The phrase 'bend, but don't break' has become synonymous with the Carolina Panthers' defense over the last five years. Early in the 2000's we saw an attacking, pressure system from Mike Trgovac which was high risk, and high reward. Those Panthers never had great cornerbacks, and with the exception of Mike Minter the safeties were never anything to write home about, furthermore that team never boasted perennial pro-bowlers at linebacker. What they had, however, was the best defensive line in football, and a clutch QB was enough to push them deep in the playoffs, even when they didn't always have amazing regular season success– ring a bell?
The New York Giants may have the hardware to prove it, but in many ways they're carbon copies of those early John Fox teams here in Carolina. They have amazing pass rushers, and solid defensive tackles; for their defense that's enough to best most NFL teams. Today, however, we're looking at the Giants' offense, and how the Panthers will deal with a pass-heavy system while the Giants recover at RB.
X-Factor: Eli Manning
Eli Manning is a rare case of a QB who gets better when more and more pressure is heaped on his shoulders. It's all well and good to call a quarterback 'clutch', but last week with their RBs ineffective and injured Manning was asked to have the team put on his back, just like he was in each of his Superbowl victories– the result? He threw for 510 yards.
Next week we see Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons, a QB who thrives in a clean pocket. If Ryan conducts a concerto, Manning is free-form jazz. The more bodies are around him, and the more he needs to improvise, the better het gets. It's almost as if when given too much time Eli over-thinks the position, and gets too cerebral. Unlike his older brother, he excels when all he has to rely on are his instincts, and this makes him a difficult QB to deal with. In order to get Manning out of his rhythm it requires the Panthers to not only get pressure on him, but finish plays– and it's here the Panthers struggle.
Last week the defense got pressure against Drew Brees, but didn't finish the play. Knocking a QB to the ground is great, batting down a pass or hurrying a QB is a good play, but there is a psychological edge gained by a sack, and the possibility of a forced fumble that we're not seeing with enough consistency from the defensive ends. Even Charles Johnson commented on his Twitter account that having no sacks from him through two games wasn't good enough, so this isn't just a construct of those looking to analyze, the players realize the need for sacks too.
New York Run Offense Vs. Carolina Run Defense
Oh boy, has it been a while since we could give the edge to the Panthers run defense. With Ahmad Bradshaw in the Giants take this category, but it doesn't look like he'll be suiting up on Thursday. With some training David Wilson will be an effective runner, but carrying the ball like Mike Goodson won't help his cause. As it stands he's firmly entrenched in Tom Coughlin's doghouse, but will be relied on nonetheless with Bradshaw's absence.
Meanwhile in Carolina the Edwards' wall has changed everything in terms of how this team looks. Dwan Edwards has made the unexpected, flashy plays, but it's Ron Edwards who is getting severely overlooked at NT. Through two games, Big Ron has looked amazing. He fills space, commands the double, and is allowing Dwan and the LBs to make plays.
New York Pass Offense Vs. Carolina Pass Defense
Aaaand.... we're back to earth.
There are receiver duos who get all the credit, but perhaps none is more effective that the Giants' pairing of Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks. Through two games both receivers are tied at an eerie 237 yards year, and one touchdown as Eli Manning spreads the ball equally between both receivers.
Cruz is gifted at making DBs look silly. He's so quick, and his cuts are so fluid that when you watch him catch a deep ball the CB is routinely 5-7 yards out of position. Gamble struggles with smaller more elusive WRs, and Josh Norman is a rookie– no matter which side New York line up Cruz he's an incredibly difficult cover. Unless the Panthers find a way to blanket him, we'll get a healthy side of salsa on Thursday.
This is going to be the most revealing Carolina Panthers game in years. Who are this team, and what will they represent moving forward? Are they the team with 10+ win talent we saw beat New Orleans, or the young team still trying to work out who they are that we saw flounder against the Buccaneers?
Normally in these situations I'd say something like 'the truth lies in the middle', and while that may be the case I'll say now that the game against Tampa Bay was an aberration caused by an unusual week of preparation in Florida, a new head coach, lack of film, and over-confidence. This teams plays best when they're confident, but humble, and they will not underestimate the New York Giants.
Eli Manning is a severe threat, as are the Giants' defensive line– but when Ryan Kalil took out his as with all those stirring words, he might as well have been talking about this game.
The Panthers win, 27-24