One of the biggest matchups to watch in the Panthers’ game against the Bengals Sunday is Carolina’s tight ends against Cincinnati’s defense.
The Bengals have allowed the third-most receiving yards by tight ends in the NFL, and Panthers tight end Greg Olsen is third at the position in the NFL in receiving yards with 326 yards.
Olsen is questionable with an ankle injury from last week’s game, but Olsen said earlier this week he will play.
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Panthers coach Ron Rivera believes Cincinnati’s aggressive defense, especially when it has the lead, has lent itself to more tight end targets.
“I think it’s the mix of what they do (on defense),” Rivera said Friday. “They do a lot of different things. They play a lot of man, they blitz a lot. A lot of times when you’re blitzing, your hot (route) – the guy the ball has to go to – is the tight end. And you see that. It’s not necessarily that a linebacker’s got him or a safety’s got him, but it could be a defensive end.”
In four games, opposing tight ends have caught 33 passes for 395 yards. Last week against the Patriots, Rob Gronkowski and Tim Wright victimized the Bengals’ defense for 185 yards on 11 catches and two touchdowns.
The Panthers don’t just have Olsen. Ed Dickson, who signed with Carolina this offseason from Baltimore, recorded his first catches of the season last week against the Bears.
Dickson has worked on his chemistry with quarterback Cam Newton this season, and Newton seems more comfortable throwing the ball to Dickson as the Panthers offense evolves.
“We wanted to be a 12 (personnel) team again, and Ed fits that role,” said Rivera, referring to an offense that features one running back and two tight ends. “He’s learning his role. As Ed continues to grow in his role and we use him more and more and the comfort level develops, I think we’ll see Ed’s role grow.”
Injury update: If the Panthers’ history of game-day decisions serves as an indicator, running back Jonathan Stewart likely won’t play Sunday.
Stewart is listed as questionable for the game, and Rivera said Stewart is a game-time decision. But this season, all the game-time decisions for the Panthers have ended up on the inactive list: Cam Newton in Week 1, Jerricho Cotchery and DeAngelo Williams in Week 3 and Thomas Davis in Week 4 all were inactive for the games.
The trend could continue with Stewart.
“Jonathan had a really good day,” Rivera said. “This really was by far his best day in the last couple of weeks.
“We don’t have to push anything and be careless. We really don’t. It’s a long season. We’re only going into our sixth game. We have to be smart about this.”
There were no surprises on who’s out for Carolina. Cornerback Bené Beniwkere (ankle), cornerback Josh Norman (concussion) and Williams (ankle) will not travel with the team. Along with Olsen and Stewart, defensive end Charles Johnson (hip) is questionable.
Play your hand: All signs point to All-Pro receiver A.J. Green not playing Sunday, but Rivera isn’t worrying himself with that.
Green reinjured his toe this week at practice, and several Panthers players expressed wanting to play the Bengals at full strength. But Rivera said his team can’t concern themselves with who isn’t on the field.
“You play who you play,” Rivera said. “There’s nothing we can do. We can’t control the injuries or anything like that. I tell our players, guys you play who shows up. That’s the bottom line, because we’re in the same set of circumstances. You think they’re worried about the fact that we’re not playing this guy or that guy? So we’ll play who shows up.”
Without Green, Mohamed Sanu becomes Cincinnati’s top receiving threat as Brandon Tate moves up to the No. 2 receiver. Running back Giovani Bernard will likely see more passes out of the backfield, as well.
Noise-canceling: Panthers players were treated to new sets of Bose headphones at their lockers Friday, though the timing was less than coincidental.
There’s been a minor headphone controversy in the NFL this week. San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick was fined $10,000 for wearing Beats by Dre headphones to a post-game press conference.
Bose is the official headphone and headset provider of the NFL, but Beats by Dre is a popular choice among many athletes. Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is endorsed by Beats.
“Bose needs to be sending me some free stuff if they (are) putting fines out for people wearing Beats by Dre,” defensive end Charles Johnson tweeted Thursday.
“So guys are being fined for wearing non @Bose headphones huh?” kicker Graham Gano tweeted Thursday. “Maybe @Bose will hook every player up to help out with that... #WorthAShot.”
After meetings Friday morning, every player had a set of Bose headphones on their seat at their locker. According to a team source, the Panthers had the headphones for weeks, and Bose didn’t rush to get them to Carolina in light of this week’s controversy.
Ron Rivera just hopes he doesn’t hear from the league any time soon.
“I’m just hoping that we don’t get anything in the mail from anybody,” Rivera said. “That’s all I’m hoping for.”
Last Christmas, Newton gave a new pair of Beats by Dre to each of his teammates in an autographed box.