NFC South: Cam Newton

DeAngelo Williams ready to return

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers expect all-time leading rusher DeAngelo Williams to return to practice on Wednesday and be ready for Sunday night's game against Pittsburgh.

Williams missed Sunday's 24-7 victory against Detroit that improved Carolina to 2-0 with a thigh injury that flared up after Wednesday's practice.

Without him, the Panthers rushed for only 62 yards, the team's fewest since Week 10 of the 2012 season when it had 52 yards on 21 carries against Denver. Thirty-seven of those came from Jonathan Stewart, and 22 of those came on one run.

"It was a tough day,'' Carolina coach Ron Rivera said on Monday.

Rivera hopes Williams, who led the team in rushing with 72 yards on 14 carries in the opener, will provide a boost. If anything, he will restore depth to a unit that saw Mike Tolbert suffer a shoulder contusion in the second half and Fozzy Whittaker go down with a quad injury.

Rivera said Whittaker would be listed as week to week. Tolbert appears all right.

Quarterback Cam Newton jokingly limped into the locker room when he noticed reporters watching him. Newton underwent offseason ankle surgery in March and fractured his ribs during an Aug. 22 exhibition game that forced him to miss the opener at Tampa Bay.

Rivera said Newton's foot was a little sore, actually calling that a good thing.

"Because it’s more sore than his back,” Rivera said. “Which is good. At least, I think it’s good. He’s moving around pretty good and he’s feeling pretty good about himself.

"I thought he played a heckuva football game.”

Newton completed 22 of 34 pass attempts for 281 yards and a touchdown. He also rushed four times for 19 yards.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Cam Newton missed the season opener with broken ribs. Then defensive end Greg Hardy was deactivated for the second game.

For most of the first two weeks of the NFL season, the focus on the Carolina Panthers has been off the field.

They're 2-0 on it, in case anybody hasn't noticed.

The Panthers have shown in consecutive weeks that they are bigger than one player. When Newton was out, backup Derek Anderson had a top-five quarterback rating in a victory at Tampa Bay. In Hardy's absence, backup Mario Addison stepped up with 2.5 sacks in Sunday's 24-7 victory against Detroit.

The Panthers faced a week of scrutiny for not disciplining Hardy, who is appealing a July 15 guilty verdict on domestic violence charges. The criticism coincided with the Baltimore Ravens' release of Ray Rice, who was shown on video punching his then-fiancée, and the Minnesota Vikings' decision to deactivate Adrian Peterson, who is charged with negligent injury to a child.

"For us, the biggest thing is not to get caught up in all the sensationalism and really let the facts play out before we start passing judgment and having opinions about it publicly," Panthers center Ryan Kalil said, describing how he and his teammates are approaching the Hardy situation.

"That's what we've decided as a team, and that's what we're doing. And the biggest thing, at the end of the day we still have a job to do."

So far, they've done it well. Ron Rivera's team is focused so much on winning that, as wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery noted, some players weren't really aware of Hardy being deactivated until they got on the field.

"It starts with the head man," Cotchery said. "Every day, Coach Rivera focuses us in on the game plan."

The defense has proven to be every bit as good as the one that finished second in the league a season ago. It might be one of the deepest, too, as the Panthers didn't miss a beat without Hardy.

"We're a complete team," outside linebacker Thomas Davis said. "It's not about one man around here. It's all about us coming together and playing as a team, offensively, defensively and special teams.

"When we're able to do that, we can be a special bunch."

Sunday's win indeed was a team victory. Seven different players caught passes from Newton, who compiled a rating of 100.2 after a slow start.

Even placekicker Graham Gano had a fumble recovery.

And did I mention leading rusher DeAngelo Williams (thigh) didn't play, either?

"We're just trying to win a championship," Cotchery said.

That has been the focus since San Francisco spoiled last season's storybook run by defeating Carolina 23-10 in the playoffs.

"No disrespect, it's not about what you guys say, it's not about what anybody says outside this organization," Newton said to reporters. "At the end of the day, if the 53 guys that are ready to go come day are on the same page, there's no telling what our team can do.

"That's what we're showing, guys that believe in each other, believing in ourselves and not playing for ourselves, playing for the persons that are next to us. With that attitude we'll go a long way."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy returned to practice on Thursday, a day after being excused from practice to meet with the attorney representing him in his domestic violence case.

Coach Ron Rivera said on Wednesday that Hardy would start Sunday's home opener against Detroit if he returned on Thursday and there were no issues with him picking up the game plan.

Hardy led the team in sacks last season with 15, and had one of the team's three in Sunday's 20-14 victory over Tampa Bay.

Rivera made it clear Hardy's absence had nothing to do with impending discipline from the NFL regarding his July 15 guilty verdict for assaulting and threatening ex-girlfriend Nicole Holder in May.

Neither the NFL nor the Panthers have disciplined Hardy because the verdict is under appeal. A court date of Nov. 17 has been set, but Hardy's attorney says the jury trial likely won't occur until sometime in 2015.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was supposed to be in Charlotte on Wednesday for a function in which Panthers owner Jerry Richardson was given an award. He canceled those plans to return to New York.

Richardson gave an emotional statement in which he said he was "against domestic violence'' in response to critics who believe he's been too lenient with Hardy. Sources said Hardy did not meet with Goodell, who was in North Carolina for a couple of events.

Meanwhile, quarterback Cam Newton continued to look good in practice and appears set to make his first start of 2014. Newton was held out of the opener to give his fractured ribs an extra week to heal.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- At 6-foot-3 and more than 250 pounds, Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson is an imposing figure in any room. He exudes power.

But Wednesday night, as he stood in the McGlohon Theater at Spirit Square to receive the Echo Award Against Indifference, he broke down and cried.

Richardson, 78, had to stop several times to gather himself as he addressed critics who have accused him of being too lenient on Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy, who has been playing for the Panthers while appealing a guilty verdict on domestic violence charges.

For months, Richardson and the Panthers seemed to keep Hardy's legal situation from becoming a distraction to the team.

That has changed.

On Monday, video emerged of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice knocking out Janay Palmer -- then his fiancée, now his wife -- during an altercation in an Atlantic City casino elevator. The Ravens responded to the video by releasing Rice. The NFL, which had previously suspended Rice two games for the incident, made the suspension indefinite.

This put the spotlight on NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who was scheduled to attend Wednesday's Echo Award ceremony in Charlotte before a change of plans.

It put the spotlight back on Hardy, who missed Wednesday's practice to meet with the attorney representing him in his domestic violence case.

It put the spotlight on Richardson, who has been criticized for letting the legal process play out instead of punishing Hardy.

"Standing before you tonight, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge an issue weighing heavily on our sport and our society," Richardson said as he struggled to breathe and maintain his composure. "When it comes to domestic violence, my stance is not one of indifference. I stand firmly against domestic violence, plain and simple.

"To those who would suggest that we've been too slow to act, I ask that you consider not to be too quick to judge. Over the course of our 20 years, we have worked extremely hard to build an organization of integrity. ... I will work hard to continue to earn your trust."

Earlier in the day, Panthers coach Ron Rivera was terse with his answers to questions regarding Hardy's whereabouts. It came to a head when Rivera was asked what his focal points would be in preparation for the Detroit Lions' upcoming visit.

"Beating them," Rivera said. "And that's it. This is football. This is what we're doing here. We're trying to prepare for a football game against a very good football team.

"There's a lot of things going on. I get that. I understand that. But at the same time, we're going to continue about the business. It's a very tragic situation that's going on [with Rice and his wife]. I have a tremendous amount of empathy and respect for the people who are in this situation. It's very difficult. But I'm going to only talk about football from this point on. Just understand that. OK?"

Panthers players did a good job of avoiding the topic by basically choosing not to talk about it. But it won't go away. When Hardy returns Thursday, the focus will be his meeting with his attorney.

In the meantime, Greg Hardy will keep practicing. He’ll keep playing. The Panthers will continue to face criticism. And some critics want Hardy punished just like Rice was, even though Rice admitted guilt by entering into a pretrial intervention program. Hardy hasn't admitted to anything and his appeal is pending.

Jerry Richardson likes to be in control. He doesn't mind making hard decisions. He fired his owns sons to make the Panthers organization stronger.

But on this, he apparently feels powerless. It has left him in tears.

And the tears are a sign that neither he nor the organization can keep Hardy from being a distraction any longer.

Panthers vs. Lions preview

September, 11, 2014
Sep 11

The Carolina Panthers and Detroit Lions enter Sunday's 1 p.m. game at Bank of America Stadium coming off strong opening day victories.

The Panthers (1-0) won 20-14 at Tampa Bay without Pro Bowl quarterback Cam Newton, sidelined with fractured ribs. The Lions (1-0) dismantled the New York Giants 35-14 Monday night on the strength of 346 yards passing by quarterback Matthew Stafford.

The last time these teams met it was a shootout, with Detroit winning 49-35 in 2011. Stafford threw five touchdown passes in that game, but the Panthers have a much-improved defense with only two starters remaining from that team.

NFL Nation Lions reporter Michael Rothstein and Panthers reporter David Newton are here to break this one down:

Newton: Michael, the Lions started fast last season before fading down the stretch. What did you see in Monday's victory that makes you believe this team might be in it for the long haul?

Rothstein: Saw two things, David. The first is Stafford, who looked calmer, more confident and more comfortable than at any previous point of his career. He appeared at ease in the new Detroit offense, executing checkdowns correctly and making the right reads and smart calls. If Stafford continues to play the way he did Monday, the Lions will be in every game.

The other thing was Detroit's defensive front. The Lions didn't have a lot of sacks -- two, including 1.5 by George Johnson -- but they pressured Eli Manning often and were good against the run, as well. The Lions held the Giants to 2.4 yards a carry. Here's the problem, though: As good as Detroit looked, its secondary is already in some tatters. Bill Bentley, the nickelback, is out for the season. The Lions have two safeties banged up.

Receiver was a question for Carolina entering the season, but can that group exploit a somewhat suspect back four for Detroit?

Newton: Did you happen to get a look at rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin against a pretty good Tampa Bay defense? He caught six passes for 92 yards, including a 26-yard touchdown catch few in the league outside of Detroit's Calvin Johnson would have made. So the answer is yes. I said this a hundred times in the offseason: The Panthers are better off now at receiver than they were a year ago. Benjamin is the real deal. Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant might be role players, but that's why they were brought in.

The biggest task for Detroit will be stopping tight end Greg Olsen and the backs on swing passes. When teams shift toward Benjamin on the outside, that leaves the middle of the field open for Olsen. He had eight catches for 83 yards and a touchdown and had another 30-yarder that went just off his fingertips that would have made it 24-0 in the fourth quarter. The Panthers are running a lot of two-tight-end sets to force teams to load the box to stop the run, which is going to set up a lot of one-on-one coverages. If there's a weakness, Carolina has enough weapons to exploit it.

I noticed Stafford was under a lot of pressure at times Monday night. He handled it really well, but the Panthers led the league in sacks last season and have the entire front seven back. How do you see that matchup against Detroit's offensive line?

Rothstein: It's an interesting question because Detroit had one of the best offensive lines in the NFL last season from a pass-protection standpoint. This season, there are a few more questions, particularly at right tackle. Stafford was sacked once against the Giants, and it could have been more if not for Stafford's footwork. Plus, Detroit's right tackle situation is in flux as LaAdrian Waddle is hurt and being replaced by Corey Hilliard. Hilliard can play -- he almost beat Waddle out in the preseason -- but he was limping after the game and the team's fourth tackle is undrafted rookie free agent Cornelius Lucas.

The interior of the line should be able to handle most tests, as Larry Warford might be one of the top two or three young guards in the NFL. It'll be interesting to see whether this line can hold up through the whole year, though, as Dominic Raiola is in his mid-30s and Rob Sims didn't play much in the preseason as he recovered from a knee injury.

Since you asked about the line, the Giants did what most teams do to Detroit's defensive line -- double-team Ndamukong Suh and force his teammates to cause havoc. Suh is one of the most extraordinary players in the league. How do the Panthers come up with a game plan for him?

Newton: Probably like they handled Tampa Bay's Gerald McCoy last week, with double-teams and throwing fresh bodies at him. McCoy is one of the best defensive tackles in the league, if not the best. He had eight tackles and one sack against Carolina, but the sack was more the fault of quarterback Derek Anderson than the line, and it was the only sack Carolina gave up. You also have to remember the Panthers were playing without Newton, so the Bucs didn't have to respect the quarterback as a threat to keep the ball on the read-option. That'll keep a D-line from teeing off some. Surprisingly, the line played well with basically four new starters. The key for Carolina will be establishing the run to keep Suh and the Lions from causing havoc.

When these teams last played, in 2011, it was a shootout. And the Lions just put 35 up on the Giants. What type of a game do you expect this time?

Rothstein: I'm thinking it'll be somewhat similar because of the potency of both offenses, assuming Newton plays for Carolina. Add in the issues in the Lions' secondary and there is a good chance it will end up being a game in the 30s on both sides.

For Detroit to win, this might have to be a shootout because the run game is suspect right now. Although the stats looked bad at the end -- 2.0 yards a carry -- it was actually worse. The Lions averaged 1.2 yards a carry in the first half against the Giants. If Carolina can force Detroit to rely solely on the pass and get some pressure, it could force Stafford into the mistakes he didn't make Monday night.

Carolina has been known for so long for DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, who end up as a combined top-10 rushing duo most seasons. Has Newton's maturation changed their roles, and how do the Panthers divide carries provided Stewart stays healthy?

Newton: Before I get to the backs, let me assure you that if this is a game with scores in the 30s, the Lions will win. Only one team scored more than 24 points last season against the Carolina defense, which ranked second in the league. New Orleans scored 31 at home and won. I just don't see Detroit scoring that many.

As for the backs, this is the first time in about three years Stewart has been healthy, and even though he didn't have big numbers against Tampa he ran hard. It's really a three-headed situation with Mike Tolbert added to the mix. Tampa stacked the box for much of the day, but the Panthers still managed to rush for 113 yards, and that again was without Newton in there as a threat. He makes it a four-headed situation, although I'm not so sure he'll run as much this week in an effort to protect the ribs.

The Panthers want to run and control the clock as they did last week. They held almost a 3-1 advantage in time of possession in the first half against the Bucs. Their goal will be the same against Detroit, figuring Stafford and all his weapons can't hurt them when they're not on the field. For the Panthers to win, they have to do that and keep this game in the low 20s at the most.

Kelvin Benjamin is no Megatron -- yet

September, 10, 2014
Sep 10
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Calvin and Kelvin.

The comparisons are coming.

Carolina Panthers rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin only has one NFL game on his résumé -- six catches for 92 yards and a highlight-reel touchdown in Sunday's 20-14 victory over Tampa Bay. Yet it already seems inevitable, people wondering if he's the next Calvin Johnson, who will be on the opposite sideline Sunday in Charlotte.

[+] EnlargeKelvin Benjamin
AP Photo/Phelan M. EbenhackMegatron comparisons might be premature, but Kelvin Benjamin showed a lot of promise in his NFL debut.
Sizewise, there are similarities. Benjamin is 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds. Johnson, the Detroit Lions' star, is 6-5, 236. Both have big hands and rare athletic ability.

But as Johnson again showed on Monday night with seven catches for 164 yards and two touchdowns in a 35-14 victory over the Giants, there's only one Megatron.

"I do expect Benjamin to be more productive as a rookie, and I can see why some would compare the two," said ESPN analyst Matt Williamson, a former scout with the Cleveland Browns. "But to me, they really are not close.

"Johnson was much rawer as a route-runner and overall wide receiver as a rookie compared to Benjamin, who came from a more advanced system in college. They both are big. But Benjamin -- while very talented -- isn't in the same ballpark as Johnson."

Johnson racked up 329 receiving yards in one game against Dallas last season, but his NFL debut in 2007 was much like Benjamin's -- four catches for 70 yards and a touchdown. He finished his season with 48 catches for 756 yards and four touchdowns.

He didn't establish himself as a dominant receiver until his second season, when he caught 78 passes for 1,331 yards and 12 touchdowns.

Benjamin, 23, has a chance to put up bigger number earlier because he's on a team where he's easily the top wide receiver and he has a Pro Bowl quarterback in Cam Newton.

Johnson played on a team with 2004 first-round pick Roy Williams, Shaun McDonald and Mike Furrey, each with 61 or more catches in 2007. Journeyman Jon Kitna was the quarterback.

Regardless, Lions coach Jim Caldwell doesn't want to get into comparing Benjamin to the younger version of Johnson, who is still just 28.

"I can tell you he's big," Caldwell said of Benjamin. "He's got [big] hands and we took a real good look at him, obviously, in the draft.

"He can play. He's spirited. Got a lot of fight in him. He'll be difficult to handle, but in a different way. Calvin Johnson's different than Benjamin. Different guy. Different skill set."

The skill set may be different, but Benjamin will help prepare the Panthers for Johnson. Panthers practice-squad players Marcus Lucas and Stephen Hill, both 6-4, will also be important to the team's preparation.

"It's good because our corners will work against [these players]," coach Ron Rivera said. "Not quite Calvin Johnson's size, but they're big. And we just got through playing against two very good ones that are big guys as well."

Tampa Bay rookie Mike Evans is 6-5, 231. Ten-year veteran Vincent Jackson is 6-5, 230. Evans had five catches for 37 yards and Jackson four for 36. Carolina kept both from getting off the line fast and tackled them immediately after the catch.

But neither is in Johnson's league.

"He's a force, and he can change a game in a hurry," Carolina defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said of Johnson. "He plays above-the-rim football. The good thing for us is we have some long corners that gives ourselves a chance in the same way to play above the rim."

Starting corners Antoine Cason and Melvin White are both 6-1. They agree working against Benjamin has helped prepare them for this week's challenge.

"There's definitely some similarities with the body type, being a big guy and being physical and being able to catch the ball well," said Cason, who had a team-best nine tackles and an interception against the Bucs. "That is definitely something that can help us through week."

Johnson isn't Carolina's only concern. Matthew Stafford can also throw to wide receiver Golden Tate or running back Reggie Bush.

"They've got a lot of weapons that will probably keep me up most of the week," McDermott said.

None will keep him up more than Johnson. Benjamin hasn't reached that level of sleep loss for opposing coordinators -- yet.

"Honestly, comparing anyone to Calvin Johnson is just not fair," Williamson said. "He is much more explosive and faster than Benjamin. Better ball skills and body control. Much better route-runner.

"Johnson might be the rarest and most talented wide receiver to ever play the game."
An examination of what the Panthers must do after their 20-14 win against the Buccaneers:

Other than a letdown in the fourth quarter when coach Ron Rivera said the defense got a bit soft with a 17-0 lead, there wasn't much the Panthers could have improved on.

They dominated time of possession 35:12 to 24:48, particularly in the first half, when they held a 22:45 to 7:15 advantage. They forced turnovers, picking off two Josh McCown passes and recovered a fumble. They had good quarterback pressure, sacking McCown three times and hurrying him seven other times.

They protected Derek Anderson, allowing only one sack, and that one was more the quarterback's fault than the line's.

They even picked up a first down on a fourth-and-1 at the Tampa Bay 5 to set up their first touchdown.

All this with starting quarterback Cam Newton out with fractured ribs and Anderson making his first start since 2010.

What the Panthers didn't do effectively was run for the first three quarters. They had only 57 yards, but that was as much a product of Tampa Bay loading the box and forcing the pass as anything.

When Carolina needed to run in the fourth quarter, it did.

Still, here are a few things the Panthers want to work on as they prepare for Sunday's home opener against Detroit:
  • It might be nitpicking, but establish the run earlier. This could take care of itself with the return of Newton, whose threat as a runner changes the game. There were several instances when Anderson had wide-open lanes on the read-option, but because he wasn't a threat to keep the ball the Buccaneers keyed in on the backs. That won't happen with Newton, who has rushed for more yards than any other quarterback the past three seasons. And in the end, the Panthers finished with more than 100 yards (113) rushing for the 16th time in their past 17 games and DeAngelo Williams had 72 yards on 14 carries.
  • Third down on both sides. The Bucs converted 50 percent on third down (6-for-12) and Carolina converted 40 percent (6-for-15). Ten times the Panthers had third-and-5 or longer. Rivera would like to keep it under 5 yards to keep the defense guessing more. Three out of four times, Tampa Bay was successful in a critical stretch in the fourth quarter, including a third-and-6 that went for a touchdown.
  • Tightening up the fourth-quarter defense. Whether it was a lull because the outcome seemed in hand, less aggressive play calling or a lack of communication, Rivera wants that fixed. When you're a ball-control team that doesn't put up a ton of points, you can't afford letdowns.

Stock watch: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

September, 8, 2014
Sep 8
Checking the stock of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after their season-opening 20-14 loss to the Carolina Panthers:


Offensive line: This group wasn’t off to a great start, and then things got worse. Guard Logan Mankins went down with a knee injury. It appears as if Mankins will miss some time, and that’s going to throw the line into disarray.

Josh McCown: He didn’t play the way you would expect from a veteran quarterback and made two bad decisions that turned into interceptions. McCown rallied in the fourth quarter, but it was too little too late. The Bucs need him to be sharp the entire game.

The pass rush: Where was it? The Bucs produced only one sack against Derek Anderson, who was playing for an injured Cam Newton. Michael Johnson and Adrian Clayborn have to be more productive as outside rushers.


Gerald McCoy: He had Tampa Bay’s only sack and played well against the run.

Chris Owusu: He caught a touchdown pass in the fourth quarter. There was some question in the preseason about who the third receiver would be, but it looks like that job belongs to Owusu.

Lavonte David: He had a team-high 10 tackles.

Rapid Reaction: Carolina Panthers

September, 7, 2014
Sep 7

TAMPA, Fla. -- A few thoughts on the Carolina Panthers' 20-14 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium:

What it means: The victory means the Panthers are more than a one-trick pony on offense and defense still wins games, even for a team that hadn't won an opener since 2008. With two-time Pro Bowl quarterback Cam Newton sidelined with fractured ribs and predictions of a down year for the defending NFC South champions, backup Derek Anderson methodically picked the Buccaneers apart with a ball-control offense that epitomized what the Panthers want to be, regardless of who is calling the signals. But ultimately, when your defense is as dominant as Carolina's was until midway through the fourth quarter, you'll be in most games. Led by reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly, this group looked just as good as the unit that finished second in the league in total defense a year ago until midway through the fourth quarter. Even after a short collapse, the defense forced a turnover at the end to all but ice it. That luxury allows a coach to sit his starting quarterback even if the QB thinks he could have played.

Stock watch: Remember when critics wondered who would catch passes when the Panthers cut all-time leading receiver Steve Smith and lost their next three receivers to free agency? Here's your answer. Tight end Greg Olsen and wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin. Each makes the other more effective. The reason Olsen was so open over the middle on his second-quarter touchdown was because the safety cheated over toward Benjamin. With Olsen a threat, Benjamin was left single covered on the outside, which allowed him to catch six passes for 92 yards and a touchdown. The touchdown in particular was impressive, as the 6-foot-5 rookie made a spectacular 26-yard catch down the left side with the defender draped all over him. Olsen finished with eight catches for 83 yards and a touchdown. He let a second slip through his hands in the fourth quarter.

Extra point: The turf war between Graham Gano and a trombone player as the Carolina place-kicker fought for room to warm up for the second half around the Bethune-Cookman band was worth the price of admission and worth noting.

Game ball: It has to be Anderson. He said he could do almost everything Newton does, and he almost did. He scrambled when he needed to, sneaked for 2 yards on fourth-and-1 from the Tampa Bay 5 and showed great precision in completing 24 of 34 pass attempts for 230 yards and two touchdowns.

What's next: The Panthers return to Charlotte for their home opener against the Detroit Lions. Whether Newton plays will be the big storyline of the week.

W2W4: Panthers at Buccaneers

September, 7, 2014
Sep 7
The Carolina Panthers haven't won an opener since the 2008 season. That's the bad news.

The good news is Carolina isn't close to the Cleveland Browns in terms of opening-day futility. The Browns have lost their last nine openers and have won only one of their last 16.

The bad news is Carolina is tied for third in futility during that time, going 6-13 in openers since the franchise began playing in 1995. More bad news: The Panthers aren't 100 percent sure starting quarterback Cam Newton (fractured ribs) will play.

Even more bad news. Coach Ron Rivera is 0-3 in openers and the Panthers are opening at Tampa Bay, not Cleveland.

The good news is all of Rivera's openers have been close. The Panthers lost to eventual Super Bowl champion Seattle 12-7 last season, fumbling inside the Seahawks' 10-yard line in the fourth quarter.

They lost 16-10 to Tampa Bay in 2012 and 28-21 to Arizona in 2011.

Carolina gets another opening shot at the Buccaneers in Sunday's 4:25 p.m. kickoff at Raymond James Stadium.

Here are three things to watch for:

1. Will Newton play? Newton said Thursday he was on pace to play and that the only thing that could disrupt that was to be hit by a car or chased by a tiger. Unless there is a zoo break in Tampa, I don't see any way fractured ribs suffered two weeks ago will sideline the fourth-year player. It all depends on whether the Panthers believe Newton is well enough to take a hit. He won't be 100 percent. If he plays, it will be worth keeping an eye on how he throws early and whether he's willing to take off and run. He had to run 11 times at Tampa Bay last season, and the Bucs should be stronger defensively. The Panthers likely will need to use Newton's mobility to win this one. That he'll be playing behind an untested offensive line makes that more likely. If Newton doesn't play, the less mobile Derek Anderson could be a sitting duck.

2. Key rookies: Kelvin Benjamin, Carolina's rookie wide receiver, has a lot of pressure to replace Steve Smith as the team's No. 1 receiver. At 6-5, 240, Newton may need a big target like Benjamin if his throws aren't as sharp. Benjamin doesn't appear impacted by the pressure, which is a positive. This also will be a big test for third-round pick Trai Turner at right guard. Even if he doesn't start or play the entire way, he'll likely get opportunities. He'll get them against Gerald McCoy, arguably the best defensive tackle in the NFL.

3. Quarterback pressure: I'm not talking about the pressure on Newton. I'm talking about the pressure the Panthers must put on Tampa Bay's Josh McCown. Carolina sacked Buccaneers quarterbacks eight times last season, and only three teams allowed sacks more frequently than Tampa Bay in 2013. Coach Lovie Smith has overhauled the line, but it'll still be new and going against a defense that led the league in sacks last season with 60. Because of the uncertainties Carolina has on offense, pressuring McCown and keeping this low scoring will be key. Keep an eye on Carolina defensive end Greg Hardy. He led the Panthers in sacks last season with 15. He'll be going up against left tackle Anthony Collins, a player Carolina tried to sign as a free agent out of Cincinnati.

W2W4: Buccaneers-Panthers

September, 7, 2014
Sep 7
TAMPA, Fla. – Let’s take a look at three things to watch in Sunday’s game between the Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The Tampa Bay offensive line. This unit has been almost completely overhauled (right tackle Demar Dotson is the only returning starter) since last season. That’s not a bad thing because last year’s offensive line wasn’t very good. But the Bucs are playing catch-up in terms of continuity and chemistry. They added left guard Logan Mankins just last week. He’s a Pro Bowl player, but he has had only a handful of practices with his new teammates. That’s a less-than-ideal situation against a Carolina front seven that might be as good as any in the game.

Josh McCown. He has been a backup for much of his career, but McCown is getting the start on opening day. If he can play like he did last year for Chicago in relief of an injured Jay Cutler, McCown will be fine. He just needs to direct an efficient offense. But, if McCown plays like a backup, the Bucs could be in trouble.

The Tampa Bay pass rush. It’s crucial for the Bucs to put some pressure on Cam Newton, who is dealing with a rib injury. In Lovie Smith’s defense, most of the pressure is expected from the front four. On paper, Tampa Bay’s front four has the potential to be good. Gerald McCoy is an All-Pro in the middle and Clinton McDonald gives the Bucs an interior pass rusher. But the real key will be whether defensive ends Adrian Clayborn and Michael Johnson can generate pressure.
Cam Newton and Gerald McCoyDale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsCam Newton's sore ribs would prefer not to have any close encounters with Gerald McCoy.
If there's anything certain about the NFC South, it's uncertainty.

Since the division came into existence in 2002, no team has claimed the championship in back-to-back years. Worst-to-first finishes have been common, and no team has been able to consistently dominate.

That's why Sunday's season opener between the Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers is so significant. The Panthers won the division last year, and the Bucs finished last at 4-12. But this is a new year, and history has shown that anything is possible in the NFC South.

Panthers reporter David Newton and Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas take a look at the matchup.

Yasinskas: David, much has been made of the release of wide receiver Steve Smith, who I think was the best player in franchise history. I know Smith's age was a concern. But can any of the new wide receivers step up and match his production?

Newton: You think Smith was the best player in franchise history? I truly believe he is, although he probably would have a hard time believing me after what I'm about to say: The Panthers are better at wide receiver today than they were this time a year ago.

It's nothing against Smith, but he's 35 and admittedly not a true No. 1 receiver anymore. First-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin is. At 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, he is the big target quarterback Cam Newton hasn't had. Benjamin is deceptively fast, too. But the biggest thing is he makes plays, whether it's over the middle in traffic or on the outside. If teams double-cover him, that will open things up for tight ends Greg Olsen and Ed Dickson in the middle. It also will open coverage on Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant, a pair of veterans I believe to be more dependable than Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn Jr. were last year. If the Bucs choose to single-cover Benjamin, Newton will look for him often. I know rookie receivers tend to struggle, but this one has a special feel.

The bigger worry for Carolina is its rebuilt offensive line. The Bucs added some talent around defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. How big of a problem will that be for the Panthers?

Yasinskas: That should be a big concern for the Panthers. McCoy might be the best defensive tackle in the game, and the Bucs have worked hard to improve his supporting cast. They went out and signed tackle Clinton McDonald and end Michael Johnson to surround McCoy with some other players who can get after the quarterback. The guy who isn't getting a lot of attention but is worth keeping an eye on is Adrian Clayborn. He's a 2011 first-round draft pick who hasn't shown a lot so far, but the Bucs believe the new scheme will help them get more out of Clayborn.

Jordan Gross' retirement had to hurt Carolina. How good is this offensive line without him?

Newton: Athletically, it might be better. And in time, it might be better in terms of productivity. What it lacks is time together -- and Gross' leadership.

Byron Bell was considered average to perhaps slightly better than average at right tackle, but the Panthers believe because he is naturally left-handed he's better off on the left side. He's still susceptible to the bull rush from what I saw in the preseason, but he's every bit as strong and athletic as Gross. Amini Silatolu began last season as the starting left guard before suffering a season-ending knee injury. So he's solid.

It's the right side the Bucs -- particularly McCoy -- might be able to take advantage of. As good as rookie Trai Turner has looked at right guard, he just turned 21 and he missed the last two preseason games with a groin injury. The good news is he has Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil next to him. Nate Chandler, a former defensive lineman who wound up the starter at right guard last season, has moved out to right tackle after losing the left tackle battle. Again, he has great athleticism. He just needs time at the position.

How much different will the Bucs look under Lovie Smith than they did a year ago?

Yasinskas: The Bucs will look dramatically different -- and that's a good thing from their perspective. Many players were miserable under former coach Greg Schiano, and they tired of his rigid ways. Smith brings a fresh start, and the players are delighted with him and his schemes. The Bucs are going back to the Tampa 2 defense that was famous in the Tony Dungy years, and their offense will have a faster tempo. More importantly, Smith has brought a new culture to the Bucs. Players are having fun again.

Everyone in Tampa is curious about Newton's rib injury. Is he healthy enough to be the athletic quarterback we've all come to know?

Newton: The ribs are sore, and that isn't likely to change by Sunday. But Newton has thrown the ball well in practice, and his range of motion is good. He's tougher than most give him credit for being. To never have missed a start despite being hit twice as many times as any other quarterback over the past three seasons really is remarkable.

Coach Ron Rivera says he doesn't plan to change the game plan because of the injury, and that includes the read-option. But do I expect Newton to run 11 times, as he did at Tampa last season? I'd be stunned. The Panthers don't need Newton taking unnecessary hits. Having said that, if there is a play to be made, Newton won't hesitate to use his legs. He insists that he'll continue to dive headfirst instead of sliding, too. But I expect Newton to stay in the pocket as much as possible and throw the ball to Benjamin as often as he's open. Those two have quickly developed a bond.

What about Josh McCown, who spent two years on the Carolina bench? Is he really the answer at quarterback to make the Bucs a playoff contender?

Yasinskas: McCown is a great story. He has spent most of his career as a backup, but the Bucs are giving him the chance to be a starter. McCown played extremely well last season when Bears starter Jay Cutler was hurt, and he has history with Smith from their time together in Chicago. But is McCown capable of leading a team to the playoffs? I honestly don't know. I think he needs a lot of help from the defense and the running game. If he gets that, McCown could be effective as a passer.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton said all the right things on Thursday, from how he wouldn't hurt the team and start Sunday's opener at Tampa Bay if his fractured ribs hindered his effectiveness to how good his backups were.

He said his revamped offensive line was "better than ever" even though it didn't perform all that well in four preseason games and that his new group of wide receivers was "playing with as much confidence as I've ever seen."

He noted the Panthers, who ranked second in total defense a year ago, had a top-10 defense.

Then he said this:

"There's no doubt in my mind we have what it takes to be a great team in this league. One [player] don't stop no show."


Newton's absence may not stop the show, but it definitely would slow it down -- considerably. Nothing against backup quarterback Derek Anderson, but there's a reason he's the backup.

When Newton is on the field, the Panthers are a more potent offense because he's a threat as a runner as well as a passer. His 28 rushing touchdowns the past three years are 21 more than the next closest quarterback.

He keeps defenses off balance because of his versatility.

He keeps opposing defensive coordinators up late at night.

"When he's out there, we're definitely a better team," tight end Ed Dickson said.

Newton wouldn't give a number on how close to 100 percent he might be on Sunday. He probably won't be 100 percent regardless of how much progress he makes over the next few days.

But I have no doubt he will be on the field, even if he and coach Ron Rivera left open the possibility the two-time Pro Bowler might not be after being so adamant he would for the past week.

Newton would never say this, but I can. Where this offense is concerned, he is the show, just as Peyton Manning is the show at Denver and Tom Brady is at New England.

"I can't have a selfish approach and say it's all about me," said Newton, continuing to say all the right things. "Either way it goes, the Carolina Panthers, we're going to be good."
TAMPA, Fla. -- Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton's rib injury has been a big story in the Carolinas.

In Tampa Bay's locker room, Newton's health isn't a big issue. The Bucs are preparing to face the Panthers on Sunday and they're expecting a healthy Newton.

"Cam Newton is Cam Newton," Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. "He's a two-time Pro Bowler, Rookie of the Year and all that jazz. We're still facing the division champs. Until somebody takes that from them, that's who they are. That team runs as he runs. We're preparing for Cam Newton. We don't care about the rib or the back or whatever it is. We're just preparing for him as if he's 100 percent."

Newton is expected to play with padding covering the rib and the Bucs aren't planning to go easy on him.

"Any shot I can get on him, I'm going to take," McCoy said. "But that's any quarterback, any running back. You get a hit on them and after a while they're going to get tired of getting hit."

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It's a number you've probably already heard or seen, one you will hear and see more as the Carolina Panthers get closer to Sunday's opener at Tampa Bay.

The number is 467.

That's how many times quarterback Cam Newton has been hit the past three seasons. It's significant because no other NFL quarterback has been hit more than 230 times during that span.

It's even more significant because Newton is coming off March surgery to tighten the ligaments in his left ankle and has fractured ribs suffered in an Aug. 22 exhibition loss to New England.

Why is the number, compiled by ESPN Stats and Information, so high? The simple answer: Running is a big part of Newton's game, whether it's the read-option or a scramble or because he holds onto the ball too long.

He has accounted for 31.2 percent of Carolina's rush offense since being selected with the first pick of the 2011 draft. That's the highest percentage for a team by a quarterback.

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsCam Newton carried 11 times for 50 yards and a touchdown last year at Tampa Bay.
He has 28 rushing touchdowns during that span. The next highest are Colin Kaepernick and Andrew Luck with seven. The only two players with more are running backs Marshawn Lynch of Seattle and Minnesota's Adrian Peterson.

Newton also doesn't slide and seldom runs out of bounds. He often takes on tacklers like a fullback, turning his 6-foot-5, 245-pound frame into a weapon to get every yard he can.

He doesn't plan to change just because of the injuries.

"I am who I am,'' Newton said recently. "This is a physical sport and needs to be played that way.''

There's a good chance Newton will have to run on Sunday despite the ribs. He ran 11 times, his second-highest total of 2013, in the seventh game at Tampa. The Buccaneers through free agency have strengthened already one of the league's best defensive fronts, anchored by Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy.

Newton doesn't appear concerned. He likes challenges. His teammates say there are no concerns,. Tight end Greg Olsen called his quarterback a "tough guy.'' Left tackle Byron Bell called him a "fighter.''

How effective Newton will be remains to be seen. He showed great range of motion dancing to a rap song during warmups on Wednesday, but he didn't throw a pass or take a rep during practice because he was sore.

Coach Ron Rivera says he expects Newton to start. He also expects the Panthers to move forward with the same game plan as usual, which means Newton at some point will get hit number 468.

Probably 469, 470 and so on considering he ran 11 times at Tampa last season.

"It's his style of play,'' Rivera said. "You'd like to see him develop another style or taper his style and control it. But again, that's who he is. If you take too much away from him and take too much, it changes his game.

"But I do think it's something he's going to have to learn as he matures as a quarterback on how to slide, how to get rid of the ball, how to not take those kinds of hits.''

In other words, 467 is a lot of hits in three years.

"He's still standing?'' tight end Ed Dickson said jokingly when asked what that many meant to him.

Then he added, "You can't take the ball out of his hands. He makes us better running the ball and throwing the ball.''

Dickson took it one step forward, saying Newton ran just as well as running backs DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert.

"When he's out there, we're definitely a better team,'' he said.

Backup quarterback Derek Anderson reminded Newton makes a lot of plays because he's not afraid to get hit.

"Then he runs 60 yards for a touchdown,'' he said. "There's not a lot of guys that can do that.''

Center Ryan Kalil said Newton has handled the hits because "he's a tough guy, maybe as tough as I've been around.''

Kalil also jokingly reminded that centers are tough.

"I'm going to start doing some numbers on the times I've been rolled up, had fingers smashed, hit in the back,'' he said. "That's an interesting number.

"Yeah, [Newton's] a very active player. He's a guy that runs around. He can do a lot of things with the ball. With that comes the hits.''