Panthers Three-Headed Backfield will test Patriots Run Defense
Week 9's offensive explosion against Pittsburgh did a statistical number to many of the team's first half weaknesses. Third downs and red zone opportunities, two important situations that had killed the Pats earlier in the year, were suddenly being converted with regularity.
However, one weak spot that was not shored up in the win was the team's leaky run defense. The Pats, now the league's 30th ranked rushing defense, allowed Le'Veon Bell to consistently churn out positive yardage (16 carries, 74 yards, 4.6 yards a carry), despite his porous offensive line. The only saving grace for the run D was the fact that Pittsburgh only ran 20 times all game, likely due to a combination of playing from behind and Ben Roethlesberger's success through the air.
That weakness will surely be tested again this week by the Panthers. Carolina has run the ball 32 times a game this season (trailing only Seattle and San Francisco in that category), turning those into 127 hard-fought yards a game. The Panthers backfield is a three-headed monster, boasting former first-round picks DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart alongside versatile contributor Mike Tolbert.
Carolina presents a unique challenge because each of their backs brings a distinct skill set to the table. Williams is easily the fastest of the three and can be dangerous when he gets into space. He's by far their most dangerous big play threat, boasting both the elusiveness and home-run speed to gash a defense. Take a look at his 27 yard touchdown run last week against the Niners for evidence.
Stewart, on the other hand, is a classic bruiser. At 5'10" and 235 lbs, the former Oregon Duck is a powerful downfield runner who will run through any arm tackle. Stewart and Williams have split carries since Stewart's Week 9 return from an ankle injury, although Stewart's nearly disatrous fumble last week could cost him some opportunities.
Tolbert has a lesser pedigree than either of his backfield peers, but the former Charger has carved out a niche for himself with his versatility. He's maintained his reputation as a notorious touchdown vulture, scoring 6 touchdowns (4 rushing, 2 receiving) to lead all Panthers skill positions. In addition to his goal line role, Tolbert is the team's passing down back, as he is a capable receiver and excellent pass protector.
On top of those three backs, the Patriots will also have to worry about some guy named Cam Newton on the ground. Cam has rushed less this year than in years past, but remains a dynamic threat when he does take off. Newton is also a guy to watch in short-yardage situations, where he does a good job of using every bit of his 6'5", 245 lb body to get conversions.
So, how do the Pats stop this rushing attack? It will start at the line of scrimmage, where the Patriots defensive tackles have to start doing a better job of holding up at the point of attack. Isaac Sopoaga helps in this area simply by being an immovable 330 lbs, but there's only so much one guy can do against an entire team's rushing attack. Undrafted rookies Chris Jones and Joe Vellano continue to flash at times, but need to be more consistent in not getting driven backwards against the run.
The Patriots offense could do the run defense a huge favor by putting points on the board early and often. This, of course, will be easier said than done, as the Panther's have been one of the NFL's stingiest defenses. However, the Patriots will likely have all of their top weapons available for the first time all season, and some early success on offense could put some real pressure on a middle of the pack Panthers offense that isn't built to play from behind. If the Patriots can get ahead early enough to force the Panthers to throw a lot, the matchup will start to tilt the Patriots favor.
Of course, the Panthers logical counter to a powerful Patriots offense will be...running the ball. The Patriots two losses have both come when opponents have used their running games to dominate time of possession and limit the amount of time Tom Brady and the offense are on the field. That will likely be the strategy for the Panthers, at least early on. It will be up to the Patriots to step up and make plays, especially up front, to keep the Panthers from controlling the game on the ground.