NFL Nation: Luke Kuechly

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Imagine every other time you went to hit the keys on your laptop somebody tapped you on the shoulder. Or every other time you went to drive a nail somebody knocked the hammer out of your hand. Or every other time you went to give a speech somebody turned on the fire alarm.

It would be distracting. It likely would prevent you from doing your job at maximum efficiency.

Throw in the pain of being slammed to the ground, and that’s what a quarterback goes through when he’s constantly being pressured. He begins looking for the rush before getting to his second and third reads. He leaves the pocket even before the pocket crumbles.

[+] EnlargeNewton
AP Photo/Matt RourkeCam Newton, who was sacked nine times in Philadelphia on Monday, has been sacked 30 times this season, second most in the NFL.
His head is on swivel. There is concern, sometimes fear, in his eyes.

"I’ve seen it," Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Colin Cole said. "I’ve seen it plenty of times. ... The biggest thing you have when you get to a guy that many times, he starts to take his eyes from downfield to look at the rush."

Cole saw it in last season’s finale against Atlanta, Sunday’s opponent at Bank of America Stadium, when the Panthers sacked quarterback Matt Ryan nine times. He expects Carolina quarterback Cam Newton experienced that to some degree in Sunday’s 45-21 loss at Philadelphia when he was sacked nine times.

"I can’t really speak on Cam’s situation, but I know in general when you’re able to get after the quarterback like we were against [Atlanta] last year, more times than not they’re going to be concerned with getting hit more than they are delivering that shot," Cole said.

"That’s what we’re hoping to bring to the field on Sunday, get him to stop looking down field for his big-time targets and look at us a little bit more and get after it."

Newton was criticized for not looking like himself against Philadelphia. There was speculation his surgically repaired left ankle -- as well as his right ankle -- were bothering him, even though Newton said that wasn’t an issue.

Cole wouldn’t expect his or any other quarterback to look like himself with the kind of pressure Newton was under Monday -- and has been all season.

Newton has been sacked 30 times, second in the NFL to San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick. Neither is having a particularly good season statistically. Newton ranks 26th in passer rating at 80.1. Kaepernick is 15th at 92.7.

To put that in perspective, Denver’s Peyton Manning ranks second in passer rating at 112.0. He has been sacked nine times.

Pressure doesn’t always correlate to statistics. Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger has been sacked 25 times, and he ranks third at 107.3.

But the average number of sacks for the top 10 quarterbacks in passer rating is 15.8, almost half of what Newton has. The average number of sacks for quarterbacks 11-20 is 20.3.

Ryan, No. 11 in passer rating, has been sacked 18 times.

"It’s tough," Ryan said as he recalled last season's game against Carolina. "Certainly the best way to stop a passing game is to get the quarterback on the ground.

"You’ve got to try as hard as you can to not let it affect the next play, and that is the mindset that I’ve tried to take into games that shake out like [last year’s against Carolina]."

Ryan’s numbers were surprisingly good for all the hits he took against the Panthers at the Georgia Dome. He completed 28 of 40 passes for 280 yards and two touchdowns. He was intercepted only once.

"If you’re hitting a guy, and you have guys around him, bumping on him, it’s going to make him uncomfortable," Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly said. "It’s human nature. One thing [Ryan] does well is he stands in there and throws the ball."

Newton tends to take off quicker because he’s used to using his legs as a weapon. That often results in him holding onto the ball too long, which results in sacks he could avoid.

"What happens is sometimes they try to make plays, try to go beyond what they need to," Carolina coach Ron Rivera said of quarterbacks in general. "It’s hard. It’s difficult, especially when you’re behind and put yourself in that position."

Kuechly has seen quarterbacks flustered. He’s seen fear in their eyes. He hasn’t seen fear in Newton’s eyes.

"You watch, he gets hit a million times and then he gets right back up and he’s right back out there," he said. "That’s Cam. That’s what he takes pride in, and that’s why I like playing with him. He’s tough. Mentally, he’s very strong as far as that goes."

But at some point the hits have to impact Newton or any quarterback doing his job efficiently.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Big. Fast. Athletic. Luke Kuechy heard all this about fellow Carolina Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis when he arrived in 2012 as a first-round pick out of Boston College.

But Davis wasn’t all this when Kuechly arrived. He was coming off ACL surgery on his right knee for the third time. He was in rehabilitation mode.

Finally, a few months later during training camp, Davis had a moment that is etched into Kuechly’s memory.

[+] EnlargeThomas Davis and Luke Kuechly
AP Photo/Bob LeveroneLinebackers Thomas Davis (58) and Luke Kuechly (59) routinely earn praise from opposing coaches.
"A swing pass to the side and he turns the jets on," Kuechly recalled. "That’s Thomas."

Kuechly and Thomas finally got their first start together in Week 5 of that season when Jon Beason was injured. Kuechly took over in the middle next to Davis at weakside linebacker.

Since then there have been few linebacker combinations in the NFL that are better. Almost every week the opposing coach at some point during his conference call with the media will say there’s not a better pair in the league.

This week it was Atlanta’s Mike Smith.

"When you watch the tape, you see some guys that are playing fantastic football," he said. "Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly, you’re not going to find two better on the same team in the NFL."

As poorly as the Carolina defense has played this season, Kuechly and Davis continue to set the standard for their position. Kuechly, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, leads the league in tackles with 105.

Davis is second on the team and 21st in the NFL with 66.

Carolina coach Ron Rivera has been around a lot of great linebacker tandems during his career as a linebacker for the Chicago Bears and an assistant coach with the Bears, Philadelphia and San Diego.

He doesn’t hesitate to mention Kuechly and Davis in the same breath as eight-time Pro Bowl selection Brian Urlacher and seven-time Pro Bowl selection Lance Briggs with the Bears.

"We joke about it, saying the biggest thing we’ve got to do is not mess them up as far as coaching," Rivera said. "They work together so well. One feeds off the other."

Kuechly isn’t so sure he and Davis are the best. He reminds that San Francisco’s Navorro Bowman and Patrick Willis, both injured, are pretty good.

He also likes Detroit’s DeAndre Levy and -- he couldn’t remember his name -- Stephen Tulloch, who is out for the season with a torn ACL.

But he appreciates the recognition.

"Thomas and I take a lot of pride in what we do," he said. "We try to be the best we can, and hopefully it keeps going that way."

Kuechly appears a shoe-in for a second straight Pro Bowl appearance. He’s first at inside linebacker in the voting.

Davis still is waiting for his first trip to Hawaii. He played well enough to earn a trip there last season, and is on that pace again this season, but outside linebackers in a 4-3 scheme seldom get selected because those in a 3-4 scheme get more sacks.

"You know how that goes," Kuechly said. "I know he wants to get out there, but other that he just wants to win."

That’s all both really want. With Carolina struggling at 3-6-1, both gladly would trade any postseason honor for a victory against Atlanta (3-6) and a chance to get back into playoff contention.

They know it’s possible with NFC South leader New Orleans at 4-5. They understand the defense is starting to play well enough to start a winning streak.

As bad as Monday night’s 45-21 loss at Philadelphia looked, the Eagles’ first 10 points came following turnovers in Carolina territory, and 14 others came from a punt and interception returned for touchdowns.

"I just want to win," Kuechly said. "It’s [Pro Bowl] obviously cool. It’s a fun deal. I enjoyed it last year. But I want to win. I want to win, I want to win, I want to win.

"You talk to just about everybody in this locker room, and that’s what they’ll say."

They will also say there is no better linebacker combination in the NFL than Kuechly and Davis.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees didn't hesitate when asked what he remembered about Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly during a Week 16 game at Bank of America Stadium last season.

"I remember 24 tackles and a pick," Brees said.

[+] EnlargeLuke Kuechly
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsLuke Kuechly's 24 tackles against the Saints at Bank of America Stadium last season left an impression on the visitors.
Kuechly tied the NFL record for most tackles in a game in the 17-13 victory over the Saints. That Brees remembered the exact number of tackles and that the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year had an interception shouldn't be surprising.

It was that memorable of an effort.

"The guy is a stud," Brees said. "He is all over the place. He seems like he's making every tackle and every call. He's as good a football player as there is in the league."

Kuechly hasn't slowed down this season. He has a league-best 89 tackles. Since arriving in the NFL in 2012 he has 402 tackles, the most by 39 over his closest competition -- Jacksonville's Paul Posluszny.

But nothing Kuechly has done was as impressive as his 24-tackle effort against the Saints.

The Carolina coaching staff actually credited the former Boston College star with two more tackles after reviewing the tape, but they're not in the official record book.

"He is around every play, just pick a game," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "He's very active, he's got great key and diagnose, he's a great tackler and he's just a fantastic player. You can just single-handedly grab any game film and he's going to be involved in a ton of plays."

The Panthers (3-4-1) may need another Herculean effort from Kuechly in Thursday night's game against the Saints (3-4) with first place in the NFC South on the line.

New Orleans is coming off arguably its best game of the season, a 44-23 victory over Green Bay. Brees completed 27 of 32 pass attempts for 311 yards and three touchdowns.

The Saints, led by Mark Ingram's 172, also rushed for 193 yards.

But New Orleans was hot when it came to Carolina last season with a 10-4 record. Two weeks earlier, in a Sunday night game against the Panthers in New Orleans, Brees completed 30 of 43 pass attempts for 313 yards and four touchdowns in a 31-13 victory.

He had only one touchdown and was sacked six times in the loss at BOA.

Kuechly's 24 tackles played a big role in that.

"I looked at the screen and I was ahead of him," outside linebacker Thomas Davis said of the tackle count. "Then I looked up again and he was like 10 ahead of me. It's exciting to see him go out and play that way. I feed off of his energy and the things he's able to do as a player.

"It makes me better. It makes our team better when he goes out and performs that way."

Kuechly remembers the monsoon-like rain that hit in the third quarter of that game. He remembers the game seeming like a "marathon" it was so tense with the division title up for grabs. He remembers winning.

He doesn't remember much about the 24 tackles, saying he's had better games.

"Stats aren't what make a good game," he said. "It depends on TD responsibility and if you're successful in your job each play. If you make a tackle eight yards down the field, it's not a good play.

"I've had some games where the tackles weren't there, but I played really good."

Regardless, none was more memorable than his 24-tackle effort against the Saints.
MINNEAPOLIS -- Anthony Barr already got a game ball from coach Mike Zimmer after his game-winning fumble return touchdown on Sunday. Now, he's getting accolades from the NFL.

Barr won NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors on Wednesday, claiming the award for the first time after a game where he recorded eight tackles, a sack and his first forced fumble, which he returned for a touchdown in overtime after ripping it away from Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins. Barr also had another quarterback hit and broke up a pass in the game. He has recovered three fumbles in the past two weeks.

He is the sixth rookie to win the award in the last 10 seasons, adding his name to a list that is composed of DeMarcus Ware, Clay Matthews, Brian Orakpo, Sean Lee and Luke Kuechly. That's a pretty impressive list for Barr to belong to -- the players on it have been to a combined 15 Pro Bowls -- and it's another sign that the rookie has a chance to move into some rarefied air as a linebacker.
TAMPA, Fla. -- They talked like they were drafting the second coming of John Lynch.

Instead, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers of a past regime might have hit on a second Sabby Piscitelli.

The current regime was only too happy to give up on 2012 first-round pick Mark Barron on Tuesday as the NFL's trading deadline approached. Barron was shipped to the St. Louis Rams for fourth- and sixth-round picks in 2015. The Bucs also traded reserve linebacker Jonathan Casillas to the New England Patriots. The Bucs will get New England’s fifth-round pick next season and send their 2015 sixth-round pick to the Patriots.

But it's the trade of Barron that's most significant. The current tandem of coach Lovie Smith and general manager Jason Licht obviously didn't share the same high opinion of Barron that former coach Greg Schiano and general manager Mark Dominik did only two years ago.

Hindsight is always 20-20, but the Bucs could have taken linebacker Luke Kuechly with the seventh overall pick in the first round in 2012. Instead, they passed and took Barron. Kuechly won Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2012 and Defensive Player of the Year in 2013 while playing for Carolina.

Barron hasn't been a total bust like Piscitelli, but he has produced only three interceptions in three seasons. Barron never has come close to playing up to his potential.

Barron became expendable in part because the Bucs have a trio of mediocre safeties in Bradley McDougald, Major Wright and Keith Tandy. None of those safeties has as much natural talent as Barron. But Barron's talent wasn't showing in the current system.

Barron also became expendable because he just wasn't as good as advertised. Maybe Barron turns into a force in St. Louis. But he was nothing more than mediocre in Tampa Bay.

Anybody else think the 2012 Bucs should have gone linebacker and drafted Kuechly?
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Former Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith saw something in the way the team performed in a 12-7 opening-day loss to Seattle last season that made him predict a rematch with the Seahawks deep into the playoffs.

It almost happened, as Carolina rallied from a 1-3 start to go 12-4 and come within a home win against San Francisco of meeting Seattle in the NFC Championship Game.

There were no such bold predictions following Sunday's 13-9 loss to the defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks, but there was optimism because of the way the defense played.

[+] EnlargeMarshawn Lynch
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesThe Panthers' run defense kept RB Marshawn Lynch in check, limiting him to 62 yards rushing.
A unit that entered the game giving up 27.9 points and 388 yards a game held Seattle to 13 points and 310 yards. Eighty of those yards came on Seattle’s game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter.

Quarterback Russell Wilson accounted for 74 of the 80, rushing twice for 21 yards and completing 4 of 4 pass attempts for 53 yards.

Until Wilson went off, the Panthers (3-4-1) were playing at the level they did most of last season when they ranked second in the NFL in total defense. It gave a team that has gone 1-4-1 in its last six games reason to hope there could be a turnaround like last season.

"As long as we continue to put emphasis on the things we did this week, flying around, swarming to the ball, playing complete team defense," said linebacker Thomas Davis, who led Carolina with 10 tackles. "That's who we are, that's what we can do, that's what we’re capable of."

What happened on Seattle's final drive wasn't so much about what the Panthers didn't do as much as it was Wilson doing what he has done all year.

Before that drive the Panthers had held Wilson to 14 yards rushing on four carries. He finished with six carries for 35 yards, a far cry from the 100-plus yards rushing he had in two of the previous three games.

"This is the NFL, man," Davis said. "Guys make plays. That's what happened. He was able to put a drive together that ultimately ended up being the game-winning drive.

"For us defensively, we've got to play this game for four quarters and we've got to finish. ... It came down to us defensively. No matter how well we played early in the game, when the game was on the line we didn't execute and get that win for our team."

That was the attitude of last year's defense that gave up only 15 points a game. Davis believes this year's team can sustain what it began Sunday.

Coach Ron Rivera agreed.

"I'd like to believe so, especially against running the football," Rivera said. "But the one thing that did get us in the end, and kudos to them, was their quarterback."

Wilson aside, the Panthers didn't give up huge chunks after catches as they have been and gave up only one long run -- 25 yards to Marshawn Lynch, who finished with only 62 yards.

The defensive front played arguably its best game of the year, and that allowed Davis and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly to make plays.

"We've got the guys to do it," Kuechly said. "We've got guys who can make plays. We just have to be consistent. That's going to be the message moving forward."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The NFL got it right by admitting an official made a mistake in ejecting Carolina Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly in the third quarter of Carolina's 38-17 loss at Green Bay on Sunday.

Kuechly did nothing wrong. The reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year simply threw up his left arm when grabbed at the waist from behind by back judge Steve Freeman after being separated from a scrum following a fumble.

Kuechly didn't know -- and had no way of knowing -- it was an official, having already been pulled from the pile by a player.

It was totally inadvertent contact. No punch was thrown. There was no malicious intent.

The league apparently saw the same thing. According to ESPN's Ed Werder, a source said Carolina coach Ron Rivera has been told a mistake was made and Kuechly would not be fined.

That Kuechly is one of the most mild-mannered players in the league -- except when it comes to tackling -- had nothing to do with the uproar about the ejection. It simply was wrong.

It was so wrong that one Green Bay fan took the time to find my email address to express outrage. I'll share because it likely sums up the thoughts of many on this. It read:

"I watch arrogant players get away with nasty plays every week; this was not one of those. This was my post via Facebook at the end of your internet article; please feel free to share it if it will make a difference for an outstanding player.

"I am a Packer fan and I feel totally sorry for Kuechly. It is clear that he thought another player was pulling at him; and as soon as he realized it was an official, he became docile. There is no evidence to support the ejection, nor is there evidence to support a fine. I have seen good men taken down for actions that were not really their own; this is one of them. Kuechly: if you are reading this, please don't let the ultimate enemy win. Continue to be a quality, caliber player regardless of the egoism that is the basis for this call. I am truly sorry for you from the bottom of my heart."

Panthers linebacker Chase Blackburn felt so strongly about it that he told The Charlotte Observer he would be disappointed if the league didn't issue a statement on it.

"Officials are held accountable too," said Blackburn, who is also Carolina's NFL Players Association representative. "That's how I look at it."

The league apparently agreed.

Rapid Reaction: Carolina Panthers

October, 19, 2014
Oct 19

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- A few thoughts on the Carolina Panthers' 38-17 loss to the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field:

What it means: This may have been one of those season-on-the-brink moments for the Panthers (3-3-1). Between penalties, mental errors and bad decisions, they were terrible offensively and defensively. Their only saving grace at the moment is that the rest of the NFC South is a mess. This one got away from Carolina before the cheese curds got cold. The Panthers were outgained 172-5 and outscored 21-0 in a disaster of a first quarter. They gave up 37 or more points for the fourth time in the last five games. They committed eight penalties for 55 yards in the first half. It was such a foregone conclusion early that Cam Newton never was a factor. There was nothing positive to take from this one.

Stock watch: The entire defense, big arrow down. Just when you thought this group couldn’t play any worse, it did. The first quarter was one of the worst in team history. The Panthers gave up 172 yards and three touchdowns to trail 21-0 just 13 minutes into the game. They also had four penalties for 30 yards. This sums it up: The defense could have gotten out of the first series unscathed but had consecutive offside penalties after it was second-and-20, one of which negated an interception. On Green Bay’s second drive, the Panthers had too many men on the field on third-and-3. I haven’t even mentioned all the missed tackles. To say this unit is a shell of the one that finished second in the league a season ago is an understatement. It was so bad that reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly was ejected in the third quarter after making contact with an official trying to separate him from a pile.

Wild card: Not to be lost in the wreckage, tight end Greg Olsen had another strong showing. He caught eight passes for 105 yards as he continues on a pace for career numbers. Even if the Panthers don’t turn things around, Olsen is playing at a Pro Bowl level.

Game ball: Not that anybody really deserves one, but I’ll give it to punter Brad Nortman. He kicked more times in the first half (five) than many punters do for a game. He finished with seven punts for an average of 53.9 yards, including a 67-yarder.

What’s next: The Panthers return home from two road games to face the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks. Seattle (3-3) has won the last three games in the series, including a 12-7 victory at Bank of America Stadium in last year's opener.
CINCINNATI -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Carolina Panthers' 37-37 overtime tie against the Cincinnati Bengals:
  • Finding a Carolina player who had been a part of a tie before Sunday was fruitless. Not even head coach Ron Rivera had experienced one. "Odd. I had to think about what I was going to say to the players," he said.

  • Quarterback Cam Newton looked like he could play another quarter despite carrying a season-high 17 times for 107 yards rushing -- he had only 14 carries coming into the game -- and completing 29 of 46 pass attempts for 284 yards and two touchdowns. "I'd feel better if we came away with a win."

  • Rivera on Newton's performance: "He was phenomenal."

  • Tight end Greg Olsen summed up how most players felt about the tie: "You put in a full week and fight our asses off to tie. That's a little disheartening."

  • Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly won't remember his first NFL game in his hometown because he had 144 family members and friends cheering him on from a midlevel section at Paul Brown Stadium. He'll remember it for the tie. "It'll definitely be memorable for that reason."

  • Running back Fozzy Whittaker aggravated a quad injury and didn't get to finish the game, but he didn't act like it would keep him out of next week's game at Green Bay. "I'll still hit it," he said.

  • Punter Graham Gano said the wind on the river side of the stadium where Cincinnati's Mike Nugent missed the game-winning 36-yard field goal in overtime was swirling just like it was when he missed a 37-yarder in the fourth quarter. "Yeah, that's a tough direction," he said.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- For much of the last year you’ve heard how quarterback pressure from the Carolina Panthers front seven, in particular the front four, has helped the secondary.

On Sunday, the secondary will need to help the front seven.

Facing a Cincinnati offense that has given up only one sack and relies on what Carolina middle linebacker Luke Kuechly called “dinks and dunks’’ out of the quick-hitting West Coast offense, it’ll be up to the secondary to give quarterback Andy Dalton reason to pause long enough for the pressure to arrive.

[+] EnlargeAndy Dalton
Mark Zerof/USA TODAY SportsBengals quarterback Andy Dalton has only been sacked once this season.
It won’t be easy. Until the fourth quarter of Sunday night’s 43-17 loss to New England, Dalton hadn’t been sacked. He gets rid of the ball so fast that he seldom even gets hit.

The Patriots hit him twice, which equaled the number of times Baltimore, Atlanta and Tennessee hit him in Cincinnati’s first three games.

To put that into perspective, Baltimore hit Carolina quarterback Cam Newton seven times and sacked him twice two weeks ago.

“Pass rush and coverage goes hand-in-hand,’’ Carolina safety Thomas DeCoud said. “Now it falls on us to be close in coverage and make him hold the ball so he can’t get rid of it as quick as he wants to.

“Now it falls in our lap, being ready to break on those short throws so he’s not just playing throw and catch. He’s got to hold it because the guy is tightly covered.’’

Forcing the Bengals into third-and-long will be important. The longer the down and yardage the longer it takes the receivers to get into their route, which gives the line longer to get to Dalton.

The Panthers led the league in sacks last season with 60 and rank 13th this season with 12. Pressure is a big part of their defense, which is why you’re seeing more teams devising plans to get rid of the ball quicker this season.

“If you look at the average snap count and when he’s able to get the ball out of his hands, you’ve got to do a better job on the back end of coverage and make sure we limit what they do on first and second down,’’ outside linebacker Thomas Davis said.

If Dalton has time, it’ll be up to the linebackers and secondary to keep the gains to a minimum.

“You’ve got to tackle the ball,’’ Kuechly said. “Those teams make their money on dinking and dunking, and the guy missing the tackle and it springing for 10 to 15 yards.’’

The Bengals may dink and dunk even more without their best deep threat in wide receiver A.J. Green, out with a toe injury.

But it still comes down to disrupting Dalton and minimizing damage, making sure the 2-yard passes don’t turn into 10 or 12 yards.

“You look at how quick the quarterback gets the ball out of his hands,’’ Davis said. “That’s really what it boils down to. It doesn’t matter what kind of blitz you have on or what kind of D-line you have, if a quarterback is able to get the ball out of his hand as fast as Dalton can, then you’re not going to get pressure on him.’’
CINCINNATI -- It's time to start turning our attention to the Cincinnati Bengals' next game.

The Patriots are in the rearview.

On deck: The Carolina Panthers.

Record: 3-2

How they got there
The Panthers will be on the road for a third time this season Sunday when they visit the Bengals. It will be just the second trip they'll make to Cincinnati after visiting Paul Brown Stadium back in 2006. More on that game and others in this series down below. Prior to this week's contest the Panthers opened the year by knocking off the Buccaneers and Lions in consecutive weeks before dropping two straight. Blowout losses to the Steelers and Ravens put Carolina at .500 before last weekend's win over Chicago.

Key players
QB Cam Newton. Like Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, Newton was part of the 2011 draft class that featured several of the league's starting signal-callers. Some like Minnesota's Christian Ponder could be considered busts. But the two playing in this game can't be. Newton is coming off the first playoff appearance of his career. With a down division this year, he could be headed back there.
[+] EnlargeKelvin Benjamin
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesIt didn't take long for rookie Kelvin Benjamin to become an impact player for the Panthers.
WR Kelvin Benjamin. A tall, thick wideout from Florida State, Benjamin is the Panthers' equivalent of a Jimmy Graham-type of player. He has great leaping ability and has already come down with his share of circus catches this season. The rookie has three touchdowns and is averaging 15.3 yards per reception.
LB Luke Kuechly. Through four games the Cincinnati native is leading the league in tackles with 61. Yes, you read that right, 61. The St. Xavier High School product has been wracking up tackles since he was an area prep star, and he continued the trend in college at Boston College, where he was perennially the leading tackler in the ACC. His lateral quickness will be something the Bengals will have to key on this week.

Panthers' base defensive scheme: 4-3

Series history
The series is tied at 2-2. This is only the second meeting the teams will have in Cincinnati after the Bengals visited Carolina three times and went 1-2 in those three games. The Bengals won the last meeting in Cincinnati, 17-14, in 2006. They also won the most recent meeting in 2010 when the teams played in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Week 6 stat to consider
Bengals cornerback and punt returner Adam Jones hates to call for a fair catch. He hates it so much that he hasn't called for a fair catch in 82 punt-return opportunities dating back to Nov. 16, 2006, when he played for the Titans. For perspective, consider that for the 1,094 punts that were returned in the NFL last season, another 636 were fair caught. He didn't have a single one. Jones also ranks second among active players with five career punt-return touchdowns.

Uni watch
For the first time this year, the Bengals are expected to break out the orange jerseys, and they will wear them with black pants. They are 12-5 since 2004 in that combination. According to the team, the Bengals are next slated to wear their orange "specialty" jersey Nov. 2 at home against Jacksonville. The NFL permits teams to wear specialty jerseys twice a season.

Whom to follow
You'll want to be sure to follow my colleague David Newton on the Panthers blog and also on Twitter (@DNewtonespn) for all things Panthers this week. You'll learn much more from David later this week in our game preview.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson finally had something to talk about on Sunday.

[+] EnlargeCharles Johnson
Bob Leverone/AP PhotoCarolina's Charles Johnson logs his first sack of the 2014 season, a take-down of Bears QB Jay Cutler.
After going the first four games without a sack, Johnson was feeling self-imposed pressure. When you're the team's highest-paid player, and your forte is sacks, the zero beside your name starts to stand out.

Johnson was so frustrated that he avoided media during the week and after games recently, particularly the past two weeks when Baltimore and Pittsburgh outscored the Panthers, 75-29.

"I wasn't hiding," Johnson said. "If I'm not doing nothing, I don't feel like talking about it."

Johnson was ready to talk following Sunday's 31-24 victory over Chicago. The whole defense was, but particularly Johnson, who sacked quarterback Jay Cutler for a six-yard loss with about nine minutes remaining and Carolina trailing by three.

Normally quiet and not very animated, Johnson took off high stepping like it was the first sack of his NFL career instead of No. 55 that moved him within half a sack of Mike Rucker for second on Carolina's all-time list.

"It felt good, man," Johnson said. "What can I say? Anytime you keep working and working and working and don't get results that you want, it puts a little stress on you.

"A lot of responsibility comes if you're a big-time player like that. That was one of those plays [to] get the monkey off your back."

The entire defense got the monkey off its back to a degree. A unit that led the league with 60 sacks last season had only one in the past two games. It hadn't forced a turnover, either.

The Panthers had four sacks and forced four turnovers against Chicago, with two of the sacks and three of the turnovers coming in the final 10 minutes.

The lack of discipline and pressure that had haunted them the past two weeks was corrected.

Johnson credited defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, who at halftime made a few adjustments to what already was a good game plan. Although Chicago had 21 points, 14 came on short fields following turnovers.

This looked more like the defense that ranked second in the NFL a year ago. There were more third-and-long situations. That freed the defensive front to come hard without having to respect the line. That allowed the linebackers to drop back into coverage and keep plays in front of them.

"Just putting trust in the D-line," Johnson said. "[McDermott] kind of took the chains off and told us to go eat."

One person isn't the key to Carolina's defense, although sometimes it seems that way with middle linebacker Luke Kuechly racking up another 15 tackles.

It works like dance partners, the defensive front needing to stop the run and pressure the quarterback to set up opportunities for the secondary.

But Johnson is key. The Panthers need him pressuring the quarterback more now than ever with 2013 sack leader Greg Hardy likely out the rest of the season as he waits for his domestic violence case to be resolved.

Johnson didn't address that directly, but when asked about the off-the-field distractions that had to contribute to recent struggles, he said, "I agree. There was a lot of stuff going on."

There was a lot going on against Chicago, mostly good after it was 21-7. But coach Ron Rivera did seek Johnson out in particular afterward to deliver him a game ball.

Johnson was ready to talk about it, too.

Rivera to defense: 'Stick to your job'

September, 30, 2014
Sep 30
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera counted 14 plays during Sunday's 38-10 loss at Baltimore on which at least two defensive players were out of position.

Those are mistakes that have led to Carolina's defense dropping from fifth in the NFL after two games to 23rd after four. Those are mistakes that have led a unit that gave up only 21 points in the first two games to give up 75 in the past two.

[+] EnlargeSmith
Evan Habeeb/USA TODAY SportsThe Panthers' defense, which needs to see improvement according to coach Ron Rivera, allowed Baltimore's Steve Smith two TD passes.
Those are mistakes that have taken Carolina from one of the NFL's best run defenses to one of the worst, 27th with 140.8 yards allowed per game.

That kind of undisciplined behavior is Rivera's biggest concern as the Panthers (2-2) prepare for Sunday's home game against the Chicago Bears.

It's a legitimate concern. Teams that can't stop the run typically aren't good teams because that opens the floodgates against the pass and impacts almost every other facet of the game.

So what happened between Games 2 and 3? Rivera doesn't blame it on the loss of Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy, who was placed on the inactive list for Game 2 and then the commissioner's exempt list until his domestic violence case is resolved.

Rivera said it's simply a matter of pressing.

"Guys trying to make plays, guys are pressing to make plays, for whatever reason," he said on Monday. "When a team gets up on you a little bit, now all of a sudden it's, 'Hey, we just need to make one play. Somebody needs to make a play.'

"Now all of a sudden there is a sense of urgency, maybe too much urgency. You're trying to force the issue. ... Those things you can't consistently do and expect to win."

Rivera said that -- along with the running game that ranks 29th in the league offensively -- has to be fixed quickly or "it could be a long season for us."

Carolina coaches spent tireless hours Monday reviewing why the team has become so undisciplined before thinking about preparing for Chicago.

Rivera announced he was replacing starting right cornerback Melvin White with Josh Norman, something he typically wouldn't do until Wednesday, to send a message.

White allowed former Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith to catch touchdown passes of 61 and 21 yards.

The return of weakside linebacker Thomas Davis (hamstring) could help. But Rivera wouldn't use Davis' absence against Baltimore as an excuse.

"No. It's more about doing your assignment, doing your job, and doing it the right way," he said. "It’s more about being more disciplined, about trying to stop trying to make the plays you don’t need to make. This is a downhill gap control defense. In our defense, you’re assigned a gap to control. Certain things change your gap you control, whether you’re running a stunt, or running a blitz, or they pull.

"Those things change it; you don’t change it."

Rivera said nobody is without fault, including middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

"Luke's made a couple of [bad] plays, also," Rivera said. "Everyone is culpable in this situation. That's what's disappointing. It's little things in terms of trying to do more than you're supposed to do, trying to do too much.

"Again, stick to your assignments, stick to your job. Take care of your responsibility first. Those are things we've got to correct and those are things we've got to demand from players."

Or it indeed will be a long season.

The Film Don't Lie: Panthers

September, 23, 2014
Sep 23
A weekly look at what the Carolina Panthers must fix:

The Baltimore Ravens had three runs of 21 yards or more against Cleveland in their most recent outing. Next up is a Carolina team that has given up three runs of 50 or more yards in its first three games, including runs of 81 and 50 yards in Sunday night's 37-19 loss to Pittsburgh. The Panthers didn't allow a run of more than 46 yards all last season, and none more than 38 the past 14 games.

The problem each time has been the same. The offensive line has gotten a good double-team push into the second tier of the defense and the linebacker has gotten trapped on the wrong side of the push. Both times against Pittsburgh, middle linebacker Luke Kuechly was on the wrong side.

There are two issues that need to be resolved. First, the defensive tackles have to do a better job of holding their ground at the point of attack. Secondly, the linebacker can't hesitate to fill the open crease. Baltimore is a physical team, like Pittsburgh, that wants to run. The Ravens ran 33 times for 160 yards against Cleveland and are averaging 137 yards a game. The Panthers typically are a good run defense, but they weren't Sunday. They allowed two backs to run for more than 100 yards against them for the first time since 2001. One hundred and thirty of those yards came on two plays. Had everybody done their job correctly, those runs could have been held to four or five yards.

As defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said, it's an issue that can be fixed, but if allowed to fester could develop into a bigger issue.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Colin Cole breathed a deep sigh.

"I can't wait to see the film to see what happened," he said after Sunday night's 37-19 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in a prime-time telecast.

The easy answer to what happened? Nothing good.

A defense that had given up only 172 yards rushing in the first two games combined gave up 264, and for the first time since 2001 against the St. Louis Rams allowed two backs to rush for more than 100 yards in the same game.

According to ESPN Stats & Information data, the Panthers also gave up two runs of more than 50 yards in the same game for the first time since 2001.

An offense that prides itself on being able to run managed a mere 42 yards against a defense that had allowed an average of 174 yards rushing in two games.

A quarterback that prides himself on being able to avoid pressure and give the running game a boost was held to a career-low two rush attempts for 7 yards. Cam Newton also was sacked three times and hit at least six more.

It was a complete meltdown for the Panthers (2-1), who played nearly flawlessly in all phases in the first two games.

From head coach Ron Rivera to Newton, they insisted it wasn't from a lack of focus during a week that was interrupted on Wednesday with defensive end Greg Hardy going on the commissioner's exempt list until his domestic violence case is resolved.

"We don't want anyone to feel pity for us being that we went through something that any other team didn't," Newton said.

That's good, since Hardy plays one position and the Panthers had breakdowns at almost every one.

Newton said the Panthers looked "out of sync."

No kidding. The defense that had allowed more than 20 points only once in the past 14 regular-season games -- at New Orleans last season, a 31-13 loss also on a Sunday night -- was practically unrecognizable.

Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount conjured up memories of Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier. Bell rushed 21 times for 147 yards, including an 81-yarder when the Panthers had Pittsburgh in a second-and-22 situation from their own 8 and trailed only 16-6.

Blount had 118 yards on 10 carries, including a 50-yarder.

Nobody had the answers for how that happened any more than they had answers for why the offensive line couldn't move what, until Sunday, was one of the worst defensive fronts in the league.

Players used phrases such as inconsistent. Lack of communication. Poor timing.

Whatever it was, this film is being passed around the league as the best way to beat a team that CBS analyst Boomer Esiason said earlier in the day was the best team in the NFL at that moment.

Not at this moment.

The Steelers exposed the offensive line, the biggest weakness for Carolina heading into the season, like no other team thus far. But the defensive front seven has been solid, even without Hardy.

Perhaps the best thing the Panthers can do is not watch this film. They didn't do enough good things to look at a second time, and watching the bad things again might cause nightmares.

Even Luke Kuechly, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, looked average at times against Pittsburgh's quick screens and runs up the middle.

To make matters worse, the Panthers next face a Baltimore (2-1) team that beat the Steelers 26-6 last week and have a certain wide receiver that remains angry the Panthers released him in March.

Yes, somewhere Steve Smith is drooling for this opportunity.

The only positive is Carolina is 2-1 instead of 1-2 as it was a year ago en route to starting 1-3.

"It's a long year," tight end Greg Olsen said. "We know better than anybody. We have to get back and fix our mistakes first before we worry about who we're going to play, and go from there."