Three things to watch in Sunday’s Carolina Panthers game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers:
Panthers need to protect their Superman
Quarterback Cam Newton rolled through his first three NFL seasons without missing a regular-season practice, never mind a game. But Newton limps into the season opener on a surgically repaired left ankle and with cracked ribs that limited him through much of the week. Newton is listed as questionable after he practiced Friday. If Newton plays, the big question is how effective he’ll be against a Tampa Bay defense that upgraded its defensive line during the offseason. If the Bucs don’t view Newton as a threat to run, they could shift a safety to Panthers rookie receiver Kelvin Benjamin’s side of the field and make someone else beat them.
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Both teams feature strong defensive lines, which could make it tough for either running game to do much. The Panthers returned their front four intact, with edge rusher Greg Hardy getting franchise-tagged at a cost of $13.1 million. The key to the Panthers’ defense hasn’t changed from last season: Pressure the quarterback so former Panther Josh McCown doesn’t have time to get the ball downfield to twin towers Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, a two-time Pro Bowler, heads a Bucs’ front that was fortified by the additions of defensive end Michael Johnson and defensive tackle Clinton McDonald.
Most observers figured the Panthers would bring in a free agent returner late in the preseason following Ted Ginn’s departure via free agency in March. It never happened. Instead, Ron Rivera is entrusting the return duties to Philly Brown, an undrafted rookie from Ohio State. Brown has played in front of big crowds – he jokingly compared attendance at NFL games to a Big Ten spring game. But Brown had trouble hanging on to the ball during training camp and in exhibitions. In a matchup that figures to be a close, low-scoring game, the Panthers can’t afford big mistakes from their special teams.