Grading the Carolina Panthers for Sunday’s game at New Orleans:
A Quarterback: Not sure what more Cam Newton could’ve done except run the ball. But it was clear Mike Shula didn’t want to expose Newton to any unnecessary hits in his return from a concussion. Newton threw for 322 yards and accounted for three touchdowns, and his only interception wasn’t his fault.
B+ Running backs: Jonathan Stewart showed his value after missing three games with a hamstring injury. Stewart rushed 19 times for 85 yards and had a pair of short touchdown runs. The Panthers finished with 103 rushing yards despite only two carries by Newton.
B Receivers: It was another strong showing by WR Kelvin Benjamin (eight catches for 86 yards) and TE Greg Olsen (six for 94), and No. 2 TE Ed Dickson added three receptions for 23 yards and a TD. Devin Funchess’ failure to get off press coverage resulted in Newton getting picked off in the end zone. But Funchess came back with a touchdown catch and 2-point conversion.
B- Offensive line: Newton had mostly solid protection. One of his two sacks came when he held the ball too long, although the Saints had 13 hits on him. Chris Scott was used as an extra TE and looked good before a holding call.
C- Defensive line: Ends Charles Johnson and Mario Addison combined for the only sack of Drew Brees and each had at least one other hit on the Saints’ QB. Kony Ealy was a non-factor despite lining up against the Saints’ No. 3 left tackle for more than half the game. DT Kawann Short had a tackle for loss, but was called for roughing vs. Brees.
B Linebackers: Luke Kuechly had a team-high 11 tackles, but seemed to go for the wrong receiver on Coby Fleener’s 50-yard touchdown catch. Thomas Davis had eight tackles and Shaq Thompson added seven, although a couple of them came after Thompson was trailing in coverage.
F Secondary: A secondary that started rookies Daryl Worley and Zack Sanchez at cornerback was no match for Brees. He had a perfect passer rating when going after Sanchez, who gave up seven completions on nine targets, according to Pro Football Focus. Teddy Williams had his first career interception.
D Special teams: Graham Gano missed an extra point after the Panthers had scored to pull within 31-30 – his fourth miss since the NFL moved PATs back 13 yards before last season. Andy Lee outkicked his coverage on a 61-yard punt that Tommylee Lewis returned 59 yards. Lee made a touchdown-saving tackle, but the Saints were in end zone four plays later.
B- Coaching: Ron Rivera defended his decision to defer after winning the coin toss. But giving Drew Brees the ball first against this secondary is a head-scratcher. Rivera channeled his inner Riverboat by going for two fourth downs (and converting both) on a second-half touchdown drive. Shula had an innovative game plan that included an end-around pass from Ted Ginn Jr. that drew a pass interference.