A glance at five top storylines for Sunday's Cardinals-Panthers game at University of Phoenix Stadium:
- The return of Daryl Washington
What do you get when you had a Pro Bowl linebacker to your defense? The Cardinals certainly have been aching to find out. Take away a good player and any unit will suffer, but it's hard to believe the Cards wouldn't have benefitted greatly if Washington had been playing and not suspended the first month of the season. But the Cards made it through 2-2 and now Washington returns, able to bring athleticism to cover a tight end or a back if needed or blitz the quarterback for sacks. This will be a big deal.
- Keeping an eye on Cam Newton
For all the hype the young quarterbacks got in 2012, the prototype of the new wave of QB is Newton, both with his running ability and massive size. Washington's return should help the Cards in defense of Newton, but forcing him to stay in the pocket and making throws from there – rather than getting into space and creating havoc – remains the best way to handle the Panthers' signal-caller.
- Bradley Sowell's left-side debut
The constant story of Levi Brown playing left tackle is over. For now, it's Sowell's job to do with what he can. Few starting left tackles in the league are undrafted – Tampa Bay's Donald Penn is the only other one – so Sowell is working uphill. But the coaches and team were ready to move on from Brown, and the trade means the possibility of switching back isn't there. Sowell is more athletic than Brown was, but he has no real experience and the Cards may need to make sure he gets extra help as he starts his journey as starter.
- Running with Mendenhall
The Cardinals' top back had a bad game in Tampa. But Bruce Arians is sticking with him and Mendenhall promises to be better. It's not a simple task going up against a very difficult Carolina front seven who beat the heck out of the Giants in the last game the Panthers played (they are coming off a bye.) The offense has been struggling more than it should, and while the Cards don't turn to the run as often as the pass, they need to get production out of Mendenhall when he does get carries.
- Finally, some home cooking
The Cardinals all but lived at University of Phoenix Stadium in training camp, but it's been only brief stops there since. The Cards have played just one home game in their first four and are encouraged to come out of the stretch 2-2. The game against the Panthers represents the first of a stretch of four of five at home, with all of the others coming against 2012 playoff teams. It makes Sunday crucial.