Carolina Panthers

Strike force: Panthers offense catching up with championship-caliber D

It wasn’t too long ago the Carolina Panthers played offense with the intent of keeping their defense well rested and their fans well hydrated.

When the Panthers had the ball, fans could run to the fridge, make a sandwich, pop an adult beverage and take the trash out – and still get back to the TV in time to see Cam Newton dive into the end zone and dab on dem folks.

That was so 2013.

These Panthers (13-0) – as was evidenced again Sunday in a 38-0 thrashing of Atlanta – can still do the ground-and-pound thing with running back Jonathan Stewart.

But with the blazing and sometimes befuddling Ted Ginn Jr. as their de facto No. 1 wide receiver, the Panthers have the ability to score points in a hurry – even if the rest of the league hasn’t quite caught on to Ginn yet.

Ginn blew past the Falcons for a pair of first-quarter touchdown grabs – covering 74 and 46 yards – as the Panthers built a 28-0 lead and cruised home with a 38-point victory, matching the largest margin in franchise history.

Those were Ginn’s only two catches. But after last week’s high-wire act in New Orleans – in which Ginn caught two touchdown passes and dropped two more – Sunday’s scores gave him four in the past two weeks and eight for the season.

Kelvin Benjamin, the wideout Ginn replaced after Benjamin went down with a season-ending ACL tear in training camp, led the Panthers with nine touchdown catches last season.

“I think people continue to underestimate just how fast he is,” tight end Greg Olsen said of Ginn. “I think until you see it live, you don’t realize that he’s playing at a different gear than most guys. He gets on those guys fast. If they don’t get out of their backpedal quick, he’s gone.”

It helps that Ginn has a strong-armed quarterback to get him the ball.

Ginn made no bones about why he’s been an elite receiver with Carolina and forgettable at his other stops during his nine-year career.

“I give all my success to Cam Newton. Without him, there is no Ted Ginn,” he said. “I can’t say that vice versa. But we really, really have a nice thing going right now.”

On Ginn’s 74-yard touchdown against Atlanta (6-7), he had one-on-one coverage from cornerback Robert Alford, who was whistled for illegal contact against Ginn.

Didn’t matter.

Ginn collected the ball above his head, secured it while staying inbounds and took off for the longest completion of his career and the longest Panthers play of the season.

Give offensive coordinator Mike Shula credit for Ginn’s second score, which looked a lot like the play last week in New Orleans when Ginn ran deep across the field and was covered (poorly) by rookie linebacker Stephone Anthony.

Remarkably, Shula was able to get Ginn matched up against a linebacker again. This time it was Philip Wheeler, who faked like he was going to come off the edge as a pass-rusher.

That immediately put him a step behind Ginn, who had a clean release from the slot, hauled in Newton’s toss around the 12 and beat safety Ricardo Allen to the end zone.

“Only thing I can do is thank my coaches. They schemed that play up pretty good,” Ginn said. “Cam delivered the rock. The line blocked well. My other guys did what they had to do to make sure I could get open.”

Newton, who finished with a career-high passer rating of 153.3, said the big-chunk plays seem to come easier when Shula is calling them – and the offense is executing them – with confidence.

Newton said the Panthers aren’t counting on any one offensive player to make plays.

“We have a saying on offense, ‘Let’s take turns making plays,’ ” Newton said. “Ted only needed two catches to display that. It’s fun to watch.”

The Panthers have scored at least 33 points in five of their last six games to become the league’s most prolific scoring team. Carolina is first at 31.6 points per game, pending the Sunday night game between New England (31.2) and Houston.

But the Panthers also entered Sunday leading the league in time of possession.

“Obviously we’ve been a keep-the-ball, take-possession-of-the-clock, give-the-defense-some-rest (offense). That’s definitely been our formula,” center Ryan Kalil said. “But we want to put points up on the board. So however we get them, we’ll get ‘em. Whether they’re quick or long and drawn-out, grind-them-out (drives). We’ll take them that way, too.”

Panthers coach Ron Rivera said the Falcons came out aggressively on defense, putting as many as eight players near the line of scrimmage. That created some favorable matchups in the secondary.

Helped by Ginn’s two long grabs and a season-long 44-yard run by Stewart, the Panthers rolled up 260 yards and 21 points in the first quarter. It was the most yards by Carolina in any quarter in its history, and the most by an NFL team this season.

“They came out playing some eight-men box stuff and really got after us trying to stop the run,” Rivera said. “Cam made a couple really good decisions. I thought Mike called a really good game and we were able to exploit some things.”

Led by Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and others, the Panthers have had a championship-caliber defense for the past few seasons. But about as fast as a Ginn go route, their offense – even without Benjamin – has caught up with the D.

It’s been a history-making combination.

Joseph Person: 704-358-5123, @josephperson

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