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First Down, Fourth Down: Luke Kuechly, Reggie Bush shine in preseason action

Luke KeuchlyLuke Kuechly had seven tackles, a forced fumble and an interception against the Ravens. (Getty Images)

The Carolina Panthers' safety situation is uncertain, at best. Their cornerback depth chart, perhaps slightly improved with the addition of veteran Drayton Florence, remains a work in progress -- possibly more so if the apparent hand injury Captain Munnerlyn suffered Thursday night in Baltimore turns out to be serious.

The Panthers probably are going to give up some passing yards. They know that they will run into some difficult matchups through the air. And they're OK with that, so long as their front seven plays to the level they believe it can.

That hope all starts, as it did last season, with linebacker Luke Kuechly. He was an absolute terror in the Panthers' 34-27 win over the defending champion Ravens, completely taking over the game in the second quarter. The Panthers' 2012 first-round pick finished with seven tackles, forced a fumble deep in Baltimore territory, stopped a Ravens' drive with a red-zone INT and basically made himself omnipresent on the field.

Sweetening the pot for the Panthers' D on this night: strong performances up front from rookie tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawaan Short. Lotulelei, who slipped to Carolina in Round 1 of this year's draft, had a noticeably active game that included a sack of Joe Flacco. Short also dropped Flacco for a sack, part of a three-sack, four-turnover, two-touchdown night from Carolina's defense.

"Just being around the ball, we stressed that in practice," Kuechly told ESPN's Lisa Salters late in the game. "We just practice turnovers throughout the week, it turned out for us this week and we had a couple last week too."

The Panthers believe they can be a factor in the playoff mix and NFC South race this season. If their young stars up front play like they did Thursday, they might be right.

First Down: Reggie Bush as a pass-catcher in Detroit's offense.

The jury remains very much out on Bush's ability to run behind Detroit's shaky offensive line -- through three preseason games Bush is averaging 1.2 yards on 17 rush attempts. As a target for Matthew Stafford in the passing attack, though, Bush already looks lethal.

With Calvin Johnson out of the lineup and the rest of Detroit's receivers struggling to create space, Bush led the way with 103 yards on five catches. His first reception went for 67 yards, as Stafford perfectly set up a screen against a blitz.

Bush should be even more dangerous when Johnson's in the lineup, occupying multiple defenders and thus creating space short. Between Bush and Joique Bell (two catches for 49 yards Thursday), the Lions have a pair of options to fire out of the backfield for Stafford. The numbers on the ground have to improve, but Bush could wind up challenging his career-high of 88 receptions.

Fourth Down: Baltimore's tight ends.

Rough nights happen in the preseason, so it's hardly time to push the panic button in Baltimore because Joe Flacco took three sacks and fired a pair of interceptions. If it was not obvious before Thursday, though, the collective struggles of the Ravens' TE group proved how badly they need Ed Dickson back.

Dickson, who is dealing with a hamstring injury, hopes to play in Week 1 of the regular season. Without him against the Panthers, Baltimore lost a key portion of its offensive attack. Dallas Clark, brought in to ease the pain of Dennis Pitta's likely season-ending injury, dropped a potential first-down pass and was unable to haul in any of the three Flacco tosses his direction (one was wiped out by a Carolina penalty). Matt Furstenberger was 0-for-1 on targets, and Visanthe Shiancoe watched Kuechly jump in front of him for an interception.

First Down: Kenbrell Thompkins.

When a team loses 40-9, as the Patriots did Thursday in Detroit, there won't be a lot of positives on the game film. Consider Thompkins a clear silver lining.

The undrafted rookie receiver continued to work his way into the Patriots' plans by picking apart Detroit's secondary. Thompkins beat fellow rookie Darius Slay for a long touchdown up the left sideline early, then torched veteran Chris Houston off the line for another big gain later. He wound up catching eight of the 12 passes thrown his way -- shaking off a bad third-down drop in the first quarter.

Thompkins has separated himself in the race to the Patriots' starting lineup, leaving guys like Aaron Dobson in his wake.

Fourth Down: Carolina's run game.

Is anyone even going to make it to Week 1? The Panthers were down Jonathan Stewart heading into Thursday, then lost Kenjon Barner to injury. DeAngelo Williams, their No. 1 back, rushed for all of two yards on four carries. He also was stuffed on back-to-back plays by Baltimore's first-team D when he needed only one yard for a first down.

Carolina's leading rusher on the night: Tauren Poole, who spent all of last season on injured reserve after signing as an undrafted free agent. He rushed 12 times for 39 yards.

First Down: Marshal Yanda.

Yanda was instrumental in the Ravens' Super Bowl run last season. He made his preseason debut Thursday, after offseason shoulder surgery. The effect was palpable. Ray Rice found several holes early, before Yanda exited the game -- and the Ravens' interior line clearly suffered without Yanda out there. He's one of those linemen who makes everyone around him better. The Ravens have seen that time and again.

Fourth Down: Detroit's discipline.

An ongoing issue in the Jim Schwartz era, the Lions' inability to keep their cool burned them in the first half against New England. On each of the Patriots' first two turnovers, the Lions committed post-whistle personal fouls -- the second moving the ball from New England's four to the 19, and eventually resulting in a missed field goal.

Defensive end Willie Young also was flagged for a taunting penalty, earned by grabbing Tom Brady's jersey and pointing directly into the Patriots' QB's face.

Stop me if you've heard this before: The Lions have a lot of talent, but it will mean nothing if they cannot avoid shooting themselves in the foot.

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