The Carolina Panthers open the 2012 NFL Preseason at home Saturday night against the Houston Texans. The first exhibition game usually features starters in for a series or two, but mostly, it gives teams a chance to hit someone new (see: New York Jets fights on Monday and Tuesday this week).
Looking to build on their strong finish in the 2011 season, Carolina (6-10 in 2011) wants to get Rookie-of-the Year Cam Newton off to a great start. Wide receiver Steve Smith enjoyed one of his most productive years of his career in 2011 and should be Newton’s favorite target again, along with tight end Greg Olson, who is enjoying a very productive camp.
The offense, ranked in the top ten last year in both yardage and scoring, included three 700-yard rushers (Newton, DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart) for the first time in NFL history…and four of five starters on the offensive line will be returning as well.
Second-year head coach Ron Rivera has a staff that returns virtually intact, and that staff had the entire offseason to work together – something they did not have in 2011 due to the work stoppage in the NFL.
This first game will showcase several of the outstanding rookies drafted by the Panthers including first-round pick Luke Kuechly (Boston College) at linebacker; Midwestern State’s huge offensive guard Amini Silatolu and cornerback Josh Norman each fighting for a starting spot on the team.
The kicking game is going to continue to be interesting to watch. At punter, sixth-round pick Brad Nortman(Wisconsin) has been competing with 12-year veteran Nick Harris. Both have looked good in workouts, with Nortman seemingly having the bigger leg. The incumbent placekicker, Olindo Mare is in a battle with former CFL star Justin Medlock. And the return spots are being hotly contested between rookie Joe Adams (Arkansas) and veterans Kealoha Pilares and Armanti Edwards.
“It’s been a good camp and we are excited about playing a game,” said Rivera. “The Texans were in the playoffs last year and are a team people talk about when predicting possible AFC champions so this will be a good test for our football team.”
Several players will be returning from injuries that sidelined them last year, and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott is counting on their presence to make a big difference this season. Linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis, along with tackles Ron Edwards, Terrell McClain and Sione Fua can’t wait to get the season underway.
Defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy and a backfield that includes four returning starters in cornerbacks Chris Gamble and Captain Munnerlyn and safeties Charles Godfrey and Sherrod Martin plus linebacker James Anderson, who set a team single season record last year with 174 stops gives the injured returners and draftees players they can look up to and learn from. The coaching staff is looking to improve the defense and like the fact that players have been competing hard from day one in camp.
“Because of the injuries last year, we were able to get playing time for a lot of different players and we hope that will pay off this season,” Rivera stated. “We have liked the tempo we have seen from our defense in training camp and it will be interesting to see how they respond against a playoff team like Houston.”
This will be the first preseason meeting between the two teams. In the regular season, the Texans hold a 2-1 lead in the series, with the Panthers’ lone win coming last season, 28-13, in Houston.
As of now, the ONLY rookie UNOFFICIALLY on the first team is Silatolu (LG). Kuechly (LB) and Nortman (P) are listed on the second team, along with newcomer Medlock (PK). But that’s just after a few days in camp