The Panthers won four of their last six games in 2011. Even before the Panthers started winning the offense, led by record-setting Rookie of the Year Cam Newton, was exciting to watch.

Entering year two of the Newton era, the players think they’re ready to take the next step. Their ability to live up to C Ryan Kalil’s Super Bowl promise will depend on Newton avoiding a step back and the defense’s improvement. Questions to be answered in exhibition season:

Can QB Cam Newton avoid the sophomore jinx?

Newton was a threat with his arm and legs last season. He became the first rookie QB in history to pass for 4,000 yards and set a record with 14 rushing TDs. Defensive coordinators will look to contain Newton on the ground and take their chances letting him beat them with his arm. He had 17 interceptions in the Panthers’ 10 losses last season and none in their six wins.

Can the defense put consistent pressure on QBs?

A 64.9 percent accuracy rate would have ranked fifth among NFL QBs last season. A 98.3 passer rating would have too. That’s what opposing QBs did against the Panthers’ defense last season. Carolina is set at one DE with Charles Johnson. Greg Hardy started strong last season, then seemed to wear down. If he can perform at a high level for a full season, it will help the defense keep games within reach for Newton’s late game magic.  

Is the Panthers defense strong enough in the middle?

Only two teams gave up more rushing TDs than the Panthers last season (18), and only three gave up more 40-yard runs (four). Carolina took steps to strengthen the team’s run defense by drafting tackle-machine Luke Kuechly in the first round. The Boston College LB will man the middle with Jon Beason, who’s coming back from a season-ending Achilles injury. Coach Ron Rivera is going to experiment with more 3-4 looks on defense to take advantage of the two players.

For more up-to-the-minute news and analysis on the Carolina Panthers from blogger Shawn Krest, follow@CBSSportsNFLCAR.