Bryan Strickland Senior Writer
CHARLOTTE – Panthers veteran Jordan Gross has managed to start every game at left tackle this season, but he described the rest of the offensive line as “musical chairs.”
“There were definitely a lot of different faces in there up front,” Gross said following Carolina’s 17-6 victory over the Oakland Raiders. “A lot of guys on the offensive line have gotten opportunities to play this year. That’s unfortunate because that means there have been injuries, but it’s good for developing depth on our team.”
They turned to Thomas Austin, a second-year player out of Clemson who started the season on the New England Patriots’ practice squad and was waived by the Panthers in early November.
They asked the center by trade to play guard.
He held up to the challenge.
“Amini fell on his wrist wrong on the touchdown that came back, and it’s one of those things where you’ve got to be ready in any situation,” Austin said. “All week we play a lot of different positions because that can happen, and when you only dress seven linemen, you’ve got to be able to play multiple positions.
“I haven’t played on the left side in a while, but it was coming back to me. Plus, playing between (Jeff) Byers and Gross helped. They made sure I knew what I was doing. Then it came down to footwork and things like that.”
Later, the Panthers replaced Austin at left guard with Bruce Campbell, a tackle who had played sparingly this season after being acquired from the Raiders in an offseason trade. The man in the middle for the second consecutive game was Jeff Byers, who got his first career start at center a week ago at San Diego.
The group, however, held the line, yielding just two sacks and helping the offense scrap its way to 16 first downs against a scrappy Raiders defense.
“It was tough, it really was,” Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. “We lost Amini Silatolu early, and Thomas Austin is a guy we signed in the middle of the season who has been trying to learn. We used Bruce Campbell in a tough spot. We asked him to play guard; he came in and did an adequate job for us.
“Kudos to what (offensive line coach) John Matsko and (assistant offensive line coach) Ray Brown have done with those young guys. We would have like to played better today, but they were able to do the job and get it done for us.”
Gross said the group got a big helping hand from its quarterback. Cam Newton‘s team record for passes without an interception ended at 176, but he completed 18-of-29 passes for 179 yards and a touchdown in addition to running for 60 yards and a touchdown.
“Cam did a great job of leading the offense because protection wasn’t always great and the ground game wasn’t great,” Gross said. “But he did a great job of staying positive and being tough back there.”
That’s the same approach Newton’s protectors took and one key reason why the Panthers have now won three consecutive games heading into the season finale at New Orleans.
“We have a next-man-up mentality,” Austin said. “That’s a special thing to have; not every team has that.
“A lot of teams when they start to have injuries will kind of pack it in, so it’s been encouraging to see the resiliency of these guys. It comes from how Jordan and those guys do a great job each week of setting a high standard to make sure everybody is ready.”