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Sorensen: Without overreacting, here’s what I’ve seen with the Panthers

Tom Sorensen
Tom Sorensen has been a columnist at The Observer for more than 20 years and has been at the paper for more than 25, writing about nearly every sport in the Carolinas.
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Jeff Siner - jsiner@charlotteobserver.com
The Panthers have one wide receiver, 6-foot-5 rookie Kelvin Benjamin, above. Quarterback Cam Newton throws to Benjamin or tight end Greg Olsen. Free-agent newcomers Jason Avant and Jerricho Cotchery might as well be ornaments. Do they not get open or does Newton not look for them?

Because we get only one Carolina Panthersgame a week, we get time to overreact.

The Panthers lose at home 20-18 to Buffalo? They can’t block, they can’t throw and they can’t make the 2014 playoffs.

The Panthers beat Kansas City at home 28-16? They can’t be stopped, they’re going deep into the playoffs and, excuse me, when will the life-size bronze statue of running back Fozzy Whittaker be completed?

And then, on Friday in New England, the Panthers play an exhibition that is more like a regular-season game than any other in the preseason. Carolina’s defense is handled by New England’s offense, and Carolina’s offense is handled by New England’s defense. The Patriots run up a 30-point lead and win 30-7.

If I ever became overly excited by one exhibition, good or bad, I’ll turn in my notebook and buy a Panther jersey. And unless I make the roster, I’m not wearing a Panther jersey. As bad as the Panthers were Friday, I’m not going to panic. I’m bad at it.

But, with a mere 16 days between the New England debacle and the regular-season opener in Tampa Bay, here’s what I’ve seen:

The Panthers have one wide receiver, 6-foot-5 rookie Kelvin Benjamin. Quarterback Cam Newton throws to Benjamin or tight end Greg Olsen. Free-agent newcomers Jason Avant and Jerricho Cotchery might as well be ornaments. Do they not get open or does Newton not look for them?

Benjamin has caught eight passes. He’s been superb in practice and on game night, and he might be another steal by general manager Dave Gettleman.

Avant and Cotchery have each caught one practice-game pass. I know that Benjamin and Newton are friends. Newton has a friend. Hooray. But maybe he could throw to acquaintances, too.

Another issue: I don’t see the offensive line opening holes for running backs. When, a few days after the Buffalo game, I asked head coach Ron Rivera if that concerned him, he said it did. He also said Kenjon Barner and the other reserve backs missed several holes. So it was no surprise, then, that Carolina traded Barner.

Jonathan Stewart and Whittaker have run hard and effectively. Stewart also did an outstanding job on one sequence of picking up the Patriot blitz.

DeAngelo Williams, however, has rushed eight times for 18 yards. Williams’ strength has always been improvisation. The hole he’s assigned is filled, he sees an opening elsewhere before anybody else does and he’s through it, occasionally for a long gain.

Because of those long gains, he’s averaged at least 4.1 yards a carry in eight seasons as a Panthers.

In the 2013 preseason, he averaged 2.4 yards per carry. It could be he’s merely warming up. It could be that at 31 he’s used up. We’ll know soon enough.

I have no concerns about the Panther defense even though it was knocked around in the opening series by the Bills and the Chiefs, and knocked around the final three quarters by the Patriots.

I think second-year defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short will be outstanding. I think the secondary, once Roman Harper returns, will be as good as it was last season. I think linebacker Thomas Davis had 24 first-half tackles against New England (but that’s unofficial).

The defense again will be top five.

The offense won’t. The offense isn’t designed to score 30 points a game. But offensive coordinator Mike Shula did score 30 or more points six times in 2013.

When the Panthers had to be effective last season, they were. When Newton had to convert on third down or on fourth down in the first year of Calculated Risk Ron, he did.

But watching Newton run the last three weeks has been painful. The grace, power and speed with which he has always moved are absent.

And, when the games count, you don’t tell a running quarterback not to run. Running is one of the qualities that distinguish Newton. Even as he ages it will continue to be, even if he’s merely moving around until Benjamin breaks free.

Newton has to again become comfortable being Newton, which means he runs, he rolls and he believes in the ankle that was surgically repaired in March.

There were two questions on the first day of training camp in Spartanburg: Would the offensive line hold up, and would Newton’s ankle?

On Saturday, 28 days later, we still don’t know.

Sorensen: 704-358-5119; tsorensen@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @tomsorensen
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