Panthers show flashes against Chiefs
The Carolina Panthers return just one starter from last year's secondary, and the jury is still out on how the defensive backs will do.
The cornerbacks are putting a lot of emphasis on open-field tackling, and it showed in Sunday's 28-16 exhibition win over Kansas City.
Melvin White moved into the starting lineup at cornerback despite being an undrafted rookie last year, and has solidified his role as a starter.
Newcomer Antoine Cason is starting at the other corner, and both turned in strong performances on Sunday — sharing a team lead with six tackles each.
White and Cason each had two tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
"A lot of pride," Cason said of the corners' ability to tackle. "If you miss tackles on the perimeter that can turn into a big-chunk play."
The Panthers' pass defense was less impressive.
Chiefs QB Alex Smith completed 14 of his 22 attempts for 127 yards in the first half, when both teams left their starters in the game.
Most of those yards came on passes that were thrown less than 15 yards down field with yards coming after the catch.
Communication breakdowns played a part in some of the players being out of position to make a play, which Cason knows needs to improve.
"There are things that happened that we have to go back and look at it," Cason said. "We're getting more comfortable with each other every day. We have a good mix of vet guys and young guys."
Carolina's starting defense, regarded as one of the best in the NFL, held the Chiefs to two field goals.
Fourth-year star quarterback Cam Newton took his first live-action snaps of the preseason, and started off slowly.
Newton missed on four of his first five passes — including an overthrow of rookie Kelvin Benjamin, who had broken away from his defender down the left sideline and may have scored on the play.
Coming off ankle surgery, Newton showed signs of rust early on.
"It was kind of embarrassing for me to lead the offense out there and not get a first down," Newton said of the early performance. "When we did get things going it was fun to see ... The offensive line did a great job tonight giving me time to throw."
Newton got going with an 11-yard completion to tight end Ed Dickson, who got the start with Greg Olsen sitting out.
The Panthers capped the drive with Jonathan Stewart bulling his way into the end zone from two yards out.
On the next drive, Newton connected over the middle with Benjamin, who broke open on a dig route for 24 yards.
After being sacked on second down to create a third-and-16, Newton made his best pass of the day as he threw open veteran Jason Avant for 25 yards and a first down.
Stewart finished the drive again, this time bursting up the middle untouched from three yards out.
"That's the positive thing," Newton said. "We put up 14 points on back-to-back drives. That's a thing that was very encouraging from the game. ... There are some things that we automatically know that we're going to have to get better at."
Newton said he did not feel any ill-effects from his ankle.
"It's just regaining confidence in my ankle," Newton said. "Everyone knows I had surgery. It's a constant build up. I hadn't, per se, pressed the throttle all the way down to the floor until today. It was kind of like a shock at first but after I didn't feel pain, it's one thing you've got to tell your mind that you're not hurt. … Sometimes it does hurt but it's just a temporary pain."
Running back Fozzy Whittaker is obviously hungry to make the Panthers' roster.
Whittaker, who played sparingly with the Browns last year, smashed and slashed his way through the Chief reserves and finished with 13 carries for 71 yards and a TD.
"Coach Skip (Jim Skipper) always says 'Slow to it, fast through it,'" Whittaker said. "Once I see it open up I fully commit. The offensive line was doing a great job opening up holes all night for all the backs. Once we saw it we just did a good job of hitting it and taking the yards that they were giving us. It turned out to be very productive."
Whittaker got a shot with the Panthers late in July when he was signed after Tyler Gaffney was injured and then picked up by the New England Patriots off waivers.
Also, Stewart was sidelined at the time with a hamstring injury and the Panthers needed a body.
Whittaker has fit right in.
"I've only been here maybe a month; the way that they've embraced me and the type of brotherhood that is here really has touched my heart," he said. "I've been blessed to be a part of this organization. It's fun whenever you have brothers out there congratulating each other. It creates a great team atmosphere."
Whittaker is trying to make a backfield that includes DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, Mike Tolbert and Kenjon Barner.
Whittaker helped his cause with a 22-yard reception.
Also trying to crack the roster is Charlotte native Brenton Bersin, who played at Wofford College.
Bersin showed off his sure hands when he went to the ground to snare a pass with a defender diving in front of him for a 13-yard gain.
In the third quarter Bersin put the Panthers ahead for good at 21-16 when he used a double move that left his defender well out of position and then made an adjustment on a pass from Derek Anderson for a 16-yard touchdown catch.
It was at the first time Bersin has caught a TD pass with a game uniform on since he was a senior at Wofford in 2011.
"Obviousy, I didn't score that much at Wofford, we ran the triple option," Bersin said. "It felt good to be out there. I've been going to games since I was a kid in this stadium. Being able to score a touchdown here was awesome."
Bersin was released during training camp in 2012. He was brought back in the 2013 and made enough strides to be signed to the practice squad.
Now Bersin has a legitimate chance to make the 53-man roster behind Benjamin, Jericho Cotchery and Avant.
"I've been working my butt off," Bersin said. "Hopefully it paid off tonight. I got out there and made some plays and hopefully I can keep it going.
There are a couple of receiving spots up for grabs. Honestly, what I've got to do is show that I can play special teams. Those back up roles, at any position, they have to be able to use you on special teams in some way. Hopefully, I can show them I can do that."