The battle of the big cats takes place this week in the Motor City with the Carolina Panthers heading on the road to face the upstart Detroit Lions. A few short years ago the idea of Carolina looking to emulate the Lions organization would have been laughable, but now with a revamped defense led by the stellar (albeit at times diabolical) Ndamukong Suh, and a potent offense featuring one of the NFL's best tandems in Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson the Panthers absolutely have their work cut out for them this week. So without further ado, lets look at the match-up.
X-Factor: Cam Newton
Last week against Tennessee proved a lot of things, but it showed us much as well; when Cam Newton is off his game the Panthers offense is utterly anemic. The Titans were able to keep Cam off his rhythm by bringing massive amounts of pressure up the center pushing him backwards into the arms of defensive ends and making sure his pocket wasn't clean all day. Where the Titans had success with rookies and relative unknowns the Lions will be doing it with the NFL's most fearsome defensive line.
While Suh hasn't filled the stat column like he did in 2010, he's still arguably the most disruptive defensive tackle in the NFL. Every down he demands a double team, and if you're foolish enough not to respect him enough to double him then your QB is going to be on the ground, no doubt about it. One of Cam Newton's greatest strengths is his ability to evade the pass rush and pick up yards, but against this defense I'm not sure he'll have a lot of room to operate.
Carolina run offense vs. Detroit run defense
While Detroit's defense is fearsome, opportunistic and violent they're not great at playing the run. The strength of their defense is the aggressiveness of their defensive line, not their linebackers and at times the aggressive, young nature of their DL tends to over-pursue and bite on changes of direction. This has caused them to allow on average over 100 yards on the ground per game in 2011.
There's little doubting the Panthers can take advantage of this aspect of the game, but the question is "Will Chud do it?". As it stands Carolina are perfectly happy throwing the ball 30 times and giving to their RBs 15 times, so it's hard to imagine we'll see a drastic change. However, should Chud decide to rely on the run this is an area they could capitalize on.
Carolina pass offense vs. Detroit pass defense
Again, this is where that fearsome defensive line rears its ugly head. The Lions have 26 team sacks in 2011, with 22 of those coming from their DL. They will get in the Carolina backfield, they will do so early and they will do so often... this is the nature of their defense, and no matter how good the Panthers' offensive line is it will be tough to stop. With a pass rush that comes from myriad directions it throws a QB off his rhythm and when they're in his head and he makes ill advised passes CB Chris Houston has been there to capitalize with four INTs on the year.
Cam is an amazing player, but I think this is a game where his youth could show as he's kept off balance by dozens of different formations, fronts and personnel. Veteran QBs have struggled to identify the Lions' blitz packages, and in this way I too think Cam will struggle.
Join me tomorrow when I look at the Panthers' defense