Seven rookies could start for Panthers vs. Cardinals

Last season Ron Rivera earned the nickname "Riverboat" when his epiphany about going for it on fourth downs led to a winning streak and a division title. This year the coach made a similarly adept move, just without the catchy title.

During an embarrassing 31-13 loss to the Minnesota Vikings in Week 13, Rivera benched two veterans in the secondary and inserted rookies Bene' Benwikere and Tre Boston. The duo has helped transform the Panthers' defense into a quicker, more athletic group.

"When I looked at it, I just felt we have to put a little more speed in the defensive secondary," Rivera said this week, per The Charlotte Observer. "We were trying to find answers as a coaching staff, trying to find the right combination of guys. And we found it."

The move helped propel the Panthers to four straight wins and a second straight division title.

The rookie duo has been huge during the four-game winning streak. The speed on the Panthers back end has closed down easy windows for quarterbacks, allowing a resurgence of the dominant pass rush behind Charles Johnson.

Pro Football Focus rated Benwikere its No. 2 cornerback, overall, over the past four games. Boston was the analytic group's No. 9 safety over that span.

The secondary isn't the only place where rookies have played a significant role in spurning the Panthers run. Linebacker Adarius Glanton took over a starting role the past two weeks and forced a fumble in last week's blowout. Second-round defensive end Kony Ealy has also seen increased time. 

Carolina waived veteran receiver Jason Avant to get wide receiver Philly Brown more involved in the offense. Brown's speed adds the perfect complement to Offensive Rookie of the Year Candidate Kelvin Benjamin.

Two rookies have also solidified the offensive line: undrafted Andrew Norwell at left guard and Trai Turner, a third-round pick from LSU. That group has jelled since giving up nine sacks in Week 10.

As many as seven rookies could start for the Panthers, per The Observer, and each will play a pivotal role in Saturday'sWild Card game against the Arizona Cardinals.

The latest Around The NFL Podcast previews this weekend's four Wild-Card matchups and predicts who will advance. Find more Around The NFL content on NFL NOW.

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