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Carolina Panthers

What to watch: Panthers at Buccaneers


The confidence displayed by the Carolina Panthers this offseason goes well beyond the cliché that everyone starts the season 0-0.

Sunday, the Panthers will begin to find out if their high hopes will be realized, when they put the zero in the loss column on the line for the first time.

"The first game of the season is huge," Panthers tight end Greg Olsen said of Sunday's showdown with NFC South rival Tampa Bay. "Each game is big in its own right, but the first game, against a division opponent, it's a great chance to get the season off to a good start.

"We've put a lot of time leading up to now, and we'll go out and see where we're at."

Much of Carolina's confidence comes from its 4-2 finish to last season, which included a pair of convincing victories over the Buccaneers. But Tampa Bay, 4-12 a year ago, is excited about its own transformation under new head coach Greg Schiano.

"People have to remember that they're just a year removed from being 10-6. This is a solid football team with a good nucleus," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. "I expect that they'll be more aggressive and that they'll continue to play physical - that's part of who Greg is. He's a tough-nosed, hard-nosed man. I think it's a great approach, and it suits the personnel they have."

The Panthers believe they're up to the challenge. Here are some keys to making it happen.




SOPHOMORE SENSATION: Quarterback Cam Newton is a big part of the reason the Panthers enter the season so optimistic, but many wonder how well Newton will do in offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski's offense the second time around.

"There are a lot of guys that are getting it, but that will be answered Sunday," Newton said. "It all comes down to how we perform."

Newton threw four touchdown passes and had four rushing touchdowns in the Panthers' sweep of the Buccaneers during his record-setting rookie year, but Tampa Bay has the look of an improved unit on defense.

"The key to this game will be execution," Newton said. "They play a lot of man-to-man. They want to put their hands on the receivers, basically challenging the receivers to show who's better, and they count on the pressure to get to the quarterback before the receivers get open. We've got a lot of challenges."

Newton was up to the challenge a year ago, not turning the ball over against the Buccaneers. The Panthers were 6-0 when Newton didn't turn the ball over last season but 0-10 when he did.

THE BUCS STOP HERE: If the Panthers are able to maintain their rate of success on offense, they'll only need the defense to improve to become a playoff contender.

Rivera feels good about the defense's preseason progress but wants to see proof of it against the Buccaneers.

"You try to gauge it through the preseason, but nothing beats the real deal," Rivera said. "I think we've gotten better. The biggest problem we had last year was health. If you look at what we lost right off the bat, losing Ron Edwards and Jon Beason and Thomas Davis, we were pretty much decimated right up the middle of our defense.

"We went out and drafted Luke Kuechly and brought in a couple of safeties who we feel can help us, and I feel pretty confident in what we've done. But we'll see."

NO LET-UP: The Panthers earned halftime leads in their first two games last season but ended up losing both, the beginning of a troubling trend.

Carolina outscored its opponents over the course of the season by 44 points in the first half but was outscored by 67 points in the second half – clearly not a formula for sustained success.

The Tampa Bay series was an exception, with the Panthers outscoring the Bucs in all four halves, including a 28-6 advantage in the second half of their late-season meeting. The Panthers need to pick up where they left off instead of picking up old habits again.




ROOKIES' ROLE: The Panthers will rely on a rookie to help stabilize the middle on both offense and defense. And while they feel good about what left guard Amini Silatolu and linebacker Luke Kuechly have done during the preseason, it starts over Sunday.

"It's a whole other level when you get into the regular season," Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil said.

In addition, a couple of speedy rookies will have significant responsibilities. Josh Norman should figure into the cornerback equation, and Joe Adams will be asked to bring both stability and big-play ability to the Panthers' return game.

KICK START: A rookie and a virtual rookie will handle kicking duties and could have a major impact on the outcome.

Sixth-round draft pick Brad Nortman has been impressive in the preseason, but he needs the coverage team to step up if his net average is to be as impressive as his gross average.

And Justin Medlock, a Canadian Football League standout with just two NFL field goal attempts to his credit, will be on the spot at placekicker. Missed field goals played a prominent role in a pair of losses last season, and kickoff returns were a concern in the preseason.

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