Five Things to Watch: Panthers vs. Packers

1. SCRIPT A DIFFERENT START: When the Panthers visited the Packers around this same time last year, it was over almost before it started.

"We all remember. It was a bad day that got away from us really early," tight end Greg Olsen said. "They had a couple of big plays, and we struggled offensively the first couple of drives. The next thing you know, we looked up and it was 21-0 and we had only run six plays."

On that day, the Panthers won the coin toss and deferred to Green Bay, which of course elected to receive. Carolina's strategy nearly worked, but an interception was wiped out by a penalty, and the Packers pounced on their second chance and went on to score three touchdowns before the opening quarter was through.

The Panthers, who have won the opening coin toss in six of seven games so far, are likely to defer if they win it again, and why not? The Saints managed a field goal when they got the ball first, but the other five opponents combined for a single first down and two turnovers on their opening drives.

Given what happened when Green Bay got the ball first and thereafter in 2014, the Panthers need to make a similar statement out of the gate.

"Of course we remember what happened," Olsen said, "but it's a new year."

2. KEEP RODGERS IN THE POCKET: If the defense does take the field first, their first order of business will be trying to keep quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the reigning NFL Most Valuable Player, in check as much as possible.

"He's a great quarterback, and it's a great offense. We have to come out with our 'A' game," defensive tackle Star Lotulelei said. "He can make all the throws, and he can run – and not just movement in the pocket. He's a dangerous quarterback."

The depth of the Panthers' defensive line will be tested by Rodgers much like it was by Andrew Luck in an overtime victory Monday night. Lotulelei said the tackles, a group that will be without Dwan Edwards (ankle) for the third consecutive, have held up but that it hasn't been easy.

"It's been tough given everything that Dwan brings to the table – his consistency, his ability to rush the quarterback inside," Lotulelei said. "With that said, other guys have stepped up. KK (Short) has obviously done a great job.

"We've got a lot of talent across the board."

3. GET TO RODGERS IN THE POCKET: The defensive end group, charged with sustaining pressure during Charles Johnson's long-term absence with a hamstring injury, is hoping Mario Addison (shoulder) can return this week.

Regardless, the group has a not-to-secret weapon in recent acquisition Jared Allen, who had been in the NFC North since Rodgers became a starter in 2008.

"I've played against him for so long, and we have such high respect for each other," Allen said. "It's fun when you get to a quarterback on that level. It's something you can tell your grandkids later in life."

He has a couple of stories to share. In a 2009 game, Allen recorded a career-high 4.5 sacks of Rodgers, and in that same game he sacked Rodgers for a safety for the second consecutive year (Allen shares the NFL record for most career safeties with four).

Allen shared a simple key to getting to Rodgers: Never stop trying.

"He'll get in that rhythm passing game and frustrate you, and you'll abandon your rush strategy. Then all of a sudden, he'll hold it for eight seconds and throw it 70 yards down the field," Allen said. "You really have to stay consistent, stay diligent with it as if he's going to hold it every single time. And when he does, you've got to get there."

4. DON'T FORGET THE DEFENSE: Quarterback Cam Newton has immense respect for Rodgers as well, but with all due respect, that isn't Newton's focus.

"I don't have to face him this week," Newton said. "I have my hands full with guys like Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and those guys. I'll be busy."

For all the talk about Green Bay's offense, the Packers rank higher in points allowed by their defense (18.6 per game, seventh-best in the NFL) than points scored by their offense (24.9, 10th-best).

"They're big upfront, but also those guys can move," center Ryan Kalil said. "They can move, and they'll mix Julius Peppers inside or Clay Matthews inside, and those guys are pretty incredible athletes. There's a lot of diversity there as far as how they mix up their fronts.

"Sometimes you get a group that does a lot of different stuff. Other times, you get a group that's just really physical and athletic. This is a group that's been successful because they're both – they're physical and athletic but they also move around and do some different stuff. They're pretty relentless."

5. CONTROL CLAY AND CO.: The epitome of the Packers' multi-faceted defensive approach may be Matthews, always known for his ability to rush the passer but now making his mark in other ways as well.

"You've got to know where is first and foremost and get on him," Olsen said. "The last couple of years, his athletic ability has allowed him play first and second down in more of a traditional inside linebacker role, but where he really presents the biggest challenge is when he's getting after the quarterback."

Just like when the Packers have the ball, Carolina must keep the Packers' defensive playmakers from changing the course of the game. The Panthers have won every game so far because they've made more game-changing plays, but Green Bay has arguably more game-changers than any opponent to date.

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