Panthers look for NFC South 3-peat, deeper playoff run

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Wednesday, July 29, 2015
QB Cam Newton and GM Dave Gettleman
QB Cam Newton and GM Dave Gettleman

CHARLOTTE -- The Carolina Panthers have won two straight NFC South championships and have one playoff win to show for it.

Fifth-year coach Ron Rivera would like to change that.

Rivera said if the Panthers hope to make a deeper run in the NFC playoffs they'll need to learn to handle the inherent pressure that comes with being the favorites and taking everyone's best shot on game day.

"A lot of it is the expectations that people have put out there," Rivera said. "The biggest thing we have to do is maintain our expectations and we can't let outside expectations get in our way and distract us. It comes back to what we expect from us and what we want to accomplish."

The good news for the Panthers is they finally have a healthy Cam Newton heading into training camp.

The two-time Pro Bowl quarterback missed most of the 2014 offseason following ankle surgery and sat out the regular-season opener after fracturing two ribs in the preseason. He broke two bones later in the season after flipping his truck during a two-vehicle accident less than two blocks from the team's stadium.

Through it all, the Panthers managed to overcome a 3-8-1 start and win the division despite a losing record. They also beat the Arizona Cardinals at home in the wild-card playoffs before falling to Seattle in the divisional round.

During that stretch the team discovered something that may pay off this season and beyond.

It became obvious Newton felt most comfortable running the offense out of the no-huddle set, a strategy offensive coordinator Mike Shula plans on using more frequently.

"I think Mike and his offensive staff have found a formula, and we took that formula and used it during OTAs and minicamp," Rivera said. "It went well and I'm really pleased with that."

Here are some things to look for as the Panthers report to training camp at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina on Thursday:

RECEIVER BATTLES: Wide receiver was an unknown for the Panthers last season after general manager Dave Gettleman completely revamped the position. Now it's considered a strength.

Kelvin Benjamin showed star potential as a rookie with a 1,000-yard season and nine touchdowns. He'll start alongside veteran Jerricho Cotchery, although rookie second-round pick Devin Funchess will see plenty of action. The team also brought back Ted Ginn Jr., a key role player in their 12-4 season in 2013, and Rivera is high on the speed Corey "Philly" Brown and Stephen Hill bring to the table.

"It will give Cam so many more options," Rivera said. "One thing we've talked about is making sure you put playmakers around your quarterback and I think that is what we've done."

PROTECTING NEWTON: They also need to protect Newton, who has been hit more times in the last four seasons than any quarterback in the NFL. Carolina replaced struggling left tackle Byron Bell with free agent Michael Oher, who looked out of place at right tackle with Tennessee last season. Oher hopes to jump-start his career in Carolina under offensive line coach John Matsko, whom he worked with previously in Baltimore.

PASS RUSH SPECIALIST: Rivera has made it clear he'd like someone to step up and emerge as the starting defensive end opposite Charles Johnson. That position was previously held by Greg Hardy, who wasn't re-signed following a domestic violence case. Frank Alexander, Wes Horton and Mario Addison are the three competing for that spot, but it's very possible the team could rotate them into the lineup.

STEWART'S HEALTH: The Panthers are banking on running back Jonathan Stewart staying healthy, something he's struggled to do in recent years. Carolina released its all-time leading rusher, DeAngelo Williams.

DEFENSIVE PROWESS: Carolina's defense has finished in the top 10 the last three seasons and is expected to be strong again behind middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, one of the game's best defensive players.

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