CHARLOTTE, N.C. — There were some worries over how Kelvin Benjamin’s return would affect the Carolina Panthers’ chemistry on offense.
Make no doubt it, the Panthers wide-shouldered, long-legged 6-foot-5, 245-pound wide receiver is back — and the defending NFC champion Panthers are better for it.
Concerns over whether reigning league MVP Cam Newton would focus too much on Benjamin — and not spread the ball around enough like he did during his MVP season a year ago — were put to rest after the Panthers racked up 529 yards in a 46-27 win against a San Francisco team that shut out the Rams last week.
Benjamin caught seven of the nine passes thrown his way for 108 yards and two touchdowns , and the Panthers scored on eight of their 12 possessions. He has three TDs on the season after missing all of 2015 with a torn left ACL.
But it wasn’t all about Benjamin, which is the best part for the Panthers (1-1), who extended their home winning streak to 14, including the playoffs.
Tight end Greg Olsen was huge too, catching five passes for 122 yards, including a career-long 78-yard touchdown pass in which he was wide open on a seam route. Ted Ginn Jr. caught two passes for 51 yards, and Devin Funchess hauled in one of Newton’s four TD passes.
In all, Newton targeted different receivers and seven players caught at least two passes.
Benjamin’s presence also helped open up Carolina’s running game, with backup Fozzy Whittaker rushing for a career-best 100 yards on 16 carries. All told, the Panthers had 176 yards on the ground and 26 first downs.
Olsen called Benjamin a “game changer,” who forces defenses into tough matchups.
“With his size and catch radius you can throw there and trust that he’s going to protect that throw,” Olsen said. “We force teams to guard every inch of the field with our run game, our pass game, and our quarterback with his strength. It’s a collective group effort and we’re going to try to keep that going.”
For Newton, Benjamin provides an incredible security blanket.
Of all the highlight reel catches Benjamin made, perhaps the biggest was a 25-yard reception on third-and-10 after the 49ers cut Carolina’s lead to 34-27 in the fourth quarter. Newton fired over the middle and Benjamin leaped to make a grab between two defenders.
A few plays later, Graham Gano converted a 49-yard field goal to make it a two-possession game. Carolina’s defense forced two Blaine Gabbert turnovers to close out the win.
“Most of the DBs that were on me were small, and I was able to jump and get the ball,” Benjamin said.
“He’s extremely special,” Newton said. “He makes my life extremely easy.”
Time and time again, Benjamin has been able to make big catches over the middle, take hits and move the chains. When asked how it feels to take that punishment, Benjamin said, “You have to ask the other (defensive backs) because they bounce off of me .”
Said Newton: “You can’t coach that. I told him and Devin (Funchess) that God gave them the three S’s: size, speed and strength. To have all three of those things is just unbelievable.”
That makes it difficult for defenders.
“He’s a big body,” said 49ers safety Antoine Bethea. “They have a couple of guys out there with big frames. Cam (Newton) just puts the ball within their wide catch radius, and (Benjamin) goes up and catches it. That’s a plus they have in those kinds of guys on the outside.”
What coach Ron Rivera loves best about Benjamin is his unselfishness. He doesn’t have a prima donna attitude and regularly says his only goal is “winning games.”
“It’s going to be very hard to defend us moving forward,” Benjamin said. “Right now I’m the guy catching most of the touchdowns, but the next game I might not be that guy. You never know who will be that guy.”