Carolina Panthers: Keys to Thursday Night Game Against New York Giants
The Panthers and the Giants are both coming off of their first wins of the season and they will face one another with just three days between games to rest, recuperate and get ready to play again.
Carolina and New York each suffered embarrassing losses at the hands of divisional rivals in their first games of the season. The Giants lost to the Dallas Cowboys (1-1) and the Panthers took one on the chin against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-1).
However, Carolina bounced back with an impressive 35-27 win over Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints (1-1) while the Giants scored 25 points in the fourth quarter to beat the Buccaneers after trailing by 14 points early in the second half.
The winner of this game will get to enjoy a couple of extra days off and have a "bye-weekend" knowing they are in good shape at 2-1 after the first three games of the season.
The loser will have to face the prospect of a one-win September with both teams facing first-place divisional rivals on the road on September 30.
Here is a look at the Carolina Panthers' keys to the game.
No. 1: Run the Football
Carolina has to run the ball effectively and often in order to win football games.
The Panthers are 6-0 under head coach Ron Rivera when they run the ball more times than they pass. They are 1-11 when they throw the ball more often than they run.
Carolina beat the Indianapolis Colts, 27-19, in Week 12 last season when they ran the ball 35 times and Cam Newton threw 27 passes. Carolina did the same thing in their second win of the season, a 33-20 victory over the Washington Redskins in which the Panthers ran 37 times and threw 23 passes. That trend played out for the rest of the 2011 season: when the Panthers ran the ball more than 30 times and threw fewer than 30 passes, Carolina was 5-0.
With only two games under their belt so far in 2012, Carolina has won one (41 rushes, 20 passes vs. New Orleans) and lost one (33 passes, 13 runs).
The trend has continued so far this season.
Carolina should be able to run the ball effectively against the Giants (16th in NFL rushing defense, 111.0 yards per game) using the read option that helped them gain 219 yards on the ground in Week 2 against the Saints.
Cam Newton is a more efficient passer when the Panthers run the ball well and the Carolina defense will need all the help it can get from the offense sustaining long drives and keeping Eli Manning off the field.
No. 2: Harass Eli Manning
Charles Johnson, Thomas Keiser, Greg Hardy, Antwan Applewhite, Frank Alexander and Dwan Edwards should be licking their chops right about now, because the Carolina Panthers' pass rush will be let loose against the New York Giants on Thursday night.
New York's quarterback, Eli Manning, leads the NFL with 732 yards passing through the first two weeks of the season thanks to his 31-of-51, 510-yard performance in a comeback win against the Buccaneers in Week 2. And with their starting running back, Ahmad Bradshaw, out against the Panthers this week, Manning and the Giants will air it out again on Thursday night.
The Panthers caught a break today, though, when it was announced that Manning will be without Week 2 NFC Offensive Player of the Week and Charlotte native, wide receiver Hakeem Nicks, in Thursday's game. While Nicks stays at home in New York with a foot injury, the NFL's other leading wide receiver, Victor Cruz, will be Manning's main target.
Cruz and Nicks are tied for the NFL lead with 237 yards apiece.
Despite Manning's gaudy passing total in Week 2, he is 16th in the NFL in both passer rating (91.6) and completion percentage (62.7-percent), and the Panthers can force him into making mistakes as long as they do not let him stand all day in the pocket.
The Panthers pressured Drew Brees into several throw-aways and a pair of interceptions on 49 attempts on Sunday. Carolina's front seven needs to put similar pressure on Manning Thursday night to keep the Giants from lighting up the Charlotte skies.
If they are lucky, they may even take him down for a couple of sacks, too.
No. 3: Play Solid Special Teams
The Carolina Panthers do not have to play spectacularly well on special teams to beat the New York Giants. They just can not afford to make any of the costly special teams mistakes—blocked punts, missed field goals, returned kicks, returned punts—that have doomed them in the past two seasons.
Carolina made their first special teams miscue of the 2012 season in the fourth quarter against Tampa Bay when a miscommunication between protection point man Haruki Nakamura and long snapper J.J. Jansen resulted in an early snap and a blocked punt. The Bucs scored their only three points of the second half on the ensuing drive and turned a 13-7 lead into a two-possession game.
A special teams score by either the Panthers or the Giants could break a tight game wide open or provide the winning margin.
The Giants proved last weekend that they can come from behind to win a game after making several costly mistakes and they are also the defending Super Bowl champions.
Carolina can win this game, but their margin for error is smaller than New York's and they may not be able to overcome another special teams meltdown.
A couple of solid punt returns by Joe Adams and good coverage by the special teams are all the Panthers really need to have a chance to win.
However, a big return by Adams or a blocked kick or punt by the Panthers could provide the spark Carolina needs to dominate the game.
Jimmy Grappone is a Featured Columnist covering the Carolina Panthers and the NFL on BleacherReport.com.
You can follow me on Twitter @jimmygrappone and be sure to check out my archives for more Panthers articles.
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