Four Downs: Carolina’s Stewart strong in debut, O-line struggles continue

Jonathan Stewart had touchdown runs of two yards and three yards in his preseason debut against the Chiefs.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Carolina Panthers played in their second preseason game when they hosted the Kansas City Chiefs Sunday night at Bank of America Stadium. Here are four observations from the 28-16 win.

Nobody has ever doubted the ability of Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart to be successful, but he’s literally been injured in each of his six seasons in the NFL. 

Moreover, he just completed his first week of training camp after having missed all of it due to hamstring issues. This comes after having missed 16 games with various injuries over the last two seasons.

What makes it so frustrating for the Carolina coaching staff and fans is that when he’s healthy, Stewart can be an elite back. Three seasons ago he led the NFL in yards gained after contact.

Those skills were put on display against the Chiefs.

On his very first carry of the preseason, Stewart ran around the left end for a gain of 17 yards. 

All of his action came in the second quarter, and he finished the game with four carries for 26 yards and two touchdowns, the first of which saw him bounce off several defenders to get the two-yard score.

His numbers dwarfed those of starting running back DeAngelo Williams, who finished with three carries for nine yards.

For Stewart, it’s been a long time coming.

"It felt good," he said. "It’s been a while since I’ve touched the end zone. It’s preseason, so it’s good to get my feet wet and get back into the grove of things.

"(It felt good getting live contact) while I’m feeling pretty good for the first time in a while; having the balance there in my legs. I’ve been working hard all offseason and I’ve just got to continue to get better."

Carolina quarterback Cam Newton made his 2014 preseason debut after having missed the opener against Buffalo last week, and it wasn’t the best or worst performance.

Newton, who returns following offseason ankle surgery, was a modest 4-of-9 passing for 65 yards. He started 1-for-5 for 5 yards. He was also sacked twice and had an interception dropped.

He had two long passes of 25 and 26 yards to receivers Jason Avant and Kelvin Benjamin, respectively. Both came in the second quarter when he started to find his grove.

During the first quarter, Newton missed a wide open Benjamin streaking down the right sideline. He was also harassed by the Kansas City defensive line.

"We had a slow start tonight, which is unacceptable," said Newton. "We have to stay on schedule and not waste opportunities like the shot to (Benjamin). Kansas City is a good football team and we didn’t match their intensity early, but it was good to put a few drives together and scores some points."

Panthers third-year cornerback Josh Norman has certainly had his issues during his short time in the league. And things haven’t changed for the mercurial Norman. 

A year ago at this time, Norman was being viewed as a possible starter for Carolina, which needed secondary help desperately. But as has been his pattern, he shines at practice and bombs in the games. He also spent a lot of time in head coach Ron Rivera’s dog house.

This year, he entered the first preseason game in real danger of not making the squad and his performance last week against the Bills did little to improve his position with the team.

Carolina is so desperate for secondary help that he continues to get opportunities to prove himself. 

His first series in the game came in the second quarter and he didn’t waste time in singling himself out.

Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith scrambled to his left and just before Norman, who had launched himself into the air with a flying shoulder, could hit him, Smith slid to the ground. That caused Norman to go flying over Smith and hitting nothing but air.

After Norman got to his feet, he got in Smith’s face and started barking at him.

Two plays later, Norman broke up a pass intended for Dwayne Bowe and immediately got into the receiver’s face to talk more trash once the ball hit the ground. This caused Carolina linebacker and captain Thomas Davis to get into Norman’s face and chew him out for the whole stadium to see.

One might think that after two full seasons of doing silly and stupid things that Norman would learn. Apparently not.

Anybody that has paid attention to the Panthers this offseason knows they have issues along the offensive line. There were hopes they’d improve from last week to this week.

If they did, it wasn’t by much.

With the bar set pretty low, the Panthers went three-and-out on their first two series, with the offensive line opening up basically no running lanes for Williams. Even worse, Newton saw constant pressure and was sacked twice.

On the team’s fourth offensive series, starting left guard Amini Silatolu was pulled for Chris Scott and starting right tackle Nate Chandler was benched for Garry Williams. There wasn’t much of a change in performance.

Rivera is trying to find a combination that can keep Newton protected, while at the same time opening up running lanes for Stewart and Williams. He only has two more games to find one that works.