A couple of hours ago I looked at the Panthers' offensive chances this weekend. In that match-up I saw the Jags being able to stop the run, but not really having an answer for Cam Newton and the Panthers' wide receivers. Now I'm looking at the other side of the ball when we see what Jacksonville can hope to do against the Panthers this weekend.
X-Factor: Blaine Gabbert Vs. Panthers DEs
This is where a 'wild card' needs to be thrown in the mix. Honestly, nobody really knows how Gabbert will do in a live NFL game. That doesn't mean he'll be bad, nor does it mean he'll throw for hundreds of yards, but like Cam Newton before week one the Jaguars will hope he can move the chains a little and not turn the ball over. Personally, I think he'll be a great QB in time, I just hope he doesn't start this weekend.
Enter Carolina's defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy. Through two games the DEs have combined for 15 tackles, 3 sacks and 1 FF. CJ is your true, three down DE who can get after the passer and support the run, he's also has a knack for constantly finding himself in the backfield. While Johnson might not always get the sack, he'll consistently get a hand on the passer, so the threat of his ability can dissuade a QB from spending a lot of time in the pocket. Greg Hardy is just now understanding his ability in the NFL, and if you double CJ then the chances Hardy can get into the backfield rise greatly.
For a rookie QB often it's the pass rush they face that defines how successful they can be. One of Gabbert's issues at Missouri was flushing out of the pocket too early at the sign of perceived pressure, rather than actual pressure. I'm not sure how far he's come along, but I can tell you he'll perceive plenty of pressure from Johnson and Hardy on Sunday.
Panthers' run defense Vs. Jaguars' run offense
If you have Maurice Jones-Drew on your fantasy team then you better start him. No questions, no thoughts... just put him in and know you'll get 20+ points this weekend. For a defensive coach like Jack Del Rio he'll follow the John Fox model somewhat as he eases in his rookie QB. That means MJD will get a chance to touch the ball 25+ times on Sunday. if you've seen the Carolina Panthers' run defense in 2011 you know that could spell serious trouble.
I have no doubt Jones-Drew will get over 100 yards, and I'm fairly certain he'll get two touchdowns. That's not being a pessimist, it's just the case. In this particular game Mojo will drink our proverbial milkshake. We're down two starting linebackers, Charles Godfrey will likely be out and our DT position is still a work in progress. As long as the Panthers can limit the Jags to only getting 4-5 yards a carry and prevent a big play I think they can wear MJD down a little and make his legs a little less fresh.
In the end though the Panthers will get dominated in this facet of the game.
Panthers' pass defense Vs. Jaguars' pass offense
If this game was being played in January this aspect of the game would be the 'mediocrity bowl'. The Panthers are ranked 26th in the league in pass defense, the Jags are ranked 30th in the NFL in pass offense. Yes, Jacksonville have a new QB who can't be worse than Luke McCown, but in his first game it's hard to imagine Blaine Gabbert could be any better than Kevin Kolb or Aaron Rodgers, who the Panthers saw in weeks one and two.
TE Marcedes Lewis will be a major headache for the Panthers. Without Thomas Davis to provide vital coverage support from the OLB position there's a good chance he'll get to the secondary a lot. Here is where replacement FS Jordan Pugh will need to earn his stripes. What we know about Pugh is that he's awful in man coverage, he really had no business being made a nickel, but what we do know is that he's extremely good at playing the ball in the air and in zone coverage. if Sean McDermott sits Pugh in a zone and tells him to break up passes over the middle he can help nullify Lewis to a degree.
Chris Gamble is a weird situation for Sunday. He practiced fully on Wednesday, was limited on Thursday and then missed today's practice. Currently listed as 'questionable' if he's out it would put a lot of pressure on Captain Munnerlyn and Darius Butler. When it's all said and done though I have to go back to our x-factor, the pass rush... and ultimately I feel they will disrupt the young QB enough.
The Jaguars offense should, and will focus on Jones-Drew. They Panthers can't stop him, but they do need to prevent the big play much like they did with Larry Fitzgerald in week one, and most of the game against Greg Jennings in week two.
In our six areas I have the Panthers winning the battle in pass offense and pass defense, the Jaguars dominating the run game on both sides of the ball... but it's the Panthers' X-Factors that will determine this game. I'm not writing off Jacksonville, but I think the Panthers get their 1st win this week.
Prediction: Panthers 27 - Jaguars 16