Packers left guard Mike Wahle is on the cusp of the Pro Bowl. If he wants to take the next step in his career, he needs to pass tonight's test against Kris Jenkins. With Warren Sapp on the downside of his career, the 335-pound Jenkins is considered the best defensive tackle in football. As you'd expect from a player his size, Jenkins is stout against the run. But in the last two seasons, he has tallied a dozen sacks.
The defensive ends are Julius Peppers and Pro Bowler Mike Rucker. Peppers is one of the game's most feared pass rushers. He had 12 sacks in as many games as a rookie in 2002, then was held to seven last season as he was the focus of constant double teams. With Peppers getting extra attention at left end, right end Rucker has taken advantage of one-on-one matchups to the tune of 12 sacks last season. Peppers will face Mark Tauscher while Rucker gets Chad Clifton.
Carolina's other starter up front is the forgotten Brentson Buckner. The 11-year veteran capitalizes on his one-on-one matchups to clog the middle. He will provide a tough test for Packers Pro Bowler Marco Rivera.
"Usually, a defensive front has one big name, and the rest of the unit is built around him, but these guys have two or three Pro Bowlers, and Brentson Buckner does a hell of a job for them," Tauscher said. "We know this will probably be one of our toughest challenges of the year."
Here are some other matchups worth watching tonight.
1. Hey, rookies: Carolina will start first-round pick Chris Gamble at one cornerback spot. Green Bay will not start first-round pick Ahmad Carroll at cornerback, though he's expected to get extensive playing time. Both teams will target the opposing player in the passing game. Carroll was taken 25th in the draft, while Gamble slid to No. 31. This will be an interesting game within a game. Carroll appears to be the more polished player — Gamble played wide receiver and cornerback at Ohio State — though Gamble will get more help from a strong pass rush. "Chris is a very gifted player, very smart, very aware. He just happens to be a rookie. I'm sure Green Bay will test him," Panthers coach John Fox said.
2. Coming at ya: Carolina's weakness last season was its offensive line, and Fox has retooled it. Unfortunately for the Panthers, injuries have set back the group. Carolina will start two backups as well as a first-time starter. Another starter, right tackle Matt Willig, was just another guy during a short tour of duty in Green Bay. The Packers' blitzing scheme could create havoc for a unit that hasn't worked together for months and months.
3. Running men: Carolina, like the Packers, is a run-first team. Big Stephen Davis pounded his way to 1,444 rushing yards last season while change-of-pace back DeShaun Foster sped his way for 429 yards. If Carolina can control the tempo of the game with its running attack, then the Packers are in big trouble because the Panthers feature a big-play passing game that is at its best with play-action fakes.
4. Running men, Part 2: Green Bay's running game is critical in two areas. First, if the Packers can run it successfully, then the defense will be able to catch its breath. Otherwise, Davis will wear down the Packers by the third quarter. More importantly, the best way to slow Carolina's fierce pass rush is to run it down their throats. Neither Peppers nor Rucker are great against the run. Second-and-six obviously is a better situation than second-and-nine.
5. Bayou gunslingers: While both teams want to run the ball, a big play in the passing game likely will determine the winner. Packers quarterback Brett Favre hails from Mississippi and will wind up in Canton, Ohio, for the Hall of Fame. Delhomme hails from Louisiana and was just another quarterback for the first five years of his career. He started last season as Carolina's backup quarterback but came off the bench in the opener to rescue the Panthers against Jacksonville with a last-second touchdown pass. The rest is history. Delhomme had a decent regular season — his 19 touchdown passes countered by 16 interceptions — but he starred during the postseason and Super Bowl. Delhomme's favorite target is Steve Smith, who caught 88 passes during the season before dominating the first two rounds of the playoffs.