Carolina Panthers Torrey Smith had one thought rush through his mind after he saw quarterback Cam Newton take a brutal shot to the head in the second quarter of Sunday’s game at Atlanta.
“Get to whoever did it.”
Falcons safety Damontae Kazee was ejected from the game, ultimately a 31-24 Panthers loss, but not before Smith shoved him away from Newton as the quarterback lay on the ground after the helmet-to-helmet hit. Newton had been rushing on a fourth-down carry, but slid down before Kazee’s contact.
“It probably wasn’t the most mature answer, but in the heat of the moment I’m going to stand up for any of my guys,” Smith said. “I know, I understand it’s tough for (defensive players). But even if it’s accidental, you try to pull off. So I mean, it looked like (Kazee) straight rocked him. So it wasn’t good to see that hit for Cam, or (Falcons quarterback) Matt Ryan or whoever the quarterback is.”
After Kazee was ejected, Smith was flagged for a personal foul and the penalties ultimately offset.
“I definitely agree with the ejection. And I agree with what Torrey did,” said receiver Jarius Wright, who after the game said Kazee’s hit was malicious and intended to hurt Newton. “That’s our quarterback, and we’re going to fight for him and we’re going to protect him.
“If something happened to me like that, I would expect Torrey to do the same. If something happened to Torrey like that, I would do the same for him. At the end of the day, we have to be smart about it but we do have to have each others’ backs at the same time.”
Newton didn’t want to discuss the hit much after the game, saying “what needed to happen, happened” in terms of Kazee being ejected. “It looked worse than it did. I’m just lucky nothing pretty much happened,” he said.
Newton didn’t miss a snap after walking off the field with trainers, when he was evaluated for a concussion and cleared.
“There’s no fit for cheap shots like that,” he said. “But at the end of the day, I can’t blame him. He’s playing as hard as he can, I’m playing as hard as I can. That’s what this game brings.”
The sequence got Smith a little frazzled, and he was called for a false start two plays later.
“I had three (total) penalties. ... That’s unacceptable,” he said. “That’s not something that I do all the time and it’s definitely not something I’m expected to do as a veteran on this team. So I have to be better, look myself in the mirror and be better for next week.”
That might be a course of action for several of the Panthers’ receivers, whose overall performance can be summed up with a few bright moments, and a lot of drops.
Newton went 32 for 45 for 335 yards, three touchdowns and an interception, which came on a ball that tipped off of running back C.J. Anderson’s hands and into the arms of Ricardo Allen.
Rookie tight end Ian Thomas missed a sure touchdown catch that hit him square in the numbers in the end zone. Devin Funchess, despite finishing with nine catches for 77 yards, had a crucial third-down drop. On the team’s opening drive, receiver Jarius Wright dropped a low, but catchable, third-down pass that held Carolina to a field goal instead of potentially setting up a touchdown. Rookie DJ Moore appeared to under-run a route in the third quarter, and the intended pass was almost picked off by Desmond Trufant.
“We’ve just got to hone in and focus a little bit more,” Newton said. “Very excited about the flashes that we showed, but at the end of the day, coming into a hostile environment, every single play counts — especially in a division game like this.”
Newton relied on running back Christian McCaffrey and Wright as his go-to receivers as the team mounted its comeback. And other than Wright’s first-drive bobble, they didn’t drop anything.
McCaffrey tied Steve Smith Sr.’s franchise record for single-game catches with 14 on 15 targets, and had 102 receiving yards with an 18-yard long.
Wright caught a 5-yard touchdown pass on the same drive when Newton got hit by Kazee, which seemed to settle the emotions on the offense a bit.
But a rare, porous defensive front allowed the Panthers to give up 170 rushing yards (their highest allowed since Week 13 against Seattle in 2016) and 442 yards of offense.
It was so bad, in fact, that big ol’ statue Matt Ryan, the Falcons’ quarterback, scored two rushing touchdowns — a career high.
The Panthers scored 14 fourth-quarter points to claw back from a first-half deficit, and got the ball back with 1:48 to play.
Newton unfurled a long pass with five seconds remaining to Moore in the end zone.
Moore had pulled in his first NFL reception earlier in the quarter, and he took it through 51 yards of traffic for a touchdown. He had the hot hand, but the ball bounced off his arms as he tried to eyeball it through his coverage.
Distraught, he crouched in the end zone as the clock ran out and stared at the Falcons’ players celebrating in the middle of the field before heading into the locker room, the high of his first NFL touchdown replaced by disappointment in just a few minutes.
But that was the Panthers’ story on Sunday, as they fell to 1-1.
“It was so much good in this game,” Newton said. “But it was just as much good as it was bad. We are better than that. And we have to find our edge.”