Santonio Holmes vs. Captain Munnerlyn
While the Panthers currently possess a defense ranked in the top 5 in almost every statistical category, the achilles heel has been the secondary time and time again. The team still managed to pull out wins and make plays until last week, when the Saints truly victimized this secondary. It seems either the game plan wasn't executed correctly or the Panthers got flat out beat. Regardless, the Saints created a blue print to defeat the Carolina Panthers; stop the run to force a run-based offense to be one dimensional, and keep a rhytmic offense going with short to intermediate passes to mitigate the pass rush. This concept is nothing new for us fans, we've seen teams like the 2012 Giants and the Denver Broncos as well as the Saints run this concept with terrifying results.
Captain Munnerlyn's played his best football this year for all the flak he gets, but last week he got torn apart by Marques Colston. Munnerlyn was ineffective at the jam and just couldn't seem to stay with the receiver. Colston's height didn't exactly help Munnerlyn either. Munnerlyn will face another veteran wide receiver this week in Santonio Holmes. Holmes hasn't done much this year, logging only 16 receptions and one touchdown. But don't let the statistics fool you, he's been battling injuries all season. It appears Holmes returns to the lineup relatively healthy today, and after the veteran Colston destroyed our secondary last week I'd expect Holmes to be a bigger part of the game plan this week.
Is Holmes the same Super Bowl MVP he was years back? Definitely not. Is he still dangerous? Absolutely. While Geno Smith isn't going to be able to put the ball where only the receiver can catch it every time, Holmes could still create a matchup problem if Munnerlyn's left on an island. We will see if the Panthers return to the same soft zone concepts that have brought them success this season or lock Munnerlyn up on Holmes. I'd also expect Munnerlyn to line up against Jeremy Kerley, who will take snaps both from the outside and the slot following Stephen Hill's departure to IR.
Muhammed Wilkerson vs. Chris Scott/Nate Chandler/Byron Bell
For the first time since the initial injury, Chris Scott is healthy and likely to play Sunday. He should start but that all depends on how healthy he is and how much faith the coaching staff has in Nate Chandler. Now, if it were MY decision, I wouldn't throw Chandler out there. The Jets have Mo Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson, who all will likely blow up Chandler and our guards at the LOS. But it all depends on Scott's health.
Mo Wilkerson is truly becoming an elite defensive lineman. He's put up 10 sacks this season on a team with many other pass rushing threats, and has been a nightmare for opposing offensive lines. Wilkerson's been a great run stopper and space eater, and has quickly become a centerpiece for this defense. On the flip side, offensive guard is probably the weakest all around position on the roster with multiple injuries and thin depth. Travelle Wharton's played extremely well for someone coming off a season ending injury, but everything else has been a mess. Having Scott back is great, but the team will need to keep Mo and Sheldon Richardson in check by scheming for them.
Steve Smith vs. Antonio Cromartie/Dee Milliner
With Antonio Cromartie deemed questionable for Sundays game with a concussion and hip injury, it appears Dee Milliner will be tasked with matching up against the timeless wonder Steve Smith. Cromartie might play, but he won't be 100%. Milliner's healthy and he's been on the upswing after a rough start to the year. But make no mistake, we've heard this tale before. Steve Smith loves to victimize young defensive backs and has gotten the upper hand on the majority of the competition he's faced this season. He's not putting up eye popping numbers but Smith has been the go-to, move the chains player when we need him the most. Whether it be on 3rd and 3 or 4th and 10, when we've needed him he's there. And in a game where defense will rule this matchup will be especially important with a lot of likely 3rd down situations. Good luck to Milliner!
Brad Nortman vs Ryan Quigley
There's been a lot of talk about how well Graham Gano has been kicking, but Brad Nortman's progression has been astounding since a disappointing rookie year. His release on punts has been quicker, he's booting it further, and he's consistently getting teams stuck with their backs to the wall. The extreme progression in special teams play has a lot to do with Nortman, and as a result the defense has also benefited. If you have to move the ball further to score, you're more likely not to do so. Sunday's game is a battle of two teamw with great defenses. Both teams boast a good rushing attack, with an even better rushing defense. Both teams also sport a lack luster passing game (though the Panthers have been a better team at it over the course of the season). This is the formula for a bloody, physical, smash mouth game that many Panthers fans and true football fans LOVE. It'll be a battle of field position, and the Nortman/Quigley matchup will be a huge factor in which team wins this game. To date, Nortman sports roughly a 5.0 better average than Quigley in net punting yardage as well as an advantage in the total yard average. Nortman will need to keep doing what he does best against the Jets, whose offense can be anemic when traveling large stretches of field.
The Carolina Panthers vs. Adversity
It's quite simple. The Panthers were trending upwards, riding an 8 game winning streak, when it all came to a screeching halt in New Orleans. We can rationalize that the defensive game plan was both ineffective and didn't fit the personnel. We can say that the offensive line let our entire offense down. We can blame the play calls. But ultimately, the team got hit in the mouth by a very strong Saints team and we got ultimately embarrassed. The last time a team flat out beat us like this was the Arizona Cardinals, where the game plan completely destroyed our offense. The Panthers responded with an 8 game winning streak where we were fortunate enough to play a few average teams in a stretch to get some momentum going. Riding the momentum we took out two huge playoff contenders and many other solid teams. The Panthers however needed to lose three out of four games before this happened, two of which could have easily been wins. We can't afford to have this happen again. We will see how Rivera's team and staff respond to this abysmal loss, and it will be a telling sign of how far along this team has come. This season could be a defining moment for the Cam Newton era, and these next three games are key for a playoff berth. This stretch could be the difference between another disappointing season, or making history.
Let's make history. Keep Pounding.