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Panthers' LBs must step up, play to Cam Newton's level



"NFL Total Access" kicked off its "32 teams in 32 days" series last week. We decided to score some brownie points by writing an accompanying post each night. We'll focus on one goal that each team needs to accomplish before Week 1.

Time for Panthers' linebackers to play up to Newton's level

Last season, we saw the Carolina Panthers wind up fifth in the league in scoring after finishing dead last in 2010.

There was no such glory for Carolina's defense. The unit finished 28th in the NFL, tempering the effects of quarterback Cam Newton's wild rookie campaign.

We talked yesterday about the great promise of the Panthers with Newton at the helm. Gregg Rosenthal pegged Carolina as the franchise with the best chance to win its first Super Bowl. We've spent plenty of time praising Newton's career arc, but if this team is going to take care of business inside the rugged NFC South, the defense -- and specifically the linebackers -- must be prepared to slow down quarterbacks Drew Brees and Matt Ryan out of the gate. Too many Panthers games devolved into shootouts last season.

Carolina forced the fewest three-and-outs in the NFL in 2011, but hopes the return of Jon Beason from last season's Achilles' injury will turn things around. They aren't leaning on Beason alone. Rookie linebacker Luke Kuechly is a strong candidate to take over in the middle, pushing Beason to the weak side. Another injury-hampered performer, Thomas Davis, is coming off three tears to his right anterior cruciate ligament, but remains penciled in on the strong side. James Anderson was a capable plug-in and Jordan Senn gained experience in 2011.

One of the finer leaders in the league, Beason accepts the weight of the challenge ahead.

"You wouldn't want it any other way," Beason told NFL Network on Wednesday. "... We had a lot of injuries. Eighteen guys on IR (in 2011). Still no excuses, but we got some young guys a lot of playing time and that's going to be valuable this year."

Beason is off to a promising start. He picked off Newton in Tuesday's practice, igniting a friendly rivalry with teammates across the line of scrimmage. Teammates the defense hopes to better support in 2012.


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