Four Downs: Ginn shines as Panthers roll past Steelers

CHARLOTTE — Here are four observations from the Panthers’ 25-10 win over the Steelers on Thursday night, leaving them at 3-1 to finish the preseason.

1. Ginn continues to prove his worth

The Panthers’ one-year, $1.1 million deal with Ted Ginn Jr. continues to look like the bargain of the offseason for them. A week after the special teams ace returned a punt 74 yards to pay dirt against the Ravens, Ginn proved he’s here to contribute at wide receiver with five catches, 149 yards and two touchdowns against the Steelers.

It started on the second play from scrimmage with a 13-yard pass from Derek Anderson. Four plays later, Ginn’s speed allowed him to get inside position on a post up the middle of the field and Anderson dropped a dime in for a 35-yard touchdown.

“It was great just going out and finishing the preseason with a bang,” Ginn said. “I’m happy that I was able to show my team what I have.”

Since Ginn was the ninth pick in the 2007 draft by the Miami Dolphins, the story on him has always been one of a lethal punt and kick returner who has inconsistent hands and route running. He lamented all summer that he wanted to be known as more than a specialist. The Panthers are hoping he can be that guy and he has shown flashes, using his world-class speed to absolutely blow by the Steeler secondary on a deep route up the seam in the second quarter for an 87-yard touchdown.

“I think you saw why we brought Ted in here last week and you see again another example of him being able to blow the top off of the coverage,” head coach Ron Rivera said. “That is what we are looking for.”

If Ginn can continue to show that he can be more than just a returner, Cam Newton got another needed weapon heading into the regular season.

“I just felt like once I got with some new guys, new coaches and they seen what I have, they’d take it and enhance it,” Ginn said. “And since I’ve been here, that’s what they’ve done. They’ve given me a lot of great feelings and lot of good feelings to hold success right now. Just going to continue to go out and help No. 1 out.”
2. Has any Carolina defender had a better preseason than Norman?

The Panthers entered Thursday night’s game tied for first in the NFL with seven interceptions. The ball-hawking secondary continued the theme against the Steelers, picking off three passes. The first pass picked off was by the usual suspect — Josh Norman. The second two were by a less likely candidate: third-string safety Colin Jones.

When it comes to the NFL’s breakout players this preseason, the list can’t go more than a few names without mentioning Norman. He started the first 12 games as a rookie but landed in defensive coordinator Sean McDermott’s doghouse for the final four. Hard to believe he’s there anymore.

Luke Kuechly may be the star of the Panthers preseason for his other-worldly performance against the Ravens, but that’s about the only player on the roster whose looked better than Norman. It’s exactly the jump from his rookie year that new general manager David Gettleman was looking for when he arrived on the job. He repeatedly talked after April’s draft about his excitement at seeing the jump from some of the Panthers younger players. So far he has to love what he’s seen from Norman, a Coastal Carolina product who is looking like a tremendous option to pair with Drayton Florence and Captain Munnerlyn in nickel packages.

Through four preseason games, Norman leads the NFL with four INTs and one pick six.

“I think there are a lot of good things that Josh does and again he is still a young football player. He is developing. He came from a small football program,” Rivera said. “He is learning, he is getting better and better. He is learning to play within the confines of the defense.”

Perhaps more impressive than Norman’s interception was a beautiful play he made in the first half. Norman ran step for step with the Steeler receiver down the left side of the field on a deep ball and turned his head at exactly the right time, making a leaping deflection on a pretty well-thrown pass.

“I can sit out there now and just read stuff,” Norman said. “Just play off of guys, and my eyes got a whole better. I can see the field a lot better. Instead of hesitant to make a play, I’m going to make a play. I feel like that every time I get out on the field.”
3. Offensive starters sit, backups shine in final exhibition

Three lackluster offensive preseason showings by the Panthers left the lingering question out there: Would Rivera be content entering the regular season on a depressing note offensively or would he dispel conventional wisdom and get Newton and the starting offense some snaps to see if they couldn’t generate some sort of momentum heading into the regular season.

He didn’t. Newton sat, and backup Derek Anderson took the opening snaps.

Ginn was the main beneficiary and Anderson was sharp from the outset. The veteran backup led as crisp of drive as we’ve seen out of the Panthers offense all preseason, completing all four of his attempts on the opening series for 76 yards and the touchdown to Ginn. On the night he was 10 of 15 for 220, two touchdowns and a 149.3 quarterback rating.

“I just tried to get in a good rhythm, get some momentum, get a lot of plays and I thought we did a good job,” Anderson said.

Anderson was far more effective than third-stringer Jimmy Clausen, who went 5 of 8 for 26 yards and was sacked twice. Gettleman’s been known to only keep two quarterbacks on the roster so Clausen’s days could be numbered in Carolina when roster cuts come down.

4. Beason, Hixon working their way back into the lineup

The majority of the starters took a break for the night, but the Panthers were able to get three major contributors some additional work Thursday. Linebacker Jon Beason got 14 snaps against the Ravens and got in another two series against the Steelers as he continues to work his way back from micro fracture knee surgery.

“I saw a great athlete out there running around trying to make something happen. It is a lot of fun to watch Jon,” Rivera said. “I know he is frustrated with himself. He ran himself out of a couple plays just trying to make them. But it is good. It’s really good to see.”

In addition to Beason working his way back, wide receiver Domenik Hixon may have secured his roster spot. A nagging hamstring injury held Hixon out for the first three weeks of practice and had him hanging on the edge of being left off of the Panthers 53-man roster, but a three-catch, 44 yard effort may have been enough to remind Gettleman why he signed the former Giant this offseason.

“That’s why we brought him. The guy is a big target and can make some big plays for us,” Rivera said.

The need for Hixon on the roster could be further enhanced depending on the severity of a hamstring injury to David Gettis, the favorite to be the No. 3 wide receiver at this point. Rivera said Gettis “pulled his hamstring” but wasn’t sure of the severity yet and hoped it’d only be a week. Wide receiver Armanti Edwards is also working his way back from injury and didn’t play but looks like he’ll be ready for the opener if he makes the roster.

The other addition to the Panthers starting lineup was former Panthers right guard Travelle Wharton, who the team resigned on Sunday. Wharton started 99 games in a Panthers uniform over eight years and immediately helps address the Panthers offensive line woes.

Rivera gave him one series of work and was impressed with what he saw.

“The thought again as we go forward if Travelle is going to play I didn’t want his first live snaps to be in the first regular season game,” Rivera said. “I wanted to make sure he was able to get in there. It was very fortuitous that we had a nice drive of seven plays and it was a good amount.”

The addition of Wharton allowed the Panthers to do some shuffling on the line and get right tackle Byron Bell some snaps at left and right guard Garry Williams some snaps at right tackle. Rivera now thinks he has nine solid guys to turn to on the offensive line with Amini Silatolu expected to be back for the season opener against Seattle.