The Carolina Panthers came out of the gates fast in this one and led 21-0 at the half, then staved off a late Houston Texans rally for an entertaining 28-13 road win. Without co-ordinator Wade Phillips on the sideline, the Texans No. 1 ranked defense looked vulnerable and they were hurt by some costly mistakes on offense, ending their seven game winning streak.
The Texans fell a game behind New England for home field advantage in the AFC and although it’s impressive that they’ve managed to keep winning without Mario Williams, Andre Johnson and Matt Schaub, it’s uncertain how well equipped they are to cope with some of the AFC’s better teams. As we said earlier in the year, the 5-9 Panthers continue to look like a team that might be a force to be reckoned with next season.
There were some interesting performances this week, so let’s highlight some of the most influential:
Carolina – Three Performances of Note
No Stopping Smith
The resurgence of Steve Smith (+1.9) this year has been exciting to watch. He is currently fourth in the NFL for Yards Per Route Run and just a yard shy of 1,300 on the year, with two games still to go. Smith can still get deep, as evidenced by his seventh best Deep Passing Catch Rate and also the 26-yard scoring catch he had, blowing by one of the league’s top cornerbacks in Jonathan Joseph to get it. Perhaps even bigger was his clutch third down conversion – again beating Joseph – late in the fourth quarter to allow the Panthers to run out the clock. Joseph had easily his lowest grade of the year, as Smith caught all four passes against him for 71 yards and ended up with 82 yards on five catches overall.
With all the injuries suffered by the Panthers linebacking corps, former special teamer Jordan Senn (-4.3) has found his way into the starting line-up in recent weeks and this week responded with a 12 tackle, one interception performance that had some experts nominating him for NFC Player of the Week. However, a closer look at the film shows that Senn struggled mightily in pass coverage, giving up 11 catches for 123 yards – just under 60% of the Texans’ totals for the game in each case. He was also called for a late hit penalty and only had one pressure as a pass rusher. Senn has done well to earn a job on the Panthers, but he’ll need to work on his coverage skills if he wants a role on next year’s defense.
On offense, the Panthers did well to overcome the struggles of undrafted rookie right tackle Byron Bell (-5.9). Bell struggled in the running game all day, getting badly beaten four times by fellow rookie JJ Watt and also gave up a hit and a pressure in pass protection. As if that wasn’t bad enough, he jumped early twice. This performance dropped his rating to fourth worst in the NFL and second worst for run blocking amongst tackles.
Houston – Three Performances of Note
Credit must go to TJ Yates (-3.1) for how well he’s managed the last few games since the injuries to Schaub and Matt Leinart forced him into the starting role. Although he has surpassed expectations, there were signs on Sunday of his limitations, which may hurt the Texans’ chances of doing any damage in the postseason. Yates was intercepted by Senn on a pass that seemed to have no chance of being complete and contributed significantly to their halftime deficit. In the second half, he brought them back well and had a chance to pull them within a score midway through the fourth quarter, but then forced a throw back across his body and was intercepted at the goal line by James Anderson. Yates was also at fault for two sacks and fumbled once. He’ll have to cut out those errors come January.
Watt a Man!
As mentioned above, rookie JJ Watt (+4.1) easily got the better of his matchup with Bell, blowing past him to stuff two runs for no gain and one for a loss. He missed the tackle the fourth time he got past him, otherwise his rating would have been even higher. Watt is big and powerful, but he also possesses the quickness to shoot a gap and he did that to good effect on Sunday. He finished up with five stops and also added a hit and a pressure as a pass rusher.
Caldwell Played Well
Houston’s offensive line has been outstanding all season and they’d been fortunate enough to have the same starting line-up every week until Mike Briesel broke his leg during last week’s game. However, his replacement Antoine Caldwell (+5.0) – who had only seen action on eight snaps entering this week’s action – stepped in and the line didn’t miss a beat. In fact, Caldwell had the best rating of any player in this game. He was perfect in pass protection and had a solid impact as a run blocker (+3.3). The Texans have been overcoming injuries to key players all season, what’s another one to have to deal with?
- The Panthers nine-play drive at the end of the first half was a joy to watch. They got the ball with just over six minutes to go and scored with one minute to go on a drive that featured three plays with an unbalanced line, three where they ran an option read and a wildcat play with Armanti Edwards completing a pass, before culminating in a crazy gadget play that saw back-up tight end Richard Brockel run for a touchdown after Cam Newton handed him the ball between his legs.
- Cornerback Chris Gamble (+3.0) easily had the best grade of any Panthers defensive player.
- Brian Cushing led all players with seven stops.
PFF Game Ball
By getting the better of his matchup with Joseph, Steve Smith was the key to this Panthers win and also had two of the biggest plays of the game to highlight his five catch, 82 yard performance.
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