What to watch for in Panthers vs. Buccaneers on TNF
Cam Newton (QB - CAR): Of course. Newton can be one of the most exciting players in the NFL when he is on his game, but whether or not he is on his game has been a tossup through six contests this season. Newton has two sensational games, three solid/mediocre showings, and one horrible performance this year. It will be interesting to see which Cam shows up on Thursday night. If the Panthers open up their playbook and Newton is on his game, he'll wing it down the field with accuracy and terrorize the defense with his legs.
Luke Kuechly (MLB - CAR): This defense has been dominant this season (ranked 2nd in scoring, 3rd in yards), and Kuechly may be the biggest reason why. A true all-around talent, Kuechly is solid in pass coverage and cleans up in the run game. The only thing he isn't very good at is rushing the passer, which is not all that important from his position. When I watched Kuechly face off with the Raiders last season I was blown away. On one play in particular, running back Darren McFadden - who runs a 4.3 forty-yard dash - was trying to bounce a run to the outside, and Kuechly completely cut him off with deceptive speed. The kid is a superstar in the making.
Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson (DEs - CAR): These two have made a huge impact rushing the passer off the edge opposite of each other. They have generated a combined 36 quarterback pressures (22 for Johnson, 14 for Hardy), while also combining for 13 hits and eight sacks. Johnson has been the better pass rusher, while Hardy has been far superior against the run. We'll see if rookie quarterback Mike Glennon can handle constant pressure from both sides.
Star Lotulelei (DT - CAR): The Panthers ranked 14th against the run last year, and they rank 4th through six games this season. This year's front seven is nearly identical to 2012, but there is one big difference - rookie Star Lotulelei. The 13th overall pick has been sensational early on in his young career, completely bottling up the run and giving the Panthers a huge upgrade at one of their weaker positions. According to Pro Football Focus, Lotulelei ranks 7th against the run among all defensive/nose tackles - better than all of the first- and second-team All-Pro tackles from 2012 (Atkins, Wilfork, J. Smith, Suh, and Ngata. I said that Lotulelei was a steal at 13th overall back in April, and I'm excited to watch him continue to prove me right on Thursday night.