NFC South: Derek Anderson
But Alexander isn't one of the players that had his penalty reduced or revoked by the NFL's new performance-enhancing drug policy. He is still out through the Sept. 28 game at Baltimore.
When he returns, Alexander likely will play a big role in replacing Hardy (sorry, not all of this is non-Hardy), who was placed on the NFL commissioner's exempt list on Wednesday until his domestic violence case is resolved.
At 6-foot-4 and 270 pounds, Alexander is closer to the all-around player Hardy was. Wes Horton, who started in Sunday's 24-7 victory against Detroit when Hardy was deactivated, played mostly on first and second down as a run-stopper. Mario Addison, who had 2.5 sacks against the Lions, came in on third down and passing situations.
Coach Ron Rivera calls Addison a "situational player."
Alexander, Rivera's most valuable player during training camp, is an every-down player. Though he is not able to practice, he is able to remain around the team during his suspension to keep up with what the defense is doing.
"I don't want to really talk about this right now," Alexander said. "I'll get to it [when I'm back]."
- According to ESPN Stats and Information, Carolina quarterback Cam Newton had one of his better games against the blitz in Sunday's victory. In his first start of 2014 after missing the opener with fractured ribs, Newton completed 9 of 11 pass attempts for 101 yards when Detroit blitzed. That was the second-highest completion percentage of Newton's career in that situation.
- Pittsburgh Steelers fans traditionally have purchased large numbers of tickets for games against the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium. There have been some games in which there appeared to be more fans with "Terrible Towels" than those wearing Carolina blue. So backup quarterback Derek Anderson made a plea to the home crowd on Twitter heading into Sunday night's primetime game against the Steelers.
Moving on to next week already! If your selling ur tickets please don't sell them to a steeler fan!!#KeepPounding#BofArocking#SNF— Derek Anderson (@DAnderson314) September 14, 2014
Said Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin: "Derek must be calling on his Cleveland experience. It’s something that we appreciate. It’s not something we take for granted. We realize that there’s responsibility that comes with that, and the responsibility is to entertain our fans and we take that very seriously."
- Pittsburgh safety Mike Mitchell, a big part of Carolina's No. 2-ranked defense a year ago, told "The Charlotte Observer" there is a big drop-off in the Panthers' pass-rush without Hardy.
"Absolutely," Mitchell said. "He’s one of the better pass-rushers in the National Football League. I don’t think they’re going to get better not having him play. That would be ludicrous."
"A lot's being said about our offense and what we're doing in certain situations," Smith said. "But where we're really not performing well enough is on the defensive side. From long drives to taking the ball away to third downs. Our first goal on the defensive side is to score. We haven't come close to any of those things right now at this stage of our season. But they will come."
Smith brought up a good point. In his system, strong defense is supposed to be the key. In losses to Carolina and St. Louis, the defense has been ordinary. The Bucs rank No. 14 in overall defense (tied for 19th against the run and 15th against the pass).
A lot of people just assumed that the return of Smith, who served as linebackers coach under Tony Dungy, would mean instant defensive success. Smith brought the Tampa 2 scheme back, but he hasn't been happy with the way the defensive backs have been executing it.
"To a man, we're not pleased with how we're playing," Smith said. "That's starting with breaking on the ball, stripping the ball, taking the ball away. Our entire game right now, we're not pleased with. Even tackling. It's all of the above right now. We have to see more improvement. If we can just do that, we're going to be in pretty good shape."
Smith also said he hasn't been happy with the play of the defensive front. The Bucs have lost to backup quarterbacks Derek Anderson and Austin Davis.
"We need to get more up front," Smith said. "We're not getting enough. We've had two quarterbacks come in and we haven't pressured them enough and gotten ourselves into a position where we felt like we had to blitz more just to be able to get some pressure."
It's tough to call the second game of the season a "must-win" situation. But that might not be far off what the St. Louis Rams and Tampa Bay Buccaneers are facing this week.
Both teams are coming off embarrassing losses that could set the tone for disastrous seasons. But a victory in Week 2 could save a season -- at least for the moment.
ESPN Rams reporter Nick Wagoner and Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas take a look at this matchup:
Yasinskas: Nick, let's cut right to the chase. Are the Rams as bad as they looked against the Vikings in the opener?
Wagoner: I don't think the Rams are as bad as they were in Week 1, but I can understand why some might view it that way. That isn't to say this team just had an off-day and is about to string 15 wins together. The issue in Week 1 boiled down to the Rams failing to do the things they believe they will do well this year. Namely, this is a team built to run the ball to set up play-action on offense and dominate defensively, but they didn't control the line of scrimmage well enough on either side of the ball to do that. On paper, this looked like an offensive line that could be really good if everyone is healthy -- but even healthy, it looked like an aging group unable to block basic four-man rushes.
Still, I expect the Rams to be more competitive this week, so long as they have veteran quarterback Shaun Hill back from a quad injury.
I suppose the best option now is to redirect back at you: The Bucs disappointed in Week 1 against a backup quarterback, and either way, they're going to see another this week against the Rams. Are they as bad as they showed against the Panthers? How do they bounce back?
Yasinskas: The Bucs were horrible offensively for more than three quarters. Their defense, which is supposed to be a strong point, wasn't much better against Carolina backup Derek Anderson. There weren't a lot of good things to come out of the opener, and I'm not trying to make it out to be more than it was. But the Bucs did score 14 points in the fourth quarter, and they made it a game. It took a long time, but their offense finally showed some rhythm in the fourth and they had a chance to win at the end. Maybe this offense isn't that good, or maybe it just took some time to get things going in the right direction.
I know hopes were high with Sam Bradford, and that all changed with his injury. How much of a difference will it make if Hill is able to play?
Wagoner: Let's be honest here: It's not like the Rams are choosing from a quarterback trio of Elway, Marino and Montana. But of the three they have on the roster, it's pretty clear Hill gives them the best chance to win at this point. He's a steady hand and actually got off to a pretty good start against the Vikings last week before a dropped screen pass and a bad throw that resulted in an interception just before the half. For what it's worth, Jeff Fisher said Hill was trying to throw that ball away but couldn't get it out of bounds because of the quad.
Either way, the Rams need Hill under center because the options behind him -- Austin Davis and Case Keenum -- simply aren't going to get the job done. Of course, it won't matter who is under center if the offensive line doesn't perform better than it did the past week. That group has to give Hill time to throw and open some holes in the run game for this offense to have any chance of success against that Tampa defense.
Speaking of that defense, Lovie Smith once coordinated the group in St. Louis, and we all have a pretty good idea of what he likes to do. But now that he's back with the Bucs as the head coach, what are some wrinkles he's bringing to the table, and how good can that group be with guys such as Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David in the system?
Yasinskas: McCoy and David are two excellent cornerstones around which to build the defense. But as we found out against Carolina, the Bucs need more than that. The key to a Smith defense is getting pressure from the front four, and the Bucs didn't do that against the Panthers. They came up with one sack (by McCoy) and got no pressure on the outside. Defensive ends Adrian Clayborn and Michael Johnson have talent, but they have to be more productive for Smith's defense to really work. If the defense gets pressure, the turnovers will flow. If it doesn't get pressure, the defense will be nothing more than ordinary. McCoy and David are the stars of the defense, but the Bucs need Clayborn and Johnson to really make things click.
Tampa Bay's offensive line is a huge question, and the Bucs might be without injured guard Logan Mankins. Like any quarterback, Josh McCown is going to struggle if he's pressured. Are the Rams capable of putting a lot of pressure on McCown? If so, that will stall Tampa Bay's offense.
Wagoner: The strength of the Rams' defense is certainly found in the front four and the pass rush in general. Of course, that wasn't all that evident this past week against Minnesota. The Vikings only allowed one sack, and that came because of a botched snap. But Minnesota had a good game plan and made it a point to get the ball out quickly, which negated the Rams' pass rush. In fact, Vikings quarterback Matt Cassel averaged the fewest air yards per attempt of any quarterback in Week 1.
The Bucs know exactly what the Rams' pass rush can do after Robert Quinn gave them all kinds of headaches in the past year's meeting. But the Rams have to be better in coverage on underneath stuff if they want their pass rush to take off as it should.
McCown had some success throwing against the Rams last year when he was with the Bears, and the Bucs have a couple big, physical receivers on the outside. If things are going how the Bucs want, what type of challenges do they present to the Rams' defense?
Yasinskas: Let's assume for a second the offensive line plays a decent game. If that's the case, McCown will have time to throw, and he has some nice targets to work with. Vincent Jackson, Mike Evans and Austin Seferian-Jenkins are all at least 6-foot-5. That creates all sorts of matchup problems for a secondary. Evans and Seferian-Jenkins are only rookies, but they can be impact players. Jackson is a proven receiver who probably doesn't get the recognition he deserves.
But like I said, the offensive line will be the key. If McCown has time to throw, he can be an efficient quarterback. If he doesn't have time, he'll show why he's been a backup most of his career.
In Tampa Bay’s system it’s crucial for the defense to produce turnovers. The fact that the Bucs didn’t have any against the Panthers was costly.
“Not being able to balance takeaways, the fact that they had three and we had no takeaways, is probably the difference in the game,’’ Frazier said. “They get 17 points off turnovers and we didn’t come up with one. From a defensive standpoint, we’ve got to be able to get those turnovers, those takeaways. No matter how the game is going, it really gives you a chance to be successful. We know historically that if you get three-plus, you’ve got a 95 percent chance of winning the game and we came up with zero.’’
Frazier said takeaways and pressure on the quarterback go hand in hand. The Bucs sacked Carolina quarterback Derek Anderson just once and seldom pressured him. Frazier said it’s critical for the Bucs to generate more of a pass rush in Sunday’s home game with St. Louis.
“There’s some things we’re going to try to improve our pass rush,’’ Frazier said. “In order for us to be successful, we need to be able to get that rush out of our down four without having a lot of other things. We saw some things we think will be able to help us this week.’’
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.
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.
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.
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."
Popular opinion? It won't be long.
To Hill's credit, he has taken the demotion well.
"It's just a step back, but I can take some more steps forward," he said Wednesday. "I'm just going to take this and run with it. I'm ready to try my best to get on that 53-man roster."
The Panthers were familiar with the former Georgia Tech star long before he was cut. They used one of their 30 visits for draft-eligible players to work him out in Charlotte two years ago.
What's not to like? At 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, Hill has all the physical attributes Carolina general manager Dave Gettleman looks for. Hill is also fast. His 4.36 time in the 40-yard dash tied for the fastest among wide receivers at the 2012 combine.
If there's one thing Carolina's rebuilt wide-receiver corps lacks, it's elite speed.
Hill's issue in New York was inconsistency. To be specific, he dropped too many passes.
Hill was quick to remind there are receivers on other NFL rosters with more drops than him. Count Brandon LaFell, Carolina's No. 2 receiver last season and now a member of the New England Patriots, among those.
LaFell had a team-best eight drops last season and 15 in four years.
Hill's agent, Alan Herman, said his client didn't get a fair shake in New York, saying the inconsistencies the team had at quarterback were the biggest issue. Hill didn't blame the quarterbacks as much as he did the media.
He says he's ready to move on. Having the opportunity to work with Carolina wide receivers coach Ricky Proehl, one of the best technicians in the game during his 17 years as a player, should be a plus.
Proehl helped turn around Ted Ginn Jr.'s career last season. Ginn, now at Arizona, went from two catches with San Francisco in 2012 to 36 for 556 yards and five touchdowns at Carolina last season.
Hill doesn't have that far to go. In his two seasons with the Jets, he caught 45 passes for 594 yards and four touchdowns.
He can be the deep threat Ginn was. Only undrafted rookie Philly Brown has elite speed among the five receivers on Carolina's current 53-man roster. And Brown is there more for his abilities as a kick returner than a receiver. He has troubles with drops, too.
"He can run -- 4.3 is pretty fast -- and he's a big, physical guy," backup quarterback Derek Anderson said of Hill. "Now we'll teach him and get out of him what we can."
Hill won't be moved to the 53-man roster for Sunday's opener at Tampa Bay. Coach Ron Rivera made that clear, reminding Hill has a lot to learn about his new scheme.
But it wouldn't be a reach to suggest Hill could move up by the second or third week. You don't sign a second-round pick to leave him on the practice squad.
"We were really the only ones who showed interest in him," Rivera said. "So hopefully, that means we’ll get a nice long look at him. We'll work him and see how he'll potentially fit us. And if the opportunity arises to bring him up, we will."
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.
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.''
Coach Ron Rivera said Newton was sore, and because the practice was a mirror of what the team did on Monday, he was held out to work with trainer Ron Vermillion.
Newton didn't appear overly sore during team warmups, swinging his arms and dancing to music being played over a loudspeaker. He was in full pads and wearing the flak jacket that he is expected to use on Sunday.
Asked if there were any concerns for Newton starting on Sunday, Rivera said, "No. I'm optimistic and I expect him to be out there.''
Newton also did not talk to the media during his normal Wednesday time slot. According to the Carolina public relations department, he was undergoing treatment.
Backup Derek Anderson and third-stringer Joe Webb took all of the repetitions in practice, but Anderson said he fully expects Newton to be the starter on Sunday.
"When DA was taking his reps, he did good,'' Rivera said. "Like what I saw. Joe looked good, too. This gave us an opportunity to have the other guys get some work, because the last two days, Cam has gotten a lot of it.''
Defensive ends Charles Johnson (hamstring) and Greg Hardy (shoulder), as well as right guard Trai Turner (groin), participated in the full practice and are expected to start on Sunday. Newton was the only player listed on the injury report.
He loves his family more.
"It's made life a lot easier, and it's not something I take for granted," Olsen said on Monday after returning to practice for the first time in seven days. "You would hope that it would be this way everywhere, but sometimes people aren't quite as understanding."
The Panthers have been. Team owner Jerry Richardson, who received a heart transplant in 2009, flew Olsen, his wife Kara, T.J., and other family members to Boston in 2012 to consult with doctors about an experimental surgery.
Richardson actually made the trip and spent time in hospital waiting rooms with Olsen.
"We talk about family and we want to follow up on that," Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. "Mr. Richardson has fostered a great environment here for us and we've taken the ball and run with it."
Rivera would like to believe all 32 NFL teams take the same approach. But when asked if other organizations he's been around have, he said, "Well, I just know this, I'm more involved in it a little bit more. That's all I'll say about that."
There are other examples where the Panthers put family first. Rivera made time before practice last Wednesday to play catcher for his daughter, a pitcher at UCLA, before she returned to college.
Quarterback Derek Anderson was given time off last week to be with his wife as she gave birth to the couple's first child even though it left third-stringer Joe Webb as the only healthy quarterback, as starter Cam Newton was out with fractured ribs and fourth-stringer Matt Blanchard was on injured reserve with a concussion.
"It all worked out," said Olsen, who happened to be at the same hospital as Anderson. "DA got to be there for his wife and [at Thursday's exhibition finale at Pittsburgh]. I didn't miss much. It all works out if you do things the right way."
Olsen would like to think the family appraoch has helped make the Carolina locker room and team stronger as it attempts to record consecutive winning seasons for the first time in franchise history.
"It's a special group," he said. "I've said that since I got here."
Olsen is happy to report T.J. is recovering well. But because his son remains in intensive care and is maybe weeks from being discharged, Olsen goes back and forth between the hospital and the stadium in his free time.
"He's a tough little guy," Olsen said. "He's really responded well to all three surgeries. We've had a few little hiccups, but for the most part he's on the right track."
And while there are no guarantees there won't be a transplant or other surgeries in T.J.'s future, Olsen has the support of the organization and is able to focus on football and Sunday's opener at Tampa Bay without added stress.
And the Panthers will need Olsen. He led the team in catches last season with 73. He is a big part of a two-tight end set Carolina plans to implement in an attempt to diversify the offense and take pressure off a new group of wide receivers.
Olsen vows he'll be ready.
"I haven't felt a ton of pressure to be two places at once, and I've been able to handle my family and that priority first," he said. "But also realize, this is a priority for me, too. It's important for me to be here.
"It won't be any challenge. I'll make sure I get what I have to get done. My wife is pretty understanding. She gets it."
So, apparently, do the Panthers.
Rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin is a go-to receiver regardless of who's throwing to him. Little-known running back Fozzy Whittaker deserves a roster spot. Backup quarterbacks that have barely slept in 24 hours while becoming a first-time father probably should be given the night off even if the starter is hampered by fractured ribs. Kudos to quarterback Derek Anderson for scrambling to the Steel City hours after his wife gave birth to a daughter, Amelia.
Oh, and defense wins games even when your best players are spectators.
These are a few of the things learned Thursday night in the Carolina Panthers' 10-0 victory at Pittsburgh.
Here are some other thoughts on the Panthers’ (2-2) final preseason game:
- Nice tune-up for Benjamin: With every play it becomes more apparent that teams choosing to single-cover Benjamin on the outside are going to pay on inside slants. At 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds, he is almost unstoppable. Benjamin finished with four catches for 56 yards in just over a quarter, a sample of the kind of production expected -- and needed -- out of him as Carolina replaces its top four receivers.
- The Fozz: Whittaker became a workhorse with starters DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart given the night off. He finished the game with 91 yards on 23 carries and ended the preseason as Carolina's leading rusher.
- Anderson survives: The last thing Carolina wanted to see with starting quarterback Cam Newton (rib) sidelined was Anderson getting hurt, but he left in the second quarter holding his right hand. X-rays were negative. As much as the Panthers like third-stringer Joe Webb, they don't want to go into the opener with him as the backup.
- Riverboat lives: Coach Ron Rivera set the tone for last season's turnaround with a couple of fourth-down gambles against Minnesota in the fifth game. He showed faith in his rebuilt offensive line in the first series of this one, with fullback Mike Tolbert getting the first down. It wasn't pretty, but this unit needs that kind of confidence.
- Riverboat in reverse: With NFL defensive player of the year Luke Kuechly and fellow linebacker Thomas Davis given the night off, and with ends Greg Hardy (shoulder) and Charles Johnson (hamstring) sitting out for precautionary reasons, Carolina still managed to stuff Pittsburgh on a first-quarter, fourth-and-1 attempt en route to a shutout. It's that depth that gives Carolina one of the best front sevens in the NFL.
- Philly in Pittsburgh: The good news is Carolina appears to have settled on Philly Brown, an undrafted rookie wide receiver out of Ohio State, as its kick returner. The bad news is he also dropped a punt -- again. He also caught a nice deep pass -- and fell down before he could score. He's a less refined version of Ted Ginn Jr.
- What's next? Newton, who already says he'll start in the Sept. 7 opener at Tampa Bay, will be re-evaluated on Saturday during a brief walk-thru. If he's improved the last two days the way he did the first four he should be ready to practice with little to no limitations Monday.
He needs some rest -- literally.
Anderson caught a commercial flight to Pittsburgh mid-morning on Thursday after becoming a first-time father late Wednesday afternoon to Amelia Anderson, 7.6 pounds and 20.5 inches long.
He is scheduled to start for Cam Newton, who made the trip but will not play because of fractured ribs suffered in Friday night's 30-7 loss at New England.
Anderson needed less than 24 hours to learn babies interrupt the sleep pattern of parents. He tweeted this early Thursday morning:
First night quite brutal on the ole sleep meter..— Derek Anderson (@DAnderson314) August 28, 2014
He later tweeted this:
Second Trenti iced coffee before 9!! Lets go! Gotta find a way! #wordswin#KeepPounding— Derek Anderson (@DAnderson314) August 28, 2014
Anderson later admitted to being a bit cranky when tweeting this:
Carolina starters aren't expected to play more than a quarter, so perhaps the Panthers can set a cot up for Anderson on the sideline while Joe Webb finishes the game.
He earned it.
Even though coach Ron Rivera repeatedly has said he's confident Newton will be ready for the Sept. 7 opener at Tampa Bay, he can't risk cutting Webb and then finding out his franchise quarterback can't play.
That would leave Carolina with backup Derek Anderson and searching the trash pile for a backup. They can't depend on Webb being available as well as he's played during the preseason, completing 21 of 35 pass attempts for 271 yards and two touchdowns.
He's also rushed four times for 30 yard.
That's why this post began with Webb didn't back into a roster spot. The Panthers began talking about keeping the former University of Alabama at Birmingham star after the second preseason game.
Rivera reiterated that after Tuesday's practice when the conversation turned to how Newton's injury opened up a spot for Webb.
"It's a tough position to be in, because obviously we are going to have to let a good player go to keep the extra quarterback," Rivera said. "Because of our situation, we need to. This is a necessity move.
"But at the same time, Joe's earned that. He earned his right to be on this football team right now."
Carolina coaches talked to several of Webb's former coaches before signing him to imitate what Newton does with the read option after Newton underwent ankle surgery in March.
"They thought what we do would be a good fit for what his skill set was," Rivera said. "A lot of people thought doing some of the stuff we do with Cam would fit with him.
"They're right. Those things do fit Joe very nicely. I like who Joe is. He's a hard-working, very conscientious young man who wants to do well."
Webb spent his first three seasons with the Minnesota Vikings after being selected in the sixth round of the 2010 draft. He played quarterback for the first two, starting a playoff game in 2012.
He was moved to wide receiver in 2013, catching five passes for 2013 yards. There was a time when he thought he'd never play quarterback again. Now he's getting a chance to do that at Carolina, and possibly setting the stage for a future there with another team.
"I know I'm not only performing for the Carolina Panthers, but for 31 other teams out there," Webb said. "Pretty much your game film is your résumé and you want to put your best performance on it.
"I would never want to wish for somebody to get hurt for my benefit. It was an unfortunate situation. It's just a blessing for me to come in and show my talents to the coaching staff. I wish Cam all the best and to get well soon. In the meantime, I'm going to do my best to fill the void."