Steelers shake confidence of Cam Newton, Panthers in rout

PITTSBURGH -- Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton had some fun earlier in the week with a reporter who asked how confident he is with all his new, young, dynamic offensive weapons.

"You asking me how confident am I?" Newton said with a big smile.

The reporter repeated the question.

"You're asking my confidence level? Confidence, me?" said Newton, who seldom lacks for confidence. "It starts with the inner self, and I have ultimate confidence in myself, knowing I put in a lot of work to make sure that come game day ... I'm ready to rock and roll."

Newton didn't look confident in Thursday night's prime-time disaster at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field. Especially not after throwing a first-quarter interception that was returned 17 yards for a touchdown by Steelers linebacker Vince Williams, as Newton was trying to avoid being sacked for a safety.

The swag the 2015 NFL MVP showed in the first half of the season disappeared in the avalanche of a 52-21 loss that ended Carolina's three-game win streak.

“Just got whooped, man,’’ said Newton, who hadn’t had a turnover in the last three games. “We just got whooped."

His interception that came right after the Steelers struck for a 75-yard touchdown pass to wipe out a 7-0 lead on one play set the tone.

“It was just a domino effect," Newton said. “They had a plan coming in. It was very clear what their plan was. They ... wanted to eat up the space, take away the rush lanes and running lanes. They did a great job with that.’’

Now the question is: How will Newton's confidence be going forward, with three of the next four games on the road?

How will the confidence of the entire team be after tying the team record (52 against Oakland on Dec. 24, 2000) for points surrendered?

“At the end of the day this s--- happens,’’ coach Ron Rivera said. “I’m going to put it just like that. Let’s be honest about it. It happens. This is my 30th year in the NFL. I’ve seen games like this. I’ve been apart of games like this on both sides.

“At the end of the day if you continue to dwell on it and worry about it, it’s going to creep in. If you get over it and start preparing for the next game you give yourself a chance to get ready to win the next game."

Tight end Greg Olsen agreed, but offered this caveat.

“We also can’t pretend it didn’t happen,’’ he said. “It did. It happened for a reason. It happened because there are things we need to get better at. If we don’t get better when we play good teams it’ll happen again.

“We’ve got to correct this s---. This stuff just doesn’t all of a sudden go away. We’ve to address a lot of things and get better. If you don’t, it lingers and you’re in trouble.’’

There’s plenty to correct.

The defense that came into the game ranked 11th in the league couldn't stop quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who threw for 328 yards and three touchdowns en route to a perfect passer rating of 158.3.

The defense also couldn't stop running back James Conner, who rushed for 65 yards and a touchdown.

That was surprising enough. But to see Newton rattled by the Pittsburgh pressure has to be concerning. He was sacked five times after being sacked only twice in the previous two games combined and 12 times this season.

The pressure Pittsburgh brought was reminiscent of what the Denver Broncos did to Newton in Super Bowl 50 to spoil the quarterback's MVP season. That carried into the 2016 season and prompted coach Ron Rivera to say the team needed to "rebuild [Newton's] confidence" heading into the 2017 season.

The Panthers need a faster turnaround than that with road trips to Detroit, Tampa Bay and Cleveland surrounding a home game against Seattle. At 6-3, they are two losses down to New Orleans (7-1) in the NFC South, with two of their final three games against the Saints.

Instead of establishing themselves as one of the NFC's elite teams -- along with the Saints and Rams -- by winning, they have drifted back into a pack of teams fighting for a wild-card berth.

“We just got beaten pretty soundly, in a game we were looking forward to, a game where we could have measured ourselves against one of the better teams in the league,’’ Olsen said. “We got that answer. We’ve got a lot of work to do.’’

But first the Panthers have to move one from one of the most embarrassing losses in team history because of everything that was on the line in a spotlight game.

“There is no magic pill,’’ Rivera said. “I told that to the players. At the end of the day, get this one out of your system and move forward. ... I’m not going to go in there and beat them down. They’re beat down already.’’