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What to watch: Panthers at Bengals

When quarterback Cam Newton scrambled and sprinted past defenders during a practice at training camp, a defensive player joked that the difference between college speed and pro speed doesn't apply in Newton's case.

That's true when it comes to running away from a would-be tackler, but it doesn't apply when it comes to mastering the intricacies of running an NFL offense.

"I've got to get in the reads faster and quicker," Newton said. "I'm getting to the right places, but this is the NFL. Even though you're in the right place, the longer you take on your reads - the longer you take making that throw - the longer the defense has to catch up."

Newton's learning process will take the next step - and it's a big step -when the Panthers visit the Cincinnati Bengals for their third preseason game Thursday (7 p.m., Panthers TV). Coach Ron Rivera has characterized the Bengals matchup as a "mock game" for the regular season, and Newton is slated to start and play three quarters.

"Nothing is set in stone yet," said Newton, in the running with Jimmy Clausen for the opening-day starting job, "so I've got to capitalize on my opportunity."

Clausen is expected to play the fourth quarter, though he might give way to Derek Anderson if an elbow contusion suffered in Friday's loss at Miami is too sore.

Defensive end Greg Hardy also will be a game-time decision, while linebacker Jon Beason, running backs Mike Goodson and Tony Fiammetta and offensive linemen Jeff Otah, Geoff Schwartz and Lee Ziemba won't play.

Beason had a minor procedure earlier in the week to alleviate discomfort in his injured Achilles, but Rivera remains hopeful that Beason will be ready for the regular season opener Sept. 11 at Arizona. Beason has started all 64 games over the first four years of his pro career.


For the Panthers to feel collectively ready for the opener, here are some areas of emphasis for the Bengals game.

THIRD DOWNERS: For the offense to get going, especially with Newton at helm, efficiency on third down must improve.

There's really no way to go but up. The team is 4-for-25 on third-down conversions so far. Newton is 0-for-11, but he's needed to pick up seven or more yards in eight of his 11 chances.

"On first and second downs, we need to get some yards to put ourselves in third-and-longs and obvious passing situations," Newton said.

The expected return of running back Jonathan Stewart should help bolster the running game, a key to getting the offense into more manageable third downs.


LINE ITEMS: For the Panthers to succeed on third down - or really any down for that matter - they must improve their performance at the point of attack.

After an encouraging showing in an opening victory against the New York Giants, Carolina struggled along both sides of the line against the Dolphins. The offensive line - still dealing with injury concerns – couldn't create much of a push for the running game, and the young defensive line didn't pressure Miami's quarterbacks with any regularity.

For all the preseason talk about the quarterbacks, football games are most often won in the trenches, an area where the Panthers have the capability to contend.

IN THEIR DEFENSE: The Panthers sparkled on the defensive end of the ball in the first game, then sputtered in the second game.

Perhaps the third game will be where they'll display the kind of consistency Rivera is preaching.

The defense gave up 301 yards, 17 first downs and 17 points (it could have been more) to Miami in the first half. The Panthers want to get back to what they did against the Giants, when they yielded just a field goal for the entire game.

"We weren't happy with how we played (at Miami)," linebacker Dan Connor said. "We've got to take a big step forward. We've got to be more physical, better with our fits and just smarter.

"This game will be a big stepping stone for us. We can gain a lot of momentum off of it."


SMOOTHING OUT THE ROAD: Preseason or regular season, it doesn't matter: The Panthers need a confidence boost on the road.

Carolina last won a road game at the close of the 2009 regular season. Including preseason games, they've lost 11 in a row away from home since. As young as the roster is, that means a large chunk of the roster has never tasted victory on the road.

Of late, it hasn't been close. Over the Panthers' last 10 quarters of road play in regular season games, they've been outscored 86-13, and last week they fell behind 17-0.

This represents the Panthers' last chance before the regular season to get some positive reinforcement for the regular season road schedule.

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