Cam Newton’s return to the football field checked off all the boxes Carolina needed.
The Panthers got their signature physical ground attack moving early, with six consecutive handoffs to both Jonathan Stewart (who racked up 43 yards on four carries during the drive) and rookie Christian McCaffrey.
Then, the team showed a tad more finesse – and the “complementary” use of their backs that head coach Ron Rivera has been touting since McCaffrey was drafted in April.
Newton threw his first pass in a live game since January. It was notably a 12-yard check-down to McCaffrey – the Panthers want to become more efficient in the short passing game with the speedy, versatile back, and the play was a demonstration of such.
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Newton also connected with Kelvin Benjamin on a 9-yard slant for a touchdown. To further sweeten the drive, Carolina kept Jacksonville’s defense on the field for six minutes and 26 seconds. Newton did not return to the game following the drive.
Jacksonville suffered back-to-back three-and-outs, but on the second, executed a slick fake punt for a 51-yard gain. Chris Ivory punched in a 1-yard touchdown run to open the second quarter to tie the game.
Graham Gano notched a 31-yard field goal to push the Panthers up 10-7 late in the second half. Jacksonville kicker Jason Myers hit a 44-yarder to tie the half at 10 apiece.
Cornerback Zack Sanchez picked off backup quarterback Blake Bortles late in the third, and Cameron-Artis-Payne ran in the resulting go-ahead touchdown. Carolina went for a two-point conversion after a Jaguars penalty moved them closer to the goal line, but it was stuffed.
Bortles threw a 4-yard touchdown pass to Shane Wynn with 13:13 left to play, and the extra point pushed Jacksonville ahead 17-16.
Artis-Payne snatched the lead back with an 11-yard run for a touchdown, and Carolina’s two-point conversion worked on a bullet from third-string quarterback Garrett Gilbert to receiver Kaelin Clay.
Jacksonville scored again late in the fourth quarter, but Bortle’s two-point conversion attempt was picked off by corner Jeff Richards and the Panthers held their 24-23 victory.
Three who mattered
Cam Newton: Newton played just one series on Thursday night, but it was both efficient for the Panthers offense and taxing for the Jaguars’ defense.
Jonathan Stewart: Stewart’s physical, punishing run style was on full display during the Panthers’ first drive as he bit off gains of five, 31, 2 and 4 yards. Rivera said last week that he wanted to bring back Carolina’s physicality on offense after a sluggish start against Tennessee, and Stewart certainly was up to the task.
Derek Anderson: Anderson struggled mightily in throughout the first half, completing 10 of 18 pass attempts and throwing an interception that led to Jacksonville tying the game with a field goal just before halftime. Anderson left the game in the third quarter, completing 10 of 19 passes for 66 yards.
▪ Jacksonville’s backup, Chad Henne, started in place of Bortles after the latter struggled in earlier exhibition games and throughout training camp.
▪ McCaffrey caught Jacksonville’s first punt of the night in the first quarter, after a third-down sack on Henne by Mario Addison stopped the Jaguars’ drive early. The running back lost a yard on the return of the well-covered punt.
▪ McCaffrey also missed the tackle on Doran Grant on the 51-yard fake punt return, but special teams ace Colin Jones was able to run Grant down and stop him from reaching the end zone.
▪ Ivory’s second-quarter touchdown was helped along by two penalties on Carolina. Defensive tackle Kawann Short was called for a face mask on Henne, and linebacker Shaq Thompson was flagged for a hold that set Jacksonville at the 1-yard line.
▪ Jacksonville opened the first half 1-for-7 on third down as Carolina’s first-team defense remained on the field.
▪ Like he did against Tennessee last week, Anderson tried to force a ball over the middle and into double coverage, and like last week, it was picked off.
▪ Panthers center Ryan Kalil also made his return to the field on Thursday night, after shoulder surgery ended his 2016 season. Rookie receiver and second-round pick Curtis Samuel also made his preseason debut after spending most of camp rehabbing a strained hamstring.
▪ Rookie defensive end Daeshon Hall is still out with a left knee contusion suffered last week. Safety L.J. McCray was also absent with an undisclosed injury, further increasing Carolina’s need for depth at the position. Third-string quarterback Joe Webb was absent with an undisclosed injury.
Undrafted free agent rookie Bryan Cox Jr. played in Hall’s place and recorded his first sack.
▪ Benjamin had another nice game in a little over three quarters played. Benjamin caught four passes for 36 yards and a touchdown.
They said it
“Yeah, it’s not like riding a bicycle.” – Kalil, after making his return to the field.
“Coach Rivera’s been talking to us all offseason about being physical and we saw it out of the gate. The offensive line controlled the line of scrimmage and we go as far as they go.” – Stewart, on the first drive.
“That’s Carolina football.” – Newton, when asked about the physicality of the first drive.