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5 Things to Watch: Donte Jackson's on a roll

5thingstowatch_week11

CHARLOTTE — Kind of a big game tomorrow. Perhaps you've heard something about it.

Not only are the Panthers starting quarterback Cam Newton Sunday, they're also doing it against a lot of familiar faces from the Washington Football Team.

But the reunion storylines aren't nearly as important as what the Panthers are trying to accomplish within the confines of the game itself.

At 5-5 with a couple more games before their bye week, the Panthers are in a position to push for a playoff spot in the NFC. That's going to require more than storylines and good feelings.

So here are five things to keep an eye on this week:

ACTION JACKSON

Panthers cornerback Donte Jackson's playing extremely well at the moment, and Panthers head coach Matt Rhule can't wait to talk about it.

In fact, Rhule was asked a question about Stephon Gilmore's increased workload, and he shifted pretty quickly into praising his other standout corner.

Jackson had an interception early in last week's win over the Cardinals, but Rhule was impressed with the way he shrugged off a pass interference call in the second half.

"Donte played as well a game as I've seen," Rhule said. "He got beat on one play, they threw a pass interference, and I walked up to him, few plays later, said that's what I love about you, when I first got here that might have affected you, . . .

"Donte's level of play, the level of 'what's next' in his brain, the maturity is so unique. He's a competitor. And when you guy that size who's covering the way he's covering, picking balls off, at the same time tackling, it's really impressive to watch."

Rhule then caught himself, and apologized for forgetting what the question was actually about.

But Jackson has been that good this year. He leads the team with eight passes defensed, with a pair of interceptions. That gives him 12 picks in his career, the most of any player in his draft class.

KEEPING THE PRESSURE ON

The Panthers are playing defense at a high level, ranked second in the league in yards allowed, fourth in third-down percentage allowed, and tied for fourth in sacks.

But defensive coordinator Phil Snow is pushing his guys to do more, urging them this week to "play faster."

"I think he's just looking for guys to fly around the ball," defensive end Brian Burns said. "I think he looks for as many guys to be in that picture as possible, if you get what I'm saying.

"To have six or seven guys around the ball at all times, it's intimidating to an offense. That's what he means by playing fast; he wants us flying around at a faster rate. I feel like we've been doing that, but there's always more you can do."

FAMILIAR LOOK

Washington coach Ron Rivera knows he and Newton are bound together in history, based on their shared experience. Rivera is 68-55-1 in games started by Newton, and 18-23 in games started by all non-Newton quarterbacks in his head coaching career.

"He's such an iconic figure for me personally, because we are connected a little bit," Rivera said. "He was our first pick of the 2011 draft and went on to be a rookie of the year and a league MVP. So, to a degree, I'm tied to him."

But when he looked at tape from last week's game against the Cardinals, Rivera said he saw some familiar things.

"I saw some of the plays they ran," Rivera said. "I saw some of the stuff that we had done with him, and saw them doing some similar things. That was kind of cool. Those are some of the things that Cam does really well."

Of course, they know that he knows that, so the chess match Sunday between Newton's former and current coaches will be interesting to watch.

While these things are interesting coincidences more than anything predictive, history is at least on Carolina's side.

This will be the eighth time since 1990 that a former league MVP has faced the coach he won the MVP with. The former MVP has won five of those first seven, with Tom Brady's win over Bill Belichick in Week 4 the most recent.

NEW LOOKS, NEW RESULTS

When the Panthers activate veteran guard John Miller (it remains to be seen if that will be this week), they'll be using their eighth different combination of starting offensive linemen this year.

Despite all that shuffling, they're getting better up front lately.

They've had two excellent rushing games in the last three, coinciding with not allowing a sack against Atlanta and Arizona (and just one against New England).

Veteran Pat Elflein has slid in at center for the injured Matt Paradis, and since Paradis is a free agent at the end of the season, that could be where Elflein stays for a while. He started at left guard before he was injured, but the larger Michael Jordan has stepped in there and played well, so Elflein's more than comfortable in the middle.

"When you're an offensive lineman in this league, you have to be able to play multiple positions," Elflein said. "Coach Rhule has done a great job and (offensive line coach) Pat Meyer of setting a standard on how they expect our offensive line to play. And we know what that standard is, so it doesn't matter what position you're at, whether it's tackle or guard or center, whatever, the standard is the standard. We're working towards that, no matter what position.

"So the combinations, they don't matter. It's can you perform and live up to the standard that's been set."

Recently, they have.

HE'S BACK

In case you didn't notice with all the other excitement last week (there was a lot), it appears that running back Christian McCaffrey is well and truly back.

He had 161 yards from scrimmage against the Cardinals last week, back to the form he showed before the hamstring injury that cost him five games. He's continued to play well as a receiver out of the backfield, catching 30 of the 32 balls thrown his way this season, the highest percentage of any player in the league with 20 or more targets.

And the difference in the Panthers with him on and off the field is stark.

In the five games he missed, the Panthers averaged 291.4 yards and 19.2 points per game. Not coincidentally, they were 1-4.

In the five he's played, they're averaging 350.4 yards and 21.8 points per game, and they're 4-1.

BONUS GAME DAY RECIPE

Remember that Harris Teeter has all of your Tailgate or Home-gating needs! Enjoy this recipe from Harris Teeter & Nabisco – Rocky Road Oreo Brownies!

Carolina is 7-9 against Washington all-time.

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