The Carolina Panthers are riding high after extending their winning streak to five games with a tough win over a good 49ers team last week. They will surely be pumped for the opportunity to legitimize their status as a contender, in front of a Monday Night audience, no less, against your New England Patriots. Lets take a look at the matchups that could determine this showdown.
When the Patriots have the ball:
I'm going to start here because this is where the Panthers should scare the bejeezus out of Pats fans everywhere. The Panthers are built pretty similarly to the Jets and that comparison starts with the big guys up front. Pats fans are already plenty familiar by now with Sheldon Richardson, the beastly Jets DT who was taken with the 13th pick in last years draft, but Star Lotulelei, drafted one spot later at 14, has had a similar impact with the Panthers. Check out our own Ryan Cereola's piece from last week about Lotulelei's massive impact against the run.
Lotulelei is hardly a one-man show on the Carolina defensive line. He's joined by Dwan Edwards and fellow rookie Kawann Short in what has become a formidable tackle rotation. Combine that with two pass rushing ends in Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy and you start to see how this defense has given up only 12.8 points per game.
The concern for Patriots fans is that this defense looks very similar on paper to those of the Jets and Bengals, the only two teams to defeat the Pats so far. All three teams have a number of physical, disruptive players, with at least one guy (Geno Atkins, Muhammed Wilkerson, Lotulelei) who commands double teams and creates favorable one-on-one matchups for his linemates. The book on the Patriots has always read that they struggle against teams that can generate inside pressure without blitzing. The Panthers fit that bill to a "T", so it will be imperative for the offensive line to step up and prove they can stand up to an elite defensive front.
By the way, blocking those linemen is hard enough without an swarming, athletic group of linebackers behind them waiting to clean things up. Boston College's own Luke Kuechly is already one of the game's best linebackers, while medical miracle Thomas Davis (playing well despite three torn ACL's) and former Giant Chase Blackburn have been rock solid.
Offensive balance has been key for the Patriots this year, as they have quietly been a very good power rushing team. Staying balanced could be a tall order against these Panthers however. Carolina's defense ranks second in the league against the run, behind only the aforementioned Jets, giving up merely 82 yards per game.
However, the Patriots have had some success running even at the league's best defenses this year. They actually ran for a combined 4.52 yards a carry in their two losses, but shot themselves in the foot a bit by abandoning the run early in both games (18 carries against Cincinnati, 20 against the Jets). With Stevan Ridley running well, the impetus is on Josh McDaniels to run the ball enough to keep the defense honest. I've written in the past about how the matchup problems presented by Rob Gronkowski help the Patriots get favorable nickel looks to run against; that should absolutely help the Pats on this front.
If there is a "weakness" to exploit on the Panthers, it's their secondary. Keep in mind that this is still the NFL's fourth ranked pass defense. However, they are tied for that fourth spot with the Pittsburgh team New England recently put 55 on, and are an odd group of no name rookies (Melvin White), the phenomenally named Captain Munnerlyn, guys who were considered over-the-hill two years ago (Drayton Florence, Quintin Mikkel) and a Raiders castoff (Mike Mitchell). They've held up largely by being opportunistic. Their 13 interceptions have them tied with Seattle and Buffalo for the league lead, and have come alongside 29 sacks.
Considering the Patriots appear likely to have their full arsenal of weapons available for the first time this season, the logical approach would be to spread out this no-name secondary and test them. Fourth ranked pass defense or not, it would be foolish to be timid with a passing attack that features Rob Gronkowski, Danny Amendola, Shane Vereen and Aaron Dobson. Luke Keuchly and Thomas Davis are excellent coverage linebackers, but can they cover Gronk or Vereen? Can 5'8" Captain Munnerlyn handle 6'3" Aaron Dobson? As pretty as the Panthers statistics look, the list of passing offenses they've faced this year includes Buffalo, Arizona, Minnesota, Tampa Bay and San Francisco (missing Vernon Davis most of the day). Not exactly murderers row. Look for the Pats to put that secondary to the test.
When the Panthers have the ball
The Patriots have been able to get away with their struggling run defense this year. That won't be the case this week, as the Panthers rely heavily on their physical ground game. Simply put, the Patriots are going to have to answer the bell physically in this one.
As I wrote yesterday, the Panthers have built their offense around their three-headed backfield of DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert. Each bring something different to the table: big play speed in the case of Williams and downhill power from Stewart, while Tolbert has excelled both in the passing game and on the goal line.
From a Patriots perspective, this is noteworthy because it pertains to the Patriots two losses. Both games saw their opponents dominate time of possession with their running games, keeping Tom Brady and the offense on the sidelines. Limiting Brady's time on the field is always important, but especially so when he actually has his weapons available.
The Panthers rushing game is especially important because of how they use the run to set up the pass. They've had much of their passing success this season come from play action, which opens up opportunities for big plays down the field. The Panthers have hardly run a precision passing game (Cam Newton's 62% completion percentage is a notch below that), but they boast four receivers who can make home run plays in Steve Smith, Brandon LeFell, Ted Ginn Jr and Domenik Hixon. Defending against the big play will be very important for the all-Rutgers safety tandem of Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon this week, although they will likely be greatly helped by the return of Aqib Talib to the lineup. Talib will likely get a large dose of Steve Smith, leaving Kyle Arrington, Logan Ryan and hopefully Alfonzo Dennard to handle the secondary targets.
Of course, any team defending the Panthers has to contend with Newton's mobility. Newton has run less this season than he did his first two years, but he is still a dynamic big play threat when he does decide to tuck it down and run. The Panthers also run a lot of bootlegs and other plays designed to take advantage of Newton's ability to throw on the run. Maintaining contain is always important for a defense, but it will be especially important this week against this kind of athletic quarterback.
One other underrated weapon for this Panthers offense has been tight end Greg Olsen. Olsen never quite lived up to his expectations as a first round pick in Chicago, but has been a solid red zone target for Newton in Carolina. With 35 catches for 440 yards and 3 touchdowns on the year, the Patriots will have to keep an eye on Newton's safety valve, particularly in the red zone.
The Patriots special teams have been rock solid for most of the year, but struggled a bit covering both kicks and punts against Pittsburgh in Week 9. They'll have to perform much better than that his week, as Ted Ginn Jr. is still an explosive threat with the ball in his hands.
The Panthers have had very good luck with injuries this season, but have three starters questionable for Monday in DT Dwan Edwards (hamstring), G Chris Scott (knee) and LB Chase Blackburn (foot). Nothing earth-shattering there.
The Patriots are getting some good injury news, as both Aqib Talib and Shane Vereen are expected back in the lineup. Vereen hasn't played since breaking his wrist in Week One, while Talib has been out since injuring his hip back in Week 6's win over the Saints. Of course, the Patriots will be impacted by injuries for the rest of the season, as Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Jerod Mayo and Sebastien Vollmer are all on Injured Reserve.
One late breaking development is the status of Patriots corner Alfonzo Dennard, who missed practice today with a knee injury. This indicates something flared up recently and puts Dennard's status for this game in serious jeopardy. If Dennard cannot go, Kyle Arrington and Logan Ryan would become the teams top two corners behind Aqib Talib.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera was expected to be on the hot seat by now, but a change in coaching philosophy has brought on a new nickname ("Riverboat Ron") and a five game winning streak. Riverboat Ron's newfound willingness to gamble, particularly on fourth downs, actually mimics the calculated aggression of Bill Belichick, who has never been afraid to make a decision that could win or lose the game.
With that said, Riverboat Ron is a mere novice compared to Belichick. Most importantly, the Patriots have won 9 of their last 10 games when Belichick has extra time during the bye week for preparation. Checkmark: Patriots
There's no doubting the magnitude of this game from Carolina's perspective. For a franchised that has been mired in mediocrity for much of the past decade, the chance to host a Monday Night game is reason enough for the crowd to get fired up. Add the fact that their Panthers have a chance to win their sixth straight game and legitimize their status as contendersand you have the recipe for an incredibly hostile environment.
There's also the fact that the Panthers are, at least on paper, tailor-made to beat the Patriots. Like the Jets and Bengals, the Panthers boast a strong defensive line that can generate pressure without blitzing. Like the Jets and Bengals, the Panthers defense brings the kind of physicality that historically has knocked New England's offense out of it's rhythm. Like the Jets and Bengals, the Panthers have a strong running game that they will lean on to control time of possession.
However, history has shown us time and time again not to bet against the Pats
in the second half of the season
coming off of a bye week
on Monday Night Football
How about all three? Considering all the conflicting factors at play, this is shaping up to be a doozy on Monday Night.