What to watch: Panthers vs. Ravens

As a member of Baltimore's practice squad for most of the 2005 season, Panthers quarterback Brian St. Pierre saw plenty of the Ravens' relentless defense.

Five years have passed, but the some things haven't changed.

Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs and Ed Reed still spearhead the dangerous defense, a group that will visit Bank of America Stadium on Sunday for St. Pierre's first NFL start.

"They're a tough team. I don't care if you're the best offense in the league, you have issues against the Ravens," St. Pierre said. "I have to manage the game best I can and keep our offense on the field.

"We've got our hands full."

St. Pierre's plate has never been fuller. He served as a backup for seven seasons but never sniffed the starting lineup, and just when it looked like his football days could be over, he's poised to start nine days after the Panthers signed him.

How St. Pierre handles the Ravens will be key, but how he handles his chance to start in the face of difficult circumstances might be even more important.

"They asked me if I felt all right to do it. I'm a competitor, so I said, 'Yeah. I'm onboard,'" St. Pierre said. "I'm going to give it the best I've got."

Here are some other things to keep an eye on Sunday.

PROTECTING ST. PIERRE: When the Ravens defense gets to the quarterback, that's when the trouble really starts.

Defenses haven't had much trouble getting to the Panthers' passers this season, but Carolina could have a fighting chance this week.

The loss of starting left guard Travelle Wharton (toe) hurts the cause, but St. Pierre's style could help the cause.

"He's got a quick trigger," tight end Dante Rosario said. "When he's ready to throw, he throws it quick. That's good against a team like the Ravens who no doubt are going to pressure you."

The other thing that could help is that the Ravens haven't hurt teams with their pass rush as much as you might think. They're tied for 23rd in the NFL with 16 sacks, just three more than the Panthers have.

Carolina, however, has given up 27 sacks – the third-most allowed – and is trying to break in a new quarterback.


IN A RUSH: Can St. Pierre keep Carolina in the game, or will the Ravens' rush can take him out of the game – possibly quite literally?

The answer might be found on the ground.

Yes, the Panthers are without three of their top four running backs (DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, Tyrell Sutton) because of injury. Yes, they're missing two key offensive linemen (Wharton, Jeff Otah) that they were counting on before the season.

Yet, Mike Goodson is coming off the team's first 100-yard rushing game, and Josh Vaughan picked up the team's first rushing touchdown since Week 4 last game.

The Panthers are showing some signs of at least inching towards the kind of sustainable running game that carried them last season, and they absolutely must keep that up against the Ravens.


FINDING FLACCO: Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has more weapons this season with the addition of wide receiver Anquan Boldin among others.

For the Panthers to slow Flacco down, they need to be able to hunt him down.

"We're going to have to get a lot of pressure on Flacco," said defensive end Charles Johnson, who leads the Panthers with 3.5 sacks. "If he gets time back there, he's just going to pick us apart. We have to get in his face, try to disrupt him, try to cause mistakes and turnovers."

It's easier said than done. Carolina ranks 28th in the NFL with 13 sacks; Baltimore has allowed just 16.

The Panthers recorded six sacks against the Ravens in their preseason meeting. Getting even half that total Sunday would be half the battle.


WHAT ARE THEY THINKING: The Panthers are 1-8, facing a Baltimore team sharing its division lead with a 6-3 record.

Do the Panthers approach the game feeling hopeless and helpless, or do the Panthers see this as a valuable opportunity to right some of their wrongs?

Do the Ravens take Carolina seriously, or do they mentally take the day off, already pointing toward games against Tampa Bay and rival Pittsburgh the next two weeks?

The Panthers can't afford to look back and have to hope the Ravens look ahead.

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