Besides the quality of play and the outcome, individual matchups are arguably the most interesting aspect to follow in a particular game. The Week 3 contest between the New York Giants and Carolina Panthers should hold true to this statement, with several interesting matchups worth keeping an eye on.
Below is a breakdown of these matchups. They are ordered in terms of how vital they are to Big Blue’s chances of leaving Charlotte with their first win of the season. In addition, who has the edge in the individual battles will be disclosed at the end of the analysis.
TE Greg Olsen vs. LB Spencer Paysinger and LB Jacquan Williams
Paysinger and Williams should take turns covering the Panthers starting tight end.
The former has been a three-down linebacker for the Giants so far this season, playing in 145 of a possible 155 snaps. He has performed relatively well against the pass, as witnessed by his 2.4 Pro Football Focus rating (subscription required).
Paysinger has been particularly good at limiting receivers to a minimal gain when they do catch the ball in his area. The 25-year-old has only allowed 5.3 yards per catch on the seven receptions he’s surrendered.
This bodes well in his matchup against Olsen, since the Wayne, NJ product can extend the defense despite lacking top speed. He has averaged over 12 yards per catch in each of the last two seasons and is close to that number once again in 2013.
Williams figures to draw the assignment of covering Olsen on third down and long, as well as other obvious passing situations. The third-year player is currently behind Paysinger on the depth chart and has logged only 97 snaps this season.
Physically, however, he should be New York’s best cover linebacker but poor instincts hinder his effectiveness. For instance, he has a tendency to be slow recognizing a receiver’s break, which too often leaves him behind a play.
Olsen had a solid game against the Giants last year, catching seven balls for 98 yards. He figures to be targeted often again on Sunday afternoon, since Panthers quarterback Cam Newton has thrown the ball only to Steve Smith more than Olsen since the beginning of the 2012 season.
The key for Paysinger and Williams will be to keep Olsen out of the end zone and negate him from converting third downs into first downs as Newton’s security blanket in the middle of the field.
WR Steve Smith vs. CB Prince Amukamara
In wide receiver years, Smith is certainly not a young man, but you wouldn’t know it by his production.
The 34-year-old has put together back-to-back seasons of over 1,100 yards receiving and he’s done it by taking chunks of the field with every catch. In 2011, he averaged 17.4 yards per reception and dropped only slightly to 16.1 last season.
He is off to a slow start this season, with only 11 receptions for 103 yards, but unless he’s suddenly lost it, a big game from the 13-year veteran is definitely possible on Sunday.
The Giants have fared well against him in his career, considering that Smith is a borderline Hall of Famer.
The task of keeping Big Blue’s strong track record intact versus Smith will mainly fall on Prince Amukamara.
The third-year player has struggled to prevent receptions this season, allowing 12 catches on the 14 targets he’s faced. However, he’s been adept at limiting the big play, surrendering only 10.6 yards per catch and no touchdowns.
This matchup ranks ahead of Olsen versus Paysinger and Williams because Smith is more capable of wrecking the Giants' day. He figures to be targeted more and his speed could lead to a long touchdown or two if Amukamara isn’t careful.
WR Victor Cruz vs. CB Captain Munnerlyn
These injury issues put a lot of pressure on Munnerlyn, the lone Carolina cornerback that is 100 percent and has been with the team all season. The five-year veteran figures to match up almost exclusively on Cruz. Munnerlyn's 5’8” frame makes it impossible to cover the physical Hakeem Nicks, who stands 6’0”, or 6’2” Rueben Randle.
The Salsa King surprisingly stands at 6’0” as well (many people think he is shorter given his slot-receiver skill set), but relies more on quickness and speed than strength.
Munnerlyn is fast and has fluid hip movement so he should be able to stay with Cruz in space.
The edge Big Blue must exploit is Cruz’s four-inch height advantage over Munnerlyn. It would be surprising if Eli Manning, who is always willing to take some chances, doesn’t target him in a few jump ball situations as well as a fade route or two in the end zone.
Carolina held Cruz to only 42 yards receiving when facing the Giants in Week 3 last season. This success, however, was largely due to the fact that the four-year veteran was getting double teamed most of the game because both Nicks and Domenik Hixon, New York’s third best wide receiver in 2012, were both out with injuries.
The Giants enter Sunday completely healthy at wide receiver and will rely on the passing game to generate points. If Cruz can have success against arguably the Panthers best cornerback (Munnerlyn’s 0.3 PFF rating in 2012 was tops on the team), the Giants offense should be able to eclipse the 30-point mark.
DE Jason Pierre-Paul vs. LT Jordan Gross
This is the most important matchup for the Giants to win on Sunday. Why? If Pierre-Paul is able to get pressure on Newton and set the edge on the run, it will significantly hinder the effectiveness of the Panthers offensive attack.
The likelihood that Pierre-Paul can have this type of impact is questionable, given his ineffectiveness in the season’s first two games and Gross' standing as one of the better left tackles in the NFL.
The good news for the Giants is that JPP believes he is rounding into form after offseason back surgery and one of his teammates concurs, as told in this tweet from Art Stapleton, Giants beat writer for The Record (NJ):
Will Beatty told me he saw flashes of the old JPP today: "He started the fight quicker, a step faster getting off the ball" in practice #NYG— Art Stapleton (@art_stapleton) September 18, 2013
Even if Pierre-Paul plays better Sunday, it still doesn’t mean he’ll be a huge factor in the game because of the presence of Gross. The 33-year-old has posted a PFF rating north of 15 in each of his last three seasons and has a 4.3 mark through only two games this year (the rating for each game is added to get the overall season total so Gross is technically on target for a 34.4 rating in 2013).
He is also equally effective both as a run-blocker and pass-blocker, so he really doesn’t have a weakness for Pierre-Paul to exploit.
JPP is a wonderful talent, but despite the optimism of Beatty and himself, he doesn’t figure to be his old self for at least a few more weeks. Gross wins this matchup despite being nearly nine years older—a huge age gap in the NFL.