Five fearless predictions for Thursday’s Carolina Panthers season opener, on the road against the Denver Broncos (8:30 p.m., NBC):
1. The Panthers will give Mike Remmers more help.
A no-brainer, right? Yet they weren’t able to make that adjustment on the fly during the Super Bowl because of the Broncos’ green-dog blitzes and the Panthers’ preponderance of third-and-long situations. An extra pass-rusher or two would abandon their coverage responsibilities when the Panthers’ tight ends and/or backs stayed in to block, leaving Remmers on an island with outside linebacker Von Miller (and left tackle Michael Oher one-on-one with DeMarcus Ware). That can’t happen again. Chip blocks are the Panthers’ friends.
2. Mike Shula will get Cam Newton more involved in the run game.
Newton was the Panthers’ leading rusher in the Super Bowl with 45 yards on six carries, but only three of those were designed runs. Carolina’s zone read can neutralize attack defenses by forcing them to account for Newton as a runner and putting them on their heels. Jonathan Stewart’s first-quarter foot injury limited the running game, as did the Broncos’ use of a spy on Newton. But Shula can’t abandon the zone read entirely.
3. Fozzy Whittaker will come up with a big play.
And not as a returner, considering both kickers should be booming the ball into the end zone in the thin air. Whittaker is on the roster for his change-of-pace and pass-catching abilities, and he’ll get a chance to show off both. Screen plays or dump-off throws in the flat are an effective way to combat a blitz if Newton sees the linebackers coming. Whittaker can flip the field on one play.
4. The rookie corners will bend, but not break.
Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott will try to protect rookie cornerbacks James Bradberry and Daryl Worley within the scheme. Look for them to play off the ball in the Panthers’ Cover-3 scheme and concede the short passes to DeMaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. The key will be making sure tackles and preventing yards after the catch. The two rookies will not allow Denver quarterbackTrevor Siemian to beat them over the top.
5. The Panthers will avenge their Super Bowl loss.
The Broncos’ top-ranked defense from 2015 returns virtually intact. Not so the Denver offense. Peyton Manning is gone and in his place is Siemian, whose next NFL pass will be his first in a regular-season game. The Panthers’ defense played well in the Super Bowl. It will play better Thursday, either with a defensive touchdown or a takeaway to set up a score. Carolina 23, Denver 17.
Panthers at Broncos
Where: Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Denver
When: Thursday, 8:30 p.m.