5 Things to Watch for in the Titans-Panthers Matchup

Daniel BarnesCorrespondent IIINovember 10, 2011

5 Things to Watch for in the Titans-Panthers Matchup

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    Tennessee is back to .500 after a loss to Cincinnati in a close game. Now the Titans head over to North Carolina for a very winnable game against the Carolina Panthers.

    Cam Newton has been stellar in his rookie year, but that hasn't translated to many wins. The Titans defense hasn't faced a mobile quarterback like Newton yet, nor has it faced an elite receiver like Steve Smith.

    If Tennessee plays well, it'll win, but it's far from in the bag. Here are five things to watch for in the upcoming game that will determine whether the Titans sink or swim.

1. The Run Game

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    Again. Chris Johnson just isn't going to have a breakout game this season. He was looking great against the Bengals last week—in the first half.

    It it now clear to me that Johnson simply didn't stay in shape during the lockout and his holdout. That's why he's started out so slowly and why he seems to wear down quickly.

    On the bright side, he'll be back to normal eventually. On the down side, that eventually isn't going to be until near the end of the season.

    Still, now that he's splitting carries with Javon Ringer, the running game has improved a little bit. Since Carolina's run defense is ranked 27th in the league, the Titans have a good chance to finally put up some respectable rushing numbers overall.

    Who knows, maybe we'll even get to see Jamie Harper carry the ball on third down a few times.

    Expect (relatively) good numbers from Tennessee's running backs. If you have Johnson on your fantasy team, this would be a good week to start him, unless you have something better.

2. Tackling Along the Edge

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    Cam Newton will not be running up the middle very often, but because he probably wants to nab that rushing touchdown record by the end of the season, he'll be more likely to scramble than he has been up to this point.

    Runs off the shoulders of the tackles have beaten Tennessee all season, and there'll be plenty of them in this game, especially if the Titans defensive backs get it done on pass coverage.

    The Titans can't let Newton do to them what Arian Foster did a few weeks ago. Tackling on the edges has to get better, and the Titans know this.

    Rookie linebacker Akeem Ayers and defensive ends Jason Jones and Derrick Morgan will be tested this week. If nothing else, Newton's scrambling will give Tennessee a good idea of how much help is really needed at defensive end and outside linebacker.

3. Finnegan vs. Smith

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    Cortland Finnegan has been having a great season so far. So has Steve Smith.

    The Titans defensive backs have been pretty impressive this season, so hopefully they'll keep it up in this game. The key to keeping Cam Newton contained is to box off Smith.

    Like I said in the opening slide, outside of rookie A.J. Green (and perhaps Mike Wallace), the Titans have yet to face a real elite receiver this season. Steve Smith is also Newton's favorite target, so covering him will be a priority on defense.

    Most of this coverage will fall to Finnegan. If Smith gets the best of Finnegan, the Panthers will put up points. If Finnegan can keep Smith quiet, Newton will be pretty limited.

    Finnegan is in a contract year, so his performance against Smith in this game will be a key factor in whether the Titans will pay out to keep him in Tennessee.

4. Pouring on the Points

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    Between one of the lowest ranked rush defenses in the league and a mediocre pass defense, the Panthers need a lot of help on defense. With Cam Newton, Steve Smith, Greg Olson and Jonathan Stewart, their offense can get rolling at any time. The defense, on the other hand, has been spotty.

    The Titans, whose offense has been pretty weak looking lately, needs to take advantage of this and drop as many points on the Panthers as they can.

    Now, I'm not saying Tennessee should run up the score if it gets ahead, but with its tendency to lose games in the second half this season, it ought to build up a very big lead before stepping off the gas.

    Furthermore, blowout games help a team's confidence, and that's something Tennessee needs desperately right now. A big win would be very helpful the next week against the Falcons.

    If they can, the Titans need to drop at least 30 points on the Panthers to help get their swagger back.

5. Jake Locker?

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    If Tennessee does take an early lead (and a big one), I'd like to see more of Jake Locker. Locker looked great in the preseason, but so did Colt McCoy, so that doesn't really tell us much.

    He has hardly taken the field at all this season, which I get; Hasselbeck is definitely the starter for the time being. Still, if the Titans are winning or losing by a big margin, bring in Locker and show us what he's got!

    I mean, we did draft Locker over Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder and Andy Dalton. Why not show the fans some evidence that it wasn't a terrible decision? (And we need reassuring.)

    But seriously, if Locker works out, he and Cam Newton could be rivals for years to come. If it's a one-sided game, show us a preview.