Panthers winning with ball control, defense

The Carolina Panthers prided themselves the last two seasons on
being a ”big chunk offense,” able to gobble up big yards on
downfield passes.

Those days are gone.

Carolina (6-3) has won five straight games behind an entirely
different method: controlling the ball and relying on a dominant
defense.

A year ago, the Panthers had 75 plays of 20 yards or more,
second most in the NFL. Halfway through this season they have just
25, tied for last in the league with Arizona.

Offensive coordinator Mike Shula said he didn’t necessarily plan
it that way.

”It’s every offense’s goal to be explosive and to have huge
plays each and every week,” Shula said. ”We’re close on some.
They don’t always show up. We’re an offense, so it everyone has to
be clicking.

”But guys have been resilient. If it’s not there, it’s guys
saying, `Hey, we’re going to find a way.’ We haven’t had a lot of
explosive runs, but we’ve had efficient runs.”

Part of the issue is teams have taken away the deep routes,
forcing Cam Newton to think more and go to his second and third
reads. That’s an area where Shula said Newton has made major
strides this season.

Shula wouldn’t say Newton is a better game manager – he dislikes
that term – but said he’s done a better job going through his
progressions and checking down when nothing is available
downfield.

Shula and the Panthers have done a better job using their
talented trio of running backs: DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart
and Mike Tolbert.

And Newton has warmed to the idea that being patient and taking
what the defense is giving him can be pretty effective.

”To win in this league consistently you have to have the big
play threat, which we do have, but for longevity you have to have
methodical drives,” said Newton, now in his third seasons. ”That
is what we have more times than not. … If we have that mentality,
especially with our defense playing lights out, we can be scary at
times.”

Newton doesn’t care if it’s a quick strike or a long drive. The
2011 AP Offensive Rookie of the Year said he’ll trade big stats for
big wins any day of the week.

”I have no preference,” Newton said with a smile. ”As long we
are going forward and not backward. That has been the key to our
success.”

Carolina’s defense, which has allowed the second-fewest points
and second-fewest yards in the league, has played a big role in the
team holding nearly a nine-minute advantage per game in time of
possession.

The Panthers have been so good – and so reliable – that they
haven’t put Newton in position very often where he’s forced to
throw.

The Panthers have only trailed once at halftime this season, so
they’ve never been out of a game.

”We just have to keep getting first downs and have that
first-down mentality,” Newton said. ”You get enough first downs
sooner or later you are going to get into the colorful rectangular
at end of the field.”

That blueprint isn’t a huge surprise considering their head
coach.

Ron Rivera played linebacker for the 1985 Super Bowl champion
Chicago Bears, a team that won the Super Bowl and finished first in
the NFL in rushing offense, tops in the league on defense in points
allowed, yards allowed and turnovers, according to STATS.

The Panthers haven’t put up numbers quite on par with the `85
Bears, but they’ve shown they’re pretty solid.

Newton said he still feels like Carolina’s 20th-ranked offense
has plenty of room to improve to get on par with the defense.

He wasn’t exactly thrilled with the unit’s performance after a
10-9 win Sunday over the San Francisco 49ers, and said the Panthers
need put up more points this Monday night against Tom Brady and New
England.

”We know we’re not going to be able to score 10 points a game
and win, I don’t care what defense you have out there,” Newton
said.

AP NFL website www.pro32.ap.org