For the Panthers, this is an opportunity to put an emphatic stamp of legitimacy on their five-game winning streak with a sixth straight win, this time over one of the NFL's powerhouse teams over the past decade-plus. The Patriots, however, are no stranger to facing a hot team on prime-time television and look to extend their lead in the AFC East standings to three games over the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins (both 5-5).
Once again, the Patriots will face a defense that features a dominant front four—which seems to have become a weekly trend, with the Patriots having faced the Dolphins, Jets, Cincinnati Bengals and New Orleans Saints fronts already this season. The Panthers offense, however, poses a more versatile threat than almost any the Patriots have seen to this point.
The Patriots have had 15 days to prepare since their Week 9 blowout win against the Steelers. Several teams will have played three games during the Patriots' layover; head coach Bill Belichick has had plenty of time to cook up a game plan that will help improve on his already-sterling record as Patriots coach following a bye week (10-3).
Here's a look at how the Patriots can continue that trend and put the brakes on the Panthers' run of dominance.
Patriots offense vs. Panthers defense
The strength of the Panthers defense, as mentioned before, is its front four. Defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy are two of the best pass-rushing defensive ends in the league. The Panthers generate pressure on 37 percent of opponent's dropbacks, but the Panthers blitz just 23.7 percent of the time.
That's indicative that the Panthers defense generates most of its pressure with a straight four-man rush.
Rookie defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short have teamed with veteran Dwan Edwards to provide a solid rotation on the inside, and although the three have combined for just 4.5 sacks this season, they are stellar at the point of attack and are hard to move off the line of scrimmage.
Behind them, linebacker Luke Kuechly is playing some of the best football of anyone at his position. His combination of instincts and athleticism puts him in position to make nearly every play on the field.
How do you slow down a vicious pass rush? NFC South lead writer Knox Bardeen explains:
I think uptempo would work. The Panthers are phenomenal up front, but get those big boys tired and their front four/seven will loosen up. I don't buy that there's not a huge drop-off from the starting defensive line to the reserves, like most coaches say. Brady should also look to attack [cornernback] Josh Thomas when/if he's in the game. Same goes for Melvin White. I also think quick passes away from Kuechly would be smart.
The Patriots might have an opportunity to wear the Panthers front down by spreading them out, making them run sideline to sideline instead of north and south.
The Patriots went with three or four receivers quite often against a Bengals defense with a similar formula—dominant up front, athletic linebackers at the second level. They weren't incredibly successful doing it against the Bengals, but they were still without tight end Rob Gronkowski in that game, and wide receiver Danny Amendola was fresh off a groin injury.
On this 3rd-and-5 play in the second quarter, the Patriots came out with the 11 personnel grouping (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers) and the Bengals matched with their nickel personnel. They showed a blitz before the snap, but either checked out of it or were bluffing all along, because they only sent four men on the rush.
Running back Brandon Bolden (circled in yellow) ran a flare out of the backfield and caught the pass in the flat.
With the defense running across the field, Bolden was able to get to the edge before anyone else, and the Patriots picked up the first down. Plays like this are a good way to keep a defensive line from pinning its ears back.
With running back Shane Vereen returning to the field Monday, according to Adam Schefter of ESPN, expect at least a few plays like this over the course of the game. It will be interesting to see if the Patriots look to get Vereen in favorable matchups from an early stage to set the tone of the game.
Patriots defense vs. Panthers offense
Against a team that runs as effectively as the Panthers, and that has a quarterback as good at using his legs as Cam Newton, one might expect that the best game plan to shut down the Panthers would involve gap discipline and pocket containment. Those elements will surely apply at certain times and in certain situations, but the Arizona Cardinals were able to bottle up the run with a blitz-heavy game plan.
|Cam Newton vs. pressure, 2013|
|Plays under pressure||117||12||79||44||55.7||549||6.9||7||5||25||80.6|
|When not blitzed||181||11||162||102||63.0||1194||7.4||7||3||7||91.9|
|Pro Football Focus|
Like most quarterbacks, Newton is less effective when under pressure, so the Patriots pass rush will have to get home at some point. He's been doing a much better job of taking what the defense gives him, as evidenced by his improved efficiency numbers across the board.
Rattling him, however, may be the key.
The Cardinals sent a blitz at Newton on 27 of his 47 dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), and he went 10-of-20 for 160 yards and three interceptions while being sacked seven times when blitzed.
Knowing that the Panthers have leaned heavily on the running game, the Cardinals sent defenders on the blitz no matter the play; whether it was a run-blitz or otherwise wasn't important.
The Cardinals were able to contain him in the pocket by virtue of the blitz; with multiple defenders around him, Newton was surrounded and had nowhere to run. On the above the play, he threw the ball away after nearly being sacked.
The Cardinals also used a strategy I think the Patriots might be fond of. They sent linebacker Daryl Washington on a delayed blitz up the middle to get a five-yard sack on 3rd-and-9. The play allowed the Cardinals to contain Cam at first, and once the Panthers offensive line had all committed to blocks, Washington came on the delayed blitz and got the pressure on Newton. He chased Newton down from behind for the sack.
Of course, it's not all about Newton. In fact, while the Panthers offense hasn't been great, it's been good enough because they've asked Newton to carry significantly less of the burden than he has in past years.
The burden, instead, has shifted to running back DeAngelo Williams, who is on pace for his highest total in rush attempts (240) since 2008, and his first 1,000-yard season since 2009. Newton's running ability is still a big part of their offensive game plan, but the Patriots must be ready to defend the run no matter who is carrying the ball.
The Panthers have a running game that must be respected; we all know about Newton's ability to scramble (he has 63 carries for 266 yards this year), but that doesn't mean the Patriots should just sit back and let him pick them apart. Newton can also throw the ball, and he's doing it better than ever this year.
Newton has really improved his short passing and is running less, which means he's taking what defenses give him and not always trying to hit a home run. Newton had been criticized for locking onto a target and forcing balls deep into the secondary. That didn't always work. So Newton and [Panthers offensive coordinator Mike] Shula really focused on him getting through progressions quickly and connecting on short passes. And he's really good at passes under 15 yards.
Newton has not been one of the most efficient deep passers in the league this year, as opposed to previous years. Bardeen thinks it might have to do with the strong reinforcement Shula has given him to take what the defense gives him and to live on those underneath throws.
|Cam Newton deep passing|
|Year||Attempt %||NFL Rank||Accuracy %||NFL Rank|
|Pro Football Focus|
As a result, Newton has thrown deep (pass in the air 20 yards or more downfield) on a modest 13.3 percent of his throws (14th of 36 QBs, according to Pro Football Focus), and he has hit his target on just 27.8 percent of those throws, the fourth-lowest average in the league. The Panthers have just 25 offensive plays of 20 yards or more this season and just 19 passes of such distance, both league lows.
While Newton still has the ability to stretch a defense vertically, those big plays haven't been nearly as big a part of the game plan under Shula as they were in Newton's first two years under Rod Chudzinski.
There's no easy blueprint for getting it done. It's going to take one of the Patriots' most disciplined defensive performances of the season to come out of Carolina with their eighth win.
"I think any time you give coaches with that type of background a little bit of time, they always come up with something," said Panthers coach Ron Rivera, according to Joseph Person of The Charlotte Observer, "so we have to be on our game."
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand or via team news releases.