Our “Friday Fades” feature is back, as we take a look at the Carolina Panthers ahead of their huge Monday Night Football showdown against the 7-2 New England Patriots. Both of these teams are fully legitimate playoff contenders, and we will very likely see both squads in the playoffs. The road to the postseason is easier for the Patriots (unlike the Panthers, they don’t have a team like the New Orleans Saints in their division), but the Panthers have shown that they definitely have what it takes to compete in January. After all, the gutted through a tough 10-9 win over the San Francisco 49ers last week, but this week’s game against the Patriots will be tougher. For starters, the Patriots passing offense is more formidable than the 49ers passing attack now that they are clicking again. The Patriots passing attack has always had an immense amount of potential, and we’ll see if a huge performance against the Pittsburgh Steelers before the bye week is a consistent occurrence (not the 50+ points part of it, but the Patriots ability to consistently throw the ball at a high level).
So let’s get to the fades.
1. The Panthers left side, the Patriots pass rush
One thing that both of these teams have in common is an excellent left side of the offensive line. The New England Patriots have elite LT Nate Solder and veteran guard Logan Mankins, while the Panthers have long-time stud LT Jordan Gross and resurgent left guard Travelle Wharton. The left side of the Panthers offensive line is going to be interesting to watch in this one, and the Panthers offensive line as a whole is going up against a Patriots defense that struggles to put pressure on the quarterback. The Pats excel in coverage and are still relatively stout against the run, but their pass rush continues to be the weakness of this team.
The one guy pass rusher on the Patriots who should really scare the Panthers is Chandler Jones, and he is just a physical specimen. This season was supposed to be a breakout year for Jones after a strong rookie campaign that tailed off at the end due to an ankle injury, and Jones has 8.5 sacks already this season. His sack totals make it seem like he is having a breakout season, but he still isn’t putting consistent pressure on the quarterback. It was the same story as Rob Ninkovich last season (inflated sack totals), but Jones should get plenty of credit for finishing plays and for showing his great physical tools. He just needs to be more consistent, and he’ll have to be at his best against a Panthers left side that has been terrific this season. It’s a key matchup to watch, and there’s a good chance that Cam Newton will have a very clean pocket on Monday.
2. Facing Vereen
The New England Patriots are set to get Shane Vereen back, as he is eligible to be removed from the short-term injured reserve this week. Although it isn’t a lock, all indications are that Vereen will be active on Monday. As we saw in Week 1 when he had 159 yards from scrimmage while playing through a broken wrist, Vereen is one of the game’s most explosive weapons out of the backfield. He has a Darren Sproles-like effect out there, and he’s probably more talented than Sproles. Vereen is a better rusher than Sproles, and he also has the uncanny ability to split out wide as a receiver. The Panthers have the front seven and safeties to contain Vereen, but it’s not about containment; it’s about chess.
That statement makes very little sense on its own, so let me clarify my line of thinking here. We know the Panthers have the ability to cover guys like Vereen individually, but it becomes a lot more difficult when you have to cover a plethora of weapons in the middle of the field. Rob Gronkowski, Vereen, Danny Amendola, and even Julian Edelman can cause nightmare mis-matches, and we saw Amendola break free for easy, big catches against the Steelers. Gronk was just uncoverable against Pittsburgh, and adding Vereen to the fold makes the Patriots even more dangerous through the air and on the ground; he’s another chess piece for Bill Belichick to use and another weapon that the Panthers will have to account for.
3. It’s in Cam’s court, plus a look at where it began
It seems like the Carolina Panthers main mission in the passing game has been to get their players in space and allow Cam Newton to play more efficient football. He’s certainly looked more efficient in recent weeks, and that’s been a key to the Panthers resurgence. If you look at their schedule, the game in which the Panthers and Cam really started to build momentum was the big Week 6 victory over the Minnesota Vikings. We talk a lot about how quarterbacks need to have enough mental confidence (as we’ve seen with Matt Schaub, confidence is key for a lot of QBs), and Newton played an efficient, composed game against Minnesota.
Why does that matter in retrospect? Well, that game started the impressive five-game winning streak that the Panthers are currently on, and they are playing as well as anyone else in the league. But why do I also bring up words like “composure” and confidence”? Not only are they cache words when talking about Cam Newton, but they are also important if you look at Newton’s performance the week before against the Arizona Cardinals. The man was absolutely horrific in that game, but I was incredibly impressed with his ability to bounce-back and absolutely carve up a porous Vikings pass defense. Facing an easy defense and taking advantage of it in a big way is what franchise QBs do, and franchise QBs also quickly get their composure. That big game was crucial in Newton’s season, and it was also important when looking at how the Panthers pattern their passing attack.
This is a team that now realizes that they have more playmakers on offense than they thought, and they are doing a much better job of getting those guys into space. Greg Olsen and Steve Smith are the stars who rightfully command the most attention, and their roles have become even more vital to the Panthers. Smith and Olsen open up the field for Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn Jr., who are banking on their natural talents and are becoming key playmakers in the passing offense. Newton is now making the right reads, getting it to the playmaker in space, and taking advantage of what the defense is giving him.
He’ll absolutely have to do that against the New England Patriots, because they cover extremely well. Devin McCourty is probably the best safety in the NFL, and it’s almost impossible to throw it deep against the Patriots because of him. Aqib Talib vs. Steve Smith will be a huge battle, and it’s risky throwing it in Talib’s direction unless if Smith can have a big game (we’ll see). And look, No. 2 corner Alfonzo Dennard is solid and underrated, Kyle Arrington is a quality slot corner, and rookie Logan Ryan has shown flashes. Newton needs to be able to sit back and make the right read. This game is all about Newton’s accuracy, and he will have to play another composed, efficient game in order for the Panthers to win.