Four Downs: Panthers stifle Manning, shutout Giants

The defense had seven sacks and Cam Newton showed his old form as the Panthers shut out the Giants.

The New York Giants abused the Panthers 36-7 a year ago in Charlotte, but the Panthers avenged that defeat Sunday, breaking through for their first victory of the season with a 38-0 shutout. Here are four observations from the game:

1. Put away your pitchforks ... Rivera's here to stay

Don't get the moving trucks ready just yet. At 0-2 heading into Sunday, owner Jerry Richardson would have likely had a decision on his hands if the Panthers walked away 0-3. They didn't.

Instead, Ron Rivera got the biggest victory of his tenure Sunday, destroying a Giants team that had destroyed them on the same field a year prior.

It even showed a reversal of sorts out of Rivera. He's been criticized throughout his tenure for his conservative calls on fourth down and being risk averse late in games. But late in the first quarter after Greg Olsen was stopped a yard short of the first down at the two-yard line, Rivera went for it on 4th and 1 and Mike Tolbert plowed into the end zone easily.

"Initially the thought going into this game was that to beat teams you have to score touchdowns. I thought with the way we were playing defensively, I really felt that if we didn't get it we could keep them down there," Rivera said. "I felt that confident and comfortable with the defense."

Rivera's often been criticized for taking his foot off the gas with a lead, but you couldn't say that in the second half Sunday. Instead, the Panthers posted 21 second-half points including two touchdown passes a touchdown run from Cam Newton.

"Well, it's a franchise motto is to keep pounding,” Newton said. “Coach Rivera made it known, very clear, at halftime that we're going to keep pushing, keep pushing. It wasn't like he did anything different but it was personal for us."

The final tally was the largest margin of victory in Panthers franchise history and exactly the type of confidence builder a 1-2 team needed going into their bye week before a road date with the 1-2 Arizona Cardinals.

"Just like I say when we lose, it's only one game,” offensive tackle Jordan Gross said. “We've got a lot of work ahead of us, we've got 13 more. Just for our confidence and hard work, 1-2 is so much better than 0-3."

For their coach's job security, too.

2. The hype with this front four is warranted

This one had all the recipes of a nightmare for a Panthers defense that came in with a straggling secondary. Starting corner Josh Thomas and starting safety Quentin Mikell were both inactive. So were reserves D.J. Moore and James Dockery.

And that's after the secondary got chewed up last week in Buffalo by rookie E.J. Manuel. With Eli Manning coming to town, the Sunday obituary for the Panthers secondary seemed preordained. 

Instead, the Panthers sent them back to New York at 0-3 with a shutout -- the Panthers first since 2008.

"I think we did a good job of controlling the line of scrimmage, obviously, and the front four those guys did awesome," Luke Keuchly said. "I don't know how many sacks they had, but I felt Eli really never had a chance to feel comfortable back there. When they get that press, and they get that pressure on him, its makes the guys in the back end jobs so much easier."

There were seven sacks to be exact -- five of which came in the first half. Manning was never comfortable from the start, with the Panthers sacking him three times on their opening two possessions.

He came in ranked third in the NFL in passing yards at 406 per game and left with only 119 to add to his total.

It didn't matter that rookie Robert Lester was starting at safety a week after being on the practice squad. It didn't matter that starting corner Josh Norman had been toasted the week before on the final play of the game to lose against the Bills. It didn't matter that cornerback Drayton Florence had been waived in the final roster cuts and had only been back on the roster for a week.

"Obviously, they didn't put their secondary out there on an island much and were able to get great pressure with just bringing four guys, and that's tough," Manning said. "When you can drop seven guys and rush four and get pressure, it's going to make it hard for any offense to have a successful passing game, and they were able to accomplish that."

Based off Sunday, the Panthers might regret not getting that deal for Greg Hardy done before the season because the price just went up substantially.
No one was more important in allowing defensive coordinator Sean McDermott the opportunity to drop seven than Hardy, who was the best player on the field in the first half with eight tackles, three sacks and three tackles for loss. His on-the-field play lived up to his sea monster persona.

"I've got to quote my big brother Jon Beason: 'It's rare.' You don't come by these a lot in a career, especially in the NFL where everybody at this level is the caliber of athlete they are. It's a phenomenal thing and I'm proud to be a part of it," Hardy said. "I feel like it's a big step for our defense in setting the tone for the year, and being a cornerstone for the team."

If the front four plays that way all year, it won't matter who is in the secondary.

Still, Lester, who played in three national championship games in college, proved that the stage wasn't too big for him, looking solid all night in pass coverage and picking off a pass in the second half. He also let another slip through his fingers.

"At the end of the day it's football, you go out there and you target the guy with the ball; the DBs, they cover the receiver and and try and stop him from getting the ball," Lester said. "I think we went out there and did an excellent job of doing that today."

Undrafted rookie cornerback Melvin White also jumped from the practice squad to contribute in the secondary, intercepting a pass.

Not to take anything away from White and Lester, but the fact that the Panthers were able to play two undrafted rookies off of the practice squad a significant amount should tell you just what kind of effort that front four put together Sunday.

3. That's the Cam Newton you saw in his first two seasons

Offensive coordinator Mike Shula finally let Cam be Cam.
It sounds so simple, but through the first two weeks the Panthers use of Newton looked like a square peg in a round hole. The effort to keep him between the tackles and make him be a pocket passer seemed contrived, forced and just all together scared. He's at his best when he's being a dual threat and forcing those ends to slow the pursuit for fear of him tucking and running in the read option.

That Cam was back Sunday, and it started on the first touchdown drive.
There was the 14-yard scramble for the first on 3rd and 13. Then a nine yard run up the middle. Then, he bulled ahead for two yards the next play on 3rd and 1. The next play he went for 15 yards off of the right guard to get the Panthers inside the red zone.

The Giants were on their heels for the rest of the game.

He finished 15-of-27 for 227 yards for three touchdowns and one interception, and toted it seven times for 45 yards and a touchdown.
"Yes, he did run more. There were a couple that he scrambled but there were a couple calls that we did have for him," Rivera said. "The touchdown run was most certainly a call. There was a quarterback draw that we called earlier in the game. Other than that, a couple of the other ones were scrambles that he picked up the first downs for us that were key runs."

That Cam's the Cam that gives this offense top-10 potential. The Panthers can't be scared for Newton to get hurt. He's clearly worked on his judgment in sliding and at 245-pounds, you have to take that risk for this offense to be what this team needs if they're to challenge for the playoffs.
"It was just bound to happen," Newton said. "That was just one of the things that we had going into those games. With those aggressive ends, JPP, he got us a couple times. But we just had to keep pressing the pedal and stay after it. The game plan was to attack and nuke his aggressiveness and to make that be his curse."

It was, and it definitely reminded you of what a curse Newton's running ability can be for opposing defenses.

"Cam's rhythm was really good today, getting on time with the ball, and getting it out of there and making the reads. Running too out of the pocket, I thought that was huge early on to slow down that pass rush," Gross said. 
4. This offense has weapons besides Steve Smith and Greg Olsen after all

Just when it looked like Cam Newton had no weapons besides Steve Smith, Greg Olsen and an average running game, the supporting cast decided to make a Sunday appearance.

New offensive coordinator Mike Shula had looked to make the offense more balanced than the one from his predecessor Rob Chudzinski. That meant getting DeAngelo Williams more touches, and that effort paid off Sunday with Williams posting his first 100+ game of the season with 120 yards on 23 carries. 

"Our offensive line got after those guys and had gaping holes for DeAngelo," Newton said.

Brandon LaFell had been essentially non-existent the first two weeks but reemerged Sunday as well, catching three balls for 53 yards and two touchdowns.

"Lonely, frustrated, down on myself. I felt bad man," LaFell said of his first two weeks. "But at the end of the day, it was the other guys in the room that kept giving me confidence, kept building my spirit up. Telling me 'all you can do is keep getting open and eventually the ball's going to come your way.’ And that’s what I did. I kept working hard."

Ted Ginn also continued to acquit himself as a nice third option with his speed, catching three balls for 71 yards and a beautiful touchdown up the seam.