Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Patriots In For Heavy Dose Of Stewart, Tolbert And Newton Vs. Panthers

Panthers' quarterback Cam Newton is most effecting on the boot action
The last time Patriots' fans saw their team play the Carolina Panthers Aqib Talib and Steve Smith started a brawl, Panthers' linebacker Luke Kuelchy mugged Rob Gronkowski in the end zone on the same play that Tom Brady threw a game-ending interception.

The end of that 2013 week 10 game wasn't even close to the end of the ill feelings, but time, as they say, heals all wounds. The teams went their separate ways, both finishing the season with identical 12-4 records, both clinching first round byes and both eliminated from the tournament before reaching the ultimate prize.

The teams then experienced different levels of success in 2014, with New England equaling their 12-4 record from 2013 and winning their fourth world championship while Carolina hit the skids with a 7-8-1 tally - hardly noteworthy, other than the fact that they won the NFC South by virtue of playing the Cincinnati Bengals to a tie in week six...

...after which Carolina dropped six straight, then righted their ship, finishing with four consecutive wins to edge out the New Orleans Saints by a half game for the division title. But these cats were hardly pushovers, knocking off the upstart Arizona Cardinals in the wildcard round before dropping a tough decision to the eventual NFC Champion Seahawks in Seattle.

The reason for such a steep decline in win total from one year to the next? A precipitous drop from being the second-ranked scoring defense in the NFL in 2013 to an abysmal 21st last season.

Despite having a massive and talented front seven led by middle linebacker Kuelchy and featuring run-plugging tackles Star Lolulelei and Kwann Short, the Panthers gave up 4.5 yards per carry to opposing running backs - and it was worse than it appeared on the surface.

The interior run defense was horrific, surrendering 5.5 yards per carry, something that wasn't an anomaly, as every single opponent Carolina faced in 2014 ran the ball with success right up the gut - contrasting that with the fact that the Panthers gave up two yards per carry less on the wings despite losing left end Greg Hardy and having to start the rookie Kony Ealy in his place.

So bad was the interior defense that it essentially turned the  Panthers' secondary into run support specialists as six of the top ten tacklers on the team played on the third level - meaning that the opposing running back was at least four yards into the second level before the Panthers' laid a glove on them, this despite having two of the top linebackers in the NFL, Kuechly and Thomas Davis playing sideline to sideline pursuit.

But halfway through their six-game skid that saw them fall to 3-8-1 and surely a top 10 draft pick, the run defense made a significant improvement and their yards allowed per game dropped from 139 a game for the first nine games of the season to a more manageable 86, nearly a 50 yard per game improvement that they carried into the playoffs, holding the Cardinals to 27 rushing yards and just 78 yards of total offense for the game.

And that is essentially what the Patriots offense will get on Friday night - room up the middle, especially off left guard, to run the football, but if they try to find the edge against Ealy, blind side end Charles Johnson and that linebacking corps that now includes rookie Shaq Thompson, they will be just as ineffective as they were against the Saints last weekend.

New England should have decent success against the Panthers' secondary, however, as they are counting on the aging Peanut Tillman to handle one corner opposite Josh Norman while Bene Benwikere handles the slot. The safeties will most likely consist of greybeard Roman Harper and second year free safety Tre Boston...

...but where they will have to be careful is dealing with the Panthers' linebackers against their tight ends and running backs. Thompson is an elite cover backer if there ever was one and has the speed and mirroring technique to give either James White or Dion Lewis fits in coverage. Even as a middle linebacker, Kuechly will take on the tight ends and has the strength to battle them down the field as his 13 passes defended last season will attest. That number led the team.

The pass rush could be of concern as well. Hardy is gone to Dallas, but Johnson (8.5 sacks) is a relentless bull rusher from the blind side while Ealy (4.0) and Mario Addison (6.0) are emerging pass rushing talents that use their speed off the strong side. The middle of the line shows up as well, with Short and Dwan Edwards accounting for 7.5 sacks last season.

The way that the defense ended last season has to be encouraging for them, and adding Thompson to the linebacking corps shores up a glaring hole in the front seven, but if the Patriots can contain the Panthers' pass rush Both Tom Brady and Jimmy Garoppolo should find some good success throwing against their elderly secondary.

But as stout as their defense appears to be, it is the Panthers' offense that should be most concerning to New England, as they present skill and depth in every area where the Patriots have come up short this preseason.

Operating behind an offensive line that features an excellent mix of youth and experience, signal caller Can Newton may be the best boot option quarterback in the league, and most opponents game plan to shadow him to keep the damage down to a minimum - which is fine for coach Ron Rivera, as that sort of plan opens up a little more room for Newton's weapons to operate.

The Panthers' offense was far more dynamic in terms of yardage gained from scrimmage in 2014, most of that coming from Newton throwing to the burly tandem of Kelvin Benjamin and Greg Olsen, both of whom ended up with 1008 yards on the season in Carolina's diverse attack - but Benjamin tore an ACL in practice and is done for the season, meaning that if the Panthers want a passing game similar to what they experienced last season, rookie Devin Funchess will have to step up.

Funchess has a similar build and skill set to Benjamin, and is more of a steady target as Benjamin had some concentration lapses, but would also make the spectacular catch seem routine. Olsen is also a solid target out of the tight end position and is apt to give the Patriots some problems up the seam as he averages right around 12 yards per reception.
Fullback Tolbert is a load to bring down in the pattern

The one thing that was consistently missing from the Panthers' passing game was a deep threat, as they let journeyman Ted Ginn, Jr. walk to Arizona in free agency last offseason, where he suffered with the rest of the Cardinals' pass catchers with a bad quarterback situation - but they were able to lure him back to Charlotte where he enjoyed modest success as the team's vertical threat in 2013.

Corey Brown is another name to look out for, as he has the speed to take the top off a defense as does Stephen Hill, who is anxious to prove that his injury problems are behind him. All three have sub 4.4 speed, which gives Newton a distinct advantage in his boot-action audibles, as he can have the speedsters clear the corners out deep,

Olsen can take up a linebacker and running back Jonathan Stewart can occupy a safety, leaving plenty of room for the mobile signal caller to navigate through the second level. Newton also has some veteran safety valves in long-time Patriots' nemesis Jericho Cotchery, second-year man Brentin Bersin, Jerrett Boykin and move tight end Ed Dickson.

Newton averaged 5.2 yards per carry in 2014, rushing the ball just over 100 times for 539 yards and five touchdowns, while Stewart carried for just over 800 yards and a 4.6 yard per carry average - but where Newton, Stewart and fullback Mike Tolbert are going to try to hurt the Patriots on Friday night is in the passing game.

Stewart is a capable pass catcher out of the backfield and Tolbert is a load in the pattern, catching 163 balls in his six seasons for nearly 1500 yards, though the Panthers use him as a battering ram and change up type back, averaging 3.6 yards per carry in his career and making the Pro Bowl in 2013...

...and it was actually Tolbert's absence with a knee injury suffered against the Bears in week 5 that coincided with the Panthers' mid-season losing streak, and were 0-5-1 with him on the shelf, scoring a full touchdown per game less than their season average during his time on the short-term IR.

Both Tolbert and Stewart are going to also try the interior of the Patriots' defensive line in the running game, as will Fozzy Whittaker as a change of pace back, though New England will probably also get a healthy dose of Auburn rookie Cameron Artis-Payne later in the game.

None of these backs are particularly speedy, as Rivera prefers bruisers to do his ground work, but they are all big, determined runners with excellent hands out of the backfield, which should put a lot of stress on the Patriots' safety corps.

As for Newton, expect to see linebacker Rob Ninkovich work as a shadow on him, something he has should a knack for in the past, but he, along with the rest of the Patriots' front seven, will have to contend with Carolina's young but very stout offensive line, anchored by former Minnesota Viking Ryan Kalil at the pivot and featuring former Baltimore Raven Michael Oher at the left tackle spot.

Andrew Norwell and Trai Turner flank Kalil and together form a very solid offensive line, perhaps one of the best the Patriots are likely to see this season, but for New England to have any success at all against such a diverse offense, the pass rush is going to have to get to Newton, and the secondary - particularly the safeties - along with the linebackers must exhibit discipline in coverage of the running backs and tight ends to ensure that Newton doesn't gain the edge on the boot action.

This is the type of game that will allow Belichick to see what he has for linebacker depth on defense and to test the gap discipline of the entire front seven, and on offense the test will be in keeping the Panthers' front seven out of the backfield and keeping the backs involved in the passing game.

New England should be able to run on the Panthers up the middle, which will run the clock and keep the defense fresh to contend with Newton, his speedy receivers and that powerful running game - but f they can't run the ball and keep the backs involved in the passing game, it could be a long night for a Patriots' team that will likely still be without several starters at key positions.


  1. First thing: ignore the title of the article, it's not a lazy read about how Carolina will run the ball on Friday. I have to say this article is one of the best football articles I have ever read. Despite all the mistakes (I counted 4-5 major ones), the author somehow managed to simultaneously nail more in depth, insightful knowledge about the Panthers than any recent article I have read. How ironic that an article with almost unforgivable mistakes managed to be so accurate in so many areas. You have a lot of garbage articles floating around the net, this isn't one of them.

    1. I deeply appreciate your candor and your acknowledgement of the research that goes in to a preview article. I would truly like to know what mistakes I have made, so that I may apply that knowledge to future writings. If you don't want to leave those here, you may contact me directly on email.