Meeting the Carolina Panthers in a non preseason-finale game is exciting indeed. This year's version of the cross-conference rivalry will be on Sunday Night Football, making it even more thrilling. The Steelers had some time off while the Panthers whipped the Lions Sunday, creating quite a buzz around the defending NFC South champions. To get a finger on the pulse of that buzz, we reached out to James Dator, editor of SB Nation's Panthers site, Cat Scratch Reader, for some insight behind the Carolina Panthers.
Cam Newton looked pretty outstanding in Carolina's 24-7 win over Detroit in Week 2. I also noticed he passed on a few chances to get outside and up the sideline, possibly because of the rib injury. Did you see a different passer in Week 2 in comparison to the past, and do you think the injury is forcing him to change his game - even with very positive results?
Provided it has no lasting results the ankle and subsequent rib injuries could be the best thing to happen to Cam Newton. It's forced him to work on becoming a more complete passer this offseason and as a result he's seeing the field better, making his reads more crisply and thinking faster on the field. I never bought the idea of Cam being a run-first quarterback, but he definitely had a tendency to look at his primary and secondary, then run. At times this was a huge boon, others he left yards on the field.
While we may not see gaping 40-yard runs this season from Cam (at least until he's fully-confident again) the chains are moving better and the offense is working as a result.
Mike Mitchell came from Carolina to Pittsburgh this offseason. I remember you telling me at the time he may make a few plays, but he's also going to take a few big penalties. You were half right. So far, no plays, two personal foul penalties. Does he get better? What was the best aspect of his game when he was in Carolina?
I feel the Steelers overpaid for Mitchell's services at the time, but I'm confident he'll give you guys are few smile-worthy moments this year. It took him time to really get going last year too, and in Carolina he was in a role where he had a lot of defensive freedom to roam and play close to the line which helped generate those plays. I think he'll settle into his role soon and you'll start seeing dividends.
What are the fans saying right now about the Panthers? Is this a legit contender in the NFC?
Fans are very excited. The gaping weaknesses this team has on the offensive line and in the secondary haven't really manifested in-game. I think Tampa Bay is just a bad football team, but Detroit matched up favorably with Carolina thanks to their strength on the defensive line and having Calvin Johnson. We're seeing a continuation of last year: Overwhelming pressure from the defensive front paired with an outstanding group of linebackers led by Luke Kuechly to seal the gaps. They're not giving up the big plays we saw last year, and that's giving the offense better field position.
Before the season I thought this was a 9-7 team because of the weaknesses, but if the line can keep doing just enough this team can absolutely be a contender in the NFC.
The Panthers outbid the Steelers for veteran WR Jerricho Cotchery this offseason. How has he done so far with Carolina?
Cotchery has been exactly what we hoped for. A good locker room presence, someone who can help take Kelvin Benjamin under his wing and contribute enough at key moments. There hasn't been that definitive performance, but he has eight catches in eight targets and have simply been reliable. That's what the Panthers needed, and that's what they got.
How do you feel the Panthers' reaction as a team has been to the situation with Greg Hardy, and how do you feel they'll respond now that he has been placed on leave?
I think it's very easy to be on the outside looking in and think it was an easy decision to make. Unlike Ray Rice there was no smoking gun, no video and testimony on both sides in his bench trial were tenuous at best. The team tried to walk the line of respecting his rights to an appeal while not appearing like they condoned domestic violence, but there was no good option for them. Rice was a the match needed to blow up this powderkeg and finally cast a light on the NFL's failings on domestic violence. Anyone accused this season has been caught in the fallout.
Ultimately he's preserving his contract this year. If found guilty in his jury trial the Panthers didn't act soon enough, if found innocent it will greatly harm his chances in free agency. It was a rough decision all around, but I'm just glad the distraction is gone -- for now. Especially on a team that has a chance to be special this year.
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