Behind Enemy (Side)lines is an ongoing series with the opposing team's beat writer. This week, Bryan Strickland, senior writer for Panthers.com, gives insight on the Texans upcoming opponent, the Carolina Panthers.*
Linebacker Luke Kuechly in concussion protocol. We know of his tangible skills on the field but what are the intangible qualities that he brings to the defense?
Strickland: First of all, that was a scary moment. Anytime someone suffers a concussion, it's tough to see. In Panther Nation, with somebody like Luke Kuechly, it's a frightening moment. The good news was, regardless of when he's able to be back out there playing, he seemed to bounce back quickly from it. You ask about intangibles, it was so much like Luke that he got himself together in time to talk to the team before they left the locker room at halftime to encourage them.
I mean, he's just what you see is what you get with Luke. He is as down to earth as any superstar in this league I've ever come across. Very business-like but just loves football. That's the bottom line and that's infectious. This defense rallies around him and his desire and also has fun with him at the same time. He's both leader by example, but he's also great as far as a leader being the architect, the quarterback (if you will) of the defense.
Carolina's defense allowed just 3 3rd down conversions last week, what makes them so good and who are some of the other noteable playmakers who stepped up when Kuechly left in the first quarter?**
Strickland:Well, you know one of themes here in the preseason was the depth at linebacker and how strong that was. The Panthers believe as an organization in not being shy about making a strength defense stronger and they showed that by drafting Shaq Thompson, a linebacker, in the first round of the draft and had to cut a couple of quality linebackers just because you've got to get down to 53. You got to make those tough decisions.
So what happened when Luke went out, you have a guy like A.J. Klein, a mid-round pick from a couple of years ago, who has starting experience when given the chance to be in the spotlight, has always stepped up. You knew he could do it physically. It's great to see him from the mental aspect because he doesn't have a lot of time at middle linebacker. He did a great job making the calls, getting people in the right places and then it's a rallying cry, obviously, when that happens to your leader. The Panthers were solid as far as not making any mental mistakes and, physically, they were as good as ever in the second half (and) got the pass rush going. Josh Norman, the cornerback, is a developing a player who's really becoming a handful for opposing offenses. He forced a couple of turnovers. In some ways though, it was kind of the same old, same old for this defense, being a top-10 defense for three years running now and certainly they hope to make it four in a row and they are off to a good start.
Cam Newton was 18-of-31 for 175 yards, a TD, and INT, but also added 35 yards rushing. Offensively, what's the buzz around Newton and how he's looked so far in his fifth NFL season?
Strickland:Yeah, it was a solid debut. Nothing that got fantasy owners overly excited or anything, but it did the job. Obviously, putting up more points than the opponent. I think the thing for me as far as something Cam has really been working on especially the last year or two - he really made this a point of emphasis and I did see it in the first game – is still working towards that learning curve, taking what the defense gives you. He is a dynamic playmaker. Sometimes that can work both ways, though, and you can find yourself out of field-goal range because when Cam gets sacked, it's usually not a three- or four-yard sack. It's a nine- or ten-yard sack because he's trying to make something extra happen. He believes in his arm and then he'll try to thread the ball here or there downfield to a tight window. That works most of the time, but when it doesn't, it gets you in trouble.
What I saw in the opener, and something he talked about going into the opener, was checkdowns, hitting those guys underneath, taking advantage of those few yards underneath to set up better situations for the offense. You really saw that in the fourth quarter when the offense, in effect, put the game away with an almost nine-minute drive with a lot of third-down conversions and just getting enough yards to keep the chains moving. With some of the things going with the offense with Kelvin Benjamin down for the year, they're still trying to figure out the wide receiver situation. That's the kind of thing he has to do going forward for this offense to be a success.
How about the offense, you mentioned wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin out for the season. Who will emerge as some of those top targets for Newton this year?**
Strickland:I hate to cheat on this, but you start with the tight end in Greg Olsen. He was tied for the team lead with 1,008 receiving yards right there with Kelvin last year. You've got to start with him as the most consistent, proven weapon in the pass game. At wide receiver, to be determined. They started out with Philly Brown and Ted Ginn, Jr., two speed guys, as the starters this past week. Both played well but Jerricho Cotchery, an 11-year vet, probably made the biggest plays for the group.
As you go forward, you hope that as quick as possible Devin Funchess, their second-round pick out of Michigan, who unfortunately missed half of the preseason and that set him back a little bit. They hope to see him emerge as that big target in somewhat of the same vein as Kelvin Benjamin was. They have high hopes for Kevin Norwood, who is another guy getting up to speed. The Panthers traded to get him from the Seahawks in the preseason. He's only been with the team for less than two weeks now. He was inactive for the opener. It will be interesting to see if he's ready to contribute on Sunday.
Top storyline heading into Sunday's game for the Texans has been the quarterback situation. What are some of the storylines you'll be following for the Panthers?
Strickland:Well, I'm sure you've heard this before when you talk to someone opposing the Texans. It's how you handle those defensive ends and that rush the Texans will bring at the Panthers. J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney, a guy that people around here are familiar with from his college days just down the road. That combination will create nightmares for opponents and the Panthers are very pleased with how their offensive line solidified late last season. Then the early returns of Michael Oher as the new left tackle, that's going to put any unit to the test. That storyline, no doubt, is going to be how the Panthers hold up against that Texans rush.
The (0-1) Texans travel to Carolina to face the (1-0) Panthers Sunday at noon on CBS KHOU-11 and SportsRadio 610.