Reporter Joseph Person grades the Carolina Panthers’ performance against the Bengals.
A QUARTERBACK: Cam Newton looked like the Cam of old Sunday, delivering strikes downfield, slicing through the defense on designed runs and keeping plays alive with scrambles. Newton’s surgically repaired ankle obviously is feeling a lot better after he rushed a career-high 17 times for 107 yards and a touchdown, and also threw for two scores.
D RUNNING BACKS: Another day, another injury to a running back. With DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart both out, Fozzy Whittaker got the start and rushed for 25 yards on nine carries before leaving when his quadriceps tightened up. Rookie Darrin Reaves replaced Whittaker and ran eight times for 15 yards. Between the two, they finished a 2.4-yard average. Chris Ogbonnaya did not get a touch.
B RECEIVERS: Newton spread the ball around to seven wideouts and tight ends. Rookie Kelvin Benjamin had seven catches for 49 yards. He held on despite taking big hits on several receptions, including his 3-yard touchdown in the first quarter. Tight end Greg Olsen had another big game. Jerricho Cotchery had four grabs for 58 yards, but let the potential, game-winning throw go through his hands in overtime.
A OFFENSIVE LINE: Despite attempting 46 passes and dropping back on several other plays to throw, Newton was never sacked. That’s tremendous protection from a line that also did a nice job blocking on the zone-read plays. The linemen certainly benefited from Newton’s running, but it was the best overall effort by the group all season.
C DEFENSIVE LINE: Charles Johnson passed Mike Rucker for second place on the Panthers’ career sack list with 56 with his overtime sack of Andy Dalton. It was only the second time Dalton has been sacked this season, and it forced the Bengals to try a field goal on their first OT possession. Johnson had an arm-tackle attempt on Gio Bernard’s 89-yard touchdown run and was flagged for roughing in OT. DT Kawann Short had two hits on Dalton.
B LINEBACKERS: Luke Kuechly had a one-word response when asked about his emotions playing in front of friends and family in his hometown: “Tired.” He should have been after finishing with a game-high 13 tackles. Thomas Davis added nine stops, but was out of position on Bernard’s long touchdown run. On a third-quarter blitz, Davis hit Dalton’s elbow, causing him to throw a floater Antoine Cason intercepted and returned 80 yards.
D DEFENSIVE BACKS: Cason’s interception was his second of the season, and strong safety Roman Harper came up with his third when he made a nice play on a Dalton overthrow. But CB Melvin White was beaten on Mohamed Sanu’s 34-yard touchdown, evoking memories of White’s game at Baltimore that led to his benching. Charles Godfrey, playing in place of the injured Bené Benwikere at nickel, had a tough time covering slant routes in the first half.
D SPECIAL TEAMS: Graham Gano made three field goals, but he also missed a 38-yarder and failed to get enough distance on a fourth-quarter kickoff. That gave Adam “Pacman” Jones a chance, and he raced through the middle of the coverage team for a 97-yard return to set up a touchdown. It was the second-longest kickoff return allowed by the Panthers in their history, and the longest that didn’t go for a touchdown.
C COACHING : Ron Rivera didn’t live up to his Riverboat Ron nickname when he opted for an overtime field goal rather than go for the kill on fourth-and-1 at the Bengals’ 18 with 2:24 remaining. Rivera said he would have gone for it had it been a short 1. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula finally let Newton run, and the Panthers’ offense was the better for it.