CHARLOTTE - After quarterback Cam Newton received a game ball following the Panthers' victory over the Washington Redskins, he went out of his way to praise the offensive line for its role in the triumph.
Newton is in better position than anyone to appreciate the line's often overlooked value.
"So many times, people are blinded by individual efforts," Newton said. "If you go back and look at the film, you'll see the time I had back there. You keep thinking, 'Someone has to be coming,' but it never happens, and then someone pops wide open.
"Those guys make my job easier."
The job of an offensive lineman is never easy, but the Panthers' group has at times made it look easy after a difficult start to the season.
The Panthers averaged just 84 yards rushing over their first three games but have nearly doubled that over the last four games to 161 yards.
Newton was sacked eight times in the first two games but was sacked a total of three times over the next four games.
Then Sunday, a Redskins team that entered the game ranking second in the NFL in sacks per pass play got to Newton four times before halftime. In the second half, they didn't touch him.
"We had some breakdowns in the first half, but in the second half they came back and gave Cam time. If you give Cam time with the receivers we've got, there is opportunity to get the ball downfield," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. "The biggest thing when you talk about why we've had success has been the play of our offensive line. Our quarterback has come a long way as a rookie, but you have to look at the offensive line playing as well as they are, even with a rookie at the right tackle position."
The left and middle of the line – with Jordan Gross at tackle, Travelle Wharton at guard and Ryan Kalil at center – has been solid all along, but the right side has dealt with plenty of adversity.
At right guard, Geoff Schwartz, Mackenzy Bernadeau and Garry Williams all suffered injuries during the preseason, including season-enders for Schwartz and Williams. The Panthers then signed veteran Geoff Hangartner when the Buffalo Bills released him in the final roster cutdown.
At right tackle, Jeff Otah played on and off with a bad knee before the Panthers placed him on injured reserve last week and entrusted the job to undrafted rookie Byron Bell.
"We're still a work in progress over there, but Byron has a lot of ability," said Hangartner, a seven-year pro who played his first four seasons with the Panthers. "Byron really wants to be good, and that goes a long way. He's a great athlete, but he really cares. It's really important to him.
"It's awesome to get a guy like that, who wasn't even drafted, that can play tackle. It's a huge deal."
Bell will make his fourth start Sunday when the Minnesota Vikings visit Bank of America Stadium. He's already tangled with the like of Clay Matthews, John Abraham and Brian Orapko, and now he'll face Jared Allen, the NFL leader with 11.5 sacks.
"I've been facing some really good defensive ends, and all I can do is do what I can control, which is to go out and play my game," Bell said. "I'm taking it day by day, step by step."
With the way the line has been performing and momentum still flowing from Sunday's victory, Kalil can't help but take a peek beyond today.
"We have a really good, experienced group with some good talent, and our new offensive line coach (John Matsko) has done a great job of preparing us," Kalil said. "We have something special here that we have to continue to build on and put some momentum behind."