During his only free Sunday of the fall, Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera watched plenty of football, but wasn’t able to find Tampa Bay-Arizona game.
It turns out Rivera doesn’t have the NFL Sunday Ticket.
“I’m usually busy,” Rivera said.
But Rivera is familiar with the Cardinals, the Panthers’ opponent this week following their bye. Rivera also is well acquainted with Arizona first-year coach Bruce Arians, the Associated Press Coach of the Year in 2012 after leading Indianapolis to the playoffs as interim coach while Chuck Pagano was being treated for leukemia.
When he was San Diego’s defensive coordinator, Rivera schemed against Arians, then Pittsburgh’s offensive coordinator. And though the Cardinals are in the bottom fourth of the league in total offense (320.2 yards a game) and scoring (17.2 points), Rivera said Arians is a skilled play-caller overseeing a diverse attack.
“It is kind of nice to play a more conventional (offense). But they’re not as conventional as people think,” Rivera said Monday. “You get a lot of spread formation, a lot of four-wide receiver formations. They do have a couple packages where they put both tailbacks back there.”
For the second game in a row, the Panthers will face a traditional, drop-back passer in Carson Palmer. Last year as a member of the Raiders, Palmer was knocked out of a 17-6 loss to the Panthers following a blind-side hit by defensive end Greg Hardy late in the first quarter.
Hardy was penalized for unnecessary roughness for leading with his head and fined $25,000 for the hit, which left Palmer with cracked ribs and a bruised lung and sidelined him for the Raiders’ last game the following week.
The Panthers (1-2) are coming off a 38-0 win against the Giants in which they tied a franchise record by sacking Eli Manning seven times. Hardy had three of those sacks, and said after the game it was a relief facing a pocket passer after chasing Seattle’s Russell Wilson and Buffalo’s EJ Manuel the first two games.
Panthers safety Mike Mitchell, who played with Palmer in Oakland, said Carolina’s defensive backs have to be aware of deep throws from Palmer, who won the Heisman Trophy at Southern Cal.
“They’ll want to get the ball deep to (Larry) Fitzgerald and a couple of their guys, but we’ve got to throw off the timing,” Mitchell said. “Carson is a huge West Coast guy, a USC guy. He’s all about timing – three-step, five-step drops.
“Just looking at their offense, without giving away the game plan, we want to disrupt their offensive timing and make Carson have to hitch with the ball and let the Kraken (Hardy’s nickname/alter ego) go get him again.”
The Panthers used linebacker Chase Blackburn’s knowledge of the Giants – his former team – to their advantage in the Week 3 win.
Mitchell isn’t sure he can match the scouting reports provided by Blackburn and wideout Domenik Hixon, another ex-Giant. But Mitchell plans to tell the defensive backs what to expect from Palmer.
“Just as far as how Carson thinks, how he deciphers where he’s going to throw the football, those are things I can help guys with,” Mitchell said. “If he sees a one-on-one, he’s going to his match-ups. He’s very confident in his wide receivers.”
The Panthers’ banged-up secondary is getting a little healthier. Cornerbacks Josh Thomas (post-concussion symptoms) and James Dockery (thumb/shoulder) returned to practice Monday after missing the Giants’ game.
Thomas said he has a clear head and fresh legs after a two-week break.
“It was almost ideal, what I needed -- to get a game of rest,” he said. “The game plan was to rest my head and rest my legs and hit the reset button for the Cardinals and Minnesota coming up.”
Strong safety Quintin Mikell (ankle) and cornerback D.J. Moore (knee) rode exercise bikes Monday, but their status for Sunday’s game is uncertain.
“They’re up and around a little bit, so it was good to see,” Rivera said. “We went from having just seven (defensive backs) active (against the Giants) to we have to figure out how to have the rest of them active. It’s going to be an interesting week for us. It’s kind of nice to have a whole bunch of guys around.”
The Cardinals (2-2) have scored 20 points the past two games – a 31-7 loss to New Orleans and a 13-10 win against the winless Buccaneers.
Although he didn’t watch Arizona’s victory live Sunday, Rivera said he’s seen enough from Palmer and Arians over the years to know the Cardinals are dangerous.
“Carson’s a veteran guy,” Rivera said. “He throws the ball on time. He’s got a good delivery. He puts the ball where it needs to be, and he’s got some targets. They’ve got some skilled football players. This is a team that is learning their offenses. Coach Arians is bringing a diverse offense that’s had a lot of success.”
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