Know your Enemy: Carolina Panthers scouting report

Newton's Panthers beat the Patriots in their last meeting. Photo via USA Today Sports
Each week, I'll be preparing you for the Patriots upcoming opponent with a scouting report, going over the opponent's roster with a focus on how they will specifically match up with the Patriots. This week, the Pats will welcome the 2-1 Carolina Panthers to the comfy confines of Gillette Stadium. While the Pats are coming off of a win, the film from last week's nailbiter reveals plenty of flaws that need to be corrected. Many of those could be exposed by the Panthers, who like the Texans boast a mobile quarterback and stingy defense. Here's a closer look at how the matchups could play out on the field Sunday.

Carolina offense vs Patriots defense

Lets not mince words: the Panthers offense has been amongst the league's worst so far this season. Through three weeks, they rank 29th in points (15 per game) and yards (276.6 per game), 28th in net yards per pass attempt (5.1) and 30th in passing yards (505). Those are ugly numbers even before factoring in one of those three games being against the Saints dreadful defense, which held them to 13 points this Sunday.

That doesn't mean the Panthers offense doesn't pose a challenge to your Patriots, whose defense currently ranks at the bottom of the league in nearly every statistical category. In fact, the Panthers have many similarities scheme-wise to the Texans, whose mobile quarterback gave the Patriots fits just this Sunday in a closer-than-expected battle. They also have some X's and O's similarities to the Chiefs, whose clever play designs gave the Patriots fits in a season opening beating.

This is one of the few offenses in today's NFL built around its running game. Their 88 rushing attempts through three games ranks ninth in the league, as they attempted at least 28 runs in their first two games (their most recent game saw them run the ball less as falling behind early necessitated more passing). In fact, they've run the ball almost as many times as they've thrown it (90 passes, 88 runs), a rarity in the modern game. The problem for them is a lack of efficiency on the ground, as they've mustered just 3.7 yards per carry. Despite their attempts to lean on the ground, they rank middle of the pack in rushing yards (325, 13th).

Stewart is a tackle breaking bruiser
It makes sense for the Panthers to emphasize the run, as they boast two capable runners in the backfield along with the threat of Newton's legs. While rookie Christian McCaffrey (#22) received plenty of preseason hype, it's been veteran Jonathan Stewart (#28) leading this backfield in carries. A big (5'10", 240), bruising power back, Stewart has played better than his stats would suggest. While he's managed just 162 yards on his 45 rushing attempts (3.6 yards per carry), he ranks fifth in ProFootballFocus' elusive ranking, a metric that measures a runners ability to generate yards beyond his blocking. Stewart has rarely gotten good blocking this season, but he remains an absolute load to bring down.

While Stewart brings the thunder as a downfield, between-the-tackles runner, McCaffrey is clearly the lightning of this backfield. At 5'11" and 205 pounds, he hardly has the size and power that Stewart brings, but instead creates yards with patience, vision and receiver-esque quickness. There is a little bit of Le'Veon Bell in McCaffrey's game, as he excels at using stutter steps and other hesitation moves to set up his blocking before hitting the hole and exploding downfield. His speed and open-field running ability makes him a major big play threat when given a crease. Unfortunately for McCaffrey, his lack of tackle-breaking power has been exposed by the Panthers poor blocking. He's managed just 73 yards through three games (2.9 per carry), with a long run of just 11 yards. Open-field rushing ability can only get you so far when your blocking rarely allows you to get back to the line of scrimmage before contact.

The third and arguably most dangerous part of the rushing equation is the quarterback, Newton. Cam's rushing ability is well known to even the casual NFL fan. Newton has the speed to gobble of chunks of yards with his legs when given a rushing lane, and at 6'5", 245, he's more than big enough to lower his shoulder and push the pile if need be. That's made him a major weapon in short yardage situations, where he's converted countless third and short and goal-line opportunities for the Panthers over the years.

While Newton's rushing ability poses a unique challenge defensively, the superstar quarterback seems to be shying more-and-more from that same talent that has made him special in his career. After rushing for averages of 119.8 attempts and 641 yards per season during his first five seasons (a run that culminated with his 2015 MVP season), Newton's 90 attempts and 359 rushing yards last year were easily career lows. He's run even less frequently so far in 2017, with 14 attempts for just 46 yards.

Still the Patriots will have to prepare for the full gauntlet of possibilities when it comes to defending Newton. Having an athlete like that behind center opens up a full can of worms offensively, as the threat of Newton taking off must be accounted for on every snap. While plenty of Newton's highlights over the years have come on scrambles and broken plays, the Panthers will also call his number on designed runs. The Newton quarterback draw is always a possibility, as are designed runs around the edge (almost like a toss play, but with the quarterback keeping it). The Panthers will also mix in some classic option plays, forcing defenders to pick their poison between Newton and one of the team's talented running backs.

The Panthers also make their running game more difficult to defend with clever play design. That's always been a part of their MO, but those efforts have been aided by the versatility of McCaffrey, who can comfortably split out wide in addition to lining up in the backfield. That allows the Panthers to keep both backs on the field together at times, which opens up worlds of possibility regarding misdirection. Discipline will be key in this one, as the Panthers love to use misdirection to suck defenders into one side of the field, only to attack with a run around the opposite edge.

Edge is a key word there. Despite the hulking presence of Stewart, a good percentage of the Panthers run playbook targets the edges of the defense, rather than the interior. While the Panthers will crash Stewart up the middle to keep the defense honest, those plays are generally setting up the perimeter runs on which the Panthers earn the majority of their rushing yards. Certainly the majority of their big plays this year on the ground have come when they've gotten a rusher free around the edge. That will make setting the edge key for this Patriots defense, which struggled in that department against the similar perimeter-based running schemes of the Chiefs. The likes of Trey Flowers, Deatrich Wise and Cassius Marsh will largely be tasked with forcing the Panthers backs to cut those perimeter runs back inside, where defensive reinforcements should be flowing towards the ball.

Those efforts to attack the perimeter on the ground aren't exclusive to the running backs and Newton either. Much like the Chiefs, the Panthers will often motion a receiver across the formation and through the backfield. Most of the time, this is designed to give Newton clues as to the coverage he's facing (if a defender follows the player's motion, man coverage is most likely in store). However, they'll occasionally hand off to said receiver, with that player attempting to race around the edge before the defense can react. They'll also incorporate play fakes to that motion man as part of their misdirection-based rushing plays, forcing the defense to honor the threat of an end around.

In past years, that motion man was typically speedster Ted Ginn Jr. With Ginn now a member of the Saints, rookie Curtis Samuel (#10) has largely taken over that role. A second rounder out of Ohio State, Samuel drew widespread comparisons to Percy Harvin this spring due to his versatility and explosive open-field running ability. Samuel's playing time has gradually increased throughout the young season, as injuries and a glaring need for playmakers have pushed him into more playing time. While he's still raw and largely unproven as a receiver, he flashed that explosiveness with a 31 yard run on a reverse last week.

Benjamin's ability to win contested catches is dangerous in the red zone
Samuel could see a bigger role in the passing game if top receiver Kelvin Benjamin (#13) is unable to go. The Panthers lone star at receiver, Benjamin left Sunday's loss early with an ugly looking knee injury. While an MRI revealed no structural damage, it remains to be seen if Benjamin will be available on Sunday. Things appear to be trending that way, but he could be noticeably hobbled by the knee, which is the same one he suffered an ACL tear to back in 2015.

Just as the Patriots will, I'm going to prepare as if Benjamin is available and healthy enough to be effective. Quite simply, the 6'5", 245 Benjamin is a moose. He's never been close to the fastest or quickest guy, even when fully healthy, but his ability to use his size to win contested catches against smaller defenders has made him a very productive player throughout his still-young career. That contested catch situation has made him a go-to guy in the red zone, as he caught 16 touchdowns throughout his first two seasons. If Benjamin goes, we'll likely see a combination of Stephon Gilmore and Eric Rowe on him, as both corners have excellent length and size that makes them better equipped than most to battle big receivers like Benjamin.

If Benjamin can't go this week, it will be a big blow for Newton, who is already down one top target in injured tight end Greg Olsen. Without Olsen and potentially Benjamin, the Panthers will have to dig deeper into their depth on the outside, much of which has gone relatively un-used in the past. The top receiver in that doomsday scenario would be Devin Funchess (#17), a 2015 second rounder whose size (6'4", 225) has led to many a preseason hype-piece during his young career. Like Benjamin, Funchess isn't particularly fast or quick, but wins by using his size to outposition defenders for the ball in contested situations. While Funchess has upside, he's been maddeningly inconsistent so far in his career. He's displayed some big play ability, averaging 15.5 yards per catch in his career while scoring 9 touchdowns in his first two seasons. However, he also caught fewer than 50% of his targets in both of his two seasons, including an abysmal 39.7% catch rate last year. If Benjamin can't go, expect Funchess to get a faceful of Stephon Gilmore all game. If Benjamin does go, Funchess will probably see more of Eric Rowe. The Pats will expect either of their long corners to win that matchup, while the Panthers will be counting on Funchess to step up and make the kind of plays his talent indicates he should make consistently.

While Funchess would be the teams top receiver in name if Benjamin sits out, that honor truly belongs to the shifty McCaffrey. While the former Stanford superstar has struggled to get going on the ground, he's been just as advertised as a versatile pass catching mismatch. Not only does McCaffrey boast elite foot quickness and legitimate breakaway speed, but he's also already more polished than most veterans as a route runner, with reliable hands to boot. He's been the Panthers best and certainly most consistent pass catcher, leading the team in targets, catches and yards. He's also coming off of the best game of his young career, catching 9 of his 11 targets for 101 yards against the Saints. Efforts like that have resulted in the rookie earning PFF's highest cumulative receiving grade amongst running backs in 2017.

McCaffrey is a dangerous mismatch in the passing game
The Patriots have struggled to contain the league's best pass catching backs in recent memory, with Kareem Hunt's monster week one game particularly standing out as a poor effort. They often used safety Patrick Chung against explosive Saints rookie Alvin Kamara in week two, with the rookie getting behind Chung for a 38 yard bomb. This week, especially given the Panthers lack of true receiving threats around him, I'd suggest taking things a step forward and matching McCaffrey up with Malcolm Butler. Butler has typically matched up with the opposition's quickest, shiftiest threat in the passing game, an honor which is undeniably McCaffrey's on this banged up Panthers team. With McCaffrey's ability to create mismatches and separate from man coverage representing one of the few remaining strengths of this Panthers offense, stiffling him with Butler could make things very tough for the Panthers in passing situations.

Butler could also see some time on the aforementioned Samuel, a rookie who is an explosive athlete but unpolished as a receiver. If Butler does see time shadowing McCaffrey, who often lines up split out as a slot receiver, it would likely be Jonathan Jones, who runs a 4.3 40 himself, tasked with chasing Samuel around. While the Panthers generally use Samuel to test the defense horizontally with across formation motion and screens, his pure speed means a deep shot could always be coming. He'll be joined in three receiver sets by Russell Shepard (#19), who like Samuel is more of an athlete than polished receiver. Known more for his special teams play than pass catching ability, Shepard only has five targets and three catches this season, but one of those catches went for a 40 yard touchdown in Week One. That's still more production than Damiere Byrd (#18), a diminutive (5'9", 180) but explosive athlete who has spent the bulk of the last two seasons on the practice squad. Byrd has yet to be targeted in his 55 snaps.

The Panthers have long lacked depth at receiver, but have gotten away with it in the past partly due to the pass catching production of long-time tight end Greg Olsen. Without Olsen, they're without a significant part of their offense, as his ability to work his way open in the middle of the field was key to the Panthers ball control offense. Ed Dickson (#84) has been an iron man in the wake of Olsen's absence, playing just about every snap since the star pass catcher went down. A former third round pick of the Ravens back in 2010, Dickson has stuck around for a while in the NFL. While he has every down versatility, Dickson doesn't stand out either as a blocker or as a pass catcher. This is a rare game when the Patriots could potential guard the opposing tight end with a linebacker, as Kyle Van Noy is more than athletic enough to hang with the plodding Dickson. Chris Manhertz (#82), a basketball-conversion who picked up the sport post college in 2015, has been elevated to second tight end duties in the absence of Olsen.

Going through this motley crew of pass catching "threats" highlights the Panthers need to establish the run. Quite simply, they aren't equipped at all to spread it out and throw the ball efficiently. Their offense is designed for the pass to compliment the run, chipping in the occasional big play from the deep ball (often set up by play action) while otherwise assisting the ball control offense with dink-and-dunk plays.

That gives the defense more incentive to load up and take away their rushing attack, something which most teams have been able to do against them. It's unclear if linebacker Dont'a Hightower will return this week, but this would certainly a timely week for him to return given the Panthers run-first tendencies. Hightower would presumably move back to an off-the-ball linebacking spot, rather than the edge-setting strong-side role he played in the team's week one loss. Lining up off the line in the middle of the defense would allow Hightower to impact the game in multiple ways. Not only does he disrupt plays by coming downhill with a fury, but his ability to diagnose plays and effect communication at the second level would be a major benefit against a team that runs so many misdirection concepts. If Hightower can't go, Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts would remain the starters, with Roberts' aggressive tendencies making him an obvious target of the Panthers play action and misdirection schemes.

While the play design often makes the Panthers difficult to cope with, their offensive line play has held the offense back somewhat. While they've actually gotten pretty good play on the interior, starting tackles Matt Kalil (#75) and Daryl Williams (#60) have struggled. It's hard to be surprised by that, as Kalil has largely been a massive bust since the Vikings made him the fourth overall pick back in 2012. The Panthers signed him this offseason to replace the released Michael Oher, but Kalil's struggles with power on the edge have followed him from Minnesota to Carolina so far this season. On the opposite side of the line, power is not an issue for the 335 pound Williams, a third year player who ascended to his starting role last season after a concussion forced Oher from the lineup. However, Williams is not the most fleet of foot, and is reliant on using his massive frame to engulf opponents and keep them within his grasp.

Things could be far worse on the interior, as long time starter (and yes, the left tackle's older brother) Ryan Kalil went down in Week 2 with a neck injury. Kalil has yet to return and doesn't appear likely to do so this week, but the Panthers have been fortunate to get solid play from his replacement, Tyler Larsen (#69). In fact, Larsen currently boasts the sixth highest grade amongst centers this year from PFF. He's bookended with one of the league's better duos at guard. Right guard has been manned by Trai Turner (#70) ever since he was drafted in the third round in 2014, with the LSU product developing into one of the game's best. Turner was rewarded for his development with a well-deserved contract extension this offseason. The left side is manned by Andrew Norwell (#68), who has likewise developed into an excellent starter since signing as an UDFA during that same 2014 offseason.

Carolina defense vs Patriots offense

How have the Panthers gone 2-1 despite an offense that ranks amongst the worst in the league? As usual, the answer resides in their defense, which once again appears to be one of the league's top units. Some of the faces have changed since that 2015 Super Bowl appearance, but the Panthers defense is still one of the best. In fact, they have been the best with regards to yards allowed (251.6 per game), while ranking second in points (13.3 per game) and first downs allowed (44). They've been particularly stingy against the pass, ranking third in the league in net yards per pass attempt (5.0).

While the Panthers certainly have impressive defensive personnel, their stinginess against the pass can be attributed somewhat to scheme execution. They have long employed Cover 3 zone coverage, a scheme popularized around the league by the rise of the Seattle Seahawks. That scheme splits the deep portion of the field into thirds, typically with the boundary corners responsible for their side of the field vertically and a deep safety patrolling the middle. The short/intermediate part of the field is divided into four zones, typically in the Panthers case manned by the starting three linebackers and a strong safety. When executed properly, this scheme takes away the deep ball and forces the opposition into checkdown after checkdown, with the zone giving the defense plenty of players ready to swarm to the ball and eliminate yards after the catch on those short passes.

Want statistical evidence of how this scheme works? Only the Dolphins, Saints and Bucs have surrendered a higher completion percentage than the 70.8 the Panthers have yielded through three games. However, only three teams (Denver, Pittsburgh and Jacksonville) have given up fewer yards per completion than the 6.0 Carolina currently gives up. They've given up just six passing plays of 20+ yards and just one of 40+, figures which also rank amongst the league leaders. That's playing your scheme to perfection.

If there is a weakness to attack here, it would be the run defense. The Panthers aren't necessarily bad against the run, but they've been decidedly average through three weeks, allowing 4.1 yards per carry. That number is right around the middle of the pack and surprising given the excellent play of their linebackers.

The Panthers are one of the few teams in the league, 4-3 front or otherwise, to play the majority of their snaps in base personnel. They can do that because they have arguably the best starting trio in the league, with Luke Keuchly (#59), Thomas Davis (#58) and Shaq Thompson (#54). All three are tremendous athletes with the range to hold up in coverage against matchups that would devastate most linebackers. Instead, these guys can fly around those intermediate/short zones, making it very difficult to find space over the middle. Even if a receiver is able to find an opening in those shallow zones, these guys use their range to swarm to the ball, making physical tackles to limit yards after the catch. They are also all instinctive and aggressive against the run, quickly diagnosing plays and shooting gaps to blow up opposing running backs.

Keuchly is a force in the middle of the Panthers defense
Of those three, Keuchly is the best and most accomplished. In fact, he might be the best linebacker in the league. In addition to his obvious physical talent, Keuchly is one of the smartest defensive players in the NFL, regardless of position. His devotion to film study brings benefits that flash on tape, as he consistently makes his read and shoots the correct gap before the offensive play has even begun to develop. When the Patriots do decide to run, they'll have to get a hat on him, a thankless job that will largely fall to the interior trio of Joe Thuney, David Andrews and Shaq Mason.

As good as Keuchly has been, Davis has been nearly his equal during the Panthers recent run of success. The 34 year old veteran shows no signs of slowing down, as he currently holds PFF's 7th highest grade amongst linebackers (Keuchly ranks fourth). Like Keuchly, Davis combines excellent physical talent with a veteran's approach to the game, allowing him to get a step up on the competition with anticipation. Davis is on the injury report this week with a rib injury that briefly forced him out of last weeks game, but his ability to return to that game indicates that he'll likely be out there this Sunday. I'd still keep an eye on his status throughout the week (as of Friday morning, he still had not practiced), as the Panthers would surely miss him should be unavailable Sunday. If his injury gets aggravated, 2015 fifth rounder David Mayo (#55) would likely see a major snap increase as the next man up.

The third linebacker is Thompson, who has steadily seen his level of play and playing time rise since becoming a first round pick in 2015. At 6'0" and "just" 230 pound, Thompson is smaller than your typical linebacker, but he's an absolute freak athlete who uses his range to chase down ball carriers from sideline to sideline. That range makes him an asset on running downs and a perfect fit for the Panthers zone coverage schemes. Thompson's explosive athleticism also makes him a force when called upon to blitz. Fun fact: Thompson was actually drafted by the Red Sox in 2012 and played for the organization's Gulf Coast League team that summer, only to divert his full attention to college football after going 0-39 with 37 strikeouts in 13 games. He certainly made the right choice.

Short is a disruptive presence inside
Up front, the Panthers are led by Kawann Short (#99), who has quietly developed into one of the league's best defensive tackles. Short is big (6'3", 315), long and explosive, who uses those long levers to consistently make plays against the run and pass. Currently PFF's 9th highest graded defensive tackle, Short is a problematic matchup for any of the Patriots interior linemen one-on-one. I'm sure the Patriots blocking schemes will pay plenty of attention to Short, as he's by far the most disruptive member of a solid defensive line.

Short is bookended on the interior by Star Lotulelei (#98), a fellow 2013 draftee. Lotulelei was actually drafted 14th overall, one round before Short, and he looked like a potential star in his impressive rookie season. Since then he's been surpassed development-wise by his draftmate Short, but Lotulelei has become a fine player himself, particularly against the run. He's another big body (6'2", 315) who occupies blockers and gap responsibilities with pure mass and strength. Lotulelei isn't the athlete or playmaker Short is, but he's a load to move off his gap with single blocking.

Former Patriots starter Kyle Love (#93) has been the third man in this rotation. Love has stuck around for three seasons now in Carolina, serving as valuable veteran depth on the interior. He's yet another big body (6'1", 310) built to occupy blockers and gaps with his pure mass. 2016 first round pick Vernon Butler (#92) is a distant fourth in the rotation for now, as injuries have consistently kept him from moving up the depth chart. He missed six games and never was quite right health-wise after suffering a high ankle sprain in week three of his rookie year, and missed most of the preseason after spraining his knee in the first game. At 6'4", 330, Butler is actually the biggest guy in this group, and he has the length and explosion to become a Short-esque playmaker if the light comes on for him. Butler saw a season high 19 defensive snaps last week, but still played fewer than Love (23).

There's a steady rotation at defensive end, as three players have more than 85 snaps through three games. Seven year veteran Mario Addison (#97) leads the rotation with 119 snaps played, recording 2 sacks through three weeks. A contributor as a rotational pass rusher since the 2014 season for the Panthers, Addison finally pushed his way into the starting lineup this season after recording 9.5 sacks last year in a supporting role. Addison typically plays on the right side, and will pose a sizeable challenge for Nate Solder, who has struggled so far in 2017.

Long-time Panther and former star Charles Johnson (#95) is nominally the starter on the left side, but the edge spot across from Addison is a rotation between Johnson and Julius Peppers (#90), who at age 37 decided to sign back with the team he spent the first eight years of his Hall of Fame worthy career. Johnson is the preferred option on early downs and base defense situations, while Peppers is being used mostly as a pass rushing specialist. Peppers shows no signs of slowing down, as he leads the team with 2.5 sacks. Johnson has been decent against the run, but he's done next to nothing as a pass rusher in 2017. At age 31, Johnson looks like he's already well past his prime, a stretch from 2010-2013 in which he averaged 11 sacks a season. He managed just 4 sacks in 13 starts last year and has yet to record one in 2017.

Veteran Wes Horton (#96) rounds out the rotation, largely by giving Addison the occasional breather on the right side. He's stuck around now for five seasons in Carolina, with stints as a starter in 2014 and 2016. Horton has had some good moments in his rotational role this year, particularly as a pass rusher.

In the secondary, things could be shaken up this week if starting cornerback Daryl Worley (#26) is unable to go. Worley, the team's third round pick from last year, emerged as a rookie starter last year and had been playing well before a shoulder injury forced him from Sunday's loss. He's an excellent fit for the Panthers zone coverages, as he excels at coming up and making open field tackles short of the sticks. He also hasn't practiced yet this week with that shoulder injury. If he can't go Sunday, it will likely mean more snaps for veteran Captain Munnerlyn (#41), who mans the slot when everyone's healthy. Now in his ninth year, Munnerlyn signed back with the Panthers franchise that drafted him this summer after spending the previous three seasons in Minnesota. He remains a solid coverage player, albeit one better suited to nickel duties than a full-time role.

If Worley can't go, the bigger question is who would step up as the third corner. Coach Ron Rivera hinted this week that the team did trade for cornerback Kevon Seymour (#27) for a reason. An athletic prospect from USC, Seymour was a sixth round pick who exceeded expectations last year as a Bills rookie, starting three games and flashing coverage ability. With a new regime in town, Seymour quickly became expendable in Buffalo, who flipped him to Carolina during final roster cutdowns for receiver Kaelin Clay. He's still been on the Panthers roster longer than Ladarius Gunter (#23), the other option on the depth chart. A 2015 UDFA, Gunter started 15 games last year for the injury riddled Packers, but was often targeted with success by opposing quarterbacks. With their corner depth improved and healthy, the Packers released Gunter early this season, allowing the Panthers to scoop him up on waivers.

Bradberry is the Panthers top corner
The top corner spot belongs to James Bradberry (#24), a role he has held since his selection in the second round last year. At 6'1" and 212 pounds, Bradberry is a big, long corner built perfectly to use his physicality, whether playing press against vertical routes or shooting up to make tackles in run support. He's been a little up-and-down throughout his brief career, but the positive flashes hint at his upside as a number one corner. While he's an excellent athlete for his size, Bradberry still struggles with elite quickness and speed if he can't get his hands on the receiver early. That makes him a target for the Patriots to go after with Brandin Cooks, who proved amongst other things last week that he's really effing fast.

Some teams (your Patriots, for instance) spend lots of snaps in three safety personnel packages. The Panthers, on the other hand, haven't played a single snap with a third safety on the field. Veteran starters Curt Coleman (#20) and Mike Adams (#29) have played every defensive snap, not allowing backups Demetrius Cox or Colin Jones to see the field once. Coleman typically roams the deep middle of the field as the free safety, while Adams plays closer to the line of scrimmage and makes more of an impact against the run. Both Coleman and Adams are accomplished veterans who won't be manipulated by Tom Brady as easily as some of the younger safeties the Pats have faced in the past two weeks. They also aren't elite athletes for their position anymore, and are more reliant on recognition and positioning than pure range in coverage at this point in their careers. Still, Coleman can be a ballhawk when at his best, picking off 11 passes in the past two seasons (including 7 in their 2015 Super Bowl run). Adams is an active player in the box who peaked later in his career, earning two Pro Bowl berths over the past three seasons with the Colts. The 36 year old signed with Panthers this offseason to provide some veteran leadership on the backend.

There's good (not great, but good) personnel here, but passing the ball against Carolina is all about scheme. Carolina's Cover 3 coverage is designed to take away many of the man beating concepts that make up a big chunk of New England's playbook: bunch formations, pick plays, crossing routes, etc. With the middle of the field crowded by Carolina's big rangy linebackers, it will be tough to get the dink-and-dunk game going efficiently, as yards after the catch will be hard to come by on the short stuff.

However, this will be a game where the 2017 Patriots vertical passing game will really come in handy. With only three players back deep in typical cover 3, the Patriots should be able to use play design to create one-on-one matchups. The two man game with Gronk and Cooks could be devastating, as attacking the seams with both players could create a pick your poison situation for the deep safety. Cooks is fast enough to run by any one of the Panthers corners, with or without Worley, if left one-on-one. His speed also makes him an ideal candidate to use as a decoy, running off the boundary corner to open space underneath for an outbreaking route.

Special teams

The Panthers top two draft picks have assumed roles in their return game right off the back. McCaffrey is the primary punt returner, a job he excelled at in college. He has yet to break one at the pro level, averaging just 4.4 yards per return in 9 opportunities, but his open field running ability makes him a threat every time he catches one back there. The same can be said for Curtis Samuel, the Panthers top kick returner. Samuel has only gotten the chance to return one kickoff, but he showcased his explosion by taking that one 30 yards back.

The kicking game rests on the reliable foot of veteran Graham Gano, who has yet to miss a kick in 2017. Gano doesn't necessarily have the biggest leg, but he's money from 50 yards in. His leg has still be strong enough to keep booming touchbacks, as the Panthers have yet to face a return attempt on kickoffs. Punts are handled by journeyman Michael Palardy, who beat out veteran Andy Lee for the job in training camp. He's been fine so far, aided by strong coverage teams that have held opponents to just 4.9 yards per return.