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2014 NFL Playoffs: Carolina Panthers vs. Arizona Cardinals Defensive Preview

Somehow, someway the Panthers are in the playoffs. Now it's time to turn a few heads. The defense has stepped up big time in recent weeks. They'll try to keep the good times rolling when the Cardinals come to town in the Wild Card round.

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Before we kick things off, I want to apologize for the absence of this article for the past three weeks. I know you've all missed it dearly. I've kinda had an eventful couple of weeks, so do excuse my negligence. Now, that's out of the way, here we go...

The Panthers defense has been on a tear lately. Over the final three games of the season the Panthers defense allowed only 11 points per game, a mark only bettered by the Seattle Seahawks. In that same stretch they've also allowed the 4th fewest yards per game in the league. That sample doesn't include a performance in the Superdome in which the Panthers held the NFL's top offense by yardage to just 10 points and limited them to 100 yards less than their season average. Needless to say, the Panthers defense is hot.

So who's next up on the docket you ask? Why, it's the Ryan Lindley-led Arizona Cardinals. Looking at that same 3 game sample, we find the Cardinals offense on the opposite end of the spectrum. Arizona is averaging just over 11 points a game over their last 3, good for 30th in the league. In the two games in which Ryan Lindley has started, the Cardinals have put up 6 and 17 points, both in losses.

Seems like a good match-up for the Panthers, no? Let's take a look at the nuts and bolts to see where specifically the advantages lie.

Panthers Rushing Defense vs. Cardinals Rushing Offense

The Cardinals finished the season 31st in rushing yards per game and dead last in yards per attempt. Arizona's workhorse Andre Ellington spent most of the season dealing with a foot injury that noticeably affected is speed and quickness before finally having his season ended by a sports hernia. In his stead, Stepfan Taylor and Kerwynn Williams have shouldered the workload. Williams, the less heralded of the two, has had much greater success with his chances, averaging 4.6 yards per carry on the season compared to Taylor's 3.3.

So what's the reason for their struggles? The simple answer is that the Cardinals RBs simply haven't played well, other than Williams. The Utah State product has run well behind the same line that Ellington and Taylor have struggled with. It's likely that Williams will see the bulk of the carries while being spelled by Taylor. An interesting tidbit: 52 of Stepfan Taylor's 63 carries this season have either gone up the middle or to the right while the other backs have a more even distribution of carries. I don't know why that it is, but it's interesting. If Taylor is in the game, the Cardinals probably aren't going to be running left. Williams on the other hand has a relatively even distribution of carries by area.

For the Panthers, their run defense has looked very respectable in the past few weeks. If there's been any problem, it's been occasional lapses in gap discipline that have resulted in chunk gains. Luckily for the Panthers, big runs aren't exactly a specialty of the Cardinals offense. The longest run of the season for the Cardinals is a measly 22 yards. If that holds to form, the Panthers just need to keep doing what they have been most of the time, clogging up lanes and giving opposing backs no room to run. On paper, the Panthers have an edge in this phase of the game. Now, what about the other?

Panthers Passing Defense vs. Cardinals Passing Offense

The Cardinals are down to their third string quarterback, Ryan Lindley. Starter Carson Palmer was playing at a very high level before suffering a torn ACL in the Cardinals first meeting with the Rams. 5 games later, backup Drew Stanton suffered a knee injury...against the Rams. So now that leaves Lindley and his backup, Logan Thomas. Ryan Lindley has been less than stellar thus far in his young NFL career. The 3rd year man out of San Diego State has just 2 touchdown passes (Both coming this past weekend) to go with the 11 interceptions he's thrown in his career. On the season, he's completed less than half his passes and thrown 2 touchdowns and 4 interceptions, contributing to a passer rating of just 56.8. However, he is coming off the best performance of his career by far. He threw for over 300 yards and 2 touchdowns while completing almost 60% of his passes against the 49ers, but he did throw 3 picks.

The Cardinals woes in the passing game certainly aren't for a lack of weapons. Larry Fitzgerald may have lost a step or two, but he's still one of the best WRs of his era. He's surrounded by a young but talented cast of characters. Michael Floyd is capable of busting out for 100+ yard games on any given week and is the Cardinals main big play threat. He's coming off a 150 yard 2 touchdown performance, so keep an eye on him.  Along with them are the Browns, John and Jaron (No relation that I'm aware of). The diminutive John is a speedster that has had his fair share of big plays on the year while Jaron is the more physically imposing of the two. There's also this guy you may know named Ted Ginn in there, but his contributions in the passing game are relatively few and far between. They have tight ends too, but they don't do much.

So can the Panthers keep these guys in check? If recent weeks are any indication, the answer to that is yes. A who's who of tough receivers have come into battle against this secondary and none of them have been able to leave a meaningful mark on the game. That credit doesn't all belong to the secondary though. The Panthers have found their pass rush that had eluded them for much of the year. Sean McDermott's unit has tallied 14 sacks over the 4 game win streak, a pace that would lead the NFL over a full 16 games and be just 2 sacks short of the 2013 Panthers total. Charles Johnson has been a monster in the later part of the season and has finally been able to translate his pressure into sacks. The Cardinals haven't given up many sacks on the season, but that could very easily change with the way this front four is playing.

Overall Outlook

The Panthers defense is hitting its stride while the Cardinals offense is sputtering. Ryan Lindley put on a good show on the offensive end against the 49ers last week, but that looks to be the exception rather than the rule when it comes to their recent form. Obviously they're still a playoff team and shouldn't be taken lightly, but if the Panthers defense comes to play and performs to their standards, they should definitely win the match-up against the Cardinals offense.