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What to watch: Panthers at Ravens


Running back Tyrell Sutton predicted that in the moments leading up to the Panthers' preseason opener against the Baltimore Ravens on Thursday, he would run the gamut of emotions – almost.

"Everything except for scared. When you get scared, I think it's probably time to call it quits," Sutton said. "You're nervous, anxious, just ready to go."

The Panthers certainly should be ready to go. They've endured 19 practices at training camp in the sweltering heat of Spartanburg while rarely getting the opportunity to play full-contact football.

Thursday night at 8 p.m., in a game to be broadcast on ESPN, that will all change.

"It will be game day for the first time in a while, so that's always fun to get out there and hit somebody else," tight end Jeff King said. "To run around under the lights, that's always special. You never take that for granted."

If this were a regular season game, the Panthers would have spent the entire week studying the Ravens, but it's a decidedly different approach in the preseason.

"You're not game-planning. You're not going to watch a host of film on Baltimore," King said. "Ultimately, you just have to go out there and be fundamentally sound, just work on getting your timing back and your footwork, things of that nature."

The final score of this one won't matter nearly as much as it will when the Panthers open the regular season Sept. 12 at the New York Giants, but the post-game analysis will be at least as intense, with the Panthers spending the week between games looking in the mirror rather than at the next opponent.

Below are a handful of things the Panthers will be looking for during the game and ravenously reviewing after the game.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS: As anxious as the Panthers' rookies are to show off their stuff on a bigger stage than practice, the Panthers' coaches may be even more anxious to see how they perform.

"There are probably about 20-some guys I've never seen take a snap in an NFL football game," head coach John Fox said.

While some rookies are focused on just trying to make the team, the coaches will be evaluating some for their potential to take on big roles come the regular season. Rookie Brandon LaFell is pushing for a major role at wide receiver; Greg Hardy is looking to impress on the defensive line; Eric Norwood is an intriguing linebacker prospect who also has experience on the line; and quarterback Jimmy Clausen is hoping to score in his much anticipated debut.

TRYING TO CATCH ON: Rookies certainly figure into the race at receiver, where the one player that can feel secure about his spot (Steve Smith) won't be in action.

In Smith's absence at training camp, the list of players to take snaps with the first team is longer than the list that hasn't, but some separation could come out of Thursday's game.

Dwayne Jarrett is the veteran of the group, trying to finally establish himself in his fourth year in the league. LaFell has made the biggest splash so far among the rookies, with more veteran players like Kenny Moore and Wallace Wright makes their cases as well.

But again, it's a clean slate in many ways come game time. Armanti Edwards, David Gettis, Dexter Jackson or Oliver Young could grab the attention with just one nice grab under the lights.

ISN'T THAT SPECIAL: The Panthers struggled in many areas of special teams in 2009. Jeff Rodgers was promoted to head up the units in the offseason, and Wright was signed from the New York Jets for his special teams acumen.

Practice has gone well, but the execution on game day will tell the tale.

"We haven't had a live rep yet," Fox said. "You just piecemeal it (at practice), and then we use the games as those experiences.

"But we've gotten a lot of technique work. We've got some guys that are more veteran as far as their knowledge and experience in the kicking game, which I think will be helpful."

HOLDING THE LINE: Everyone on the pigskin planet is aware of the departure of defensive end Julius Peppers to the Chicago Bears, but that's not the only hole the Panthers are working to fill along the defensive line. 

End Tyler Brayton is the lone returning starter along the front, with ends Charles Johnson and Everette Brown aiming to prove they deserve starter's snaps.

In the middle, the Panthers will be looking at veteran Nick Hayden and a trio of players who are yet to log many snaps in Charlotte: free agent acquisition Ed Johnson as well as Louis Leonard and Tank Tyler, players the Panthers traded for during the 2009 season that had their debuts cut short by injuries.

It all starts up front on defense, and it all starts Thursday.

LINING 'EM UP: The knee injury that will sideline weakside linebacker Thomas Davis for the foreseeable future has the Panthers playing musical chairs with their linebackers.

Against Baltimore, they'll begin to find out if the new alignment will function in perfect harmony.

Jon Beason has moved from the middle to the weak side, with Dan Connor running in the middle and James Anderson on the strong side. The combination has clicked at times in practice, but again, the real test comes when they keep score.

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