Kuechly, new faces rise up


CHARLOTTE – Panthers left tackle Jordan Gross felt a little uneasy when he realized how many key contributors were inactive.

"We were really shorthanded. There were a ton of starters inactive today, and I was a little leery about that, wondering how the guys would be," Gross said.

The Panthers were without four starters Sunday against the Falcons -- five counting strong safety Charles Godfrey who was active despite a back injury but didn't play a single snap.

Running back Jonathan Stewart (ankle), wide receiver Brandon LaFell (toe), defensive tackle Dwan Edwards (wrist) and linebacker James Anderson (back) were all unavailable. 

"Our message all week was if you get an opportunity, step up and make yourself known," Gross said.

Once the game started, two more starters went down. Center Geoff Hangartner left briefly with a knee injury in the third quarter and free safety Haruki Nakamura was forced out of the game early in the fourth quarter with a groin injury.

Defending the high-powered Falcons offense is difficult enough with a healthy defense. Now the Panthers were counting on 2012 starting debuts from free safety D.J. Campbell, defensive tackle Frank Kearse and linebacker Jason Phillips. When Nakamura went down, reserve safety Colin Jones was called on.

Not to mention cornerback and mid-season free agent acquisition James Dockery, who saw extended playing time and was often matched up against star wide receiver Roddy White.

Yet it was this group of young players forced into pivotal roles that contributed to a 30-20 victory over the NFC South champions.

"That's the name of the game: When a guy goes down, somebody's got to step up," said linebacker Luke Kuechly, who had a game-high 16 tackles. "They all played great. It's a testament to them. They stepped up. They paid attention during the week and they were on the top of their game."

Added Nakamura: "Sometimes that's when you play your best, when it's all or nothing. Those guys did it. Everybody listened to the game plan this week, and it was a great game plan."

Kearse praised the work of the Carolina coaching staff in ensuring the group of replacements were equipped to handle their increased responsibilities.

"I felt prepared going in. Everything the coaches told me the Falcons were going to try to do, I saw it," said Kearse, who notched the first solo sack of his career. "There was nothing brand new to me out there. I had already seen it the whole week of practice."

For head coach Ron Rivera, production from all the new faces made Sunday's victory even more gratifying.

"Because of the injuries, some of the young guys got more opportunities and did some great things," Rivera said. "There is a good group of guys who gave everything they had."

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