Scott Fowler

NBC’s Cris Collinsworth: Panthers defense already dynamic, but the offense ...

The best NFL analyst around is Cris Collinsworth, who will call the Carolina-Pittsburgh game for NBC on Sunday night.

It is the first trip for the “Sunday Night Football” crew to Charlotte since 2009. Millions of fans around the country will hear Collinsworth’s insightful commentary.

A 15-time Emmy winner and an NFL Pro Bowl receiver during the 1980s with Cincinnati, Collinsworth has never been afraid to say what he thinks. He gave me a preview of some of the things he will be saying Sunday night on TV during an enlightening phone conversation we had Thursday. Here are some highlights:

Q. How good are the Panthers right now?

A. I think they are pretty good now – they are obviously 2-0. Defensively, they are already there. They are already dynamic. Offensively, there are some questions. But this is a team that has a lot of upside to it.

Q. How do you think the Panthers and the NFL have handled the Greg Hardy situation?

A. I think we can all play Monday morning quarterback on a lot of these issues now. Looking back, it probably would have been best had Hardy not played in Week 1. But that punch that was thrown by Ray Rice, I think, opened all of our eyes.

We had all heard the phrase “domestic violence,” but I don’t know that it really sunk in at that level until you saw it. You know NFL players are thought of as superheroes in many ways – physically they are bigger, stronger, faster, all that kind of stuff. But superheroes protect women and children.

I think that now has to really become the No. 1 focus of this league. God has blessed you with physical skills, size and strength, and that all has to be directed in right direction now and enforced by NFL. ... If you’re going to be part of the NFL, you have to be someone who is accountable to women and children, and to men who are not the same size as you are. That should be the mantra of the league right now.

Q. Specifically, what impresses you about the Panthers’ defense?

A. It’s always fun to watch Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis – those are two of the real talents in the league.

Charles Johnson – he doesn’t look quite up to speed yet to me, maybe due to injury. But between (head coach) Ron Rivera and (defensive coordinator) Sean McDermott – two guys I respect defensively – I’m really intrigued with what they do in the secondary.

Even when they’re in a zone defense you get a little man-to-man feel out of it. Melvin White really showed no fear at all with Megatron last week and they have good depth at safety now.

As for Kuechly, one of the things that really impresses me about him is the way he can reset his feet to get square and make tackles. Sometimes he looks off-balance, and then right before he strikes on a tackle he has both feet right underneath his shoulders.

And when he strikes you, he doesn’t want you to fall forward. He contorts and bends guys backward. An impressive guy.

Q. You studied the film from last week’s game against Detroit extensively. How did you think Cam Newton and the offense looked?

A. I thought Cam Newton was still a little bit leery about those ribs at the beginning of the game but started to loosen up and show what he could do at the end.

I know the numbers aren’t going to show it, but Jonathan Stewart created a lot of yards when a lot of backs would have been tackled. I thought he played a really good game.

Greg Olsen is obviously going to be the mainstay threat until Kelvin Benjamin gets going. You can see Benjamin growing. He’ll make a mistake and then a spectacular play. It also looks to me like the Panthers are still fooling around a little bit with the offensive line, especially at right guard.

Q. Where will the Carolina-Pittsburgh game be won or lost?

A. Pittsburgh has been having some problems stopping the run. They have a lot of new players in that Dick LeBeau defense, and there are some very exciting new players like Jarvis Jones and Ryan Shazier. Shazier is a lightning bolt. He runs like Thomas Davis.

But you typically don’t see this many young guys playing for Dick LeBeau – he likes guys who have been there a couple of years and know how to play this defense, because it is complex.

You know how Carolina’s offense is going to get better? Pittsburgh’s defense is going to get better too. So I think this is a game to see which side grows up quicker – Carolina’s offense or Pittsburgh’s defense.

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