Patriots vs. Panthers: Previewing New England's Preseason Week 3 Matchup

Sterling Xie@@sxie1281Correspondent IIAugust 27, 2015

Patriots vs. Panthers: Previewing New England's Preseason Week 3 Matchup

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    Can Tom Brady finally get going in the preseason?
    Can Tom Brady finally get going in the preseason?Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    The third preseason game typically represents the much-ballyhooed dress rehearsal, a final chance to see regulars for extended action before the regular season.  However, with a spate of nagging injuries inflicting the New England Patriots roster, the curtains might not open on the real first-string squad until September 10.

    Regardless of who suits up, the first two preseason games have shed some light on the most fascinating roster battles.  Injuries have created opportunities for players at cornerback, running back, wide receiver and guard to make an impression with the starters, for better or worse.  If Bill Belichick gives one of those roster hopefuls an extended run against the Carolina Panthers, that could make or break their place on the bubble.

    The Pats and Panthers dueled to a classic Monday Night Football finish the last time they played, and while the stakes aren't as high this time around, New England should receive a nice tune-up from the two-time defending NFC South champs.  Read on for your complete guide to all the players and matchups to watch in the Patriots' third preseason contest.

    Location: Bank of America Stadium; Charlotte, North Carolina

    Time: 7:30 p.m. ET

    TV: WBZ-TV CBS (Local), replays on NFL Network

Preseason Week 2 Results and Recap

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    Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

    The scoreboard claimed a 26-24 victory for the Patriots over the New Orleans Saints, but that only reflects the second-half performance of New England's reserves.  The Pats were missing six projected offensive starters plus linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Jerod Mayo, but that's hardly an excuse for the first-stringers getting thoroughly outclassed.

    Indeed, by the time the starters were out midway through the second quarter, the Saints had staked out to a 21-0 lead that could have been larger if not for three failed two-point conversions.  Tom Brady appeared jittery and out of rhythm with the reserve-laden receiving corps, completing just two of five passes for 13 yards en route to three-and-outs on all three of his drives.

    The Saints had no such issues behind Drew Brees, who tore up a new-look Patriots secondary for a whopping 15.9 yards per attempt over three consecutive scoring drives.  The Devin McCourty cornerback experiment returned, and while it may have simply been a case of positional cross-training in case of emergencies, the Pats won't feel great if they need to move their free safety to the perimeter for an extended stretch.

    On the bright side, New England appears to possess superior depth at its offensive skill position spots, which is an important asset given the lack of a true game-breaker at running back or wide receiver.  Undrafted rookie Chris Harper continued to display the quickness and route-running diversity that could earn him a ticket on the roster, especially given his contributions as a kick returner.  Dion Lewis and James White both also flashed well, giving the Pats some reassurance as they search for Shane Vereen's replacement.

    Most encouragingly, Jimmy Garoppolo finished 28-for-33 with an average of 8.2 yards per attempt, demonstrating much better pocket poise than he did against the Green Bay Packers.  Avoiding pressure will be Garoppolo's biggest challenge if he starts during the regular season, and Saturday night's showing was a positive step forward on that front.

News and Notes

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    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    Aaron Schatz: Malcolm Butler a Top-10 Prospect

    There are no certainties at the revamped cornerback position, but second-year pro Malcolm Butler has separated himself to earn a shot at the top spot on the left side.  Despite Butler's inexperience, Football Outsiders' Aaron Schatz named Butler to the site's "Top 25 Prospects" list in the recently released Football Outsiders Almanac 2015.  However, Schatz did note inconsistency in Butler's regular-season results:

    The three passes Butler got his hand on during Seattle's last drive showed an upside that makes you wonder how he came within a whisker of not even getting an NFL shot. (Playing college ball at Division II West Alabama was part of it.) On the other hand, Butler was just mediocre in his overall regular-season performance and got beat deep a couple of times, leading to a 51 percent adjusted success rate (fairly average) and 10.5 adjusted yards allowed per pass (not good). He'll need more consistency to become a longtime NFL starter and not the Timmy Smith of defensive backs.

    Butler played over half the snaps in a single game just once last year, during the Week 17 reserve-filled contest when New England had nothing left to play for.  It's easy to forget how far he really has to come in terms of game experience, which will likely lead to some uneven results if he's covering top wide receivers right away.

    Still, the Pats aren't necessarily giving Butler that extended run during the preseason because he proved capable during last season's exhibition slate.  We won't know if Butler is capable of extended regular-season consistency until the games begin to count, but Bill Belichick is certainly treating him with special deference when compared to the other players at the position.

    Braden Campbell: Don't Overlook Wayne's Injuries

    The Patriots' biggest splash this week came when they inked Reggie Wayne to a one-year deal worth up to $2.3 million.  That financial commitment, which includes a $450,000 signing bonus, suggests Wayne is likely to make the final 53-man roster, even if he serves as the rare secondary receiver without special teams value.

    Though Pats fans might enjoy needling the rival Indianapolis Colts after signing away their second all-time leading receiver, there's a legitimate question as to how much the 36-year-old Wayne might reasonably contribute.  However, the Boston Globe's Braden Campbell believes that Wayne's 2014 struggles might have been related to the injuries he played through:

    Wayne’s 2014 should also be looked at through the lens of his injuries. A torn ACL is a tough injury to bounce back from for a sophomore, let alone a 35-year-old wideout in his 14th season. On top of that, Reggie Wayne played with a torn triceps suffered in Week 7 and claims to have played injured from day 1. If his decline is even in part attributable to his injuries rather than age, there’s hope for the now-healthy Wayne bouncing back.

    Wayne appeared beaten down at the end of last year, and Campbell's point might stand when considering the Pats will need him most at the beginning of the season as their other receivers recover from preseason injuries.  It's hard to imagine him leapfrogging any of the top three wide receivers at the moment, but he'll provide a valuable layer of experienced depth that the Pats didn't have at the position last year.

    Mike Reiss: Brady's Results a Top Priority

    It's no secret that Tom Brady has struggled while playing with a diminished offensive supporting cast this preseason.  However, following Belichick's explicit notice that he would treat Friday night's game as a regular-season dress rehearsal for the starters, ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss opined that Brady's form against the Panthers was New England's highest priority:

    The Patriots have recorded one first down while Brady was on the field, via a 10-yard completion to receiver Brandon Gibson in the preseason opener. But they simply haven't been able to sustain a drive and thus Brady hasn't been able to get into any type of rhythm.

    Still, with coach Bill Belichick saying this will be as close to a regular-season week as possible from a game-planning perspective, it makes sense to think we'll see a bit more of Brady on Friday night, which will give him more of a chance to carry some of the momentum we've seen on the practice field to the game field.

    The offense has inexplicably averaged just 1.4 yards per play with Brady on the field this preseason.  Though preseason results are meaningless, such incompetence isn't comforting either.  The only positive is that opposing rushers haven't gotten close to Brady thus far, though part of that surely stems from the quick pass concepts he's running to ensure his health.

    Beyond Brady's results, it'll be interesting to see how much time the top offense plays with Jimmy Garoppolo.  With no resolution to Brady's court case in sight, Garoppolo still deserves a long run with the first team to prepare himself for the regular-season opener in less than two weeks.  How the Pats divvy up first-team quarterback reps might be a more fascinating storyline than the actual statistical results.

Latest Injury News

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    The Pats have operated at diminished capacity the first two weeks of the preseason, particularly on offense, but they finally received some good news on the injury front this week.  Starters Julian Edelman and Ryan Wendell made their long-awaited returns to practice, while the likes of Aaron Dobson, Trey Flowers, Scott Chandler, Travaris Cadet and Rufus Johnson made their returns after sitting out at least one week.

    Given that Belichick does plan to treat this like a regular-season dress rehearsal, we should expect these players to receive fairly extensive reps against the Panthers.  The Pats certainly won't do anything to jeopardize the long-term health of someone such as Edelman, but we haven't seen the true first team operate in any game-like capacity. 

    Chandler's return is particularly underrated, as the Pats' tight ends have been a non-factor through the first two games.  Perhaps with a nod to the inexperience throughout the offense, Belichick has also sat Rob Gronkowski in that time.  With Chandler back, perhaps we'll see a sneak peak at the eagerly anticipated "twin towers" 12 personnel the Pats could potentially run this season. 

    Apart from Kelvin Benjamin's season-ending injury, the Panthers have been relatively fortunate on the health front.  Starting defensive tackles Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei have missed multiple weeks of practice, but Short is expected to play, while Lotulelei has started practicing, per the Charlotte Observer's Jonathan Jones.  Center Ryan Kalil, the linchpin of an otherwise mediocre offensive line, suffered a Lisfranc injury that will keep him out the rest of the preseason, but no other starters are currently expected to miss multiple weeks.

Key Matchups

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    Grant Halverson/Getty Images

    Jamie Collins and Safeties vs. Greg Olsen

    Following Kelvin Benjamin's ACL injury, the Panthers possess arguably the least proven wide receiver corps in the league.  Consequently, tight end Greg Olsen, who ranked fourth in targets (123) at the position last year, figures to see an even bigger slice of the passing pie go his way.

    Olsen has never gotten recognition as an elite tight end, but few players offer as complete a package.  Between his soft hands, size, route running and run blocking, Olsen has the capacity to challenge the Patriots through a variety of avenues.  However, pass coverage should be the area that interests Pats fans the most, especially given how the first-stringers struggled covering New Orleans' running backs and tight ends.

    The Panthers tight end would also be a nice test for Devin McCourty, if he returns to his natural position, and starters such as Jamie Collins and Patrick Chung, who have played sparingly thus far in the preseason. 

    Carolina runs as many multi-tight end sets as any team in the league, so New England figures to be in its base package the majority of the game.  If Collins and Dont'a Hightower get extended playing time, watch how they work in conjunction with the safeties to cover one of the game's most dangerous tight ends.

    Sebastian Vollmer vs. Charles Johnson

    Though both Vollmer and Nate Solder returned to the lineup against the Saints, securing the edge was one of New England's biggest failures in that game.  Though the pass protection held up well, New England's running backs were consistently hit behind the line of scrimmage on off-tackle play calls.  Consequently, the Pats averaged a horrid 2.3 yards per carry, with starter LeGarrette Blount going for 15 yards on 13 attempts.

    Carolina has its share of issues on the weak side, but strong-side stalwart Charles Johnson remains the rock the Panthers can rely on.  The 29-year-old has recorded at least 8.5 sacks in each of the past five seasons and 52.5 total since 2010, tied for fifth-most in the league over the span.  With both Short and Lotulelei sidelined and Greg Hardy gone, Johnson is the lone holdover on a line that was one of the league's best in 2013.

    Apart from spotty health, Vollmer's track record is largely impeccable.  For all the worries on the interior, right tackle is unlikely to present much of an issue in 2015.  Nevertheless, facing Carolina's best edge defender will be a nice warm-up in what will likely be Vollmer's final preseason action. 

    Patriots Interior D-Line vs. Panthers Interior O-Line

    There's not necessarily a specific one-on-one matchup to watch here, but as mentioned earlier, the Panthers tend to run lots of power personnel such as 12 (2 WR, 2 TE, 1 RB), 22 (2 WR, 1 TE, 2 RB) and even 13 (1 WR, 3 TE, 1 RB).  As such, this should be a good test for a Pats interior line that was rather sturdy against the Saints.

    New Orleans rushed for a mere 2.8 yards per attempt last week, with the Pats' rotation of Sealver Siliga, Alan Branch and Malcom Brown playing well.  Branch in particular has dug himself out of a hole after looking like a roster cut at the start of camp.  With Dominique Easley largely playing on the edge this preseason, Branch's spot as a rotational defensive tackle appears increasingly safe.

    With Kalil out, the Pats hold the talent edge on the interior.  If they can limit Jonathan Stewart and the Panthers' running game, Cam Newton could have a more difficult time moving the ball than the Saints offense did.

Matchup X-Factors

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    Chris Keane/Associated Press

    Patriots X-Factor of the Week: Tarell Brown

    With Devin McCourty being clearly uncomfortable at right cornerback against the Saints, that experiment has likely ended for the time being.  He can still play the slot against tight ends, as he did at times last season, but the days of him playing full-time on the perimeter appear over, barring unforeseen circumstances.

    But rookie Darryl Roberts, who received the first shot at right cornerback against Green Bay, is reportedly unlikely to play this season after suffering a wrist injury against the Packers, according to ESPN's Mike Reiss and Adam Caplan.  It's unclear who the Pats view as the top choice to play opposite Malcolm Butler, but based on beat-writer buzz, Tarell Brown should be the front-runner.

    Brown played just 10 snaps against the Saints while recovering from an injury he suffered during practices leading up the game, but he appears fully recovered from the minor issue.  Reading the training camp tea leaves would suggest that he's the favorite to start at right cornerback, where he'd likely cover some combination of Corey Brown, Ted Ginn Jr. and Jarrett Boykin. 

    Whoever Belichick plays next to Butler should reveal plenty of insight into a muddled cornerback depth chart picture.  The smart money right now is on Brown, who should receive significantly more run than he's garnered over the first two preseason contests.

    Panthers X-Factor of the Week: Devin Funchess

    Though the aforementioned Olsen will become Newton's No. 1 target, the rookie Funchess possesses the towering measurables (6'4", 225 lbs) that could make him a logical Benjamin replacement.  Like Benjamin was a year ago, Funchess is an unpolished yet athletically enticing player who figures to have an up-and-down campaign if given extended run.

    Having sat out Carolina's last game against the Miami Dolphins with a hamstring injury, Funchess hasn't gotten any game action since assuming the top receiver role by default.  Other receivers such as Corey Brown and Ted Ginn Jr. offer past continuity with Newton, which has left experts divided as to what kind of upside Funchess possesses this season:

    I may be in the minority here, but I see Devin Funchess doing a good job replacing some (most?) of Benjamin's production.

    — Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) August 19, 2015

    I doubt Devin Funchess can replicate what Benjamin did last year, so Philly Brown will probably have to step up too.

    — Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) August 19, 2015

    From a New England perspective, Funchess will be another nice test for its undersized secondary.  The Pats did a nice job on 6'6" Brandon Coleman last week, with McCourty breaking up a likely touchdown in the end zone.  Funchess is probably a little rawer than the second-year receiver Coleman, but his presence could be the Pats' greatest concern in the passing game outside of Olsen.

Prediction: Patriots 29, Panthers 25

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    Preseason records are meaningless, and the Patriots are especially unlikely to put any stock in their 1-1 mark given how badly the starters played against the Saints.  Assuming the first-stringers play the entire first half this time, the Pats will take a loss on the scoreboard if the first 30 minutes look better.

    Pats fans will surely be happy to see Reggie Wayne in nautical blue and silver, if only to needle Colts fans, but New England needs continuity much more than it needs a flashy name.  Questions that existed at cornerback, guard and running back at the start of camp have gone largely unanswered, while new ones have popped up at wide receiver.

    Only a resolution in the Tom Brady saga can completely help the Patriots feel at ease for the regular season, but a strong performance on Friday night would help.  While preseason isn't any meaningful future indicator for a core as established as this one, a little tangible evidence of progress would be nice given the lackluster showings against Green Bay and New Orleans.

    The Pats were able to do just that last August when they clobbered the Panthers, 30-7, in the third preseason game before the 2014 season.  We'll call for a similar result 12 months later, albeit one not nearly as lopsided.

    Prediction: Patriots 29, Panthers 25

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