Sunday at Qualcomm stadium the San Diego Chargers host the San Diego Chargers- East as Ron Rivera's Carolina Panthers head west to face his old team. Similarities between the four-win Panthers and five-win Chargers run deeper than coaching or players, and two organizations on the brink of regime change meet under rather appropriate circumstances.
A year ago this game would have been borderline surreal. At that point the Panthers had far more former members of the Chargers, and the talent on the field would have been near-impossible to distinguish. Legedu Naanee is without a team, Antwan Applewhite is on IR, and Seyi Ajirotutu is back in San Diego after an unsuccessful stint in Carolina -- now Mike Tolbert and the coaching staff are few of the remaining links between the teams we'll see on Sunday.
X-Factor: Carolina's wide receivers
Cam Newton is a known quantity, and because of his play over the last five weeks he's no longer a random entity on game-day. This is the biggest compliment to pay Newton, because we're seeing consistency -- something that has been so lacking over his time in the NFL.
This week it's the wide receiving corps that are a complete wild card. Brandon LaFell and Louis Murphy were unable to practice yesterday, and this could leave the Panthers with Steve Smith, Joe Adams, and Armanti Edwards as their three receivers. Lazy route running is the biggest risk, especially with a lurking safety like Eric Weddle. If young players like Adams and Edwards round off their routes, there's a risk Newton could throw interceptions by no fault of his own.
With Smitty sitting one-yard shy of 1,000, and Greg Olsen with 691 yards, the two weapons are enough; especially against a defense allowing quarterbacks to average a QB rating of 88.8.
Carolina run offense vs. San Diego run defense
Jonathan Stewart isn't close to returning, so once again the Panthers will lean on DeAngelo Williams. Contract issue aside, this is a good problem to have. Being able to have such a solid backup is a luxury few teams have, and it ensures the Panthers can remain competitive on the ground.
The Chargers' defense is one of the most gifted run-stopping units in the NFL. Ranking forth in yards allowed, San Diego also rank in the top-five in yards allowed per carry, at just 3.8. Their 3-4 linebackers, paired with an excellent defensive line, and talented safeties lead to a scenario where it's unlikely DeAngelo will have a good day.
Cam Newton is an unknown. The Chargers haven't seen a mobile quarterback this year, and it's an each way bet whether they can account for him. Newton excels against 3-4 defenses, which is one of the more bizarre aspects to his game. As a runner, he's rushed for an average of 59.7 yards at 8.5 yards per carry against 3-4 fronts.
Carolina's second-year quarterback will have success, and Mike Tolbert could get hard third-down yards, but it's hard to imagine the Panthers will have sustained success on the ground against such a talented run defense.
Carolina pass offense vs. San Diego pass defense
While the depth at receiver is an issue, the far bigger concern is the offensive line. Geoff Hangartner was unable to practice yesterday due to a suspected PCL sprain, and if the makeshift center is unable to play the Panthers could have recently-signed Thomas Austin as the man in the middle.
There are myriad issues with switching centers regularly, ranging from the exchange on snaps, to organizing the offensive line. There's a reasonable chance the Panthers could have an offensive line of Gross/Silatolu/Austin/Byers/Bell -- and that unit is scary.
Silver lining: Cam Newton is great at dealing with rush linebackers. I can't recall the last time I saw a quarterback deal with the 3-4 so much better than the 4-3. Against teams who run the 3-4 this year, Cam Newton has thrown for 666 yards, five touchdowns, and one interception -- while posting a QB rating of 98.2.
Steve Smith and Greg Olsen will be enough, and barring a complete breakdown in blocking there's little reason to believe the Panthers wont have success through the air. Eric Weddle is a great safety, and San Diego have talented pass rushers -- but as well as Cam has been playing lately, I'm betting on Carolina's quarterback to continue his upward trend.