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Panthers’ Newton learns to pick his spots

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CHARLOTTE — This offseason, when Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton set a goal to improve his completion percentage, he probably meant he wanted to be consistently accurate. But right now he will accept being inconsistently accurate as long as his timing is right.

And his timing was perfect in Seattle Sunday when Newton’s final toss, a perfectly placed ball to wide-open tight end Greg Olsen for a 26-yard score, finally sunk the Seahawks.

That pass will be remembered most. But it was the opening play of that final drive that best showed Newton’s growth as a quarterback.

“That probably was the biggest play of the game,” head coach Ron Rivera said Monday.

Trailing 23-20, the Panthers took over at their 20-yard line with 2:20 left in the fourth quarter. On first down, receivers Ted Ginn and Philly Brown lined up to Newton’s left with Olsen out on the right. As Ginn sprinted down the sideline, Brown went on a crossing route with tight end Ed Dickson while Olsen ran a deep curl. Feeling pressure while he scanned the field, Newton picked door No. 5: running back Jonathan Stewart on a simple check-down.

Armed with one timeout and the two-minute warning, Newton didn’t need to make a big play happen right away. So he didn’t even try.

“Going into this game, we knew there were opportunities to be had underneath,” he said. “They have exceptional talent on the back end with (Richard) Sherman and (Cary) Williams and those guys. But we just had to capitalize as best as we can to get everybody opportunities.”

After Stewart’s 8-yard gain, Newton connected with Ginn for 18 yards, setting the Panthers up near midfield at the two-minute warning.

“That’s always a delicate balance for a quarterback on a zone defense,” offensive coordinator Mike Shula said about the check-down to Stewart. “‘Hey, do I need to hang in there and wait for the guy down the field to come open, or do I just dump it off and make yards with it?’

“When you can make positive yards early in a two-minute drive, that’s very helpful.”

Perhaps plays like that should be expected for a guy who is now in his fifth season. But to hear Newton talk about playing smarter this summer and then seeing him do it in a major spot is a big positive for the Panthers.

“Probably not, cause he wants to make the big play,” Rivera said when asked if Newton would have made the same, safer throw when he was younger. “He’s learned the big play can be an eight-yarder. That was great. It’s all a part of his growing process.

“He’s got to continue to do those things to give ourselves a chance.”

REPORT CARD VS. SEAHAWKS

–PASSING OFFENSE: C. Through three quarters, QB Cam Newton was again getting shut down by the Seahawks. Heading into the fourth, he was 9-of-26 for 119 yards and two interceptions. He then went 12-of-15 for 162 yards and a touchdown that capped off his ninth career game-winning drive in the fourth quarter. Newton was sacked a season-high three times while spreading the ball around to eight different receivers. TE Greg Olsen racked up 131 receiving yards two games after he set a single-game career best with 134 yards against the Saints.

–RUSHING OFFENSE: A-minus. It had been a rough start to the season for RB Jonathan Stewart, who has constantly faced at least eight men in the box from defenses that don’t respect the Panthers’ passing game. His 78 yards Sunday may not seem like much, but he ran ridiculously hard and had his first multi-touchdown game since 2009. Newton added 30 yards and a touchdown while the Panthers totaled 135 yards on the ground.

–PASS DEFENSE: C. The Panthers took advantage of Seattle’s leaky line, sacking QB Russell Wilson four times. Wilson threw a 40-yard touchdown to WR Ricardo Lockette, who made a tremendous grab over S Kurt Coleman. TE Jimmy Graham caught eight passes for 140 yards, his highest output since he went for 179 with the Saints against the Bucs on Sept. 15, 2013.

–RUN DEFENSE: B-plus. RB Marshawn Lynch scored against the Panthers for the first time since 2010, but he continues to be less than a beast when facing Carolina. Lynch, who was limited to 54 yards on 17 carries, is averaging just 3.65 a carry in his past five meetings with the Panthers. Wilson had better success, picking up 53 yards on eight carries.

–SPECIAL TEAMS: B. K Graham Gano missed his first extra point in nearly three seasons, but the Panthers’ coverage teams were rock solid against Tyler Lockett, the Seahawks’ electrifying rookie returner.

–COACHING: A. For the first time in the Ron Rivera era, the Panthers won after a bye week and beat the Seahawks. It was tough to call it a rivalry considering the Panthers were 0-4, but Rivera had his team primed to travel to Seattle where they finally knocked off their nemesis.


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