3TFO: Panthers @ Chiefs, Week 13
The Kansas City Chiefs have endured a miserable 2012 season thus far, winning just one game in a year when many expected them to contend for the AFC West title. Their struggles are due in no small part to their completely incompetent play at the quarterback position. The Chiefs have talent — players such as half back Jamaal Charles and especially linebacker Justin Houston have turned in strong campaigns — but the 2013 draft surely cannot come quickly enough for fans in Kansas City.
Carolina has also failed to live up to expectations this season. The Panthers have experienced a far better 2012 than Kansas City, but their performance has been mediocre at best. Coach Ron Rivera’s refusal to run the ball with his highly-paid running backs makes it clear that there was a disconnect between the team’s coaching staff and its front office, and GM Marty Hurney was let go halfway through the year. With the playoffs out of reach, the team will be focused on the improvement of its young core for the remainder of the season.
Branden Albert and Eric Winston vs. Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy
Kansas City’s ineffective play from the quarterback position must be frustrating for the team, as the rest of the pieces that a QB typically needs to succeed are already in place. The Chiefs boast an excellent running game, a legitimate No. 1 wide receiver, and a pair of outstanding bookend tackles that excel in pass protection. As colleague Khaled Elsayed noted in his recent article, left tackle Branden Albert ranks ninth among all eligible tackles with a Pass Blocking Efficiency of 96.6. His teammate Eric Winston has been nearly as good, surrendering just 23 combined pressures for a PBE of 95.2. The line’s ability to neutralize nearly any pass rushing threat from the edge, combined with the NFL’s fourth-best rushing attack makes it apparent that Kansas City’s offensive challenges can be pinned squarely on the man under center.
It is difficult to find a pair of defensive ends that have been more effective rushing the passer in 2012 than Carolina’s Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy. Johnson, with 55 total pressures so far, currently leads all 4-3 DE’s with a Pass Rushing Productivity of 13.5. Hardy ranks third with a PRP of 11.2, giving the Panthers a duo that must be accounted for on every snap. As if the pair wasn’t enough to give opposing offensive coordinators headaches, rookie defensive end Frank Alexander has submitted an excellent year as well. His PRP of 9.2 is ranked 14th at his position, and he has shown the ability to play effectively on both sides of the line. Carolina has a fearsome trio of young pass rushers to build their defense around.
Cam Newton vs. Derrick Johnson
Cam Newton remains one of the league’s most dangerous runners at any position. Newton has rushed for 446 yards in 2012, second only to Robert Griffin III among QB’s. He has run for a healthy 5.1 yards per carry, and added a team-leading six rushing touchdowns. More importantly, 41% of Newton’s rushes have resulted in Carolina first downs, meaning that Newton is always a threat to extend drives using his legs as well as his arm. Dating back to last season, the Panthers are 4-2 when Newton has 10 or more rushing attempts, and one of the losses was a heartbreaking overtime defeat to division rival Tampa Bay where Carolina didn’t even get a possession in OT. Only time will tell if this correlation between Newton’s rushing attempts and Carolina victories is causal, but Newton’s ability in the open field is undeniable.
Though he has missed nine tackles this season, Chiefs LB Derrick Johnson has been spectacular against the run. Only three of those misses have come in run defense, and Johnson leads all inside linebackers with 42 stops and a 14.2 Run Stop Percentage. He is rarely deployed as a pass rusher, but Johnson has fared well in that department as well, as his solid 11.6 PRP demonstrates. Johnson will likely be tasked with spying Newton on Sunday, and he has the speed to do so. If Johnson can keep Newton from gashing them on the ground, the Chiefs will have a much better chance of picking up that elusive second win.
Steve Smith vs. Brandon Flowers
Wide receiver Steve Smith will remember 2011 as the year that he went from being in one of the worst possible situations for a receiver (catching passes from Jimmy Clausen) to a much more favorable one. Last season clearly revitalized the wide-out, and he is on pace to eclipse the 1,000-yard receiving mark for the second year in a row in 2012. Smith is far and away Newton’s most dependable target; he has dropped only four of 52 catchable passes this season. Smith remains an explosive receiving threat, averaging better than 16 yards per reception and 2.13 Yards per Route Run.
Though he is targeted fairly regularly by opposing QB’s (once every six coverage snaps), cornerback Brandon Flowers has quietly turned in a very strong season. He has surrendered just 22 receptions, and only seven corners have allowed fewer Receptions per Coverage Snap than his one per 13.6. Opposing quarterbacks throw at Flowers nearly five times per game, despite the fact that his 58.1 QB Rating against is seventh-best among CB’s. This weekend’s battle between Smith and Flowers is likely the most compelling head-to-head matchup of the game.