CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Cam Newton is locked in and on target.
Carolina’s quarterback is on a mini-tear entering a Thursday night showdown against the Eagles, completing 77.4 percent of his passes over the last two games for 671 yards with six touchdowns. That’s well above Newton’s career completion percentage of 58.9 percent and last season’s career low of 52.9 percent.
Newton’s newfound accuracy has the Panthers (4-1) tied for the best record in the NFC with the Eagles and Packers. Suddenly, questions about Newton’s ability to recover from shoulder surgery have turned to questions about competing for league MVP honors again.
Newton shrugged his shoulders and offered no explanation for his career-high completion percentage this year.
But clearly one of the reasons is the addition of running back Christian McCaffrey, who has given the seventh-year QB a valuable check-down option on passes. The rookie from Stanford leads the Panthers with 27 receptions.
“He’s an exceptional football player who has found his role on this team and is trying to find ways to expand his role,” Newton said of McCaffrey. “A guy like that, he’s so easy to throw to.”
The Panthers are throwing more short and intermediate routes than in the past, designed in part to compensate for Newton coming off rotator cuff surgery. He missed most of training camp and the Panthers didn’t want to rush him back by asking him to throw a bunch of deep balls.
Newton’s arm strength is improving and he’s showing no signs of soreness, although coach Ron Rivera still limits his reps in practice.
“There’s certain throws that he’s making again. That’s a huge plus,” Rivera said. “I think last week was indicative of that. I think as he gets stronger and stronger, we can do some more things we want to do.”
McCaffrey is commanding so much attention from defenses that it’s freeing up others to make plays. Devin Funchess has three TD catches in the last two games and Greg Olsen fill-in Ed Dickson caught five passes for 175 yards last week against Detroit.
Control the clock
The Eagles lead the NFL in time of possession with an average of 35:32 thanks to a strong running game and best third-down offense in the league. Led by LeGarrette Blount’s bruising running, Philadelphia is ranked fifth in rushing. The Eagles are first in third-down conversions at 53.4 percent, allowing them to keep drives going and keep the ball away from opponents. “I think it’s important to establish the run to start,” coach Doug Pederson said. “It just helps our offense, helps our offensive line settle into games. And when you see your defense, the three-and-outs that they have and stopping the run, it can frustrate an opponent.”
Carson Wentz and his new receivers couldn’t connect on long throws until Torrey Smith and Nelson Agholor made big plays against the Cardinals. Wentz hit Smith in stride for a 59-yard TD and lofted a perfect pass that Agholor caught over his shoulder for a 72-yard TD. “Carson is known to chuck it,” Agholor said. “He’s going to chuck it and you have to get under it. We have fun with it. The deep ball is a great way to keep defenses honest and to help guys all around the football field, whether it’s your tight ends or crossers, get open.”
Peppers closes in
Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers needs one sack to become the fifth player in NFL history to reach 150 for his career. He would join Bruce Smith, Reggie White, Kevin Greene and Chris Doleman on that list. Peppers has been extremely valuable in a rotational role, getting 5 1/2 sacks in five games. The Panthers have 17 sacks, tied for third in the league.
Dickson has been the second option at tight end for the past three seasons with the Panthers, but is being leaned on more with Olsen on injured reserve with a foot injury. The Panthers are hoping Olsen will be back later this season, but in the meantime Dickson is stepping up. After Dickson had 175 yards receiving, Newton teased Olsen by saying the veteran tight end is getting eager to get back on the field. “In a matter of two days, (Olsen) done went from a cast to a boot to now his whole shoe off,” Newton said with a laugh.
Cox on the mend
Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox returned to practice this week after missing the last two games with a calf injury. His return would be a big boost for the defense.
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