The Carolina Panthers are continuing to try to carve their way into the history books. They’ve already set a franchise record for the best start to a season at 6-0. They’ve extended their league-longest regular-season win streak to 10. Things are set for a potential matchup of unbeaten teams next week when they take on the Green Bay Packers.
First, however, they’ll have to take out the Indianapolis Colts who come to town on Monday night. Despite Indianapolis’ struggles so far this season, Carolina would be crazy to look past them. Andrew Luck has made a habit of dragging his team out of impossible holes—he has ten fourth quarter comebacks in his career. Yes, the Colts are in a funk and look bad, but this is a team that went 11-5 last season and was one game away from a Super Bowl appearance. The Panthers can’t afford to look past them.
While the Panthers are favored, per OddsShark, and justifiably so, they don’t want to be caught looking ahead and fall victim to the dreaded trap game. Let’s take a look at what they’ll have to protect against, and what they can exploit, to get to 7-0.
Offensive Game Plan
The Panthers’ offense can be considered something of a throwback, but an effective one. They rank No. 29 in passing with just 200 yards per game. They rank first in rushing with 144.7 yards per game. They’re not slinging the ball around like fellow unbeaten teams like the New England Patriots or the Cincinnati Bengals; they’re content to get a lead and control the game with a punishing defense and a strong rushing attack.
Part of it is philosophy—the Panthers have more talent at running back than receiver—and part of it is game situation—teams in the lead try to bleed the clock, hence they run—but teams that have put up this sort of commitment to the run even in the modern, pass-happy age have done very well.
Carolina has run the ball 197 times this season. The Panthers are the eighth team to reach 6-0 while running the ball at least 195 times since the NFL went to 12 playoff teams in 1990. The previous seven did fairly well for themselves:
|6-0 Teams with 195+ Rushing Attempts, 1990-Present|
|2009||NO||201||927||Pierre Thomas||Won Super Bowl|
|2008||TEN||206||927||Chris Johnson||Lost in Divisional Round|
|2007||NE||202||850||Lawrence Maroney||Lost in Super Bowl|
|1998||DEN||205||1063||Terrell Davis||Won Super Bowl|
|1994||SDG||203||832||Natrone Means||Lost in Super Bowl|
|1991||WAS||215||880||Earnest Byner||Won Super Bowl|
|1990||NYG||209||721||Ottis Anderson||Won Super Bowl|
|Pro Football Reference|
So, teams that have found success in the same way Carolina has generally keep its success going throughout the entire season and deep into the playoffs. As long as the Panthers can keep up the effectiveness of their ground attack, they should continue to play 70’s-style football with a modern-day rushing quarterback and see how far it takes them.
According to Football Outsiders, the Colts run defense is just in the middle of the pack, ranking No. 15 overall this season. They’ve allowed two 100-yard rushers on the season, in Mark Ingram and T.J. Yeldon, and are allowing 122.7 rushing yards per game this season. In other words, attacking their run defense has shown success so far this season, but it’s not the worst run defense in the league or anything of that nature.
To make matters worse for the Colts, however, their clear weakness in rushing is right up the gut, and that’s where Carolina has its best offensive linemen. Indianapolis is allowing 4.25 yards per carry on runs up the gut, No. 19 in the league. Carolina is averaging 4.43 yards per carry on runs up the middle, seventh-best in the league, according to Football Outsiders. The basic running game strategy seems fairly clear. It’s time to pull out the traps and veers and go right after the heart of the Indianapolis run defense. Ryan Kalil, Andrew Norwell and Trai Turner will likely be able to have very solid success against rookie nose tackle David Parry and veteran inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson, and the Panthers should be able to dominate the point of attack.
It’s not like Carolina should ignore outside running altogether, but this is a known weakness of the Colts. Only three teams in football have faced more inside rushes than the Colts have, and until they can prove they can slow down teams running straight at their heart, there’s no reason for teams to attack them any other way.
Once the Colts defense brings extra help into the box to slow down the run attack, of course, the Panthers can attempt to beat them over the top. The Colts have allowed 285.9 passing yards per game this season, fourth-most in the NFL. This has actually gotten worse recently, as their average over the last five games has ballooned up to 312.6 yards per game. There’s room for Cam Newton to attack this team over the top, especially to Greg Olsen—FO charts the Colts as being No.23 in the league against tight ends. Ideally, the Panthers would be able to spread the field and attack the nickel and dime cornerbacks of the Colts, but they don’t have enough depth at the receiver position to really take advantage of that particular weakness.
That’s not to say the Colts are entirely without players to watch out for on defense. Erik Walden and Trent Cole bring a fairly solid pass rush from the outside linebacker position, and they’ll challenge Mike Remmers and Michael Oher on the outside. Rookie Henry Anderson, at defensive end, has been the general exception to Indianapolis’ poor run defense, as well, and has a strong future ahead of him. Still, the Colts are trending downwards and the Panthers should have an advantage here.
Defensive Game Plan
For the past few seasons, the defensive game plan has been centered around stopping Andrew Luck—he’s made up for the lack of talent around him with great play.
This year, however, that hasn’t been the case. Part of it is due to injury—he’s missed two games this season with a bum shoulder, and he still hasn’t looked 100 percent with the same range of motion as we’re used to seeing from him. That’s holding him down but should improve as more time passes from the actual injury. Will he be at 100 percent against Carolina? Likely not, but he should continue to improve as the season goes on.
Part of it is due to issues with the offensive line. According to PFF’s charting statistics, Luck has been under pressure on 39.7 percent of his dropbacks this season, fifth-most in the NFL. He doesn’t get sacked all that often, all things considered, but his accuracy percentage is the lowest in the NFL. He’s attempting to get the ball down field against the blitz and is successfully launching passes, but they’re not finding his receivers—and it’s difficult to get anything going when players like Hugh Thornton are letting pass-rushers get into the backfield almost immediately.
Part of the issues, however, is just plain missed throws and poor decision making. Luck has always had a bit of a gunslinger mentality—his 52 interceptions are tied for fourth-most among quarterbacks since 2012—but that’s been offset by his 97 touchdowns, sixth-most in the league. Successful gunslinging quarterbacks throw a lot of deep passes that result in a lot of big plays, both positive and negative. As long as the positive plays outweigh the negative ones, that style will have a lot of success.
This year, however, the positive plays aren’t outweighing the negative ones. Luck has 11 touchdowns and nine interceptions so far. His touchdown rate is about equal to his career average—he’s throwing a touchdown on 5.2 percent of attempts, which is less than 2014 but more than his other two seasons. He’s throwing an interception, on the other hand, on 4.3 percent of his attempts, which would be the worst total of his career by a significant margin. It also happens to be the worst mark in the NFL so far this year among qualified quarterbacks.
My theory is that, when confronted with his first losing team in his NFL career, Luck is trying to do too much. He’s trying to make big plays too often, bypassing open receivers in the short and intermediate ranges to try to throw the long touchdown pass. He’s seeing his offense struggle, and is responding by trying to win the game single-handedly.
Maybe that’s Luck’s fault, and maybe it’s the fault of an offensive system that asks him to make too many deep throws and not enough quick-hit short passes, but it does seem to be a trend so far this season. Josh Norman, who should be blanketing T.Y. Hilton in this game, might be on the other end of a couple of balls Luck tosses up in an attempt to make a game-changing play. Even at his best, he threw a lot of interceptions—so far this season, we have not seen Luck at his best.
Kawann Short, Kony Ealy, Jared Allen and Star Lotulelei should focus on attacking the line of scrimmage, forcing Luck into pressure and baiting him into making those hero throws. Doing so should generate turnovers, and thus play right into Carolina’s overall strategy this season.
Carolina QB Cam Newton
As mentioned above, the Colts have struggled against quarterbacks recently. In their last five games, the Colts have allowed more than 300 yards per game to opposing quarterbacks. Yes, that includes quarterbacks like Tom Brady and Drew Brees, but they’ve also struggled against Marcus Mariota, Blake Bortles and Brian Hoyer.
Cam Newton is beginning to get some MVP consideration thanks to his versatility, as well as what he’s been able to accomplish with relatively little offensive skill-position talent around him. This game could be a chance for Newton to actually put up some numbers to help his budding candidacy.
Indianapolis QB Andrew Luck
Let’s be honest—the Colts’ struggles will last just as long as Andrew Luck isn’t being his usual great self. One of the scenarios that leads to a Colts upset on Monday night would be Luck snapping out of his season-long funk and returning to the form that has made him a Pro Bowler in every season of his career to this point.
Luck’s quality of play in his first three seasons is more telling for his long-term success than his play through five games this season. It’s likely a matter of when, not if he will snap out of this funk. Carolina just hopes it doesn’t happen against them.
Carolina C Ryan Kalil
Kalil is having an All-Pro caliber season, and it’s not really close. He has the highest PFF grade among centers at +15.2, and no one else is even in double digits. However, he is nursing a sore ankle, and has missed multiple practices this week, with Fernando Velasco taking over his spot during practice, per ESPN.
An ankle injury might be needed for rookie nose tackle David Perry to keep up with Kalil up the middle, which otherwise looks like a serious matchup advantage for Carolina. If Velasco has to start, that’ll be a blow for Carolina’s offense.
Carolina DE Kony Ealy
Ealy has yet to pick up a sack this season. Seven Panthers defensive linemen have more sacks than he does, despite only Kawann Short rushing the passer more than he has, per PFF. In other words, he really should have brought down a quarterback by this point.
That’s not to say he’s been terrible. He’s actually come close quite a few times this season, but hasn’t quite managed to get to the quarterback yet. It would be nice to see him actually complete one of these pass rushes, if just to build momentum going forward. He has a solid matchup against right tackle Joe Reitz, so perhaps this is the week.
Indianapolis S Mike Adams
Someone has to cover Greg Olsen, as he has been firmly in the group of top receiving top ends, non-Rob Gronkowski division, to this point in the season. The Colts are No. 23 in the league covering tight ends, per Football Outsiders, allowing 62.4 yards per game. That’s another potential matchup the Panthers can exploit.
The Colts missed Mike Adams last week. The Saints responded with 90 receiving yards for Ben Watson and Michael Hoomanawanui, matched up against safety Dwight Lowery and inside linebackers Nate Irving and D’Qwell Jackson. The return of Adams from his hamstring injury gives the Colts another option to try to prevent a repeat against Carolina.
Frankly, with the way the two teams have played this season, this game shouldn’t be particularly close. You have to believe the Colts are closer to the same team they were in 2014 to believe they have a chance on the road against the Panthers this week. A bad game or two can be written off, but as the season continues and they continue to struggle, it becomes harder and harder to see last year’s AFC runner-up squad in this year’s version of Indianapolis.
When a team has a great quarterback, like Luck has been, you can never really count them out of any game, but Carolina just has too many matchup advantages in this game. It should be able to run up Indianapolis gut with a relative degree of ease, after doing the same against a much tougher Philadelphia Eagles defense last week. Greg Olsen should be a difficult matchup for Indianapolis’ safeties to handle. The Colts’ offense is not going to fix what’s ailing it against a great defense like Carolina’s. It just seems like Carolina has the advantage in all aspects of the game.
There is a chance of Luck having a throwback game and making this prediction seem silly come Tuesday morning, but with the way the season has gone, it feels like the Panthers should win by multiple scores in this one, setting up a potential huge game against Green Bay next week.
Final score: Carolina 31, Indianapolis 15
Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the Carolina Panthers. Follow him @BryKno on twitter.