’s two-interception game had a lot to do with the quarterback getting a feel for the new guys and that not “everybody was exactly where they were supposed to be.”

•  Because of left guard Amini Silatolu’s leg injury, the Panthers flipped Garry Williams from right guard to fill Silatolu’s void and brought in Chris Scott at right. Rivera said Scott is “more of a natural right guard” and admitted that Williams “struggled a little” with the left side.

Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9
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