The Patriots are vulnerable away from Gillette Stadium, having gone 2-2 in four road games. They’re also fresh off a bye week, and the last time they took the field they dropped 55 points on the Steelers.
In order to keep that momentum going and avoid another road loss, the Patriots must keep their foot on the gas and continue their aggressive play on offense. As usual, it all starts with the maestro, Tom Brady, and evolves from there.
The Patriots will need contributions from a red-hot Stevan Ridley as well. As he goes, so goes the run game, and when the Patriots run well Brady can orchestrate diverse drives and keep opposing defenses off balance.
Look for Rob Gronkowski to make his presence felt as well. Coming off his first touchdown of the season, Gronk has wasted no time recapturing his dominant form.
Of course, as Bill Belichick would say, to win you must perform well in all three phases of the game. It’s not just an offensive game, and the Patriots will need solid efforts all around.
Here are five players who must step up to give the Patriots a much-needed win with the Denver Broncos coming to town next week.
All statistics courtesy of pro-football-reference.com, unless otherwise noted.
Carolina leads the NFL with 13 interceptions while surrendering seven passing touchdowns—the fewest in the league. They also yield just 201.3 passing yards per game, good for fourth in the NFL, along with the second-fewest points—12.8 per game—in the league.
Yeah, they’re good.
Statistically speaking, they represent Brady’s biggest challenge of the season. Yes, even more than the Bengals defense that made him look like Seneca Wallace.
Stats can be misleading, however, as the Panthers haven’t faced a quarterback like Brady or an offense as potentially explosive as New England’s yet this year. The closest they’ve encountered was Matt Ryan and the injury-ravaged Falcons offense.
Something’s got to give this weekend, and it will be interesting to see which side buckles first. Brady will need to be on point against a unit that thrives on forcing turnovers and snuffing drives out like candles.
Offensive drives against the Panthers end in turnovers 19.8 percent of the time, and opponents’ average drives are only amounting to 25.1 yards of total offense. Both marks lead the NFL.
If Brady’s accuracy issues resurface or he underthrows receivers like he was earlier in the season, chances are the Panthers will make him pay. He needs to build on Week 9’s 432-yard, four-touchdown performance to engineer sustained drives and avoid costly turnovers.
In addition to leading the NFL in interceptions, another reason the Panthers are forcing so many short-lived drives is their ability to get off the field on third down. According to NFL.com, opposing offenses are converting just 34 percent of third downs against Carolina, the sixth-lowest such percentage across the league.
To consistently move the ball, the Patriots must keep pressure on the Panthers defense by converting third downs as they arise. What better way to convert third downs than to repeatedly find your best offensive weapon in the passing game?
On the season, New England ranks among the worst teams in the league on third downs, successfully converting just 35 percent of their opportunities, per NFL.com. Of course, missing Gronkowski for the first six games doesn’t help matters, but even with him back in the lineup the Patriots have converted just 10-of-34 third downs, a Jacksonville-esque 29.4 percent success rate.
The Patriots must lean on Gronkowski to reverse that trend, especially in the red zone where he’s virtually unguardable.
The Panthers have defended tight ends very well for the most part, but Gronk isn’t your average tight end, and Carolina’s shown it can be exploited by the better players at the position. Two weeks ago, the venerable Tony Gonzalez hit the Panthers for 81 yards and a touchdown on six catches. Back in Week 6, Kyle Rudolph hung 97 yards and a touchdown on them.
At this point, numbers like that are the norm for Gronkowski, but not for the Panthers defense. If the Patriots can keep him rolling, he will create unmatched coverage problems for Carolina, forcing them to divert more attention than usual to the position.
More focus on Gronk means more opportunities for everyone else. More importantly though, heavy Gronk-age means feeding him the football for chunks of yards in key situations.
Speaking of those pesky third downs, the easiest way to consistently convert opportunities is to keep the offense in manageable down-and-distance situations. The Patriots must do this using Ridley to chew up yardage against a tough Carolina front seven.
The Panthers have allowed an eye-popping two rushing touchdowns on the year along with 82 rushing yards per contest—the second lowest total in the league.
Ridley doesn’t need to reach the century mark to be successful in Carolina, but he does need to effectively keep the ball moving and churn out decent yardage on early downs.
As badly as New England’s struggled to cash in on third down this season, they have found success when Ridley sets the tone offensively. In Week 9 against Pittsburgh, the Patriots committed to Ridley more than at any point this season. Not surprisingly, they were outstanding on third down, converting manageable opportunities en route to 58.3 percent success rate.
I detailed last week the ongoing impact Ridley and backfield mate Shane Vereen will have on the offense, particularly the play-action game, going forward. The Patriots’ entire offense opens up when Ridley’s on his game, and he’ll need to bring it against one of the NFL’s toughest run defenses.
Relying heavily on the running game may seem counterintuitive against such a stellar front seven, but by grinding out even a few yards at a time, Ridley can keep the Patriots in high-percentage situations and eliminate turnover opportunities for the Panthers.
In case you haven’t realized it yet, the Patriots need all aspects of their offense working in concert to have success in Carolina. During drives, that begins with Ridley setting the tone and cracking open the defense and trickles down to Brady and, ultimately, his receivers in the play-action game.
In truth though, the coordinated attack must begin before the Patriots even get the ball.
Not only are the Panthers nearly impossible to throw, run and generally drive on, but when teams are able to generate yards, they find themselves staring at a very long field.
Carolina’s opponents are starting their drives from an average field position of their own 24.7-yard line. Driving 75 yards on any NFL defense is a tall order, but when you also consider that the Panthers only allow 25 yards per drive and rank fourth in the NFL with 21 turnovers forced, it’s no wonder they allow the second-fewest points in the league.
All these factors conspire against the Patriots, who’ve struggled to sustain drives all season, averaging 27.5 total yards per drive.
Enter Julian Edelman.
The NFL’s all-time leader in punt return average can give the Patriots a leg up on offense by keeping them in favorable field position to start their drives.
All it takes is one or two nice returns to dramatically impact the game. It’s much easier to score from, say, midfield than it is to drive 75 yards downfield.
The Patriots have struggled mightily against the run this season, allowing the third most yards per game in the NFL.
The Panthers lack a true, featured running back, operating with a committee of DeAngelo Williams, Mike Tolbert and Jonathan Stewart, but they still move the ball well, to the tune of 128 yards per contest. Quarterback Cam Newton adds a dangerous element to their ground game with 268 yards and four touchdowns on the season.
Jones and Ninkovich need to collapse the pocket and force Newton to speed up his internal clock as a passer. Jones has really excelled in that regard with 8.5 sacks thus far, but the two of them need to work in tandem to not only pressure Newton, but to also keep him confined as the pocket collapses.
Newton’s one of the most dangerous quarterbacks in the league outside the pocket and can break a big run on any play.
As they have done much of this season, the Patriots will likely use Jones to collapse the pocket while Ninkovich plays more of a support role on the edge. Ninkovich will need to maintain gap discipline and establish himself on the edge to keep Newton from getting around the corner and into open real estate.
If Ninkovich can hold up at the point of attack and force the action back inside, Newton will struggle with pressure in his face from Chandler Jones and Chris Jones, who burst on to the scene with five sacks in six games.