- Calvin Watkins, ESPN Staff Writer
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Jonathan Jones covers the Carolina Panthers for the Charlotte Observer. On this week's The Other Side, we talk to Jones about the the Cowboys' opponent for Sunday.
Here's our interview:
Q: So, what's wrong with Cam Newton this season? Sophomore slump?
A: I'm not ready to call it a sophomore slump just yet, but it's getting there. First of all, it was going to be nearly impossible for him to repeat the type of production he had last season. But Cam's feeling more pressure this season. Last year the Panthers had a pass because it was obviously a rebuilding year, but after improving their win total 300%, that pressure mounts. And we still have to remember for as great a football player as Cam is -- his exploits at Auburn, what he did last season and what he'll do in the future -- he's still a 23-year-old barely in his second year as a professional. But I fully believe he's going to figure things out and stop pressing like he has been.
A: I think they may have to start Kuechly just because Beason's knee has forced him to sit out two days of practice. Beason showed earlier this season that he's still the same Jon Beason who went to three Pro Bowls, but nagging shoulder and knee injuries have rendered him less effective. I charted that in his last game against Atlanta, he missed five tackles. And in Kuechly's first and only game at the Mike, he had the best game of his young career. The numbers show Kuechly is growing more comfortable on the field, and if Beason isn't close to full health, the decision is easy.
Q: Steve Smith doesn't have a touchdown this season. What's his biggest problem, if there is one?
A: I don't think it's his problem as much as Cam has been targeting Smith a lot. He threw to him 13 times against Seattle and essentially neglected some other targets. When that happens, it's easy for defensive backs to key in even more on the Panthers' top wideout. Newton hasn't distributed the ball through the air as well as he can -- and he's noted that. So once guys like Brandon LaFell and Greg Olsen get more involved, things will open up for Smith.
Q: It looks like the defense has struggled this season. Injuries, poor play or the scheme to blame?
A: Honestly, had you told me before the season that this defense would hold Tampa Bay and Seattle to just 16 points, I would have told you those were automatic wins considering the Panthers' offense. The defense, really outside of Beason and one missed game by top corner Chris Gamble, has stayed relatively healthy. But the Panthers haven't established that strong running game they've been known for, and a healthy run-pass balance always keeps the chains moving and the defense resting on the sideline. Certainly there was some poor play involved, most notably the huge drive by Atlanta in the final minute, but overall I think this defense has exceeded preseason expectations.
Q: Panthers start a three-game stretch with Dallas, then play Chicago and Washington. Is this basically their last chance to salvage their season?
A: I think so, and I think that's the sentiment in the locker room. You hear the "take it one game at a time" refrain, but these guys know that they're 1-4 and they've spent their bye week. You look at the NFC South and see that Atlanta locked up the division weeks ago, so the Panthers are playing for a wild card. And if they can even their record at 4-4 after these next three games, there's some hope for Carolina. But obviously, that's a tall task.