Carolina Receivers vs. Buffalo Bills Secondary
The Bills head into the game likely without star safety Jairus Byrd, and two injured cornerbacks. This bodes well for a Carolina passing attack that went up against the uber-talented Legion of Boom in Seattle, where Cam Newton only managed 125 yards and one touchdown passing. Cam Newton looked very good against Seattle at times, but a lack of vertical passing attack success (whether it be Cam's error or Seattle's secondary not allowing it) ultimately killed the Panthers and stalled most Panther drives. This week, Carolina's relatively healthy receiving core (Armanti Edwards and Domenik Hixon both fully practiced today) will face off against an injured Bills secondary. Starter Stephon Gilmore and backup Ron Brooks both likely won't play along with Jairus Byrd, leaving only four healthy corners on Buffalo's active roster and career backup Da'Norris Searcy starting. Steve Smith will match up against Leodis McKelvin, who is a starter in this league, but we've seen Smith dominate other cornerbacks much greater than McKelvin. Look for Buffalo to roll coverage to Steve Smith. Greg Olsen will also likely be a big part of the game plan, as I don't see any major threat in the linebacking core or safety group (without Byrd) to shut him down.
Brandon LaFell on the other hand will face Justin Rogers, who is normally a nickel corner for Buffalo. Rogers has only ever started three games in his career so I would tend to think LaFell wins this matchup, and will likely get a lot of one on one opportunities with Greg Olsen and Steve Smith on the field. LaFell appeared to be open a few times last week after further All-22 film review, but Cam flat out missed him most of the time. Cam can't be locking in on receivers against Buffalo, especially with a healthy defensive line that has multiple Pro Bowlers. Ted Ginn, Hixon, and Edwards should also see significant snaps if Buffalo can stop the run, and they will match up against either Justin Rogers or Brandon Burton/Nickell Robey, depth defensive backs.
Panthers Offensive Line vs. Buffalo Front Seven
This matchup however, is more even. The Bills have three Pro Bowlers on the defensive line with Mario Williams, Marcell Dareus, and Kyle Williams. Williams and Dareus are truly a force in the middle, while Mario Williams is a very good pass rusher. The Bills linebackers are relatively young, with second rounder Kiko Alonso making his second career start in the middle, and Nigel Bradham's making his 12th on the outside. Manny Lawson is a veteran of this league and brings much needed experience. Carolina on the other hand lost a starter at guard against Seattle in Garry Williams, and must try to find the answer to replacing him. Amini Silatolu returns from injury at left guard, while Byron Bell and Jordan Gross start at offensive tackle and Ryan Kalil holds the center. The Panthers' depth is getting thin on the offensive line, and we cannot afford any more injuries here.
I don't like the matchup of Amini Silatolu and Chris Scott/Travelle Wharton against Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus. This could be a huge issue for the run and pass if interior pressure is getting through. Ryan Kalil will hopefully be able to help hold one of them off, but both are very talented and will cause issues. Mario Williams pass rushing against Jordan Gross is scary as well, and pretty much anyone against Bell has a winnable match up. The Panthers were able to get the run game going a little bit against Seattle. I expect a lot of outside stretches and misdirections to try and get it going better this time. Look for some more play action as well. However, purely from a match up standpoint, the Bills are favored here.
Panthers Secondary vs. Bills Receivers
The Panthers have reportedly decided to bring Josh Norman in to start alongside Josh Thomas (per Joe Person) this week, while it is still undecided whether Quintin Mikell will start again or if Mike Mitchell will start after being out with an injury last week. Godfrey will start as well at free safety. On the other side, Stevie Johnson is the clear number one with TJ Graham coming in as the number two. Last week, the Patriots did a good job of containing them, holding him to just 3 receptions (though he did score a TD) while Graham failed to record a reception. Scott Chandler could be a problem for the Panthers defense, which has been bad against tight ends on most teams. Rookie Robert Woods also had a nice game last week, and we may see a bit of him this week.
Stevie Johnson will likely have more success against Carolina. While we likely won't see Thomas or Norman singling in on Johnson all game, it really doesn't matter who he lines up against. Thomas has been excellent in run support but kind of spotty against the pass. Last week he allowed a long touchdown to happen right after Seattle tried the same play against him the previous play. Norman had a great preseason, but never matched up to a talent like Stevie Johnson. Again, Chandler could be an issue, but if Carolina can pressure EJ Manuel (who struggled against the pressure) the Panthers linebackers should be able to minimize the effect.
Panthers Front Seven vs. Buffalo Bills Offensive Line
In short, the Panthers defensive front showed "they are who we thought they were" last week. Star Lotulelei garnered high praise as CBS Sports' defensive rookie of the week. Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson created consistent pressure for most of the game. Dwan Edwards is still battling injury so we should see at least some of rookie Kawann Short as well. The Panthers will also have back Frank Alexander from ejection last week and Mario Addison for rotation. On the Bills side, the front five are all healthy. There aren't any players who are eye popping, though Cordy Glenn is a solid right tackle and every player has at least one whole season under their belt. CJ Spiller and the Buffalo rushing attack struggled a bit against New England last week, and the Panthers front seven appears to be better. Much better.
Russell Wilson made some absolutely amazing plays under pressure, plays I'm not sure EJ Manuel will be able to make under duress just yet. Manuel had a relatively decent game against New England, but struggled when under duress. Carolina made it habitual to put Wilson into quick decision situations until Frank Alexander was ejected. With the four man rotation, Carolina can keep Hardy and Johnson relatively fresh and hence should be able to generate more pass rush. The Panthers held Lynch down last week and I expect more of the same from this fearsome front seven that we have created.