Jeremy Shockey caught a TD pass from Cam Newton on Carolina's first possession. (Photo by John Clark)
CHARLOTTE – The Carolina Panthers may have a quarterback controversy on their hands after all -- just not the one you think.
Cam Newton was named the team's opening day starter by coach Ron Rivera following Thursday night's 33-17 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers after the No. 1 draft pick led an impressive nine-play, 71-yard touchdown drive on the team’s opening possession.
Newton completed 3 of 5 passes for 25 yards on the drive, culminating in a 10-yard touchdown pass to Jeremy Shockey. He also displayed some more fancy footwork on a 19-yard scramble to keep the drive alive before making a quick exit.
"That's just another reason for me to get better," Newton said of being named the starter. "That's a big opportunity and a big responsibility. To be a starter in this league there is so much that goes into it behind the scenes and I've got to be ready for that."
The real competition now is for the No. 2 spot where veteran Derek Anderson appears to have surpassed Jimmy Clausen on the depth chart.
Anderson, not Clausen, relieved Newton midway through the second quarter and played extremely well completing 11 of 19 passes for 192 yards, including a 41-yard touchdown pass to David Clowney.
Clausen had a disastrous night, throwing an interception on his first pass of the game and then fumbling a snap from center leading to a Steelers touchdown in the fourth quarter. He threw another pass that should have been picked off and was also sacked three times, including once on fourth down while the Panthers were in the red zone.
He looked particularly slow moving around in the pocket after injuring his thigh last Thursday night against Cincinnati.
It was the first time this preseason that Anderson was the second quarterback into the game and could signal the Panthers are more comfortable with him being Newton's primary backup since he's more familiar with Rob Chudzinski's offense.
Under new NFL rules, teams can activate 46 players on game day and no longer have to declare an third or "emergency" quarterback, so technically coach Ron Rivera doesn’t have to name his backup when the Panthers open the regular season Sept. 11 against the Arizona Cardinals. He can bring in either Anderson or Clausen at any time if Newton struggles.
"The thing about that is Derek is a guy that doesn't need a lot of reps in this offense," Rivera said. "At the same time, if something were to happen, he's a guy that because he doesn't need a lot of reps in this offense could probably help us. So we are most certainly going to take a look at that and see where that fits with what we want to do offensively."
The decision to name Newton the starter hardly came as a surprise.
"We are looking forward to him being our starter," Rivera said. "He's going to grow as our starter and we're going to grow as a football team. The thing that has to happen is that we as a football team have to grow and it's not just about him. It's about the rest of growing with our system... I want to make this clear again: We didn't draft Cam to be our savior, we drafted him to help lead this football team. He will be our starter on opening day."
Rivera said Newton earned the job, saying he was "very pleased" with Newton's brief cameo.
"I'm very pleased with his energy and how he handled things," Rivera said. "His mobility flashed and that was one of the big positives that really gives us an indicator at what he can as a quarterback in terms of throwing the ball and running the ball."
Said Newton: "If you're a leader, you're a leader, simple and plain. If you have that ability to make people follow you, that's what it is. You don't just flip that switch on and off if it's a collegiate thing or a professional thing. Either you are or you're not. Some people have that ability in them."
Defensively, the Panthers struggled once again without their leader Jon Beason, allowing the Steelers to take the opening kickoff and march 80 yards for a relatively easy touchdown. Charlie Batch, who started for Ben Roethlisberger, was 5 of 6 for 50 yards on the drive and the Steelers opened big holes in Carolina’s defensive line just as Cincinnati and Miami did in previous weeks.
Later in the game Steelers fourth-string running back Jonathen Dwyer raced through a hole in the middle of the line for a 50-yard touchdown burst.
"I thought defensively we had our moments," Rivera said. "Again the third down situations got us. With the first group we had the opportunity to get off the field on third and long and we gave up the first down and kept the drive alive. It's definitely a sore point for us right now. We have to get that figured out. Again, we need a little consistency trying to stop the run."
However, Carolina’s hopes of getting out of the game injury-free took an apparent blown when right guard Garry Williams fractured his ankle in the second quarter. Williams started at right guard just days after the Panthers put Geoff Schwartz on injured reserve.
The Panthers finished the preseason with three straight losses after opening with a win against the New York Giants.
The team will trim its roster to 53 players on Saturday.