KEYS TO THE GAME: The Panthers have morphed into a pass-heavy team under offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski, but they still have the league's No. 8-ranked ground game. That's in large part due to WR Steve Smith stretching the field vertically and getting the defensive backs to turn their backs on QB Cam Newton. The onus on Tennessee's linebackers is to not only spy on Newton, but keep tabs on TEs Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey, who have combined for 53 catches. Titans RB Chris Johnson flashed last week and need to be a more consistent threat against the league's 27th-ranked run defense. QB Matt Hasselbeck has been solid, but minus WR Kenny Britt he simply lacks the downfield threat to lead a one-dimensional attack.
FAST FACTS: Tennessee has converted 6-of-7 fourth downs this season. ... Smith has 46 receptions, equaling his team-leading total for all of last season.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
Chris Johnson may have found a kindred spirit who knows of his troubles this season after getting a big contract.
DeAngelo Williams, who talked to Johnson some during his holdout and faces the Titans on Sunday, said that after signing his own $43 million deal with $21 million in guarantees, that expectations that accompanied such a deal are a bit unattainable in relation to what fans want after a player signs a big contract.
"Oh, yeah. With more money comes more responsibility. They expect you to come out and do things that you've never done before in your life," Williams said. "They want you to come out and basically be on the field by yourself and score every time you touch the ball, or pick up a first down. What they fail to realize is the other people get paid too. It's not necessarily whether you get the ball or not. There are other variables in that, the scheme."
Johnson, who got $53 million with $30 million in guarantees, has not lived up to even his previous performance this season as he has just 366 yards rushing through eight games. Williams, meanwhile, has 363 yards, but also has 46 fewer carries than Johnson as Williams splits time with Jonathan Stewart in the Carolina backfield.
"Any time you get paid a big contract or hold out or anything like that, when you get back, they're going to expect a lot out of you," Johnson said in agreeing with Williams. "That's just something that comes along with the contract and kind of being the face of the team.
Everything comes along with it - even fans booing you and things like that. It comes along with the territory, and it's a situation where you can't let it get to you."
Williams said that some of the booing and criticism doesn't come necessarily from hometown fans, but sometimes from fantasy football owners, who no doubt have been disappointed in Johnson and Williams thus far in 2011.
"I think fantasy football has played a part in that. Before fantasy football, people used to watch the games and be happy that they get a chance to see their teams play," Williams said.
"But now, not only are they watching the game to see their team play, but they have a little bit riding on it, and they have bragging rights based on the fantasy football. They have playing in the background."
Whatever the reason, Johnson's issues have not subsided for the Titans, and he is running out of games to get things going in 2011 with the season half gone now entering this week against the Panthers.
The Panthers finished practice Thursday with four healthy regular linebackers after leading tackler James Anderson rolled his ankle and had to be taken to the locker room.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said there was "a little bit of concern there," which prompted the medical staff to take him in.
However, Rivera said he thinks Anderson will "be fine" for Sunday's game against Tennessee.
The Panthers can't afford to lose Anderson.
Earlier this week, Thomas Williams became the third linebacker to go on injured reserve, joining Jon Beason and Thomas Davis. Also, backup linebacker Jason Phillips hasn't practiced all week because of a calf injury.
Rivera is hoping to get Phillips back, but isn't sure if it will happen.
"He worked today out on the grass. He had his cleats on and they had him moving around," Rivera said. "So we'll see how he is (Friday) morning."
If Anderson and Phillips can't play, the Panthers would be down to four healthy linebackers: Omar Gaither, Dan Connor, Jason Williams and Jordan Senn.
However, Rivera said defensive end Antwan Applewhite could handle the role in case of an emergency. He played linebacker in San Diego's 3-4 scheme.
There is another option as well.
Rivera joked that "If I wasn't so old, I would do it."
Hey, they might be able to use him.
Rivera played linebacker for nine seasons with the Chicago Bears.
--WR Lavelle Hawkins is playing through the pain of having stitches in his right index finger, something that might not be a problem for a kicker or an offensive lineman, but certainly is a concern for a receiver.
--DE Dave Ball did not practice again on Thursday and is expected to miss this week's game against Carolina with a concussion.
--FB Ahmard Hall did not practice for a second straight day with a back injury, but should be able to work on Friday.
--LB Barrett Ruud did not practice on Thursday with a groin injury but should work on Friday.
--TE Jared Cook sat out again with a sore knee, but is expected to work on Friday.
--WR Nate Washington missed a second straight day on Thursday, but is expected to practice on Friday.
--RB Mike Goodson, who has not played in the last month, tweaked his hamstring during Thursday's practice and is likely to miss at least a couple more weeks of work. Goodson was benched earlier this season on kickoff returns.
--LB James Anderson tweaked his ankle during practice Thursday, but coach Ron Rivera thinks he'll be fine for Sunday.
--LB Jason Phillips (calf) missed his second straight day of practice and his status for Sunday remains up in the air.
--RB DeAngelo Williams has a chance to shine against the Titans, who come into the game ranked 24th in run defense.
--DE Antwan Applewhite could see some action at linebacker this week if James Anderson can't play. Anderson tweaked his ankle on Thursday.