At times, there was the sort of sloppiness you'd expect from a preseason opener, but Panthers head coach Ron Rivera walked away pleased with his team's effort in
a 24-17 victory over the Chicago Bears at Bank of America Stadium.
"I was really pleased with some of the things that happened, especially with the first defense," Rivera said. "I thought they were very active and made some things happen."
It was a perfect start for the Carolina defense, which opened the game in a nickel package and recorded an interception on Chicago's first offensive play. Cornerback Josh Norman picked off the pass intended for wide receiver Alshon Jeffery and returned it 11 yards to the Bears' 18 yard-line.
Three plays later, on third-and-goal from the 3-yard line, quarterback Cam Newton found wide receiver Brandon LaFell wide open on a drag route to give the Panthers a 7-0 lead. Following a Chicago three-and-out, Carolina faced third-and-two and this time it was Newton who was picked off. Bears linebacker Jonathan Bostic stepped in front of a pass for tight end Greg Olsen and returned it 51 yards to even the score.
"Offensively, I liked how we moved the ball. We were consistent at one point, and then Cam got a little greedy," Rivera said. "He could have just turned and thrown an easy check down, but he tried to force the ball in. It was a mistake, and he knows. I thought 12 of his 13 plays were what you're looking for from your quarterback."
That proved to be Newton's final play of the game.
"I begged and pleaded so that I could get one more series," said Newton, who finished with three completions on six attempts for 16 yards. "I'm going home with an interception as my last throw, and that's disgusting. You have to live and learn and I think it's keeping me anxious for this upcoming preseason game at Philadelphia."
After the Bears converted a Derek Anderson interception into a 35-yard field goal, Anderson and the second unit responded with a scoring drive to the close the half. Carolina moved 82 yards in 11 plays, reaching the end zone by way of a 5-yard rush by rookie running back Kenjon Barner.
It was a proper way to end the half for the Panthers, specifically for Barner, who lost a fumble after catching a screen pass on his first touch of the game. Later, Barner and quarterback Jimmy Clausen got mixed up on a handoff, which led to another lost fumble. But Barner finished with a game-high 37 rushing yards on nine attempts.
"He's got to protect the ball; he's got to keep it high and tight," Rivera said. "The second one he tried to reach for the ball on the hand off instead of letting Jimmy stick it in there. Kenjon showed he can contribute. We saw his quickness, we saw his ability to find a little crease and get it and go. That was exciting to see."
Added Barner: "I was just glad I was able to bounce back, and my team was there to pick me up."
Norman did just that, intercepting quarterback Matt Blanchard on the ensuing Bears possession following the botched handoff and returning it 60 yards for a touchdown. Norman's second interception gave the Panthers a 21-10 lead midway through the third quarter.
Bears running back Michael Ford scored on a 4-yard run early in the fourth quarter before Panthers kicker Graham Gano converted a 50-yard field goal to close out the scoring. The Carolina defense finished with seven sacks while also recovering one fumble to go along with Norman's two interceptions.
"It's absolutely great," Norman said. "Coach Rivera says all the time that our expectations, even in the preseason, are to win. With what we have on defense as well as offense, if we can bring it together with that mentality, we can do some great things. We have to continue to work. It's never enough."
NOTES: Armanti Edwards, now in his fourth year with the Panthers, caught two passes for 38 yards, including a 21-yard grab. Edwards has made five catches in his career.....The Panthers travel to Philadelphia to play the Eagles (0-1) Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. on 102.3 FM. Nick Foles will get the starting nod at quarterback for the Eagles. Philadelphia, with Michael Vick at the helm, lost 31-22 in its preseason opener against the New England Patriots Friday night.
Photo Courtesy: Tauren Poole, Carolina Panthers