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Panthers coach Ron Rivera: Patriots are ‘one of the elites in this league’

11.15.13 at 6:15 am ET
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FOXBORO — Panthers coach Ron Rivera comes into Monday’s game against the Patriots with his team on a five-game win streak, with the latest victory an upset of the 49ers in San Francisco.

But he acknowledges that this week’s game against New England will provide a good litmus test for his team as it prepares for a possible run for the postseason.

“Is it a litmus test?” he asked on a conference call with the New England media. “Yeah, they all are, but again I do agree because of who we are playing. We’re playing one of the elites in this league, who just also happens to have one of the elite quarterbacks in this league.

“[But] they are all litmus tests. They are all important because it is our next, most important, game because it is the one we are about to play,” he added. “That’€™s kind of been my mantra. I don’€™t want these guys to get ahead of themselves. I want these guys to understand that we have to take care of business every week, so every week is an important game. You know, heck, our first game was important, our second one was, and this one is important just like last week as well.”

The 6-3 Panthers have become one of the surprise teams in the league over the first nine games of the season. Buoyed by an aggressive young defense and a third-year quarterback in Cam Newton who has come into his own, Carolina is on a roll. It’s been a particularly gratifying stretch for Rivera, who was on the hot seat at the start of the season, but is now seeing his name bandied about as a possible Coach of the Year candidate.

“It is very satisfying,” Rivera said. “It’€™s really about just the culmination of the hard work we’€™ve put in. We’€™ve come a long way in the last four and a half seasons; two seasons before I got here and my first two, have been very hard. [They'€™ve been] hard on a lot of young players. A lot of guys have gone through four tough years and now just the fact that we are winning, we’€™re playing pretty good and we’€™re doing things that right way we’€™ve given ourselves opportunities. It’€™s very satisfying.”

Rivera is someone who made his bones on the defensive side of the ball — first as a linebacker in Chicago, and then as a defensive coordinator with the Bears and Chargers. He took over the Panthers in 2011, and has seen the maturation of a talented young defense, led by Boston College product Luke Kuechly. Rivera offered a scouting report on Kuechly, who was taken in the first round of the 2012 draft.

“Probably the biggest thing and the best thing he has is a great first step, for the most part. He doesn’€™t take a lot of bad steps and then put himself in bad positions,” Rivera said of Kuechly, who was selected ninth overall. “He plays with his hands pretty doggone well, and if there is one thing I like about him, I think he is a good hit-and-wrap tackler. He led the NFL in tackling [last year] and I think for two years he led the NCAA in tackling. It’€™s something that he does very well and he’€™s adept at it. A very bright, very smart guy. He handles most of our calls and checks, so he is a complete package and he keeps getting better and better.

“He is smart like a Brian Urlacher. He is a physical tackler like Jeremiah Trotter was,” he added. “He is a combination of several guys that I have coached. I coached a young man named Stephen Cooper [who] played at Maine, from that area up there. Coop was one of the smartest guys that I’€™ve had and a very good tackler as well. There are just so many guys that he is similar to, but again he has his own personality, his own style.”

Here are a few more highlights of Rivera’s Q&A with the media:

You had to prepare for the Patriots when you were with the San Diego Chargers and the Chicago Bears. What are you seeing from this Patriots team that differs from the previous teams you faced?

“Each team has its own personality, has its own way of doing things. The hard thing about this team, watching this team, is that there are a lot of guys that have been hurt or are coming back from being hurt. So, it’€™s hard to really get a good gauge as to who they are or what they are going to be as we get ready for this football game. The key though is, I believe, that everything starts with the quarterback. Tom Brady is most certainly one of the elites in this league. He does a lot of great things for their offense, so everything we do for us will begin with the quarterback.”

Can you take us through Cam Newton‘€™s development this season?

“I think the biggest thing really has been his ability to do things and make things happen at the right time for the most part. If there is one thing that he has done also, as well, is he has really controlled the situations. He is managing the games really well. He has limited the takeaways and he has done a great job protecting the football for us. I really love his maturation. I think he has matured very well. He handles and has a great feel for what we want to do and how we want to do it. I just think so much has been said on the negative on who he is. I don’€™t think people really know who he is as a player. As far as we’€™re concerned, he has done the things we need him to do to give us a chance to win.”

You go way back with [assistant special teams coach] Richard Rodgers, who coached up this way for a number of years. What prompted you to bring him onto your staff and what sort of contributions has he made to the team?

“A couple years ago, we were looking for a special teams assistant and Richard had a defensive background, but he was also one of the special teams coordinators, or had been one of the special teams coordinators when he was at college, so it was an opportunity to bring a guy in a give him a chance to learn and learn the NFL style of stuff. He has done a nice job for us. He really has, I am really excited about what he does. Also, because of his defensive background and his background in college dealing with the zone read and playing some of the college style offenses that we’€™re starting to see, he became a nice resource for our defensive coaches. So, it was kind of a two-fold thing because he understood how people wanted to attack or how people should attack the zone read schemes that you’€™re starting to see become more and more prevalent in the NFL.”

So is he focusing on special teams but also helping you guys out in other areas?

“Yes he does. He does focus on special teams and he does help us in other areas. His primary function is right now the special teams, but again, he is still a resource. He is still somebody that we sit down and talk about, ‘€˜Hey, how do you do this?’€™ ‘€˜What did you guys do against that?’€™ So, like I said, he is a very good resource for us.”

Read More: Cam Newton, Luke Kuechly, Ron Rivera,
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