The Carolina Panthers got back to work this week after a few days off to spend time with family and friends. Wide receiver Steve Smith even attended a Renaissance Festival and gave his wife a break with cooking.
Smith and the Panthers look to cook up their third win of the season Sunday afternoon versus the visiting Tennessee Titans at Bank of America Stadium. The veteran is enjoying quite a productive year, having amassed 918 receiving yards and four touchdowns on 46 catches. He is on pace to break the 1,000-yard barrier for the first time since 2008, when he recorded his fourth straight campaign of reaching that mark. Smith has already matched his reception total from a season ago as well.
Smith, a four-time Pro Bowl pick, helped quarterback Cam Newton join Peyton Manning as the only rookie signal-callers in NFL history with at least four 290-yard passing efforts in a season in a 24-21 loss versus Minnesota that came prior to the team's Week 9 bye. Newton has completed 174 of his 287 attempts for 2,393 yards -- the most ever by a rookie in NFL history through eight games -- and thrown for 11 touchdowns.
Newton was able to enjoy some rest and relaxation during the bye week as well, but now must get back to the reality of playing football. A 2-6 record doesn't exactly get one's pulse percolating, and losses in four of five games like the Panthers have experienced is frustrating.
Head coach Ron Rivera, in his first season with the Panthers, feels he has a better team than what the record shows, however.
"These guys have a disdain for what has happened. We're not very happy with the situation," Rivera said. "We know that we're a better football team. We need to become that football team now that knows how to finish.
"There's a lot of frustration right now because we are good enough to win football games. We should have won some that we lost so far."
Sunday's game will be Carolina's third in a row at home before embarking on a three-week trek through Detroit, Indianapolis and Tampa Bay. The Panthers have played much better than their 2-14 mark from a year ago, though their overall record indicates the rebuilding process is still ongoing.
Tennessee is coming off last Sunday's 24-17 loss versus Cincinnati in which it blew a 10-point lead and was the team's third straight game at home. The Titans are 4-4 and sit second in the AFC South behind the Houston Texans.
The loss to the Bengals sent Tennessee to its third setback in four tries since a 3-1 start, and head coach Mike Munchak was displeased with his offense's failure to muster a single point in the second half.
"I am very disappointed. You know, I thought the first half we played really well in a lot of areas," Munchak said. "It could have been better in certain areas, but we did some things good."
Oft-criticized running back Chris Johnson played better in the loss, gaining 64 yards on 14 carries, the most since he ran for 101 yards in a win at Cleveland on Oct. 2. The speedy Tennessee back also caught four passes for 46 yards against the Bengals, but still hasn't reached paydirt since a Week 5 loss at Pittsburgh.
The Titans are last in rushing this season, totaling just 70.0 yards per game. Johnson's struggles this season have forced the Titans to go elsewhere for production, and veteran quarterback Matt Hasselbeck has stepped to the forefront.
Hasselbeck was also disappointed in not getting the offense back into gear after halftime of last week's game, though his 272 yards passing were his most since a Week 3 victory over Denver. He could have added to that total against Cincinnati, but the Titans lost wide receiver Nate Washington and tight end Jared Cook to injuries.
Washington suffered what appeared to be a hip injury and Cook was bothered by a lower leg issue. Receiver Lavelle Hawkins was also nicked up with a finger injury for the Titans, who have experienced some success this season even with top wideout Kenny Britt already finished for the season.
"Something's wrong with my hip," Washington said this week. "I got kneed in my hip in the first quarter [last week]. I was fighting through it the whole game, and when I got tackled at the end, I landed right on my hip, same exact spot."
The Titans hope to have Washington, the team's leading receiver, for Sunday's game before it visits Atlanta for a Nov. 20 contest.
These teams have faced one another three times previously, with Tennessee having won the last two meetings. The Titans posted a 20-7 home victory in their most recent matchup with Carolina, which took place in 2007, and cruised to a 37-17 triumph in their only ever visit to Bank America Stadium back in 2003. The Panthers' only win in the series occurred when the Titans franchise was still based in Houston in 1996, a 31-6 rout of the then-Oilers at the Astrodome.
Munchak and Rivera will be opposing each other, as well as their counterpart's respective team, for the first time as a head coach.
WHEN THE TITANS HAVE THE BALL
Hasselbeck (2,014 passing yards, 13 TD, 6 INT) hasn't thrown an interception in back-to-back games, the first time he's done so this season. He owns four touchdown passes to just two picks in his last three games as well. Hasselbeck, in his first season with the Titans, has thrown for 300-plus yards only once in 2011 for a Titans offense that is rated 13th in passing (240.2 ypg). The problem for Tennessee hasn't been Hasselbeck, however, it's been Johnson and the ground game. For whatever reason, Johnson (366 rushing yards, 1 TD) has slipped a bit this season, managing only 366 yards through eight games. He's capable of racking up more than half of that total in one game, and doesn't seem to be bothered by injury either. It has been speculated that his lengthy contract dispute during the NFL lockout has played a role in his performance. The Titans can't afford to lose any more weapons on offense, and the latest injury to Washington (36 receptions, 2 TD) could make it rough for this week and beyond, as he leads the team in receiving yards and catches (36). Fellow wideout Damian Williams (18 receptions) is tied with the injured Britt with a team-best three touchdown receptions and could play a larger role this week if Washington can't go. Cook (19 receptions, 2 TD) battling a leg issue could also open the door for more looks for tight end Craig Stevens.
The Carolina defense needs to force more turnovers in the second half of this season, as the team has had a negative turnover ratio all year. Carolina has a weak run defense and allowed Minnesota's Adrian Peterson to rush for 86 yards and a score before the break, and has allowed 133.3 yards per game (26th overall) on the ground in 2011. Defensive end Charles Johnson (28 tackles) added to his team-leading sack total of seven with one against the Vikings, and the Panthers totaled a season-high four in that 24-21 loss. Hasselbeck has been sacked just 11 times this season, but was taken down twice last Sunday. Carolina also shouldn't take Chris Johnson's ground struggles for granted, because he can pop off a long run at any moment. Linebacker Omar Gaither (15 tackles, sack) was back in action after a two-week hiatus because of injury against the Vikings, while backups Jason Phillips (4 tackles) and Thomas Williams (13 tackles) are still nursing injuries. Starters James Anderson (66 tackles, 1 sack), Dan Connor (44 tackles) and Gaither have had a full week to rest, however, and will be counted on to slow the Titans down. Safety Sherrod Martin (37 tackles) leads the team with just a pair of interceptions.
WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL
Newton (2,393 passing yards, 11 TD, 9 INT) is off to a fantastic start to his NFL career, as he is fifth in the league with an average of 299.1 passing yards per game and sixth with a total of 2,393 total yards through the air. He is also second among quarterbacks with 319 rushing yards and has a team-best seven rushing touchdowns, something Tennessee should keep an eye on because of its poor run defense. DeAngelo Williams (363 rushing yards, 1 TD) leads the team in rushing yards and carries with 75, while backfield mate Jonathan Stewart (327 yards, 2 TD) has been a solid compliment. Through the first three weeks of the season Williams was averaging just 20.3 yards per game, but has posted an average of 60.4 over the last five weeks. Stewart is averaging 49.3 rushing yards a contest over the past six games after combining for only 31 yards through the first two weeks of action. The Panthers are currently eighth in rushing, registering 129.6 yards per game. They are also fifth in both total yards (415.1 ypg) and passing yards (285.5 ypg). Tight ends Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey have combined for more than 600 yards receiving and five touchdowns, with Olsen grabbing four of those.
Tennessee has given up 20 or more points in three of its past four games, and Sunday's poor second half against the Bengals added to that total. Defensive tackle Shaun Smith (19 tackles, 1 sack) said the team has to play 60 minutes of football in order to compete at this level and was disgusted with the outcome of the game. His sentiments could be shared by every member of the team, including strong safety Jordan Babineaux, who had a game-high 10 stops in the most recent loss. Babineaux should expect another busy afternoon against Newton and Steve Smith -- two of Carolina's top offensive threats. Tennessee runs a typical 4-3 defense as has the personnel to make it tough on the Panthers' running back tandem of DeAngelo Williams and Stewart. Cornerback Jason McCourty (67 tackles) leads the team in stops and also owns a team-high two interceptions. The Titans did not post any picks against Cincinnati, but had four passes defensed. Cornerback Cortland Finnegan (37 tackles) had two of those breakups and will have the luxury of trying to stop Carolina's potent pass scheme.
KEYS TO THE GAME
The Panthers haven't been able to string consecutive wins together this season, but they can get the first step out of the way if Newton protects the football and the offense gets both running backs started off early. The Panthers, however, have established themselves as a passing team this season, and that could solely guide them to victory if the Titans aren't prepared.
Chris Johnson was a dual threat against the Bengals in a losing cause. Munchak has tried all season to get his franchise player going and will attempt to strike again while the iron's still hot against Carolina's struggling run defense. If that scheme fails early, expect to see Hasselbeck airing it out like he has through the first eight contests, though the Titans are far more dangerous when Johnson's productive.
Turnovers have been a major issue for the Panthers, who are 2-0 when having a positive turnover margin and 0-6 when finishing with either an even or negative margin. The defense was able to rattle Minnesota rookie quarterback Christian Ponder in Week 8, but will face a savvy veteran in Hasselbeck this time around. He hasn't thrown a pick in the past two weeks.
Newton has exceeded expectations, and how he goes the Panthers go. A lot of the time Carolina's defense has put Newton and the offense behind the eight ball, but Sunday will be much different for a rested team hungry for a win. It's obvious that Steve Smith has bought in to his quarterback's hype with impressive receiving numbers through the first half of the season, and there's no reason that shouldn't continue this week. Tennessee was one of the surprise teams at 3-1 early on, but an unproductive Chris Johnson has recently hurt its chances for a postseason run. It's not too late for that to change, however, but it may not be this week at Bank of America Stadium.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Panthers 24, Titans 13