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INDIANAPOLIS – Itching to get back on the playing field for the first time in two weeks, the Indianapolis Colts will play the first of six remaining games of the 2011 season on Sunday as they face off against the Carolina Panthers.
This marks the first meeting between the teams since 2007, and the Panthers bring with them one of the more electrifying players in the NFL in rookie quarterback Cam Newton.
After winning the Heisman Trophy last year at Auburn, Newton has acclimated himself very well to the next level of competition.
His 2,885 passing yards through 10 games is 600 more yards than any other rookie quarterback this season, and it stands as the most passing yards through the first 10 games of a career in NFL history.
When first-year head coach Ron Rivera took over the Panthers in the off-season, he knew exactly where the first pick was going.
"We were committed to finding a quarterback," Rivera said. "We really felt that in order for us to compete in the league and for us to compete in the NFC South, we had to have a franchise quarterback. You look at the other three teams in our division and they all speak 'franchise quarterback.' We just felt that for us to compete we had to have a guy that was comparable to them and was going to be the guy that's going to lead this franchise for the next eight-to-10 years. So that's what we were looking for and as we went through the process, there were a number of really good, young quarterbacks out there. The thing that we found interesting, too, is that when we studied it, a lot of these young quarterbacks that are coming out of college football, they threw a lot more than back in my day. These guys are averaging 35-45 throws a game, and so for them learning to throw the ball really is more about learning to understand what's going on as far as the offense you're learning (rather) than the defense that you're playing against."
Newton set rookie records in each of his first two games throwing for 422 and 432 yards, respectively. He has completed 60 percent of his passes and has nine rushing touchdowns to go along with his 12 through the air.
The only other rookie quarterback to throw for 300 yards in his opening game was Colts quarterback Peyton Manning (302) in 1998. Even though it is still very early in Newton's career, his head coach does see some similarities between the two.
"Yes I do," Rivera said. "I see that with him, and I see that with Troy Aikman. That's why, to me, there's cause for optimism. The nice thing, too, is that our players have bought into what we potentially can be. Now we've got to get to a point where we start being it. That's the thing that I find hard is that you do a lot of good things, you have good practices, you go out and you play good, but you don't play great. You take an early lead, but you don't sustain the lead. You take the lead in the fourth quarter, but you don't sustain it. Those are all things that we've got to learn to finish off. That's what a guy like Peyton Manning brings to you is that he's got that killer-instinct that once he's got them down, he keeps them down. He presses the pedal to the metal, and it's in his nature. That's who he is. That's what we're hoping that we've got with Cam Newton. Once everybody else catches up to where he's headed, where he's been and what he's done, then we can all continue to do that as well."
One of the most important keys on Sunday will be the Colts ability to contain the dual-threat quarterback.
Defensive end Dwight Freeney is just 1.5 sacks away from 100 for his career but even he knows that Newton is a different bread of signal-caller.
"I've always said that the animal you hunt, the quarterback is that animal," Freeney said. "So you have to know what kind of animal he is, and Cam is an athlete. He's a guy that they love to have him have the ball in his hands making plays. They're throwing the ball, running the ball (with) planned runs (and) non-planned runs and he's all over the place with it, which he should be. He's young, he's got all that energy and he's running around. Nothing hurts right now, it's all good. It's definitely going to be a challenge."
Newton is not the only challenge the Colts offense will face on Sunday. Running backs DeAngelo Williams (4,682) and Jonathan Stewart (3,111) rank first and third in Panthers history in rushing yards.
"Thirty-four (DeAngelo Williams) is more of the fast, get-to-the-outside running back, and twenty-eight (Jonathan Stewart) is a tough, physical runner," linebacker Pat Angerer said. "They've got three running backs with (Cam) Newton and both of the backs, and it's going to be a tough game."
Wide receiver Steve Smith has provided a veteran outlet for Newton, and Smith is the Panthers all-time leader in reception yards.
During the off-season, the Panthers added a pair of tight ends in Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey to the roster.
"Well, you know what it is, it's because you have tight ends with the ability to both run good routes and block, run block and pass block, then you get some versatility," Rivera said. "Like we do, we use them both at the same time or one at a time. It gives us the option, because when they're both on the field with two wide receivers we can split one of them out like a third wide receiver, a lot like what you see with Dallas Clark. That's what it is. You've got a guy that's versatile and has that kind of ability, and we've got two of them. We're very fortunate to have two of them. I don't want to say they're safety valves, a go-to guy is probably a better word for Cam (Newton) in terms of some of Cam's reads may be over here, but he always has a good feel for where those tight ends are going to be."
The Panthers offense is potent, ranking fifth in the NFL in total yards per game (400.9). They are tied with Oakland for the league lead with 58 plays of at least 20 yards. They also rank third in the NFL with 14 drives of at least 80 yards.
Coming off one of the latest bye weeks in franchise history, the Colts remain focused to record their first win of 2011.
"There's still a lot of football to be played, a lot of guys have a lot to prove still in these last six games and a lot can get accomplished," cornerback Jerraud Powers said. "We've got Carolina coming up, and they've got a tremendous young team with Cam (Newton) leading them. Steve Smith's having another fantastic year, and they've got a good defense, so it's still going to be another good challenge."
Colts 31, Panthers 7 – October 28, 2007
In record setting fashion, the Colts completed a perfect first two months of the 2007 season thanks to a 31-7 victory over the 4-2 Carolina Panthers in Charlotte. In earning their first-ever win over Carolina, the Colts became the first NFL team in 76 years to start three consecutive seasons 7-0. Striking first in the opening quarter, the Panthers grinded out an 11-minute touchdown drive as running back DeShaun Foster scored on a three-yard run. The drive covered 80 yards in 18 plays and was 12 plays longer than any other drive Carolina would have over the next three quarters. It would be the Colts special teams that would make a key play as the Indianapolis offense went three-and-out following the Foster touchdown. Linebacker Ramon Guzman fell on a Carolina fumble on the punt return. Indianapolis was in business at the Carolina 20-yard line. Kicker Adam Vinatieri put the Colts on the board with a 20-yard field goal to complete the scoring in the first quarter. The second quarter saw more ball control from the Panthers, but the Colts defense held firmly. After Colts tight end Ben Utecht fumbled to give the Panthers the ball at the Colts 28-yard line, the defense made a stand. On third-and-four from the nine-yard line, Colts safety Antoine Bethea intercepted Panthers quarterback Vinny Testaverde. After the teams traded punts on their next drives, the Colts offense would finally get untracked. Covering 86 yards in less than two minutes, running back Joseph Addai scored on a two-yard touchdown run with 1:38 left in the half for a halftime. It was 10-7 in the Colts' favor at intermission. The Colts had a three-point lead despite having the ball for less than eight minutes in the entire first half. The momentum to end the first half carried over to the opening possession of the third quarter for the Colts. Quarterback Peyton Manning directed another eight-play scoring drive, this time covering 60 yards when Addai scored on a four-yard touchdown reception. After a Panthers punt gave the Colts the ball at their own 30-yard line, it was time for Manning and wide receiver Reggie Wayne to shift gears. Wayne got the drive started with an 11-yard catch and then finished it off on the next play with a 59-yard touchdown grab, pushing the lead to 24-7. Any possible late-game heroics from the Panthers would be thwarted quickly by the Colts on their next possession. Addai scored his third touchdown on a 12-yard run to close out an 11-play, 55-yard drive and the scoring at 31-7. The Colts defense would put a final imprint on an impressive performance on the next drive as cornerback Tim Jennings forced a fumble by Panthers tight end Jeff King that was recovered by cornerback Kelvin Hayden. The Colts drained almost seven minutes off the clock following the takeaway, and Carolina was not able to muster anything further. The Colts had posted their 21st consecutive pre-November regular-season victory that dated back to the 2004 season. Addai's impressive afternoon included 23 rushes for 100 yards and two touchdowns, while he had two receptions for nine yards and a score. Wayne caught seven passes for 168 yards and a touchdown. Manning's two touchdown passes gave him 288 for his career, a total that broke the franchise record held by Hall-of-Famer John Unitas. The 287 career touchdowns by Unitas stood as the team standard since 1972. The 59-yard pass from Manning-to-Wayne set the new mark in style. That was not the only record set with the victory over Carolina. Head Coach Tony Dungy posted his 74th victory as the club's head coach. Dungy moved past Ted Marchibroda and Don Shula as the winningest field leader in Colts history.
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton against the Colts defense: Even without the normal off-season opportunities as most rookies, Cam Newton has shattered almost every record for first-year quarterbacks. Newton came out firing with back-to-back 400-yard passing games to start his NFL career. He has numerous weapons at his disposal including running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, who rank one and two, respectively, in the most rushing touchdowns in franchise history. This marks the third time this season the Colts have faced a rookie quarterback, and they will have their hands full with the dual-threat Newton.
Colts quarterback Curtis Painter against the Panthers defense: Quarterback Curtis Painter will be making his eighth consecutive start on Sunday. After starting the season as the backup to Kerry Collins, Painter excelled in his first couple of starts and he hopes to return to those productive levels. The offense has sputtered in the past few games with injuries across the board affecting execution. Indianapolis might have running back Joseph Addai back this week. The Panthers have allowed 24 or more points on eight occasions this season.
-The Colts are on pace for 1,574 rushing yards which would be the most since 2007.
-Rookie running back Delone Carter is fifth in the NFL among rookies in rushing yards.
-Colts linebacker Pat Angerer (104) leads the NFL in tackles.
-Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney is 1.5 sacks away from 100 in his career.
-The Panthers are fifth in the NFL with 400.9 yards per game in total offense.
-The Panthers are averaging 5.0 rushing yards per attempt, which ties for third in the NFL and is almost a full yard more than the league average.
-Quarterback Cam Newton has nine rushing touchdowns, which is three short of the NFL record for quarterbacks in one season.
-Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith has the franchise record in receiving yards with 9,876.
-Since 2005, Smith ranks third in the NFL with 7,680 receiving yards.
-The Panthers defensive backs coach Ron Meeks was the Colts defensive coordinator from 2002-08.
Colts Head Coach Jim Caldwell (on which aspects of the defense Cam Newton stresses the most):
"How about all of the above? And that's a fact, because he uses every inch of the field. He's a guy that can certainly escape. He can get out and make plays outside of the pocket, and he's not just looking to run. He gets outside of the pocket and he's looking down the field to see if he can get (the ball) to the very capable guys down the field like (Steve) Smith, (Greg) Olsen, (Jeremy) Shockey, and some of those guys. He also gives you a problem because (the Panthers) run a semblance of what he ran at Auburn with a little bit of an option feel to it. He's reading the end, whether or not to hand it off or keep it. Also, running some true option and he runs a lot of quarterback draws which he's very, very good at because he can run those and he's got great vision. Particularly in the red zone, he knows how to get that ball in the end zone. He does put stress on not only your linebackers because of the run and pass problems that he creates, (but also) your secondary because of the fact that they have to stay in coverage for so long because he can scramble and get outside of the pocket and make plays. Not only that, but up front if you're going to rush him, you might want to think about staying in your rush lanes to try to contain him as much as you possibly can. You're not going to be able to contain him completely. He's just so athletic. Oftentimes, you'll see him even bounce backwards where he can get enough room where he can out run you around the edge. You're not going to contain him completely, but you'd better try to keep him under wraps as much as you can."
Colts Head Coach Jim Caldwell (on quarterback Curtis Painter starting on Sunday):
"Curtis (Painter) has not played a whole lot of football around here for us. I think he has to be given a good, clear opportunity. There are a lot of things that happened to him out there during the course of the game that may not have always been his fault. Some of it is obviously the situation that we've put him in as well. I need to do a little bit better job of making certain he can do what he does, and not necessarily what anyone else has done around here. (We need to) get it tailored a little bit more to his strengths. I just didn't feel he has gotten an opportunity to do that as of yet, a clear opportunity. We're going to give him that opportunity."
Colts linebacker Pat Angerer(on the team coming back strong following the bye week):
"We've got a good group of guys here, guys that are going to work hard. I think everybody rested up and healed up real well, and it's exciting to get back to it. The ball is in our court. We can play hard and we can do some good things."
Carolina Head Coach Ron Rivera(on quarterback Cam Newton):
"I think the thing that I find real interesting about the young man is just his whole demeanor as to who he is. That's probably the biggest thing that you're really starting to see is that he's the kind of guy that is going to continue to grow and develop. He's going to give you everything he's got, he's going to take the wins and take the losses the same way. He's going to take them hard, because he always wants to be better. He's really been the kind of guy that you're hoping to have, and he's really kind of proven and shown a lot of people that he's capable of being a force in this league."
Carolina Head Coach Ron Rivera(on facing an 0-10 Colts team and whether his team has shown any overconfidence):
"Absolutely not. I've told our guys that we have no reason to be (over)confident, we really don't. Just because we may playing some good football at times, but we're not consistent and this is the NFL. You look at who's still on that roster and who could potentially still play for this football team, and when you look at the Reggie Wayne's, the Pierre Garcon's and I don't know if Dallas (Clark) will be back, but Dallas Clark's another guy that's an impact player and has been one in this league. I like their running backs, and they've got a good combination of guys. Again, I think Curtis Painter in the system is a young man who's still learning and growing. If he gets hot with his ability to throw the ball downfield, then this team can score points, and we can't take them lightly. Then you turnaround and you look at the defensive side, and you see (Dwight) Freeney and you see (Robert) Mathis, and they're still rushing as hard as ever. I can tell you a lot of things start with those two guys, so you can't take them lightly. Shoot, with their potential and ability, who knows? You can get behind early, and if that defense gets rolling, it could be a tough day. So we're not approaching it lightly, and as far as I'm concerned this is the NFL. Anybody can beat anybody. It doesn't matter who (is playing). I think the thing that we have to do is we have to go out and take care of our business, do our jobs and then we'll see from there."
Carolina Head Coach Ron Rivera(on wide receiver Steve Smith this season)
"The thing that he's been is he's been a tremendous pro. He practices as hard as anybody on the team, and in fact we've had to pull him back a couple of times. He'll start every practice, but we'll try to cut his reps and get him out, because he is a little bit of a veteran guy and we don't want to wear him out. Like I said, who knows what the future's going to hold for us?"
Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith(on whether he thinks Reggie Wayne can still play at an elite level despite his age):
"He can still play. One of the things that is very challenging when you are very competitive is you really have a hard time settling. A lot of people can settle very well, very easily. You have a hard time settling so you have a hard time trying to figure out, 'How can I get through this with all of my marbles,' and not really mentally drag yourself down. Also, you start to get upset and frustrated when you see guys that don't have the same drive and don't want to change and don't want to fix the things that are glaring deficiencies."
Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith(on if he considers himself to still be one of the best deep threats in the game today):
"No, I've never really considered myself a deep threat in the game or one of the best because I really don't do the poll thing. I don't have time for it and I really just don't care or pay attention to it. I let the people write what they want to write."