Published November 20, 2014
Cam Newton's NFL debut wasn't a victorious one, but it was still impressive enough to grab headlines across the nation.
The Carolina Panthers' top overall draft pick may find success harder to come by in his second career game, with the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers slated to invade Bank of America Stadium on Sunday.
Newton set an NFL record for a quarterback making his first-ever appearance when he racked up 422 passing yards in last week's 28-21 loss at Arizona. He also threw for two touchdowns with one interception for a 110.4 passer rating, while his yardage total tied a league single-game mark for a rookie set by Detroit's Matthew Stafford versus Cleveland in 2009.
"Like Coach [Ron Rivera] says, 'when you're just good enough, you're just good enough to get beat'," Newton said afterward. "We've just got to go back and get better."
Rivera, Carolina's first-year head coach, said Newton still has a long way to go in learning the position, though he was obviously pleased with his performance. He will now get to see how his young quarterback reacts when one of the NFL's best teams touches down in Charlotte this week.
Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith will be ready for the challenge, however, and made Newton's first NFL start a bit easier by snaring eight receptions for 178 yards and two scores, including a 77-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter.
Smith was also impressed with the way Newton handled himself after Sunday's loss.
"Cam is very disappointed," Smith said. "I'm encouraged by that."
The only aspect for the Panthers more discouraging than losing was when middle linebacker Jon Beason tore his already-ailing Achilles' tendon during last week's game. Beason, who underwent foot surgery in the offseason and didn't participate in the preseason, may have been rushed back too soon and is now done for the season. He will be replaced by Dan Connor, who started eight games at the position last season before breaking a bone in his hip and had six tackles Sunday.
Connor steps into a starting role for first-year defensive coordinator Sean McDermott's unit that will have its plate full in the coming weeks, with the Panthers slated to play Green Bay, Jacksonville, Chicago, New Orleans and Atlanta over the next five games. Four of those teams reached the playoffs last year.
The Packers opened defense of their Super Bowl title with a 42-34 shootout win over the Saints at Lambeau Field on Sept. 8. They picked up right where they left off from topping Pittsburgh in last season's Big Game, with Aaron Rodgers further cementing his case as one of the game's top passers by putting up 310 yards and three touchdowns through the air.
Rodgers completed 27-of his-35 attempts for a Packers team that welcomed back some familiar faces such as tight end Jermichael Finley and running back Ryan Grant. The two were just two of several players Green Bay lost to injury during its run to the title last season.
A defense that suffered its fair share of personnel losses as well in 2010 appeared a bit rusty versus the Saints, allowing 477 total yards. Saints quarterback Drew Brees dropped 419 yards passing on the group, but Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers was pleased with the late stops his unit made to preserve the win.
Capers, though, said his defense needs improvement in all areas, specifically tackling, and will be ready for the Panthers.
"We work on tackling every day," he said. "I felt from '09 to last year we improved tremendously. I don't feel we have a bad tackling team. We have an awful lot of things we can clear up from this game. We'll show improvement next week against Carolina."
Green Bay is scheduled to play five of its next seven games on the road.
Green Bay holds a 6-4 edge in the overall regular-season series between the teams, with the Panthers closing the gap by virtue of a hard-fought 35-31 win at Lambeau Field in 2008. That win avenged a 31-17 defeat at the hands of the Packers in Wisconsin the previous season. Green Bay has prevailed in four of its six lifetime trips to Charlotte, but was handed a 32-29 loss in its most recent visit to Bank of America Stadium, which took place during the 2005 campaign.
The first-ever meeting between the Packers and Panthers actually took place in the postseason, when Green Bay came through with a 30-13 triumph in the 1996 NFC Championship Game.
Mike McCarthy is 1-1 against Carolina since taking over as Green Bay's head coach in 2006. Rivera has never faced either the Packers or McCarthy as a head man.
WHEN THE PACKERS HAVE THE BALL
Rodgers (312 passing yards, 3 TD) did not throw an interception in last week's win over the Saints and should feel confident going into this matchup with the Panthers, since Carolina failed to pick off new Cardinals quarterback Kevin Kolb in Week 1. He threw all three of his touchdown passes in the first quarter, the type of early production any team would want. Once hidden in the shadows of Brett Favre, Rodgers is paving his own alley to glory, though he's not doing it alone. All-Pro receiver Greg Jennings (89 yards, 1 TD) had a team- best seven receptions against the Saints, while Jordy Nelson (77 yards, TD) was second with six catches. Finley finished with 53 yards on three receptions and veteran Donald Driver (4 receptions, 41 yards) tied James Lofton's team record for career yards receiving with 9,656 during the win. The four receptions give him 702 for his career, making Driver the first Green Bay player to reach 700 catches. Rookie wideout/return man Randall Cobb got into the mix as well with two catches for 35 yards and a score, but made even more noise when he returned a kickoff 108 yards for a touchdown. The Packers could have just as easy of a time picking apart Carolina's defense this week, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see running backs Grant (40 rushing yards) and James Starks (57 rushing yards, TD) get more carries with hopes of further denting Carolina's linebackers.
The loss of Beason in the middle is huge for Carolina. The three-time Pro Bowl selection, whose season came to an end in the third quarter of last Sunday's loss, had been bothered by a left Achilles' problem since after the draft and was initially diagnosed with tendinitis. He then underwent surgery late last month on his heel and needed to rest for about three-to-four weeks, but came back before that and made his 65th consecutive start, only to have his hopes of a productive season dashed after going down the second half. Beason, who was placed on injured reserve on Wednesday, is the second Carolina linebacker in the past two years to sustain an season-ending injury after returning from surgery, as Thomas Davis tore the ACL in his right knee last June. Davis is now back healthy, however, and led the Panthers with seven tackles against the Cardinals, while several reserves -- including Connor (6 tackles) -- now have a chance to shine with Beason out. Connor is Penn State's all-time leading tackler and will now start in the middle while subbing out on passing downs. Defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy each had a sack last Sunday.
WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL
Newton (422 passing yards, 2 TD, INT) shattered the rookie passing mark for Opening Weekend which was previously held by Colts legend Peyton Manning, who had 302 yards passing versus Miami back in 1998. Newton's 422 yards also set a team rookie passing record, surpassing the mark of 335 yards by Kerry Collins at New Orleans in the 1995 season lid-lifter. Newton, who also rushed for 18 yards and one touchdown on eight attempts, has his work cut out for him this weekend, but at least will have the home crowd to support him. The Packers can attack from all different areas of the field and will be trying to add to Newton's sack total of four from last week. Newton mentioned after the Arizona game how he needs to work on trusting his receivers, since he's surrounded by so many talented players such as Smith, tight ends Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey and running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. He still earned high marks for his performance, with left tackle Jordan Gross saying the offense was very productive and Newton kept his composure through the face of adversity. That area will be tested again by a fierce Packers defense on Sunday. While Smith became the second player in franchise history to surpass 9,000 career receiving yards (9,062), joining Muhsin Muhammad (9,255 yards), the Panthers' ground game struggled to 74 yards against the Cardinals. Williams rushed for a team-leading 30 yards on 12 carries, while Stewart added 26 yards on seven touches. Carolina must right that ship for Sunday's test.
Green Bay must not underestimate Newton's athleticism and take into account his size and mobility. He's a much different player than what the team faced last week in Brees, a typical pocket passer whose legs tend not to strike fear into defensive coordinators. Newton will give the Packers trouble when moving out of the pocket unless the linebackers play disciplined and stay in their zone, and McCarthy said Newton looked "like he was in control" of Carolina's offense as evidenced by his rookie passing record of 422 yards. Green Bay's defense was victimized by Brees for poor coverage in Thursday's win, but was able to come up with big stops towards the tail end of the game to prevent the Saints from stealing a victory. Cornerback Sam Shields (8 tackles) had a team- best two passes defensed and Charles Woodson (2 tackles) is a perennial All-Pro who was involved in a few skirmishes with the Saints. He will have to cool his emotions when matched up against the fiery Smith of Carolina this week. Packers safety Nick Collins (8 tackles) sustained a sprained wrist in Week 1 and played through the injury, while cornerback Tramon Williams (3 tackles) suffered a bruised shoulder that leaves him questionable for Sunday's game. He is expected to be re-evaluated later in the week. Getting pressure up front will be the line's objective in order to keep Newton from having an encore performance.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Newton shined in his pro debut against a very average Arizona defense, but now gets to face one of the best the NFL has to offer in Green Bay. Will the rookie crack under the pressure, or will he push through for his first win on the NFL level? With some Packers' defensive backs ailing, it could happen.
Green Bay can obviously throw the ball, but it will be even more important to establish the run early against a Panthers team that had trouble stopping Cardinals running back Beanie Wells last week. Grant is back at full strength and Starks is gunning for even more playing time, so it will be a challenge for the Panthers' defense.
Speaking of the run, DeAngelo Williams needs to have a better showing in Week 2 for Carolina to have a chance. He managed just 30 yards on only 12 carries last weekend, and that's not enough to keep the Green Bay defense on its heels.
In order to knock Newton off his high horse, the Packers will have to do just that -- knock him down. Green Bay was able to get to Brees three times in a season-opening win, but Newton is a different breed of quarterback that needs extra attention from safeties and corners coming off the edges. The Panthers will find it difficult to run against the Packers' defense, leaving Newton with no choice but to try to beat the defending champions through the air. And that seems too much to ask from a rookie in his home debut. The last thing Rivera wants is to have the home crowd take an idea from Denver's fan base and cheer for the backup, though that's highly unlikely to take place. Rodgers was second string for a few years behind Favre earlier in his career, and he can teach Newton a thing or two about patience and turning pressure into success when he leads his Green Bay team to an eighth straight win dating back to 2010.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Packers 30, Panthers 16