After one game, there's talk of a storm in the Carolinas. Each week since the 1-3 start, the Panthers key playmakers have made the big plays and done their jobs, while others stepped into the limelight and showed us who they are. Players like Melvin White, Robert Lester, AJ Klein, Ted Ginn, Colin Jones, Nate Chandler, and others have made an impact. A big part of the Patriots success has come from the "next man up" philosophy of Bill Belichick, and it appears the Panthers have begun to embrace this philosophy as well. These "next men" will be tested against Belichicks "next men", and it should be a great battle to watch.
Chris Jones/Isaac Sopoaga/Joe Vellano vs. Nate Chandler/Travelle Wharton
It's very simple. The Panthers like to run the ball. We like smash mouth, physical running and players like Mike Tolbert and Jonathan Stewart flourish in this offense. We've built a great deal of our offensive philosophy around this. Run the ball well, and the play action passes will open up. Run a bit of read option to keep the defense from keying in on the running backs, and let Cam be Cam when the passing downs come. Cam Newton's had a great year so far, but the teams total of 1150 yards rushing between Cam, Tolbert, Williams, and Stewart is a telling sign of the offensive philosophy. A big factor in how our offense runs the ball falls behind how our offensive line is playing, especially the interior. And that's been a revolving door all season.
The Panthers have stayed relatively healthy across the board, but have fallen victim to FIVE injuries at offensive guard. At the beginning of the season, our two starters were Amini Silatolu and Garry Williams. We lost both of them, along with rookie Edmund Kugbila and center/guard Jeff Byers for the season. Second year players Chris Scott has also battled injury, calling on former defensive tackle Nate Chandler and veteran free agent pick up (out of necessity) Travelle Wharton to take the call. Every guard on the roster has seen significant playing time, before and after injuries. This can be a recipe for disaster for a run-first offense, but so far Carolina hasn't fallen off too much, boasting the 10th best rushing attack after nine games. While on paper you might see New England's 30th ranked rush defense and start licking your chops, the game will likely tell a different story. I expect New England to put eight guys in the box to rush Cam and stop the run. Though Cam Newton's played his best football to date this year, he hasn't done too well under pressure. And the best way to pressure Cam is to force him to throw the ball. Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich will try to pressure Cam Newton all day, so rookies Chris Jones and Joe Vellano will certainly be tested by Carolina. It's tough to fill in for an all pro like Vince Wilfork, but they will need to try and match his production against the Panthers. And it will start with how the guards play.
Greg Olsen vs. Patriots Linebackers
With the recent news that Ben Hartsock will be out on Monday, Greg Olsen's role in the offense will certainly be extended to blocking duties as well. People often don't realize how big of a role Hartsock played in the rushing attack, and we will certainly miss him for any perimeter runs. We've seen better blocking out of Olsen the past few seasons, but he's not Ben Hartsock, ProFootball Focus' highest graded run blocking tight end in the league. The Patriots boast an underrated and formidable linebacking corp even WITHOUT Jerod Mayo, featuring former second round pick Brandon Spikes, former first round pick Dont'a Hightower, and second round rookie Jamie Collins. They've quietly built quite a stable of linebackers behind Jerod Mayo, and they will look to take Greg Olsen out of the passing game and shut down the rushing attack. Olsen's been a godsend for a team struggling with wide receivers dropping the ball, but he may be called on to run block and pass protect a bit more without our blocking specialist. Cam's going to need Olsen, so the Panthers may also look to bring in Richie Brockel and Brandon Williams a bit more. Brockel's a lot like Hartsock, so hopefully he can play a role to relieve Olsen.
Danny Amendola vs. Captain Munnerlyn
We can talk about Kuechly vs. Gronk until we're blue in the face, but I honestly think Belichick might try to exploit a different area of our defense. Sure, Rob Gronkowski is a great tight end, one of the best all around tight ends in the league for sure, but the Panthers also boast one of the best 4-3 linebacking groups in all of the NFL and a solid group in safeties Quintin Mikell and Mike Mitchell. The one true weakness of this secondary is our cornerbacks. Melvin White has been fantastic for an undrafted rookie, while Captain Munnerlyn's been playing his best football (we knock on him a lot, but this is the best I've personally seen from him). But this group is still a weakness, especially with Drayton Florence marred with a groin injury. I've said it many times in the past, the Panthers really struggle with three step quick passes. It neutralizes the pass rush and exploits the often soft coverage. Carolina may press more with New England lacking a "blow the top off the defense" type receiver. Aaron Dobson has been getting better and better each week, but I think Amendola might be a key part of the offense this game. Amendola's finally healthy again and will likely see a lot of short to intermediate range passes. He should keep Munnerlyn busy, and also look for Belichick to really challenge Melvin White with Julian Edelman.
We flip the offensive guards vs. defensive tackles conversation to New England's guards. While Carolina proved it can stop the run against the best of em last week, don't be so sure that we will again shut down the run. A lot of fans outside of New England will look at the Patriots and think that Tom Brady IS the offense, like he was during their super bowl runs. But if you look deeper, you'd see New England's quietly put up the leagues 8th best rushing attack, with a stable of running backs comparable to the one we see every week in Carolina. Stevan Ridley's been great for New England since entering the league, but he's not the only one they have. Shane Vereen has been an excellent receiving back and change of pace back, while Legarrette Blount is a familiar face to us in Carolina as a punishing power back. Heck, even Brandon Bolden has gotten in there to contribute.
New England no longer needs Tom Brady to be Tom Brady to win (even though he still is, which is scary). Brady's played this season down on some weapons, especially when Gronk and Amendola battled injury. I'm still confident in our rush defense, as New England's fans have not expressed confidence in their guards, but they still know how to run the ball. Star and Dwan will need to blow up their blocks in order to keep Brady from stepping up in the pocket, while Cole and Short will fill in to keep our guys fresh. But I expect the Patriots to try and help out Marcus Cannon, so our defensive tackles may end up with a few one on one matchups. Brady scares me because he CAN'T run like Kaepernick could. He will keep his eyes down field, so the pass rush HAS to rattle him, otherwise he may pick apart our secondary.
As a follow up Panthers fans, do you agree with me that Amendola vs. Munnerlyn could be a BIGGER matchup than Gronk vs. Kuechly? Share below. See you all Monday, thanks from all of us at CSR for choosing US as your Panthers website!