CHARLOTTE – For the third consecutive week, the Panthers will face a team quarterbacked by a first overall pick – and the second straight against a former Heisman trophy-winner.
But when the Panthers visit the Cardinals, rookie quarterback Kyler Murray will pose a unique set of problems.
"He's a nightmare," defensive coordinator Eric Washington said. "Excellent quickness, live arm, he can fit it in tight windows, and for a guy with an arm like that, the deep ball touch is a thing that really shows up."
Through two weeks, Murray is averaging 328.5 passing yards per game with two touchdowns and one interception. Only one other quarterback in NFL history has crossed the 300-yard passing mark in his first two games: Cam Newton.
The scariest thing about Murray, however, is what he hasn't done – at least not yet. During his final season at the University of Oklahoma, Murray rushed for 1,001 yards and 12 touchdowns, averaging 7.2 yards per carry. So far, Murray hasn't unleashed his speed in the NFL, with only 17 yards rushing this season on just six attempts. But that doesn't mean it isn't coming.
"You see him kind of getting comfortable," safety Tre Boston said. "I do believe he will [run]. I think it all comes in what the defense gives him, so he's just taking what they give him. We look forward to seeing him kind of getting mobile. It's coming, it's coming."
So how do you defend a quarterback who claims to have 4.3-speed?
One way is to keep him from ever getting started. Murray has already been sacked eight times (T-3rd most) and hit another 14 times (T-4th) this season. Edge rusher Brian Burns knows the best way to thwart a quarterback is to hit him. And keep hitting him.
"He got a lot of pressure in his face these last two games," Burns said. "We definitely have to take advantage of that. That's an opportunity we can't miss. We can really help our guys out in the back if we get in his face."
Pressure is certainly something head coach Ron Rivera and the secondary would appreciate. Rivera isn't as worried about Murray taking off into the open field as he is about his ability to extend plays by escaping the pocket and looking for big plays through the air.
"He doesn't necessarily move around to run, as much as he's moving around to try and buy time for the routes to open up or for people to get downfield," Rivera said. "When he does break the pocket, they have a scramble drill very similar to what you see in Seattle. One guy breaks long, one guy comes back, one guy breaks across. You have to be aware of it."
Cornerback James Bradberry shares his head coach's concern. To the secondary, Murray's mobility means spending extra time in coverage.
"Just make sure you stay on your receiver, because you know he's going to make plays with his legs. You've got to have your head on a swivel at all times and keep your eyes on your man," Bradberry said. "It's going to be a test for us, for sure."
So, if the Panthers want to shut Murray down and keep their secondary fresh, linebacker Luke Kuechly said the defense has to keep the quarterback contained.
"You've got a guy covered for a majority of the time, you've got a great pass rush, and he's a guy that can scramble and run around and create options for his receivers as the play progresses," Kuechly said. "Those guys are good in the pocket, but they're more dangerous when they have the ability to get outside the pocket."
Murray's legs may be his most exciting, and mysterious, weapon to this point, but his arm is clearly dangerous, too. The stats can tell you, but so will Bradberry.
"He has a strong arm, he can throw a pretty good deep ball," Bradberry said. "He's talented, for sure. He's going to get it to his receivers down the field."
Boston said another key for the defense is limiting the big plays – something the Panthers have done well so far this season. Through two games, the Panthers have only given up one pass longer than 30 yards, tied for fewest in the league. Meanwhile, Arizona's offense is fourth in the league in pass plays greater than 30 yards with six.
"I think we've just got to do a good job of staying deep and making sure they have to dink and dunk us all the way down the field," Boston said. "They're a college team offense. They're going to want to get up the field, a few shots during the drive. That's just what we've got to do. We've got to play honest and do our assignments."
And in the end, make Murray look like a rookie.
"You can't just go out there glorifying anybody," Boston said of facing the top pick. "This is the NFL, you have to earn your respect. Great player, but you have to go out there and produce."