Defense leads in Panthers’ preseason win over Bears

The Carolina Panthers closed 2012 with four wins to end the season. They picked up where they left off to start the preseason, beating the Chicago Bears 24-17 by capitalizing on two Josh Norman interceptions. Here are three observations from the Panthers’ win:
1. Josh Norman’s year-No. 2 jump may be the answer at cornerback
Josh Norman started 12 games a season ago as a rookie at cornerback before being replaced for the final four. He hasn’t really challenged new addition Drayton Florence for a return to his starting slot opposite of Captain Munnerlyn this training camp.
Based on Friday night, Norman must be a gamer because he stole the show against the Bears, and Florence could now have a real battle on his hands leading up to the season opener.
Norman intercepted a Jay Cutler pass on the first defensive possession of the game for the Panthers, making a beautiful break on a route over the middle. He ran it back 11 yards to the Bears’ 18-yard line. The Panthers punched it in four plays later on a Cam Newton pass to Brandon LaFell.
“Coach called Cover One. I pressed him and he ran an in-route — like a slant. I squeezed him and came over the top, got my hands on it. I double-caught it. At first, I missed it and came back and caught it,” Norman said. “I’m glad I was in the right spot.” 
Norman wasn’t done in the second half either. The gamer in him came out again. He read Bears quarterback Matt Blanchard beautifully, jumping a sideline route and taking it to the house on a slick cut up the middle of the field for the Panthers’ third touchdown of the evening. He finished the touchdown run with something he said he’s been eyeing since his arrival — a Lambeau-leap style celebration into the crowd he called “The Big Cat Jump.”

It’s admittedly preseason and it’s not often that Norman will face third-string quarterbacks in the regular season, but it’s a promising sign for a Panthers team hoping that Norman and third-year corners Josh Thomas and James Dockery can make a significant jump in the back end this season. They decided not to go with a cornerback in the draft in hopes that one of the three would make a big jump this season. Norman looks like the guy so far.

“Josh is a young guy that has an opportunity to make an extremely big impact on this team,” Newton said. “We know that. He knows that.”
Added Charles Johnson: “It’s a huge confidence boost for [Norman] to come and start like that. It’s pretty good. It’s still preseason, you can’t be satisfied off of that. You’ve got to keep your momentum going and try to get better.”
Coach Ron Rivera frequently lauded Norman’s ability in man coverage and press technique a season ago but said he needed to work on his reads and awareness in zone coverage. Friday night his first interception came in man and his second in zone, and Norman believes he’s starting to get the hang of playing zone in Sean McDermott’s defense.
“All the hard work in the offseason and in practice and in understanding the concepts of everything and just my study habits have gotten a whole lot better,” Norman said. “Once I understood that and understood my leverage and my help, the game slowed down for me tremendously. I was more comfortable.”
2. Sloppy as expected
The Panthers’ 24-17 win was your typical preseason game — sloppy on both sides of the ball.
The defense is expected to be ahead of the offense at this point and based on three possessions from the starters, it was. 
More concerning for the Panthers wasn’t the lack of offensive movement — only 292 yards of total offense — but rather the times the ball hit the ground or ended up in a Chicago Bears defenders’ arms. The first of the four-turnover effort came on Cam Newton’s final pass of his third possession. He tried to hit Greg Olsen on a post but threw it behind him and was picked off by Jonathan Bostic, who took it 51 yards to pay dirt.
It’s the type of inaccurate throw that caused Newton to have just a good — not great — year in 2012. Preseason or not, it wasn’t the type of pass Panthers fans were hoping to see out of Newton to start his third year.
“I begged and pleaded so I could get one more series,” Newton said. “I’m going home with an interception on my last throw. It’s disgusting, but it’s something you’ve got to live with. You’ve got to live and learn, and I think it’s keeping me anxious for this upcoming preseason game in Philadelphia.”
Newton was 3-of-6 on the night for 16 yards and the Panthers starting unit never really tested the Bears down the field. The bulk of the initial scoring drive of 18 yards came off a pass interference call on a throw to Olsen. Derek Anderson later threw an interception, and rookie running back Kenjon Barner coughed it up on his first carry. In the second half, Jimmy Clausen was credited with the fumble on a quarterback exchange with Barner but Rivera said it was Barner being overeager to take the handoff. 
“At times things went really and at times things went really bad. For the most part that’s pretty reasonable for the first preseason game,” Olsen said. “For whatever reason no matter how much we put into it and want to start out fast and play well, it seems to be how these games go. You don’t get into a ton of flow, but we only played 10 plays so who knows what the other 50 plays would have been like if we kept playing. We don’t have to play the home opener tomorrow, so we’ve got time.”
3. The five rookies are heavily involved in the two deep — for good or bad
The Panthers only had five draft picks but it appears all are here to stay and will contribute immediately.
Star Lotulelei got the start at defensive tackle beside Dwan Edwards and appeared to belong in his brief time out there. Second-round defensive tackle Kawann Short backed up Edwards and had half of a sack, and Johnson praised both after. The defense as a whole had seven sacks in the game. 
“Everything is faster. Practice is fast, but once you’re in the game the adrenaline rush makes things faster,” Short said. 
Short’s fellow rookie Kenjon Barner got the bulk of the carries at running back once DeAngelo Williams departed with the starters. Barner did put the ground on a play early but finished with 9 carries for 37 yards and punched it in from five yards out to end the half. The 4.1 yards per carry average won’t blow anyone away but Barner showed an explosion and elusiveness on his carries and kick returns that none on the roster can duplicate. If he can hold on to the ball, it’s hard to see him not sticking as the third back once Jonathan Stewart comes back healthy.
“Some mistakes that he made, but I think Kenjon showed that he can contribute. We saw his quickness, saw his ability to find a little crease and get it and go,” Rivera said. “That was exciting to see. You’ve got a man that’s got some good ability, so we really think he can help us.”
Rookie A.J. Klein also backed up Thomas Davis at strongside linebacker and got a lot of reps, finishing with two assists. The only Panthers rookie not to get time was fourth-round offensive guard Edmund Kugbila, who has been sidelined with an injury. But the Panthers waived starting right guard from a season ago, Geoff Hangartner, and Kugbila will definitely have the chance to crack the two deep at one guard slot when he returns.