1. Losing Luke Kuechly must be a huge blow. What does his loss mean specifically for the Panthers D and who replaces him in the lineup?
Normally it would 4th year LB AJ Klein but he was in the concussion protocol too. If not Klein it will be 2nd year player David Mayo. It's a huge blow even if Klein plays but it will be better if Klein does play. Right now it's looking good for Klein to play. Luke is the leader of the defense so there is no replacing him completely but Klein is pretty good.
2. Also tough must be the loss of Ryan Kalil. What of his replacement and do you expect it to seriously adversely affect the offense and Cam Newton?
C Gino Gradkowski is also coming out of the concussion protocol but looks like he will play as well. Kalil and Kuechly are two key players to be missing any given week. It will be tough to overcome their loss. Both offense and defense will need to eliminate mistakes to stay in this game. Whether it's Gradkowski or 3rd C back-up Chris Scott they will need to keep the pressure up the middle from collapsing the pocket. The Raiders will bring plenty of pressure from the edges so it's important Newton have room to step up into the pocket.
3. Thus far in the season, the Panthers have not been nearly the 15-1 Super Bowl team they were last season. The easy finger to point is at the loss of Josh Norman. Is he really the difference maker? If not, what has changed?
There have been a few points this season when they really missed Norman but there are multiple reasons for the drop off. Injuries up and down the roster have had an effect, they've missed some key FG’s, Newton started slowly in the passing game, the pass rush has been anemic and the running game has struggled...just to name a few. I also think they are running Newton less to reduce the hits he takes which changes how the defense attacks the offense.
4. Over the past few weeks, the Panthers seem to have improved. Have they really been righting the ship or is it more about match-ups?
The defense has played better the last few weeks, getting more pressure on the QB while the secondary has improved as well. The downside is that a lot of the pressure was coming from DE Mario Addison who also just hurt his foot and has been ruled out of Sunday's game. The Raiders are catching the Panthers at just the right time.
Getting CB Leonard Johnson playing has helped and the rookie CB’s are getting better. They aren't rookies anymore and have been playing solid coverage.
5. Give me one lesser known Panthers player on each side of the ball who could make an impact in this game.
On offense it could be WR Devin Funchess. He's been getting more looks and is making plays down the field. Otherwise the key to the offense is being able to run the ball. This offense needs to be able to run and pass to remain effective.
On defense it will need to be AJ Klein who will step into Luke's shoes. He will need to keep an eye on Latavius Murray as RB’s have been doing well catching balls out of the backfield against us.
To see my answers to his questions, click here.