Ron Rivera had won three challenges in 15 tries as the coach of the Carolina Panthers entering Sunday’s game against Tampa Bay.
And when he challenged a fourth quarter incompletion by Tampa Bay quarterback Josh McCown, it looked like he was about to go three-for-16.
But Rivera won his first challenge this season in the 19-17 victory on an odd play where McCown actually fumbled despite the ball going nearly 20 yards downfield on what looked like a pass in real time.
Safety Roman Harper came around the right side of the offensive line on a blitz and hit McCown’s elbow just as he was about to release the ball on a pass intended for Vincent Jackson.
“When you get opportunities to change the game and momentum, you’ve got to do that,” Harper said. “And we did a good job of that today.”
The ball went forward to the Carolina 27, but rookie cornerback Bené Benwikere had the presence of mind to pick the ball up and start running. He and the rest of the defense had seen a similar play in Week 2 against Detroit that could have been ruled a fumble, but the defense didn’t collect the ball. He wasn’t going to let that happen again.
“As I was picking up the ball I was jogging and I saw Roman giving me the arm like ‘Go’ and I was like oh I’m going to go,” Benwikere said. “I hadn’t heard a whistle. I’m not really sure if they blew the whistle but I was going to run anyway.
“If the ball is anywhere on the field I’m picking it up regardless, so that gives coach the opportunity to challenge.”
Assistant defensive backs coach Curtis Fuller and assistant defensive line coach Sam Mills III saw on the replay that McCown’s hand was empty going forward, and they screamed in the headset to Rivera to challenge it.
“That meant one of our guys knocked it loose and when his hand moved forward,” Rivera said, “(McCown) had nothing in there except hitting the ball with (Harper’s) hand, knocking it forward.”
Newton watch: For a second time this season, Cam Newton was the Panthers’ biggest cheerleader on the sideline.
Five days ago, Newton suffered two fractures in his lower back in a two-car accident. The hope within the team is that he’s able to tolerate the pain enough to play Sunday against Cleveland.
Rivera said he and the training staff will monitor Newton early this week and make a decision on his availability later in the week.
“To make any judgment now would be premature and would be a mistake,” Rivera said. “He had his headset on. He was listening to what was called. He made a couple suggestions on some plays and you could hear him talking about what should be happening on the football field.”
Derek Anderson completed 25 of 40 passes for 277 yards and one touchdown, but he knows well there’s no quarterback controversy in Charlotte. If Newton can play, he will against the Browns.
“I know what kind of person he is, what kind of competitor he is,” Anderson said. “If he can play, if he feels like he can play and go out there and win football games for us, he’ll do that.”
In Week 1 against the Bucs, Newton sat out because of cracked ribs he suffered in the third exhibition. He rooted for the team from the sideline, and he even ran onto the field and into the huddle before one play.
The Panthers were warned about Newton doing that, and Carolina had to rein him in. That didn’t happen Sunday.
“Cam’s going to keep us hype on the field,” receiver Kelvin Benjamin said. “He’s going to tell us what we’re doing wrong, what we’re doing right on the field. He’s going to be the biggest supporter on the sideline.”
Familiar face, different place: Buccaneers linebacker Jason Williams, who was cut by the Panthers on Dec. 3, had two tackles on kickoffs against his old team.
Carolina let Williams go after he missed an assignment that resulted in the first of two blocked punts that the Minnesota Vikings returned for touchdowns in a 31-13 Vikings victory Nov. 30.
“It was weird being on opposite side against those guys, but it was exciting,” said Williams, who played parts of five seasons with the Panthers. “But it was good to make some plays after everything that happened.”
Williams said he had no ill feelings toward the Panthers after they released him.
“No, it’s a business,” he said.
• Running back DeAngelo Williams missed his second consecutive game with a broken bone in his hand.
• Thomas Davis suffered a hyperextended left knee during the second half. He came back in the game but left again.
• Carolina’s kickoff return unit left much to be desired. The Bucs allowed them to bring out three kicks and the Panthers averaged 15.3 yards per return.
• Anderson admitted he should have kept a read option play in the red zone rather than handing it off to Jonathan Stewart.
• The Panthers and Bucs combined to run three plays on Carolina’s side of the field in the entire third quarter.
• Jerricho Cotchery’s third-quarter touchdown was his first of the season. He had 10 last season.
By the numbers
2 100-yard pass-catchers for the Panthers in Olsen and Benjamin, the first time it’s happened for Carolina since Steve Smith and Jonathan Stewart did it in 2011.
15:02 Time of possession advantage for Carolina.
6 Rookies started for the Panthers, a team record.
5 Rookie starters for the Panthers last week against the Saints, which at the time set a team record.
• “I’m glad I was able to do my part, but I’m a perfectionist at the same time and I wish I could have that 50-yarder back. I love hitting those.” – Carolina kicker Graham Gano.
• “We have to do a good job in protecting (McCown) so that play never comes up.” – Tampa Bay offensive tackle Demar Dotson.
• “I could tell he hit it as I threw it, but I didn’t feel like I didn’t not throw it.” – Tampa Bay quarterback Josh McCown.
• “I wish he was here. I miss that guy. Me and him in the lineup together ... they’d have to carry us off in a straightjacket.” – Carolina cornerback Josh Norman on wearing colored contacts, a la defensive end Greg Hardy.
Staff writer David Scott contributed.