CHARLOTTE, N.C. — For the first time in Ron Rivera’s tenure in Charlotte, the Panthers got back-to-back wins in a month that isn’t December. The Panthers led from the opening play and never relinquished the lead in a 30-15 win over the St. Louis Rams Sunday. Here are four observations from the win that puts the Panthers back to .500 at 3-3.
1. Panthers maintained composure in chippiest game of the year
After Sunday, it’s safe to say the Panthers won’t be sending Robert Quinn or anyone on the Rams offensive line a Christmas card.
The NFL’s physical, but rarely ever do you see a game as chippy as Sunday’s. The game had been chippy throughout but really reached a boiling point in the third quarter. Quinn drilled Cam Newton on a hit that forced Newton to sit for a play. Quinn said that the hit was legal, but left tackle Jordan Gross didn’t like the hit or his subsequent trash talk after and a couple plays later got into it with Quinn, which caused a full-squad shoving match to ensue.
“I don’t think the hit really ticked [Gross] off. I think what ticked everyone off was the way he was talking afterwards. When you say words of that magnitude, you don’t want to hear that,” Newton said. “We all know that you have to protect each other out there.”
Chris Long was the only one who lost his composure, throwing a punch that got him ejected. Long wouldn’t go into what was the boiling point for him, but did say he apologized to his teammates afterwards.
“Things started to get out of hand with the manner in which the players were handling themselves post play. I thought the crew did a pretty good job getting things under control,” Rams head coach Jeff Fisher said. “I’m disappointed that Chris made the decision that he did. He suffered the consequences. He should not ever put himself in the position where he’s watching the game from the locker room. He should be on the field and he understands that.”
Throughout, the Panthers held their composure better than the Rams, with the Rams being the recipient of several costly personal fouls. Guard Harvey Dahl got a costly one on a play where Sam Bradford hurt his knee on the sidelines, and Brian Quick got one in the fourth quarter as well.
“For the most part we tried to maintain our composure and at the same time you only want to take so much,” Rivera said. “I thought our guys handled that part of it very well. I’m very pleased with them in maintaining their composure.”
2. This defense continues to dominate
The Panthers’ defense only needed one play to establish their dominance of the Rams offense Sunday. Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott brought a safety blitz on the opening play and Sam Bradford was hit on the elbow as he threw it by safety Quinton Mikell, forcing a floating duck that Captain Munnerlyn dove and caught at the Rams’ 45-yard line with no Rams in the vicinity. He popped up, dodged a defender at the 20 and scored to give the Panthers a lead they’d never relinquish.
“Coach dialed up a good blitz. The safety was able to get pressure on him,” linebacker Thomas Davis said. “That was one of the things we talked about during the week. If our number is called, we’ve definitely got to affect the quarterback, and we were able to do that on that play.”
The Panthers defense entered Sunday ranked second in the league in scoring defense and was legit again Sunday. They allowed 317 yards of total offense but held up on 4th and 1 from the one-yard line on the Rams second drive. There were also two trips to the red zone for the Rams that the Panthers held St. Louis to just a field goal.
Rivera pointed out his two rookie defensive tackles, Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei, as particularly critical to holding the Rams to just 63 yards on the ground.
“Short and Star both played a heck of a football game,” Rivera said. “Those two young guys are really coming along and because of that you see Luke Kuechly isn’t making as many plays. It’s to Luke’s detriment but to our benefit. I believe Luke would take that any day of the week.”
It wasn’t a particularly pretty win but it was the type of game the Panthers have lost in the past. Most importantly, it puts the Panthers back at .500 and gives them their first back-to-back wins of the season.
“We just needed to get a win, who cares how you get it done. We aren’t worried about where or how it looked. At the end of the day we had the most points and that is all we care about,” Smith said.
Regardless of how the win looked, it’s hard to ignore the Panthers momentum building as they have a quick turnaround with a road date in Tampa Thursday night against the winless Bucs.
“The challenge is to get in the ice tubs and get our bodies healthy as quick as possible so we will be ready to roll against Tampa Bay on Thursday night,” right tackle Byron Bell said.
3. Newton’s turnaround continues
The evolution of Cam Newton as a quarterback continues.
Newton’s arm wasn’t used often but when it was, it sure was efficient. He completed 15-of-17 passes for 204 yards, one touchdown and perhaps most importantly, no interceptions. One of the incompletions wasn’t even Newton’s fault as Steve Smith dropped a pass on the sidelines.
Newton admitted he sees improvement in his play, but still thinks he can do more.
“I feel like I was erratic on a lot of things, checks, a lot of things,” Newton said.
In his last two games, he’s completed 35-of-43 passes for 446 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. That’s the improvement the Panthers need at the quarterback position after a slow start to the season for Newton.
“It all starts with him. I think he’s confident. He’s making throws with confidence. He’s hitting guys in stride, allowing guys to make clean catches and do something with it after,” tight end Greg Olsen said.
4. Steve Smith’s 800th catch was his biggest of the game
Steve Smith got his 800th career catch Sunday and he did it in style, catching a 19-yard touchdown pass for the milestone late in the third quarter.
Smith ran a route across the middle and caught the ball at the 9-yard, ducked a tackle, then cut back and made another defender whiff for the score. That touchdown put the Panthers up 27-12 heading into the fourth and broke the Rams’ back after they had just completed a long touchdown drive to get back into the game.
“Smitty was pinpointing a lot of things with him being singled up. That’s the one thing that Smitty prides himself, is when he gets man-to-man coverage, he has to win,” Newton said. “So we challenged him to get open in that particular situation, and he did, and he made two guys miss, and got a big score, a much-needed score for us.”
He celebrated the touchdown with a dance that resembled Ray Lewis’ famous pre-game dance.
“It means a great deal to me, it’s awesome. I don’t even know who has the ball,” Smith said. “It’s great and it’s a big win for us and that is all that matters. It would mean a lot less if I got my 800th reception and we lost, so it’s much better to enjoy that win.”