Panthers seek to test Bills young secondary
It's no secret in Buffalo that the Bills' secondary is thin and young.
So pardon safety Jim Leonhard if he wasn't taken by surprise upon hearing Panthers quarterback Cam Newton's intention to open up Carolina's passing attack against Buffalo on Sunday.
"It's the NFL. That's what they're supposed to do, right? Cam gets paid a lot of money to throw for a lot of yards," Leonhard said. "To me, it's not bulletin-board material. You can say what you want, young secondary. They're going to make us earn it. And we have to take that challenge."
It's a test the Bills (0-1) will face with an injury-depleted secondary. Top cornerback Stephon Gilmore is out with a broken wrist. And Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd's status remains uncertain while he's bothered by plantar fasciitis in both feet.
If that's not enough, the Bills were forced to shuffle their defensive backs roster further after backup cornerback Ron Brooks broke his right foot in a season-opening 23-21 loss to the New England Patriots.
That leaves Leodis McKelvin as the top cornerback, while Leonhard is already playing a regular role despite signing with the team two weeks ago.
Newton and the Panthers (0-1) have concerns of their own, coming off a 12-7 home loss to Seattle during which Newton managed a career-low 125 yards passing under new coordinator Mike Shula.
Coach Ron Rivera called the offensive approach too conservative. And Newton came out Wednesday to say the team "absolutely" plans to take more shots downfield after attempting just three passes that went 10 yards or longer.
Here are five other things to look for Sunday:
THREE-AND-OUTS: The Bills' new-look hurry-up offense didn't get very far, very fast in rookie quarterback EJ Manuel's debut. Though Manuel completed 18 of 27 passes for 150 yards and two TDs, the offense lacked consistency.
They managed just 15 first downs — five on a third-quarter touchdown drive — and converted just four of 13 third-down chances.
"Obviously, you've got to get that fixed," running back Fred Jackson said. "We can't leave our defense out there. We can't go three-and-out and put them back out there and make them have a long day."
RUN-STUFFING PANTHERS: The front-seven of Carolina's defense has picked up from where it ended last season in stopping the run.
The Panthers limited the Seahawks to 70 yards rushing. Dating to last season, Carolina has allowed an average of 57 yards rushing in its past five games.
That presents a daunting test for Buffalo's running attack, which had difficulty finding its groove last weekend. C.J. Spiller lost a fumble and finished with 17 carries for 41 yards, a significant drop-off after he finished second in the NFL last season by averaging a little over 6 yards a carry.
NO FINISH: New season, familiar lack of finish for Rivera and the Panthers after squandering a 7-6 fourth-quarter lead against Seattle. In 33 games since Rivera took over, the Panthers dropped to 2-13 in games decided by 7 points or less — a statistic that has put the coach on the hot seat.
The Panthers squandered a chance to retake the lead when running back DeAngelo Williams lost a fumble at the Seahawks 8 with 5:25 remaining. Seattle then ran out the clock.
"We're winning this game, and then I give away a hard-fought victory," Williams said.
O-LINE SHUFFLE: The Panthers are busy shuffling an unsettled offensive line.
Chris Scott will start at right guard after Garry Williams sustained a season-ending knee injury on Sunday. Left guard Amini Silatolu (hamstring) has been limited in practice this week after missing the opener. Travelle Wharton will start if Silatolu can't play.
THROWBACKS: The new-look Bills will get a glimpse into the past, when the team honors its 28-member Wall of Fame during a halftime ceremony. Among those on hand will be QBs Jim Kelly and Joe Ferguson, Hall of Fame coach Marv Levy, and families representing deceased members such as center Kent Hull and OT Bob Kalsu, the only pro football player killed during the Vietnam War.