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NFL Preview - Cincinnati (1-1) at Carolina (0-2)



By Tony Moss, NFL Editor

(Sports Network) - It was December of 2007 when the Carolina Panthers, sitting 4-8 and desperate for a spark at the quarterback position, turned to then- rookie Matt Moore to take a shot behind center.

Moore handled his business, winning twice in three starts and eventually carving out a path that would make him the team's opening-day starter by 2010.

Less than three years since Moore burst on the scene, another rookie, Jimmy Clausen, is starring in a sequel to the above script, one that the Panthers hope is more Godfather II than Caddyshack II. This time, Moore is cast as the fall guy, and Clausen the would-be conquering hero.

The Panthers turn to Clausen, the team's second-round pick out of Notre Dame, after Moore's two 2010 starts have yielded 25 points, eight turnovers, and two double-digit losses to the Giants (31-18) and Buccaneers (20-7).

Moore was benched in favor of Clausen late in last Sunday's humbling defeat to the Bucs in the team's home opener, with the rookie going 7-of-13 for 59 yards in mop-up duty and leading a mostly impressive late drive that ultimately stalled at the Tampa Bay 1-yard line.

Any contribution that Clausen might make will hopefully have a trickle-down effect for a Carolina running game that has endured surprising struggles thus far in 2010. DeAngelo Williams (33 carries, 116 yards, 3.5 yards per carry) and Jonathan Stewart (13 carries, 55 yards), who last year became the first duo in NFL history to top the 1,100-yard barrier in the same season, are well behind their 2009 pace and have yet to find the end zone.

The task won't be easy for Clausen and the backs this week, if Cincinnati's 15-10 win over the Baltimore Ravens last week is any indication.

The Bengals defense punished the Ravens, intercepting Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco four times and carrying the day in a game that saw Cincinnati fail to reach the end zone.

Marvin Lewis' club, which rebounded from a 38-24 loss at New England in Week 1, did get close enough for five field goals by first-year Bengals kicker Mike Nugent. Nugent, who connected on trifectas of 36, 30, 46, 38 and 25 yards, was named AFC Special Teams Player of the Week for his efforts. His 6-of-6 field goal showing through the season's first two weeks makes him the NFL's most accurate kicker, though Carson Palmer and the Cincinnati offense would like to take him out of the equation until its time for the point-after try.

Palmer was 16-of-35 for 167 yards without a touchdown or turnover against the Ravens, and running back Cedric Benson (23 carries, 78 yards) failed to gain much traction in the physical victory either.

In his formal home debut as a Bengal, wide receiver Terrell Owens caught three passes for a game-high 57 yards. Running mate Chad Ochocinco had four grabs for 44 yards, though he later revealed on Twitter that he suffered a cracked rib in the contest.

Ochocinco is expected to play this week.

SERIES HISTORY

The Panthers are 2-1 in their series against the Bengals, including a 17-14 road loss in the most recent meeting, in 2006. Carolina won the first two matchups with Cincinnati, both at home, in 1999 (27-3) and 2002 (52-31).

Panthers head coach John Fox is 1-1 against Cincinnati in his career, while the Bengals' Lewis is 1-0 against both Fox and Carolina as a head coach.

WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL

It's been a strange couple of weeks for the Bengals offense, and it remains difficult to get a read on the direction this unit is headed. Cincinnati faced a large early deficit against New England and had to throw most of that game, then faced a stifling Ravens defense that dictated much of what the Bengals were going to do offensively. And they did enough, with Palmer (512 passing yards, 2 TD, 1 INT) making a few nice throws and Benson (121 rushing yards, 1 TD) keeping the Ravens honest by managing some tough yards here and there. This week, the Bengals expect to dictate the tempo. In addition to Ochocinco (16 receptions, 1 TD) and Owens (10 receptions), Palmer has a couple of emerging targets in rookies Jordan Shipley (10 receptions) and tight end Jermaine Gresham (9 receptions, 1 TD). Shipley had a game-high-tying five catches totaling 42 yards against the Ravens. The Cincinnati line has allowed just two sacks of Palmer thus far. The Bengals are an NFL-best 3-of-3 on fourth-downs in 2010.

Ochocinco, Owens and company should be licking their chops against a Carolina defense that has allowed a league-high-tying five touchdown passes through two weeks (New England) and failed to make any big plays against youthful Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman a week ago. Cornerbacks Chris Gamble (9 tackles) and Richard Marshall (5 tackles) figure to have primary responsibility against Ochocinco and Owens, with safety Charles Godfrey (7 tackles, 2 INT) among those helping out over the top. The Carolina pass rush has generated just one sack through two weeks, that takedown not coming from ends Everette Brown (6 tackles) and Charles Johnson (5 tackles). The run defense has faced more carries than any other team in the league (70) through two weeks, and has held up well to the tune of 3.0 yards per carry. The linebacking corps of Jon Beason (19 tackles), Dan Connor (19 tackles, 1 sack) and James Anderson (19 tackles, 1 INT) is emerging as one of the team's strengths, and tackle Derek Landri (9 tackles) logged seven stops to lead the trench unit in the loss to the Bucs.

WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL

Clausen takes over an offense that is completing a league-worst 42.2 percent of its passes through two weeks, and is tied for last in the league with five interceptions thrown (Ravens) and eight turnovers committed (Titans). Against that backdrop, Fox is going to want to see some efficiency from his signal- caller. One of the problems for the Panthers has been a weak receiving corps, one that boasts Steve Smith (8 receptions, 2 TD) and not much else. Rookie David Gettis (2 receptions) was the only wide receiver other than Smith to have a catch last week. On the bright side, Smith did score a touchdown for the second time in as many weeks, and tight end Dante Rosario (5 receptions) added value with three grabs for 47 yards. The offensive line has done the attack no favors, surrendering eight sacks through the first two weeks. The group is unlikely to get tackle Jeff Otah (knee) back from injury this week. Without question, the Panthers will try to establish Williams and Stewart in the run game, and should also give third-down back Mike Goodson (20 rushing yards, 5 receptions) some touches.

Though Clausen needs to be very cautious about the Bengals' playmaking ability on the back end, he is lucky in the respect that he'll be facing a team without much of a pass rush. Cincinnati has just one sack through its first two games, and ends Robert Geathers (6 tackles) and Antwan Odom (3 tackles) have been quiet. That situation makes the work of the secondary, led by cornerback tandem Johnathan Joseph (9 tackles) and Leon Hall (5 tackles, 1 INT), all the more impressive. Hall and fellow corner Adam 'Pacman' Jones (3 tackles, 1 INT) each had interceptions of Flacco last week, joining linebacker Brandon Johnson (10 tackles, 1 INT) and safety Chinedum Ndukwe (5 tackles, 1 INT) in that category. The run defense ranks a middle-of-the-pack 18th in the league as Week 3 begins, but did a decent job in preventing Ravens running back Ray Rice from doing much major damage a week ago. Middle linebacker Dhani Jones (18 tackles) had a team- high nine tackles in the win, and tackles Domata Peko (6 tackles) and Tank Johnson (4 tackles) combined for five stops in the trenches.

FANTASY FOCUS

As mentioned, it's difficult to know what to make of the Bengals offense at this point, but it looks like the goal is a Saints-style distribution of the ball to several different weapons. That's great from a competitive standpoint, not so good for fantasy purposes. At a minimum, it looks like Benson will be getting enough touches to make him a high-level starting candidate, and Ochocinco (if healthy) and Owens will see enough targets to make them worthy plays. Palmer hasn't made a ton of big plays through two weeks, but is worth considering against a nondescript defense. The Cincinnati defense is a great start this week against a rookie quarterback, and though Nugent isn't going to make five field goals every week, he should get plenty of chances here.

It's too early to panic and bench Williams or Stewart, though the low level of production from both players, as well as the presence of a rookie quarterback and suspect passing game that encourages defense to stack the box, is definitely concerning. The only Panther who you should be able to count on moving forward is Smith, who has found the end zone twice in two games despite being a marked man.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

The Bengals are at the start of a three-week stretch of games that might not look all that arduous, but could determine their fate in 2010. Cincinnati is favored this week and should be in subsequent contests against the Browns and Buccaneers, but will play eight of their final 11 games versus opponents that had winning records last season (including both of last year's Super Bowl combatants and three other '09 playoff teams). Armed with this information, Cincinnati has to know it can't afford to mess around with struggling teams featuring rookie quarterbacks. Look for the Bengals to cause plenty of problems for Clausen in his first NFL start, and to generate enough offense to spark a decisive road victory.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bengals 19, Panthers 10

09/26 02:54:42 ET