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Panthers changing for the better

Posted Jun 1, 2012

CHARLOTTE - The naysayers believe that with a season's worth of film at their disposal, opposing defenses may force Panthers quarterback Cam Newton into a sophomore slump.

Along the same lines, some believe a Panthers defense that didn't add any players with significant starting NFL experience will continue to slump.

The Panthers, however, see things differently because they don't plan to simply show opponents more of the same.

"We're constantly changing and improving," Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil said. "We'll maybe not so much try to repeat what we did last year – because last year we only won six games – but we're trying to improve and become a playoff team."

The growth process is getting a big boost from a full offseason schedule, something that was short-circuited last year by the NFL's work stoppage. It was a triple whammy for the Panthers last offseason, who were powerless to prepare with a new coaching staff coming in and a rookie quarterback needing to be broken in.

Things are different this spring. The Panthers wrapped up the second of three weeks of Organized Team Activities (OTAs) on Friday, after which they'll hold a three-day mini-camp.

"I'm pretty excited about what we're seeing out there," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. "We do have to take it with a grain of salt because we're not in pads, but it's great to see the guys moving around.

"The big thing you're looking for is guys doing things the right way – making right decisions, putting themselves in position to make the play. That's probably the biggest improvement we've seen."

Rivera said he's seen notable advances on both sides of the ball since the opening week of OTAs, with the defense showing the most improvement in terms of its communication and the offense making smooth adjustments along the front.

OTAs are allowing the defense to work on different pass coverages on a level that was impossible to achieve during the shortened 2011 offseason. The offense, meanwhile, is progressing with executing audibles at the line of scrimmage.

Even without the benefit of OTAs, the offense rose from last in the NFL in scoring in 2010 all the way to fifth in 2011. For those who believe defenses will catch up to Newton – the NFL's offensive rookie of the year – Kalil has a different take.

"It's not going to be the same offense," he said. "Coach (Rob) Chudzinski, we call him the 'mad scientist.' He's always creating new ideas.

"It's fun, but it's also tedious. It takes a lot of focus on our part, but we're all working toward the same goal, so it's exciting to come in and be able to build on what we were able to do last year."

While the offense is using OTAs to tweak things, a defense that ranked 27th in points allowed is making changes as well, but not on a grand scale. The biggest "change" isn't really a change at all: the return of several key players from injury.

In 2011, linebacker Thomas Davis played in two games, linebacker Jon Beason played in one and defensive tackle Ron Edwards didn't play at all. All three are taking it easy at OTAs in hopes of being ready for training camp, but one key person to the success of the defense is fully participating.

"The biggest thing for me really is being able to spend more time with the defensive side," said Rivera, who produced three top-five defenses over his five full seasons as a defensive coordinator before landing his first head coaching job.

"I was told prior to last season that being a head coach will really pull you away from what you really want to do, and that is coach. But now that I have a year under my belt and I have a feel for what has to be done, I can spend a little bit more time over there with the defensive guys."

And across the board, the Panthers can spend much more time this offseason on the business of football, something they believe might make all the difference come September.

"This is a definite advantage," running back Jonathan Stewart said. "We're able to grasp things quicker now and help the young guys grasp them, and it's an opportunity to get to know your teammates and develop chemistry.

"It's been real productive, especially compared to last year when we weren't able to be out here with the players and coaches. It's definitely a step forward."

QUICK KICKS: Newton missed practice Friday to host a 7-on-7 football tournament in Atlanta for his foundation, something that already was set up before the Panthers shifted their final OTA of the week from Thursday. … Right tackle Jeff Otah got a precautionary MRI on Thursday on his left knee, the same knee that has caused him miss 31 of the last 35 games. "Jeff tweaked his knee a little bit. It swelled up a little bit, so we're just checking on it," Rivera said.