At roughly the midway point of the 2013 season, the Carolina Panthers are one of the league’s more surprising teams. After a 1-3 start that had fans calling for Ron Rivera’s job, the Panthers have now won five straight games behind a strong and versatile rushing attack and one of the league’s best defenses. A skeptic might point out that last week’s victory in San Francisco was the first time that the team has beaten a contender this season, but the Panthers will have an opportunity to quiet their critics with a win Monday night on a national stage.
The Patriots have been dealing with injuries to key players all season, but reinforcements are on the way after they used the bye week to recover. Aqib Talib and Shane Vereen have returned to the practice field, giving the team another impact player on each side of the ball. The team has managed the injury issues remarkably well, and have a two-game lead in the AFC East. Their next two games against Carolina and Denver, both of which are nationally televised, will be great tests for this contender.
Gronkowski vs. Davis and Kuechly
Tight end Rob Gronkowski’s return to the field has added a dimension to the Patriots’ offense that they sorely lacked in their six games without him. Gronkowski has been New England’s leading receiver in two of his three games, and has earned a grade of +1.5 or better in all three. The former Arizona Wildcat star has played limited snaps as he works himself back into football shape, and has been used more as a receiver than in his traditional role of do-it-all tight end. The sooner that he can get back to playing every offensive snap, the better, as Gronkowski has finished in the Top 5 in cumulative run blocking grades among tight ends in each of his first three seasons. His contributions as a receiver cannot be understated though: Gronkowski’s 3.42 Yards per Route Run would lead all tight ends by more than half a yard if he had played enough snaps to qualify.
The job of containing Gronkowski will likely fall upon talented linebackers Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly. The Panthers’ defense has done a great job against some elite tight ends recently, holding Vernon Davis and Tony Gonzalez to a combined three catches in the past two weeks. Davis, an athletic linebacker who played safety in college, is one of the top coverage linebackers in the league. He is currently tied for third in coverage grade among 4-3 outside linebackers, and ranks fifth in Yards per Coverage Snap among that position group. Kuechly has been less effective in coverage than Davis, but has shown clear improvement in that area since last season (+1.1 coverage grade in 2013 versus -4.0 in 2012), and has three interceptions.
Carolina Running Offense vs. Patriots Front Seven
Carolina’s resurgence this season can largely be attributed to its balanced rushing attack, which perfectly complements its dominant defense. Rushing success almost always begins with strong run blocking, and this team is no different. Led by guard Travelle Wharton and tight end Ben Hartsock, the Panthers currently rank second in our cumulative run blocking grades. Hartsock has been completely overpowering. To put his +12.1 run blocking grade into perspective, Brent Celek ranks second among tight ends with a +3.6. Carolina’s talented backfield has taken advantage of the great blocking in front of them. DeAngelo Williams ranks eleventh among running backs in Elusive Rating, while Cam Newton has the fourth-highest running grade among quarterbacks. Mike Tolbert looks like he is well on his way to the Pro Bowl, and is easily the most versatile fullback in the NFL. Tolbert has the highest receiving and rushing grades at his position, and has graded positively as a lead blocker as well.
The Patriots’ run defense has remained solid, even after losing some of its best players to injury. After Jerod Mayo was lost for the season, Brandon Spikes has seen his playing time increase and has been more than up to the task. Spikes has the highest run defense grade of any inside linebacker (+11.5), and blows up blocks as well as anyone. Defensive end Rob Ninkovich has also developed into an elite run stopper, currently ranking second among 4-3 ends with a +13.4 grade against the run. Chandler Jones and Ninkovich rank second and third, respectively, in total Run Stops at their position.
The pair will have to do a good job of setting the edge this week, as Newton can use his legs to do serious damage against teams that are undisciplined. Containing Newton may be the area that the Patriots will most miss Mayo this week. Spikes and Donta Hightower lack the speed and quickness to effectively spy Newton, meaning that faster linebackers Dane Fletcher and/or Jamie Collins may play a larger role than usual.
Patriots Offensive Line vs. Panthers Defensive Line
New England has to be a bit disappointed in the way that the interior of its offensive line has performed this season. Of the three starters, only guard Logan Mankins has a positive grade (+1.3). The trio has especially struggled in pass protection, with center Ryan Wendell (-8.3) the worst offender. Fortunately for the Patriots, Nate Solder has developed into a star at left tackle. He trails only Trent Williams in our cumulative grades for tackles, and has been strong against the pass and on the ground. Marcus Cannon, replacing the injured Sebastian Vollmer, will have a tough test this week against Charles Johnson.
Johnson and Greg Hardy form one of the best edge rushing duos that the NFL has to offer, and the addition of PFF Rookie of the Year candidate Star Lotulelei brings back memories of the 2003 NFC Champion team led by Kris Jenkins and Julius Peppers. Lotulelei leads all defensive tackles in Run Stop Percentage, while Johnson and Hardy rank second and seventh, respectively, in Pass Rushing Productivity. This is one of the more underrated defensive lines in the league, and will have to be at their best against a Patriots offense that is finally healthy and, after dropping 55 points on Pittsburgh in their last game, appears to finally be rounding into form.