1. After sitting out the season opener, Cam Newton is expected to play this week. Do you think Newton will be limited at all by his rib injury?
We've been speculating that his late scratch was due more to the ankle he had surgery on this offseason than the cracked rib suffered in the preseason. Newton was gimpy on the ankle during training camp and into the preseason. So given the ankle and the rib I expect Newton to be less than 100 percent but close enough to play at a high level. Put another way, he still won't hesitate to pull it down and run with it. But it might reduce or even eliminate the designed runs for him we tend to mix in.
2. There was seemingly a lot of concern this offseason over all of the turnover the Panthers experienced on offense, particularly at wide receiver and on the offensive line. Based on what you saw last week, do you think those concerns were overblown?
I get why people were saying those things, but once I saw Kelvin Benjamin during training camp and the preseason I was no longer worried. No worries at all with that group. The offensive line is another story, and though they did play well against the Bucs, I'm not ready to declare it "fixed." It will remain a concern week to week until the right side settles in and Byron Bell faces a few more speed rushers.
3. What makes the Panthers defense so dominant?
It's a combination of things, but it starts with the front four and the ability to stop the run on first and second down and then get pressure on the QB from all directions on third down. The speed of the LBs protects the edges, and of course the instincts of Luke Kuechly hold it all together. The secondary is suspect, but they are good at keeping the WRs in front of them to eliminate the big play.
4. If the Panthers are going to win on Sunday, what is one matchup that absolutely must go in their favor?
Hmmm... tough question. I'm going to go with Matt Stafford vs. Luke Kuechly. The Panthers are perfecting their ability to disguise their coverages and make the QB hesitate and/or make mistakes. That starts with Kuechly, who will line up all over the place pre-snap, including right in Stafford's face when under center. He might then blitz or drop into coverage, and how well Stafford adjusts to the Panthers' coverages will be a key to extending drives and scoring. The Panthers will not win a shootout with the Lions, so the defense must keep it close. I realize most might say CB Melvin White vs. Calvin, but honestly what CB can really "win" that matchup over the entire course of a game? None. So instead the Panthers must prevent the ball going his way.
5. What is the Panthers' biggest weakness right now?
The biggest weakness right now is the right side of the offensive line. Though RT Nate Chandler and the rotation of fifth-year player Fernando Velasco and rookie Trai Turner were adequate last week, they will face the pressure every week. For the Lions defense to hold Newton in check, they must get pressure up the middle. Newton is pretty good at avoiding pressure from the edge, but the pressure in his face causes him to make mistakes. Nick Fairley and Ndamukong Suh will need to play big in this one to keep the Panthers from converting third downs.
Final score prediction (I never predict a Panther loss): Panthers 27, Lions 24.
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