3 things to watch at Panthers
Making ends meet
Torn anterior cruciate ligaments stripped Aaron Rodgers and Cam Newton of their primary targets before the season began. The Packers’ offense might be threatening team records for production if Jordy Nelson hadn’t gone down in the team’s second preseason game. Likewise, Kelvin Benjamin gave Newton a legitimate receiving target before also blowing out his knee in August. The Packers and Panthers rank 27th and 29th in passing offense, respectively, but the numbers don’t tell the story of the significant impact Rodgers and Newton have had in their team’s strong starts. Rodgers’ other top weapons — Randall Cobb, James Jones, Davante Adams and Ty Montgomery — also have been hampered by injury. All of the offense’s problems converged Sunday during a 29-10 loss at Denver, where Rodgers threw for a career-low 77 yards. Traditionally, Rodgers tends to play some of his best football after disappointing performances. The Packers haven’t lost back-to-back games that Rodgers has started since Weeks 5-6 in 2010. “For him, I think it’s pride,” quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt said. “That’s the biggest thing. To come out and not have the success we all expected is kind of a catalyst that drives him. That’s the only thing I can relate it to. It seems to be each time we struggle, he really brings it back with a strong performance. All great ones have the tendency to up their game when they need to.”
Former Panthers general manager Marty Hurney may not have survived the team’s slow start in 2012, but his decision to trade a third-round pick to Chicago for Greg Olsen in 2011 set up Carolina’s offense for years. The 6-foot-5, 253-pound tight end has been Newton’s favorite target for the past three-plus seasons. He went to his first Pro Bowl last season after an 84-catch, 1,008-yard campaign, and the loss of Benjamin has Olsen on pace for another career year. He’s fourth in the NFL in receiving yards among tight ends (518) and has the highest yards per catch of his career (15.7). The Packers’ defense has given up 18 catches to tight ends for 235 yards and a touchdown in its last two games, so you can bet Newton will be looking Olsen’s way often. Even in last year’s 38-17 blowout loss to the Packers, Olsen still had eight catches for 105 yards. Journeymen Ted Ginn, Jr. and Jerricho Cotchery lead one of the league’s most underwhelming receiving corps. Ginn shouldn’t have been a first-round pick (by the Dolphins in 2007), but he has carved out a nice niche out with the Panthers. If the Packers can contain Olsen, they should stand a good chance of slowing down the Panthers’ aerial attack. “Olsen is one of the most underrated tight ends in the league,” Packers cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt. “This guy for years gets open and catches the ball and is a matchup problem for safeties. He’s too big for corners, so he really causes issues. So it’s going to be a challenge.”
The Panthers’ defense isn’t as dominating as the Broncos’ top-ranked unit, but it’s not one to be overlooked. Carolina is 10th in the NFL in scoring defense (19.4 points per game), yards (342.6 per game) and eighth in sacks (23). Inside linebacker Luke Kuechly fits well into fifth-year defensive coordinator Sean McDermott’s scheme and is the general of the Panthers’ defense. He missed three games with a concussion, but has been on a tear since his return with 39 tackles in the Panthers’ last three games. Kuechly’s late interception was the difference Monday night in a 29-26 overtime win over Indianapolis. He was ejected from last season’s game against the Packers for making contact with an official. The Panthers also feature 10th-year veteran linebacker Thomas Davis, who tore his right ACL three times in three years but still is going strong at 32 with 59 tackles, two sacks and two interceptions. “He’s a very active guy. A good tackler,” Rodgers said of Kuechly. “They’ve got two great backers in their sub defense; he and Thomas have been doing it for a long time at a high level. They’re very athletic and hectic guys, and make a lot of plays.” Former Coastal Carolina standout Josh Norman, who didn’t play in last season’s game at Lambeau Field, is quickly becoming a top cornerback in the league. He has 28 tackles, 12 passes defensed, four interceptions with two returned for touchdowns. His 25.5 passer rating on passes thrown in his direction leads all NFL cornerbacks, according to Pro Football Focus. He’s also seventh among corners in allowing a reception on every 15.7 coverage snaps. He has allowed 21 completions on 46 passes (45.6 percent) and 329 coverage snaps.