A few observations on Carolina’s 17-3 win over Tampa Bay Sunday:
▪ Carolina’s resurgent defense has allowed only two field goals in the past eight quarters, as both of Chicago’s touchdowns last week were scored by the Bears defense. This win had a mirror-image score compared with last week’s 17-3 Carolina loss.
▪ The Panthers defense has now allowed only three points in half of the team’s eight games this season – the first two games of the season and the past two.
▪ Having Luke Kuechly back after a one-game absence in the concussion protocol was huge for the Panthers. Kuechly had a fumble recovery (of Mike Adams’ fumble after an interception) and an interception himself. “Best middle linebacker in the league,” Thomas Davis said of Kuechly, “and I will scream that to everybody.”
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▪ I was fine with Carolina ceding Christian McCaffrey’s punt-returning role to Kaelin Clay, at least on a trial basis. It’s asking a lot of McCaffrey to return punts as well as do everything else he does in the offense. Clay was as successful as McCaffrey has been in returning punts – which is to say just moderately so. Panthers coach Ron Rivera said the move was made as part of an effort to relieve some of the “pressure” on McCaffrey and to get Clay and his speed on the field a little, and I would expect the Panthers to do it again next week.
▪ Carolina knows teams don’t respect the Panthers throwing the ball deep, but they sure tried to change that Sunday. Newton went deep over and over – including three passes of 30-plus yards directed at Devin Funchess and one at Curtis Samuel. All four of those fell incomplete, and one was nearly intercepted.
But Newton’s fourth-quarter throw to Kelvin Benjamin was also a fairly deep ball, and that one worked for the game-clinching TD. That’s the thing with deep balls – if you hit only 20 percent of them, you still get one really big play out of it, and maybe a touchdown. Newton also noted he was particularly happy that Benjamin scored given that his close friend was playing in Florida, his home state, for the first time since the death of Benjamin’s mother.
▪ Julius Peppers increased his team-high sack total to 7.5 with a strip-sack of Winston in the first quarter. That sack was also beneficial to Peppers’ wallet, as he reached a $250,000 contract incentive for having at least seven sacks on the season. Coleman made the recovery on the fumble. Peppers also passed Chris Doleman for fourth all-time on the career sacks list, but said he was happier after the game about the victory.
Said Peppers: “I’m more excited about us getting a road win. ... I’m not trying to diminish the other stuff that happened (in terms of the sack), because that’s a big deal too.”
▪ Offensive guard Trai Turner left the game with a knee injury. If that one turns out to be serious –Turner aggravated a knee that was already injured – that would be very bad news.
▪ Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short looks like he is having a Pro Bowl season to me. He caused Tampa Bay’s front all sorts of problems. Mario Addison (1.5 sacks) also continues to improve and now has 5.5 sacks for the season.
▪ You’ve got to give the Optimism Award Sunday to Tampa Bay safety T.J. Ward. After the Buccaneers dropped their fourth straight game to fall to 2-5, he was asked if Tampa Bay could still be a great football team.
“Absolutely,” Ward said. “I think 11-5 is a pretty good record. Of course, that’s use having to win every game from now, but it’s still possible.”
▪ On a day when Carolina’s offense often sputtered, punter Michael Palardy had a great day to pin the Buccaneers deep again and again. Palardy punted seven times for an average of 50.4 yards.