Cincinnati and Carolina meet for the first time in four years this Sunday in Charlotte. The big news for the Panthers is that rookie Jimmy Clausen will make his first NFL start, replacing the ineffective Matt Moore. Moore committed six turnovers (three of them were end zone interceptions) in his first two starts, contributing mightily to the Panthers starting the season 0–2. Coach John Fox says he’s looking for a “spark.” Clausen won’t have an easy time lighting that fire, though — the Bengals intercepted Joe Flacco four times last week in their impressive 15–10 win over Baltimore. Cincinnati’s pair of high-profile receivers — Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco — will work with quarterback Carson Palmer against a Panther defense that has struggled so far this season, giving up 25.5 points per game. Much of that can be attributed to the fact that the Panthers have applied little pressure on opposing quarterbacks, getting only one sack in two games so far.
Keys for the Panthers
• Keep Clausen out of 3rd-and-long. Fox is taking a big gamble starting Clausen (who just turned 23) so early in his NFL career. Fox will try to minimize the risk by running the ball a lot on first and second downs with DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart while hoping to keep Clausen out of a lot of 3rd-and-10s. Clausen has shown so far in limited action to have pretty good mobility, but sometimes he checks down too quickly because he’s so worried about throwing an interception downfield.
• Pressure on Palmer. The Panthers’ defensive line has zero sacks for the season (this after the team posted 18 sacks in the first three games of the preseason). The Panthers are missing Julius Peppers and really need Everette Brown or Charles Johnson to have a big game this week, because the secondary has looked vulnerable.
Keys for the Bengals
• Stop the run. Last year, the Panthers’ duo of Williams and Stewart became the first teammates to rush for more than 1,100 yards in the same season. The Bengals will be in great position to steal a road win if they can slow down the running game and force Clausen to beat them.
• Avoid pre-snap penalties. This has been a nagging problem so far for the Bengals this season, particularly on offense. A drive got stopped last week with a 12-men-on-the-field penalty on third down.
The Panthers are a team desperate for a win. They are playing at home and will probably get an emotional lift with a new quarterback in the lineup. On the other hand, the Bengals feature a more potent passing game, a defense that seems on its way back after that sad opening effort against New England, and a veteran quarterback in Palmer. Cincinnati 24–17.