Panthers vs. Bengals preview

Update: Cincinnati Bengals receiver A.J. Green will not play Sunday against the Carolina Panthers, sources told ESPN on Friday.

With the Cincinnati Bengals reeling from what ended as a 26-point loss to the Patriots and the Carolina Panthers looking to build off their big win over Chicago, we begin tiptoeing into the middle part of the season with this intriguing nonconference matchup.

The Panthers go on the road Sunday afternoon for just the third time this season, traveling to a building that hasn't witnessed a regular-season home-team loss since Dec. 9, 2012. Inside Paul Brown Stadium, the Bengals are winners of their past 11 games. Their last victory there, three weeks ago against Tennessee, set a franchise record for consecutive home wins.

It isn't just that the Bengals have won there, either. Their past seven wins at home have been of the lopsided variety. Cincinnati has won those past seven games by an average score of 38-15.

Can the Panthers snap the streak? Or will the Bengals add to it? ESPN's David Newton (Panthers reporter) and Coley Harvey (Bengals reporter) are here to help you figure it out.

Harvey: You touched on this on your blog earlier this week, David, but how important are these next five games for the Panthers? Specifically, how important is this week's game to sending a message to the league considering how poorly Carolina has played against the AFC North so far?

Newton: Depends which person you ask, Coley. If you want the Ron Rivera answer, this game is the most important one because it is the next one. If you ask me, which obviously you are, going no worse than 2-3 in this stretch is pivotal. To go 3-2 or better would put Carolina in solid shape as far as the NFC South the way the rest of the division is going. Here’s the deal. If the Panthers want to be considered a playoff team, they need to beat other playoff teams, which all five (Cincinnati, Green Bay, New Orleans, Seattle, Philadelphia) of their next opponents should be. It’s like last season when Carolina played at San Francisco and at home against New England in consecutive weeks. The Panthers were 5-3 going into those games but were not taken seriously. After winning both, as Rivera said often, they became relevant. As for this game, it’s more about sending a message to the Panthers that they have righted the ship after being outscored 75-29 by Pittsburgh and Baltimore than sending a message to the rest of the league.

Coley, are the Bengals as good as their 3-1 record or did New England find something that makes them vulnerable moving forward?

Harvey: David, the Bengals are most certainly as good as their record indicates, and I'd argue that they actually are better than the 3-1 mark indicates. They should be 4-0 right now. Upon further review of last week's game, it wasn't that New England came up with a grand scheme to expose the Bengals, it's just that the Patriots executed a rather simple game plan and had a few wrinkles that exposed some weaknesses that shouldn't be there this weekend. The Patriots also played with something the Bengals ought to have this week: emotion. Just six days after getting embarrassed on "Monday Night Football," the Patriots played angry, like they had something to prove.

Cincinnati had been playing that way all year but just didn't match the Patriots' intensity. If the Bengals had, I'd argue that they would have won the game. They certainly had chances well into the third quarter before the Patriots got some help with turnovers and pulled away. Before last week, the Bengals had only one turnover all year. They had three at New England. If they can play clean football moving forward, they'll be just fine. Likely getting linebacker Vontaze Burfict back this week will help, too. His absence was something the Patriots were able to smartly expose by flustering his replacement, Emmanuel Lamur. A series of quick snaps had the Patriots running plays before Lamur could get the play fully set. With Burfict on the field, you probably won't see that happen.

Speaking of New England's quick-snap offense, I'm curious about Carolina's no-huddle, which it seems has been run a lot. What type of impact has that up-tempo scheme had on the offense’s success with Cam Newton leading it?

Newton: First, to say the Panthers have run "a lot" of no huddle is a bit overstated. They ran it to open the Baltimore game and were having success until self-destructing inside the 20 on the first drive. They ran it at the end of the first half and beginning of the second half against Chicago to wipe out a 21-7 deficit. That was more out of necessity. It has helped get Newton and the offensive line into a rhythm. Newton ran the no-huddle exclusively in college and feels comfortable in it, although he ran more out of it in college than he’s able to do now because his left ankle isn’t 100 percent. But as offensive coordinator Mike Shula said, the Panthers aren’t so good at it that they’ll use it for anything more than to mix things up. He still wants to be that ball-control team that eats up the clock with long drives. He still wants to achieve more balance between the run and pass, something the Panthers haven’t done well in the first five games. Having the backfield decimated by injuries has factored into that.

When DeAngelo Williams has been healthy (basically for five quarters), the run game has been effective. Williams likely won’t be there again this week, but with Cincinnati ranked 27th against the run, I suspect you’ll see Carolina attack that -- even if it’s out of the no-huddle. The Panthers don’t use the no-huddle to go up-tempo as much as they do to find a rhythm. Ideally, they’d use it like they did on the first drive of the second half against Chicago with five passes and four runs.

I noticed in your "The Film Don't Lie" post that you focused on Cincinnati needing to stop the run. Is there a reason for the Panthers to believe they can run against the Bengals?

Harvey: If the Bengals tackle as poorly as they did Sunday, yes. If the Bengals don't have Burfict, yes. If the Bengals fail to extend blockers in a way that would allow their teammates to seal off running lanes and finish tackles, yes. Otherwise, the Panthers could have difficulty running the ball if they already have had trouble doing that this year, particularly with Williams likely out. Although there have been issues for Cincinnati against the run in the past two games, the Bengals began the year by shutting down Baltimore's and Atlanta's ground games. The two top-10 rushing units gained less than 100 yards in their respective games against the Bengals. The Titans (149 yards) and Patriots (220 yards) were a slightly different story. A large part of the problems in those games stemmed from taking poor tackle angles and problems wrapping up. Some of that also could be attributed to a pair of ill-timed injuries.

Burfict is a noted run-stopper who hasn't played since a Week 2 concussion sidelined him, and defensive tackle Brandon Thompson has been missing since the same week because of a knee injury. A number of the runs that have hurt the most have come up the middle of the field, and they've occurred because the Bengals miss Burfict's enforcer style of hitting. One way the Panthers can exploit the Bengals in the running game is by getting Newton, bum ankle or not, to scramble for yards in the middle of the field. That worked for Matt Ryan and Jake Locker.

Back to Carolina's offense. Greg Olsen has been a growing part of the offense in the four seasons he's been there. What is it about his play that makes him such a weapon, particularly in the red zone?

Newton: As I wrote Wednesday, Olsen isn’t the most imposing figure when you think of prolific NFL tight ends. But he is smart and a great route runner. He knows how to create separation and find that crease in the secondary. Helping him more this year is the presence of rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin. At 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, Benjamin demands extra attention. When the safety cheats over to help the corner, Olsen typically finds the open spot. That happened a lot against Chicago. It’s particularly effective in the red zone because opponents are aware Newton simply will lob the ball high and let Benjamin go up and get it. That again has opened the middle, as you saw with the winning touchdown to Olsen against Chicago. But even before Benjamin arrived, Olsen was Carolina’s most consistent weapon the past two seasons (sorry, Steve Smith). As I’ve written several times, he’s the best tight end active today who hasn’t been selected to the Pro Bowl. That he’s been in the same division as Jimmy Graham and Tony Gonzalez hasn’t helped. Now that Gonzalez is retired, Olsen should get as much attention off the field as he’s getting on it.

It's obvious Newton is key to Carolina's success, even if he's not running much these days. How crucial is Andy Dalton to Cincinnati's success? Is he living up to the new contract he signed in August?

Harvey: As the quarterback, Dalton is most certainly crucial to Cincinnati's success or failure. But what we've seen this season is that when things are going well he isn't the only player making them go well. When things are bad, he isn't the only one making them go that way, either. I'll put it this way. Entering Sunday night's game at New England, the knock on Dalton had been that he didn't show up in prime-time games. He was 2-4 all time in those contests and had a penchant for turning the ball over. At Miami on a Thursday night last year, he threw three interceptions alone. But against the Patriots, he played well enough to earn my game ball. He has played better games, but he wasn't terrible. He had three passes dropped, including one in the end zone on a would-be touchdown to tight end Jermaine Gresham. Dalton also didn't have a turnover. He managed a losing game about as well as he could. He just needed more help.

When the Bengals have been good this season, he has played a major role in that, but he also has had strong play from his supporting cast. His receivers had been running crisp, precise, rhythmic routes. His offensive line had kept him so protected that he didn't get sacked for the first time until last week. And his running backs have often been there to bail him out of blitzes to catch short screens. So, yes, although Dalton is living up to his $115 million contract extension, he's been getting help from those around him.