Newton Just One Part of Explosive Panthers

Cam Newton will get all the hype heading into Sunday but he's surrounded by plenty of talent at the skill positions. Steve Smith looked like he was back in All-Pro form, and DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart power the NFL's No. 2 rushing attack since 2008.

The headliner is Cam Newton.

But the supporting cast that will be unleashed on the Green Bay Packers' defense on Sunday isn't too shabby.

The Carolina Panthers' offense looks almost nothing like the inept unit that averaged a league-worst 12.2 points per game last season. With top overall pick Newton, the Panthers have a dynamic, strong-armed threat at a position that combined for nine touchdowns and 21 interceptions for last year's 2-14 squad. Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey, acquired via trade (Chicago) and free agency (New Orleans), respectively, provide big-time pass-catching threats at tight ends.

Because of the upgraded talent in the passing game, the two-headed backfield of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart should find more running room. In 2009, they were the first tandem to each top 1,100 rushing yards in a season. They power a rushing offense that ranks second in the NFL since 2008 — the year that Williams rushed for four touchdowns in the Panthers' 35-31 win at Lambeau Field.

All of that talent combined for 477 yards in Sunday's 28-21 loss at Arizona. Newton did the bulk of the work by throwing for a rookie-record 422 yards and accounting for three total touchdowns.

"It's not just necessarily the quarterback," first-year Panthers coach Ron Rivera told Packers beat reporters in a conference call on Wednesday. "Everybody's got to remember now that, sure, he's a rookie quarterback, but this is a new system, so it's not just him but everybody on offense is learning a new system, a new way of doing things. So, what's really happened is a tribute to the whole coaching staff on both sides of the ball and, hey, we've been able to take a young football team and hopefully continue to implement what we do. Last week was just kind of a show of what we're capable of if we do the things we're supposed to do."

What the Panthers look like is a big-play unit. That wasn't the case last year. With Jimmy Clausen and Matt Moore at quarterback, the Panthers had a league-low 30 completions of 20-plus yards (the Packers tied for sixth with 57). In Week 1, Newton completed eight passes of at least 20 yards against the Cardinals, including touchdowns of 77 and 26 yards to Steve Smith.

The 32-year-old Smith looks like the major beneficiary from Newton's presence. The four-time Pro Bowler, who equaled last year's touchdown total on Sunday, hadn't had a 100-yard game since Week 14 of the 2009 season.

"He made an old guy look like he can still play," Smith said during his conference call.

With what Smith called a "rifle" for a throwing arm, Newton has put a spring in the step of the veteran receiver. Smith caught just 46 passes for 584 yards last season after averaging 84 catches for 1,207 yards and eight touchdowns when healthy from 2003 through 2009. The disillusionment with losing had Smith saying he wanted to be traded to a contender, but he changed his tune after meeting with general manager Marty Hurney after the lockout. Even with the horrendous quarterback play from last year, Smith ranks second in the NFL with 45 catches of 25-plus yards since 2007. The Packers' Greg Jennings tops the list with 50.

Smith isn't a one-man show, though. Olsen and Shockey combined for seven catches for 124 yards last week and second-year receiver Brandon LaFell added four catches for 70 yards.

Now, can Newton keep it up against a defense that, while struggling at times against Drew Brees last week, finished second in the NFL in scoring defense and first in opponent passer rating last season? And, in the big picture, was last week a sign of things for a quarterback that is being paid to rescue a franchise that had fallen on hard times after going 12-4 but being one-and-done in the playoffs in 2008?

Time will tell, but both Smith and Rivera can't say enough about Newton's attitude and work ethic — both of which came under scrutiny leading up to the draft.

"Any new job, there's adapting and you've got to adapt to the culture that you've never experienced," Smith said. "College and the pros, just in the name itself says it's different. And I think by the statistics, by the numbers, that a lot of players only last so many years, 2.5 years, 3.5 years. There's a reason why, and I think Cam understands that. He knows the burden and responsibility that's put on the shoulders of being the first overall pick. There's been a lot of guys prior to him that have succeeded and faltered. He has an opportunity to choose the direction he goes and by his worth ethic, the good work ethic his dad instilled in him, he's taken a choice and shown people that he's taken the right steps forward that he wants to be successful. He doesn't want to be on the wrong side of that statistic."

Added Rivera: "Obviously, you saw the talent, you saw the physical attributes, you saw the ability, skill-wise. I think it's really as much about what he's learned. He's learned an awful lot in five, six weeks. That's probably the biggest thing is he learned so much, so fast. It's a tribute to him because he sets a high standard for himself. He demands a lot on himself and he puts a lot of work into where he has gotten today. I think the big thing is he's got to continue to work that way. We have to manage everybody's expectations, including his own. He expected himself to play well. If you asked him are you surprised by your play, he probably was going to say, ‘I worked at it. I worked very hard.' He might not say it but I'll say it for him because that's what he's done."


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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.


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