Defensively the Carolina Panthers are improving. No longer is Sean McDermott the all-too-convenient whipping boy, as he has a unit lacking talent playing extremely tight football. They're not perfect, but this defense are well on their way-- the problem is that it's all too likely none of these coaches will see this development through to 2013.
I have a confession to make: I am extremely jealous of the Washington Redskins. It's not RGIII that has me head over heels, or an owner willing to splash money around like it's water, it's Mike Shanahan. There are times he jumps the shark, but in terms of taking mediocre talent and turning them into gold nobody is better. A coach with no regard for elite running backs, because... well, he'll create one from thin air. There is no coach currently in the NFL who knows how to offensively scheme to his players better than Shanahan, and if you give him an ounce of talent he'll return that with ample interest-- this is why the Redskins are having success now.
X-Factor: Luke Kuechly
We thought the Panthers' rookie would be good, we had no clue he would be so good, so quickly-- especially when he moved to middle linebacker. If you watch the Panthers play on Sunday you'd never guess their linebacker in the middle is a rookie, because he plays like a 10-year veteran.
On pace for 142 tackles, Kuechly is vital in trying to stop Alfred Morris, and using his high football IQ to spy Robert Griffin III, the Redskins' second leading rusher. 'Football IQ' is one of those phrases we hear bandied about often, but watching Uncle Luke you see the embodiment of the phrase; when the ball is snapped he's already moving where the ball is going. It's uncanny how quickly he diagnoses what the play is, and closes on the key people involved.
I have supreme faith in Luke Kuechly, but am also deathly afraid of the rushing potential of Morris and RG3.
Carolina run defense vs. Washington run offense
The Redskins are the second-best rushing team in the NFL. Alfred Morris on on pace for over 1,500 yards, and Robert Griffin III has an innate ability to understand when to hang back, and when to take off. When plays head up the middle to Kuechly I think he can hold, when they head to the edges on stretch plays and bootlegs I think the Panthers are dead to rights.
Thomas Davis is back, James Anderson is solid-- I don't have faith that either are up to this challenge right now. Pair that with safeties who have tackling issues, and corners who aren't much better; now you have a full picture of how this game can get out of hand quickly.
Carolina pass defense vs. Washington pass offense
In any other game the risk of the league's 20th ranked pass offense shouldn't send huge waves. When it's against the Panthers the concern is very real. It's not that the Redskins will kill you with deep passes, but they will find those deflating, soul-crushing 8-to-12 yard routes over, and over, and over again.
Washington are 12th in the league in 1st down conversion percentage through the air, and this is because their run game sets up the pass so well. Full credit goes to RGIII, who is running this offense as well as any QB in the NFL is running his scheme. He is completing close to 70% of his passes, and in five games this season he's posted a QB rating of 90 or more; as a comparison Cam Newton did this seven times-- in 16 games.
This is a team who move the chains extremely well, and don't make stupid mistakes.
The hope for the Carolina Panthers is that they can take advantage of the poor Redskins' secondary and get deep plays working early and often. The shock-and-awe ability of Steve Smith and Cam Newton could lead to a situation where they score quickly. The Redskins' offense is extremely effective, but they're slower and more methodical-- using a scalpel, rather than a machete.
If the run defense can step up, the Panthers can win this game. If they play like they did against Atlanta, Dallas, or Chicago, they can win this game. Sunday's contest will be a lot closer than many think, and I can't shake the feeling this is one the Panthers win against the odds.