Panthers vs. Chargers: 10 Keys to the Game for Carolina
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
Fresh off a big win against division rival Atlanta, the Carolina Panthers (4-9) look to continue their winning ways as they travel to the west coast to take on the San Diego Chargers (5-8). Historically, the Panthers have had great success against the Chargers taking three of the four meetings between the clubs.
Many Carolina fans will remember the last trip to San Diego as the game where Jake Delhomme found Dante Rosario for the game-winning touchdown as time expired back in 2008. It could be a fair assumption that San Diego coach Norv Turner and quarterback Philip Rivers haven't forgotten it either.
Sunday's game will also feature a homecoming of sorts for Panthers coach Ron Rivera and fullback Mike Tolbert. Both spent time with Chargers organization prior to coming over to Carolina.
Carolina has done well over the past six games splitting the difference between them and it's not a far fetched conclusion it could win out to finish 7-9. However, it needs to take care of business out west, and the Chargers are coming off a big win against AFC heavyweight Pittsburgh.
There have been many things the Panthers have been doing well over the past few weeks, most notably the drastically improved play of Cam Newton. Despite an overall disappointing showing this year, Carolina has seen a lot of positives this year in addition to its quarterback's resurgence. Steve Smith will have another 1,000 yard season (currently he is at 999) and Luke Kuechly is leading the league in tackles and making a strong case for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
With all the good things going on right now, there is always room for improvement and this week's game will be no different. Here are Carolina's 10 keys to the game against San Diego.
SuperCam has returned
Grant Halverson/Getty Images
As mentioned in the introduction slide, much of Carolina's recent success can be attributed to Cam Newton's resurgence and great play. He has thrown for well over 3,000 yards this year and could challenge his rookie mark if he is able to average 277 passing yards over the next three games.
A big part of Newton's improved play is the level of maturity he seems to have developed over the last six weeks. He has shown great pocket presence and has not made too many mistakes when on the field. What is even more impressive is the fact that he has not thrown an interception since his two-pick game against Denver in Week 10.
If Carolina is going to continue its string of recent success on the season and against the Chargers, it will start with its quarterback. Newton will need to take advantage of San Diego's pass defense, which ranks 22nd in the league. Given the stingy nature of the Chargers run defense, expect the Panthers to go to the air often and with receivers like Steve Smith and Greg Olsen helping Newton out, it shouldn't be too daunting a task.
Newton has been solid for a while now and is continuing to grow as an NFL quarterback. There isn't any reason to believe he will slow down now as the Panthers are on a mission to finish the season on a strong note.
Take Control of the Trenches
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
This could go for either the offensive or defensive line but since the San Diego Chargers own a top-five rush defense, the big uglies for Carolina will have their work cut out for them. The unit has looked good as of late and last week it was especially impressive as it allowed Cam Newton a lot of time in the pocket to find his receivers.
The biggest question mark for it is whether or not it can help get the ground game going. The offensive line has struggled all season long in the running game and even when it has played well, the Panthers only have one 100-yard game on the season—by Newton; which was aided by his 72-yard scamper for a score against Atlanta last week.
This was suppose to be one of the team's strengths entering the season but injuries and inconsistent play have either stalled the offense or seen plays blown up in the backfield. If the boys up front can get it done at the line, then the offense in general should be in good shape and that would be good news for the running backs.
Speaking of which...
The Ground Game Needs to Get Going
Tolbert will be making his return to San Diego since signing with the Panthers in the offseason
USA TODAY Sports
Despite the recent improved play exhibited by the offense, the Carolina rushing attack has been equally frustrating and disappointing. Hailed as one of the best running back tandems in the league, the duo of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart has been unimpressive in 2012.
Williams lost the starting job to Stewart only to regain it when the big back from Oregon went down with an injury and while he has yet to reach 100 yards in a game, he did have a nice 53 yard touchdown reception on a screen pass last week.
Another running back who has been disappointing has been Mike Tolbert, who last played with San Diego and saw much success in his role as a fullback and spelling Ryan Mathews. Much of that production was expected when he came over to Carolina during the offseason but he has failed to be the player he was while with the Chargers.
To have a breakout game against his former team would be a huge boost to him and perhaps springboard him back to the performance level many fans are used to seeing him play.
The biggest hurdle for the Carolina running game will be overcoming the stout rush defense of San Diego. If the running game can't get it going, the offense will become one dimensional and the Panthers offense has not been good when rendered one dimensional.
Apply the Pressure
Grant Halverson/Getty Images
The San Diego offense is not as potent as it once was and like the Panthers may lean heavily on its aerial attack in order to move the ball. Carolina will need its dynamic defensive ends, Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy, to keep after Philip Rivers and make their presence known all game long. It worked well in two meeting against the Atlanta Falcons as Matt Ryan was constantly harassed and Rivers could be prone to make more mistakes when feeling the heat.
Another thing to remember is the Panthers were able to keep the Atlanta offense off the field because of their heavy pass rush. Logic would dictate that should be the case against San Diego. Johnson and Hardy's efforts will go a long way and if they are able to establish themselves on the outside, that could open up opportunities for the interior linemen to get in the backfield.
Rookie Frank Alexander has been a great asset as a rotational player and could give the Carolina defense one of the most deep defensive end rotations in the league. Look for pressure to come from the outside regardless of who is on the field.
Carolina has shown no reservations about being aggressive and when the cards are falling its way, that aggressiveness serves it well.
Kuechly and Davis Continue to Dominate Defensively
USA TODAY Sports
Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis are two of the feel good stories of the year in Carolina. Kuechly was selected ninth overall in April's draft—to the chagrin of many fans who felt the Panthers needed to go with a defensive tackle. After moving over to the middle following Jon Beason's injury, Kuechly finds himself leading the league in tackles and perhaps a leading candidate to take home AP Defensive Player of the Year honors.
Thomas Davis is enjoying a great comeback season and could be in line for the Comeback Player of the Year award after being one of the best linebackers in the league as well as the most hard hitting ones. His level of play over the season has proven to everyone he is indeed back from the knee injury that plagued him the past three years.
What has made these two defensive players such stalwarts has been their ability to be all over the field. It seems as though regardless of where a ball ends up, either Kuechly or Davis is involved on the play. Just like any other week, much of the same will be expected to lead the Carolina defense and help the team to victory.
Carolina's rush defense has been considerably better since Kuechly moved over to middle linebacker and with the weak rushing attack of San Diego, he should help the defense keep Ryan Mathews and company in check.
Contain Rivers, Contain the Receivers
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
Josh Norman and Captain Munnerlyn will be relied upon to keep the San Diego receivers in check and a non-factor in Sunday's game. Expect Josh Thomas to play a good part of the game as well. The secondary has been one of the weakest units for the Panthers this season and with FS Haruki Nakamura done for the year, the unit has become essentially weaker.
However, they were able to keep the Falcons off the board for two-and-a-half quarters last week and with the defensive front of Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy leading the pressure, their cause could be greatly helped.
Philip Rivers will need to be on the lookout for Carolina's defensive front as they will not hesitate to blitz and with the different packages Sean McDermott can employ, that pressure can come from anywhere. This aspect of the game could determine whether or not the Panthers win or lose as both the defensive front seven and the secondary will need to shut down the Chargers passing attack.
Backups Need to Step Up
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Armanti Edwards, Armond Smith and DJ Campbell have all found themselves thrust into a lot of significant playing time due to the injuries sustained by Carolina.
Edwards, whose job security was in question when the season started, has found himself lining up in place of the injured Brandon LaFell and has played well. His experience as a college quarterback opens the door for a bevy of trick plays Rob Chudzinski could call in order to catch the defense off guard.
Smith was on the scout team following the preseason and has assumed return duties on kickoffs as well as being a backup running back while Stewart recovers from his injury. He probably won't see much action as a running back but if he does, he has a lot of potential to make big plays.
Of these three, Campbell is the only one who looks to be starting the rest of the way with Haruki Nakamura done for the year. He was solid in his appearance against Atlanta and should continue that trend against San Diego.
Carolina has made its mark this season as being able to succeed when starters or key players have gone down. Considering the season is gone and they are playing for pride, this will be a great opportunity for the bench players to receive playing time against first-team units.
Play to Win, Not to Lose
Plays like this need to be avoided if Carolina plans to keep a lead late in games
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
There have been multiple times this season when the Carolina Panthers have found themselves leading after halftime or entering the fourth quarter. Unfortunately, they only have four wins to show for it as they have dropped heartbreakers to the Atlanta Falcons, Chicago Bears, Dallas Cowboys and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Many have pointed to the soft zone the defense tends to play in which good quarterbacks take advantage of by meticulously picking apart the secondary or completing short passes to pick up first downs. This strategy reared its ugly head in the second meeting with the Falcons but the Panthers were able to hold on for the win.
While it would be nice for the Panthers to enter the final quarter with a huge lead, they will have to ensure that the Chargers are unable to get close late in the game; otherwise it could become their undoing. If they can continue the same trends that have proven effective earlier in the game when they are up late in the fourth quarter, they should be able to not only win but win without the game being close.
Control the Clock, Control the Tempo
USA TODAY Sports
One of the reasons the Panthers were able to upset the Falcons last week was due to their outstanding ball control and time of possession. Carolina dominated the first half and not only held on to the ball, it was able to score on its first five possessions.
Much of the same will be needed to beat the Chargers.
If the Panthers can duplicate their ball control numbers and hold on to the pigskin considerably longer than the Chargers, San Diego will find itself in an uphill battle early. If the defense plays at an aggressive pace like it did last Sunday, the Bolts could be on the wrong end of several three-and-outs.
Aside from committing the fewest penalties, time of possession is key to winning the game. If the Panthers can take advantage and put points on the board following the majority of their possessions, they should be in good shape. The defense's play could benefit their cause if it mirrors their Week 13 performance.
Special Teams Needs to Be Special
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
Graham Gano had a good week against the Atlanta Falcons. Following the Panthers' opening touchdown, he was responsible for scoring their next nine points. This is important because the kicking game has been questionable the past couple of seasons. Having a reliable kicker to give you points on stalled drives is crucial to winning the close games.
As for the punting game, Brad Nortman has had his struggles but he seems to have gotten his act together and has had better punts since the middle of the season where he was in a slump, punting the ball as short as six yards. Nortman has an important role in pinning the Chargers deep inside their own territory because it allows the defense to become more opportunistic.
Joe Adams has returned from the scout team and while he hasn't broken off the big return yet, he has shown better ball control as he has not coughed up the ball since his return. The return element of the team is still up in the air and the jury is out on whether Adams or Armanti Edwards will be the long-term options as the Panthers' returners. They are both still young, so there is room to grow and improve.
If all parts of the special teams unit can come together on Sunday, the Panthers should be able to defeat the Chargers. If they are able to perform at a high level, they could mean the difference in winning the close game or winning via a blowout. While they are not the strongest part of the team, their contributions are important in the grand scheme of things.