CHARLOTTE – It's early, yes, but quarterback Cam Newton is performing exactly the way the Panthers were hoping when they hired Norv Turner as offensive coordinator this offseason and spoke of Newton "taking the next step" in his development.
Newton is completing 67.4 percent of his passes; his career high is 61.7 in 2013.
Newton has a quarterback rating of 99.7, slightly better than his career best of 99.4 during his MVP season in 2015.
Newton has thrown one interception compared to five touchdowns in 95 pass attempts, which gives him a 1.1 interception percentage, also a career best.
"Very consistent is a good word for it," Rivera said Monday of his quarterback's play through three games. "His play has truly matured, and by that I mean he's learning to take what's being given.
"In the past he may have tried to force some things downfield. He was a little high early in the game (yesterday), and once he kind of got the ball down and went through his reads quickly he was getting the ball where it needed to be. He was very efficient that way."
Newton's passing efficiency has improved, and his prowess in the run game hasn't changed. He scored two more rushing touchdowns against the Bengals and his 45.3 rushing yards per game is right in line with his career average (39.8).
"When you've got a team playing confident like we're playing, it makes us hard to beat," Newton said after the win Sunday.
And when Newton is playing confident like he's playing, the Carolina offense is going to be hard to stop.
Revisiting the run defense
After an uncharacteristically poor performance in the Week 2 loss at Atlanta, the Panthers were much better against the run in Week 3, allowing Cincinnati to gain just 66 yards on the ground.
But Bengals running back Giovani Bernard averaged 5.1 yards per rush, and runs like his 23-yarder on the first play of the second half are never going to sit well with Rivera.
"We've had a little glitch here and there in every game we've played," Rivera said of the run defense. "I look forward to the point where we don't have that little something here or there. And it'd be easy if it was one individual, but it pops up here and there so it's just something that we have to continue to work at. We've got to continue to develop that trust that we're going to be where we need to be."
Corners hitting their mark
One of the best stories surrounding the Panthers defense this season has been the work of the young cornerback tandem that is James Bradberry and Donte Jackson.
A week after battling Atlanta's Julio Jones, Bradberry once again found himself matched up against another of the NFL's top wideouts in Cincinnati's A.J. Green. And the third-year pro again held his own, contributing four tackles and four pass deflections. Jackson was a game ball recipient after recording seven tackles and two interceptions, upping his season total to three.
"I think the thing that's been exciting is when you watch James, he's taken to the challenge of being lined up on the big, number one receivers that's seen the last few weeks," Rivera said. "I think Donte is a young guy who plays with some bravado. He knows how quick he is, he plays to that. I think he's created some opportunities for us."
It's clear that Bradberry and Jackson have turned heads on the outside, but Rivera also made sure to praise the play of veteran nickel corner Captain Munnerlyn, who provided solid coverage and a timely quarterback pressure in the win.
"I think you have to commend Captain for the way he's played the nickel position too," Rivera said. "When you have a guy underneath that's scrappy, that fights, it creates some situations too and helps."
Receivers show grade-A effort
Running back Christian McCaffrey's career high 45-yard run in the first quarter was undoubtedly one of the game's best highlights. But, if not for the effort of the wide receivers and tight ends down field, the big play may not have happened.
During his Monday press conference, Rivera emphasized the importance of those downfield blocks.
"It's funny because when a runner pops a long run it also has to do with the second level blocking. When you a get a chance to see the tight ends and the wide receivers blocking down field, that's huge," Rivera said. "That's a big part of why we had success running the ball."
In addition to the solid blocking, Rivera highlighted the unit's effort to improve their route-running in practice as a key factor to how the offense sustained drives.
"Part of it about running a hard route is not necessarily if you're always the intended receiver but what you mean to the rest of the (offense)," Rivera said. "If you're ripping through the defensive formation and guys see that and they're jumping you, that's going to open it up for somebody else.
"That's why its important to practice at a high level so you can play at that same high level."
View photos from the Panthers' 31-21 win over the Bengals in Week 3.
Digital media intern Jelani Scott contributed to this report.