The Carolina Panthers make their way across the country to the desert to face the Arizona Cardinals in one of the most anticipated season openers in franchise history. All eyes will be on the rookie number one overall draft pick, quarterback Cam Newton. However, there are several other intriguing story lines of note.
Ron Rivera’s Head Coaching Debut
The franchise is looking to forge a new identity and style of play under Rivera, which is a welcome change for most fans who grew tired of the previous regime’s conservative ways. Rivera faces a difficult task in securing his first win as a head coach, especially since it’s on the road and he is starting a rookie QB. Rivera and Newton are just the 5th rookie head coach and rookie QB duo to debut on the road since 1970. The only pair to win was in 2009 with Mark Sanchez and Rex Ryan when the New York Jets won at Houston. A week 1 victory would go a long way towards instilling the player’s confidence in Rivera to show that he is the right man for the job.
If the preseason is any indication of how this group will fare going forward, the entire defense could be in for a long day. They were gashed time and time again straight up the middle by the opposition’s rushing attack, which puts everyone else on the defense at a disadvantage. They will have to go with two rookies at defensive tackle in Sione Fua and Terrell McClain, both 3rd round picks, with virtually no depth behind them. It could prove too tall of a task to ask these two young guys to come in and immediately provide a run stuffing presence, however Arizona was dead last in the league in rushing yards per game last season. If Jon Beason can return to action, it will be a huge boost as he might be able to clean up some of their mistakes. Beason has started all 64 regular season games of his career, so there are high hopes he will be ready to go, however rust could be a factor. As far as the pass rush goes, Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy will need monster games and will need to consistently pressure the new “franchise QB” Arizona has in Kevin Kolb. This of course will not be possible if one man each is stopping both McClain and Fua. Johnson has even more pressure on him to live up to the big contract (72 million) he was given in the offseason.
Jeff Otah and the Ground Game
Although he played sparingly in week 4 of the preseason, Otah appeared back at full strength. On a few plays he looked every bit the “road grader” he was when healthy. The offensive line needs him to be an anchor to get the running game going behind DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart against an Arizona team that was 30th in rush defense last season. If the offense can establish the run, it will take a lot of pressure of off Newton and he won’t be asked to put the team on his back, but simply “manage” the game.
The Newton era starts with high hopes amongst the fan base. This team has never had a true “franchise QB”, but Newton has a chance to be just that. Of course now he will get his shot to prove it as he has been named the team’s starter (as if they really had a choice considering their other options). Hopefully he can carry over some of the momentum he had in his one series at the helm against Pittsburgh when he led a near flawless 71 yard touchdown drive. Newton seems to have found his new best friends in tight end’s Jeremy Shockey and Greg Olsen. He will need to continue to look to them as his safety valves, but desperately needs to develop chemistry with the team’s number one receiver, Steve Smith. Olsen and Shockey will hopefully provide more opportunities for Smith to get involved by drawing some coverage their way. New offensive coordinator Rod Chudzinski will have to find creative ways to get Smith the ball and alleviate some of the pressure off of Newton in his debut.
News and Notes:
- Carolina is 8-2 all time versus Arizona.
- One of Carolina’s two wins last year came against Arizona; Jimmy Clausen’s only win as a starter.
- Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald and Carolina’s Smith are ranked number 2 and number 4 respectively for the most receiving yards in the NFL since 2005.
- Newton is the 6th rookie QB to start a regular season game for the Panthers.
The only two to win their first starts were Chris Weinke in 2001 and Matt Moore in 2007.
- Newton’s debut comes in the same building in which he led Auburn to the BCS national title last season.
- Shockey will attempt to his extend his consecutive games with at least 1 catch streak to 121, which is second among active TE’s to Tony Gonzalez.
I am going to give my super homer pick for week 1. I am going to go out on a limb and say the Panthers upset Arizona and win 20 – 17.
follow me on twitter @realbobcatmatt