Scott Fowler

Carolina Panthers’ bests and worsts: 6 things I liked, 4 things I didn’t

Panthers coach: Cam Newton 'did what he was supposed to do' against Jags

Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera addresses Cam Newton's return to action and his team's performance Thursday against the host Jacksonville Jaguars.
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Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera addresses Cam Newton's return to action and his team's performance Thursday against the host Jacksonville Jaguars.

Let’s track the extremes of Carolina edging Jacksonville, 24-23, on a wet Thursday night in Florida. If tradition holds, that’s the last we will see of most of the Panthers starters until Sept. 10 in the regular-season opener at San Francisco, as head coach Ron Rivera generally benches everyone significant for the final preseason game.

6 things I liked (and why Cam Newton should not play against Pittsburgh)

1) Cam Newton. Wow, he sure can execute a running play. There were eight of those in Newton’s first (and likely only) drive of the preseason. He interspersed that with two throws of no more than 10 yards – both on-target, but both easy throws that any NFL quarterback should make.

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Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) was all smiles Thursday night. Newton threw his first two passes of the preseason, completing both, in the one drive he was allowed in the Panthers’ 24-23 exhibition win. He said later he wished he could have played more. David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Nevertheless, Newton was 2-for-2 and got the team into the end zone on his one drive before retiring for the night to play his role as No. 1 cheerleader and sideline dance master. Two passes is an awfully small sample size – and Newton wanted to play more, asserting after the game that “I feel behind in a lot of ways.”

But I wouldn’t play Newton in Game No. 4. He’s a seven-year NFL vet. Now that his arm appears to be OK, I’d work on the timing hard in practice. The problem is that if you play Newton against Pittsburgh, you have to play all the rest of the first team, too. The injury risk outweighs the reward. “I’m ready to go,” Newton also said after the game, and all Panthers fans hope it is true.

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Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton had so much time on the sideline Thursday night that he spent part of it dancing on the sideline to the general amusement of his teammmates -- although center Ryan Kalil (67) looks unimpressed. David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Panthers quarterback Cam Newton assesses his shoulder after making preseason debut against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017.

2) Kelvin Benjamin. Is a breakout season on the horizon? Good gracious, what an August No. 13 has had.

Benjamin has been targeted eight times through three games. You know how many he has caught? All eight, including two for TDs.

Benjamin proclaimed on television Thursday night that the TD pass he caught from Newton was “the first of many” this season. It looks that way right now.

And did you catch that little “between-the-legs-with-the-ball” thing Benjamin did with one of his receptions? Whether an intentional homage to Muhsin Muhammad’s old end zone routine or not, KB looked like Moose in a lot of ways Thursday.

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Carolina Panthers wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin (13) somersaults into the end zone for a touchdown against Jacksonville Thursday night. Benjamin caught a nine-yard slant pass from Cam Newton for the TD. David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

3) Cameron Artis-Payne. Three touchdowns in the past two games?!

I just don’t think you can cut the “other Cam” – although to get a jersey on game days, he is going to need to avoid special-teams penalties. He runs hard and well, though, and continues to make the most of any opportunity he has.

Artis-Payne is not the only power running back doing well, either – first-teamer Jonathan Stewart was superb Thursday in limited action.

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Cameron Artis-Payne (34) is congratulated by running back Christian McCaffrey (22) and coach Ron Rivera after one of his two touchdowns Thursday night. Artis-Payne has scored three times in the past two games as he fights for a roster spot. David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

4) Luke Kuechly. A low-profile and effective preseason for the essential middle linebacker has been just what the doctor ordered. He looks as fast as ever, and there have been no injury issues after he sat out the final six games of 2016 due to the effects of a concussion. No way Kuechly plays in the final exhibition – he’s done all he needed to do in the preseason.

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Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly (59) has had a low-profile and effective preseason after missing the final six games of the 2016 regular season due to a concussion. David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

5) Zack Sanchez. The cornerback looked totally overmatched for much of his rookie year in 2016, but that one-handed interception he made Thursday night was extraordinary.

6) Steve Wilks. The Panthers’ new defensive coordinator called for a risky blitz in the final minute on a late fourth-down, fourth-quarter play as Jacksonville tried to drive for a game-winning field goal. Wilks sent both corners on the blitz, and it worked beautifully to force a hurried incompletion and seal the win. Hopefully that sort of risk-taking is a sign of things to come for Wilks.

4 things I didn’t like

1) Daryl Worley. The separation between No. 1 cornerback James Bradberry and No. 2 cornerback Worley has become more distinct in recent weeks, and that’s not a good thing. Worley allowed a 37-yard pass over his head Thursday night and would have given up another one of similar length but for the fact that the open Jacksonville receiver dropped it.

2) Derek Anderson. That’s two straight poor performances in preseason games for Carolina’s longtime backup quarterback. I still don’t think Carolina will release him, but it’s not out of the question anymore. Even an article on the Panthers’ team website has speculated about this possibility.

3) Kuechly’s commercial over-exposure. This was the rare Panthers game I watched on TV rather than in person, and sometimes during commercial breaks there were two straight Kuechly-based ads (one when he looks tough while working out, one when he looks silly while baking cookies). The cookie ad was funny the first time I saw it – Kuechly presents Christian McCaffrey some homemade cookies at the end – but not so much the 40th.

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Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey (22) is the Panthers’ No. 1 punt returner due to his elusiveness, but he took a couple of hard hits performing the duty Thursday night in Jacksonville. David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

4) McCaffrey’s punt returns. Ugh. I believe he should be returning during the regular season, yes, but I wasn’t fond of the rookie him getting clobbered with at least one major hit during a wet and meaningless preseason game.

Carolina Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn took a reporter's phone after Zack Sanchez's big game at Jacksonville and used it to interview Sanchez.

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