NEPD Editor: Matthew Jones
The New England Patriots return from their bye week in order to make their only Monday Night Football appearance of the season, hoping to build off of their 55-point offensive explosion two weeks ago in what should be a difficult road matchup against the 6-3 Carolina Panthers, who are currently riding a five-game winning streak and boast top-ten rankings in rushing offense, rushing defense, and passing defense. Read on for ten keys to one of New England’s most difficult remaining regular-season contests.
1. Can Tom Brady build on the success he had passing the ball against Pittsburgh?
This contest represents the second straight contest Tom Brady and the Patriots have had against a top-five pass defense, but what was expected to be a difficult game against the Steelers two weeks ago turned out to be anything but, with Brady completing 69.7% of his passes and averaging 13.1 yards per attempt on the game, ultimately gaining 432 yards through the air and throwing four touchdown passes, a performance which seemed almost impossible in the context of Brady’s struggles throughout the rest of the season. New England is hoping that their offense has finally turned the corner now that wide receiver Aaron Dobson is starting to become more comfortable in the offense and tight end Rob Gronkowski and wide receiver Danny Amendola are finally healthy.
However, before getting too excited about the return of the Patriots’ prolific passing attack, it’s important to remember that the team also had the services of all of the aforementioned players at their disposal in the previous contest against the Miami Dolphins, a game which the Patriots won but was also marked by a pathetic 116-yard, one-touchdown performance by Brady in which the quarterback completed 59.1% of his passes and averaged 5.3 yards per attempt, with the Patriots converting just two of their ten third-down conversion attempts. Brady’s hand appeared to be swollen throughout the game, which may have affected his accuracy, although the quarterback downplayed that notion. The Panthers are allowing just 201.3 yards per game through the air, but Brady should be able to surpass that figure.
2. What impact will Shane Vereen have in his return to the field from short-term I.R.?
Running back Shane Vereen, a second-round pick in 2011 whose career had been plagued by injuries in his first two seasons in the league, finally appeared to be emerging as a legitimate threat out of the backfield after a critically-important performance at Buffalo in New England’s season opener, a game in which he contributed 159 total yards on twenty-one touches, gaining 101 yards on fourteen carries and adding seven receptions for 58 yards. However, not long after the game it was announced that the Patriots would be using their short-term injured reserve designation on Vereen after it was discovered that the running back would need surgery to repair a dislocated bone in his wrist. Since then, the Patriots have spelled Stevan Ridley with a combination of LeGarrette Blount (70 carries) and Brandon Bolden (38), both of whom have been effective but neither of whom can be considered an effective receiving option out of the backfield.
That should open the door for Vereen to contribute immediately in his return to the field in the passing game, an area where the Patriots have struggled this season, with the exception of their most recent performance versus the Pittsburgh Steelers. On the season, Tom Brady is completing a career-low 57.1% of his passes, so having a reliable pass-catcher out of the backfield should provide a healthy boost to his efficiency. Vereen is also capable of offering receiving value split out wide, something none of New England’s other backs are ideal candidates for.
3. Can New England’s offensive tackles protect Tom Brady from edge rushers?
The Panthers have recorded twenty-five sacks on the season, over half of which can be attributed to their defensive ends, starting left end Charles Johnson, who signed a six-year, $76 million deal back in 2011 and currently has 8.5 sacks on the season, and starting right end Greg Hardy, who has five sacks on the year and who the team has expressed interest in re-signing to a lucrative multi-year extension of his own. The two players have also accounted for seventeen of Carolina’s thirty-five quarterback hits and 58 of the team’s 113 pressures. That should put plenty of pressure on Patriots left tackle Nate Solder and right tackle Marcus Cannon to protect the edge and afford Tom Brady time to throw. Brady is really struggling under pressure so far this season, having completed just 48.5% of his passes under pressure and having been sacked on twenty-six of 126 dropbacks against pressure.
Solder, one of the league’s premier left tackles, should be able to limit Hardy’s effectiveness, but this week’s contest represents an acid test of sorts for Cannon, who stepped into the team’s starting right tackle role just two games ago and whose viability as a starter at the position remains unclear. He has not surrendered a sack in either of the team’s past two games, but did allow one quarterback hit and three pressures in the team’s win over the Steelers, although the performance should overall be considered a success because it came against Pittsburgh’s highly-regarded outside linebacker, Lamarr Woodley. Cannon has an opportunity to strengthen his case for being a starting-caliber lineman this week.
4. Will the Patriots be able to get any push against Carolina’s stout run defense?
Last season, the Panthers ranked fourteenth against the run, but proved susceptible to interior rushing attempts because of their weak group of defensive tackles, a group which primarily relied upon Dwan Edwards, Ron Edwards, Sione Fua, and Andre Neblett, none of whom were effective run defenders. However, Carolina accurately identified their weakness at the position and addressed it early in the 2013 NFL Draft, stealing 315-pound Utah nose tackle Star Lotulelei fourteenth overall after it was discovered that he had a heart condition, then using their second-round pick, number forty-four overall, to double-dip at the position, bringing in decorated 310-pound Purdue under-tackle Kawann Short. Lotulelei and Short have assumed starting roles as rookies, providing the Panthers with a pair of players who can effectively clog the middle of the defensive line and allow Carolina’s star middle linebacker, Luke Kuechly, to roam the field unmolested by offensive linemen.
The result has been a run defense which ranks second in the league despite having player against some of the most high-profile backs in the league, including Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch, Buffalo’s C.J. Spiller, Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson, Atlanta’s Steven Jackson, and San Francisco’s Frank Gore, with their opponents gaining an average of just eighty-two yards per game. The team defends the edges particularly well, ranking second in Adjusted Line Yards on runs behind an opponent’s left tackle (1.84) and right tackle (2.15), according to Football Outsiders. New England’s offensive line is in for the most difficult game of their season from a run-blocking standpoint.
5. Which Panthers player(s) will be responsible for coverage on Rob Gronkowski?
Carolina comes into the game in possession of the league’s number five pass defense, an impressive standing which is somewhat inflated by having played against the likes of E.J. Manuel, Carson Palmer, Sam Bradford, Mike Glennon, a depleted Falcons passing attack which was missing Julio Jones and Roddy White, and San Francisco’s passing offense, which ranks last in the league, hardly a murderer’s row. The figure also speaks to Carolina’s ability to effectively create pressure moreso than it does their talent in the secondary, which has been a surprisingly effective unit but which lacks any star players, being composed of left cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, right cornerback Melvin White, third cornerback Drayton Florence, free safety Mike Mitchell, and strong safety Quintin Mikell, who is part of a platoon which also includes undrafted rookie Robert Lester.
Although it’s possible that either of the team’s safeties could see time in coverage on Gronkowski, the most likely options for covering New England’s most dangerous offensive weapon are Carolina’s top two linebackers, Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly. Davis, a converted strong safety, has been particularly effective as the team’s coverage linebacker this season, having held opponents to 5.3 yards per attempt and 6.9 yards per reception, without having surrendered a touchdown. However, at 6’1” and 235 pounds, Davis is significantly smaller than the 6’6”, 265-pound Gronkowski. Kuechly’s a couple of inches taller, so he may be the second man up if Davis struggles to begin the game. Carolina did a great job of covering Vernon Davis last week, holding him to one reception for two yards, but the taller Tony Gonzalez had success against them two weeks ago, catching six of seven targets for 81 yards and a touchdown.
6. Can New England’s porous run defense make a statement against the Panthers?
Due in large part to the myriad injuries New England’s defense has sustained this season, the team’s typically-strong run defense has dramatically fallen off, with the team allowing an average of 128.2 yards per game on the ground, a figure which ranks third-worst in the league. That number is almost identical to Carolina’s average of 127.8 yards per game on the ground, which ranks them as the tenth-best rushing attack in the league. The team uses a variety of creative playcalls in the run game, ranging from read-options to triple-options, which take advantage of the team’s unique personnel in the backfield, beginning with Cam Newtown but also including fullback Mike Tolbert and running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. Carolina is actually underperforming on interior runs to some extent this season, ranking just sixteenth in the league in Adjusted Line Yards (3.91), according to Football Outsiders, but should nonetheless attempt to pound the ball up the middle early and often this week against a Patriots defense which is ranked 30th in the league on those same runs, permitting an average of 4.51 yards per carry there.
Neither of the team’s starters, Chris Jones or Joe Vellano, is particularly stout, so this is a week in which the Patriots may integrate recently-acquired nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga into the defense in a more significant capacity than he appeared in against Pittsburgh, where he played twenty-seven snaps. Sopoaga should be more familiar with the team’s defense by now, and the Patriots may employ more seven-man defensive fronts, rather than the six-man fronts they typically field in order to work an additional defensive back onto the field. Carolina has one of the league’s top centers in Ryan Kalil and a quality left guard in Travelle Wharton.
7. What can the Patriots do to confuse and/or otherwise limit Cam Newton?
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick was recorded during the team’s victory over the Steelers two weeks ago imploring his defensive front to keep Ben Roethlisberger in the pocket, suggesting that creating pressure may not necessarily be the best option given Roethlisberger’s elusiveness and ability to extend plays by scrambling, allowing his receivers more time to uncover themselves from New England’s defensive backs; effectively, Belichick wanted to challenge Roethlisberger to beat the team with his ability to read defenses rather than by escaping defenders long enough to find receivers downfield. That same strategy may well apply to Panthers quarterback Cam Newton this week, who, like Roethlisberger, is a massive passer who’s difficult not only to catch but also to tackle; it may be more beneficial for the Patriots to contain Newton and force him to decipher his opponent’s complex coverages rather than giving him an opportunity to break containment and pick up big gains on the ground.
That theory is supported by Newton’s performance against additional rushers this season, with the quarterback posting similar numbers when not blitzed (63.0% passing, 7.4 yards per attempt) and when blitzed (62.4% passing, 7.1 yards per attempt.) Newton’s touchdown-to-interception ratio suffers a bit versus the blitz, but not enough to warrant attempting to overload Carolina’s protections on a consistent basis. Newton is also more likely to scramble under pressure, whereas he rarely leaves the pocket preemptively. However, it is worth mentioning that last season the opposite was true: Newton’s completion percentage dropped 8.3% and yards per attempt fell by a full yard against the blitz.
8. How much separation will Steve Smith be able to get against Aqib Talib?
It appears that Patriots left cornerback Aqib Talib will return to the field this week after exiting the team’s contest versus New Orleans early a month ago with a hip injury; he’s back just in time, as New England is currently dealing with a further depletion of their secondary (more on that below) and will be tasked with limiting wide receiver Steve Smith’s production this week. This matchup appears to favor the Patriots, as Talib has been outstanding this season, while Smith has failed to play up to his reputation as one of the league’s top receivers, catching just 42/72 targets (58.3%) for 450 yards (10.7 per reception, 6.3 per attempt) and three touchdowns, dropping five passes. Smith has failed to reach seventy yards in a game this season, with last week’s 6/10, 63-yard performance representing his second-highest total of the season, a game in which he also dropped two passes.
Unfortunately, there’s not exactly a rich history of recent film featuring Smith versus Talib, as despite having played in the NFC South during Talib’s tenure with the Buccaneers, Talib was often either missing from the field or assigned to another receiver. The last time Smith saw targets with Talib in coverage was in week ten of the 2010 season, in which he caught three-of-five targets for 47 yards, dropping a pass as well. There should be plenty of plenty of Talib/Smith this week, though, as the Patriots have typically assigned Talib to defend an opponent’s top option in shadow coverage this season. Carolina’s twenty-eighth-ranked passing offense will be forced to rely on the likes of Greg Olsen and Brandon LaFell if Smith is eliminated from the game.
9. How will New England’s rookies from Rutgers fare as secondary starters?
Although the Patriots will likely see Aqib Talib return to the field, they will also be without the services of two of their other starters in the secondary, right cornerback Alfonzo Dennard (knee) and strong safety Steve Gregory (thumb), who will likely be replaced by the team’s two rookie draft picks from Rutgers, third-round picks Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon, respectively. Ryan has been relatively effective in what has turned into a regular role with the team’s defense due to Talib’s absence, holding opponents to 10/20 passing since Talib’s injury, with opponents gaining 142 yards and one touchdown on those attempts and Ryan returning a Geno Smith interception for a touchdown in week seven. He draws a matchup against 6’2” receiver Brandon LaFell, who has caught 31/49 passes on the season for 400 yards and three touchdowns, although 79 of those came on one pass against Minnesota.
Harmon’s effectiveness, however, is a bit more difficult to predict, as he has only seen 125 defensive snaps this season. There is some cause for optimism based on his two most recent performances, both games in which he recorded an interception, but he was something of a liability in a substantial preseason role, missing six tackles, including four against the Lions. New England’s usual starter, Gregory, has been effective this season but is not considered a long-term solution, so this game should offer some insight into Harmon’s progress as well as a look at the team’s top in-house candidate to take over for Gregory down the road.
10. Can New England capitalize on Carolina’s weak right guard/tackle combination?
Mentioned previously was the fact that the Panthers employ one of the league’s top centers in Ryan Kalil, who earned a six-year, $49 million contract prior to the start of the 2011 season, and an efficient starting left guard in Travelle Wharton; the team also has one of the league’s top left tackles in Jordan Gross, a 2003 first-round pick who has hinted at the possibility of retirement following the conclusion of this season but who is still playing at a Pro Bowl level at thirty-three years old, having allowed just four sacks and sixteen pressures on the season with no additional quarterback hits surrendered. Thus, the left side of Carolina’s offensive line should be considered relatively difficult to penetrate by New England’s pass rushers. However, the opposite side of the line looks appealing, where the team is projected to start Nate Chandler at right guard at Byron Bell at right tackle.
Chandler took over for previous starter Chris Scott last week after the latter went down with a knee injury early in the game; the former went on to surrender two sacks and three additional pressures. Bell, on the other hand, has rebounded well since allowing three sacks and four pressures against the Bills in week two, having held opponents to just one sack since, but is hardly among the league’s most nimble pass protectors and certainly presents a more appetizing target for the Patriots to target than Gross. Thus, while right end Chandler Jones will face one of his most difficult matchups of the season in Gross, left end Rob Ninkovich may have a chance to add to his three sacks against Bell, and nose tackle Chris Jones could be able to add his sixth sack of the season versus Chandler.
Final Prediction: Patriots 28, Panthers 24