3TFO: Panthers @ Redskins, Week 9
Sunday’s game between Carolina and Washington features two of the NFL’s most talented and exciting young quarterbacks. Though expectations for both players were very high at the season’s outset, Carolina’s Cam Newton and Washington’s Robert Griffin III, and their respective teams, appear to be trending in opposite directions.
At the beginning of the season, fans and analysts alike expected the Panthers to build on their promising 2011 season, and be competitive in a tough NFC South division. Strangely, despite their significant financial investment in a talented stable of running backs over the past two seasons, the Panthers seem unwilling to run the ball. HB DeAngelo Williams leads the team with just 61 carries through seven games. Ownership’s firing of GM Marty Hurney last week makes the disconnect between the team’s front office and coaching staff even more apparent. Head Coach Ron Rivera may want to reconsider his offensive strategy, as Newton ranks near the bottom of the league both in PFF QB Rating (78.41) and Accuracy Percentage, and seems to have regressed from last year’s Rookie of the Year form. However, Newton’s QB Rating jumps to 102.1 when he uses play action, so a greater commitment to the run game would likely give the Panthers’ offense a boost across the board.
Led by rookies Griffin and HB Albert Morris, Washington now boasts its best-looking offense in recent memory. Unfortunately for the Redskins, injuries to key players such as LB Brian Orakpo and DL Adam Carriker have seriously impaired a talented defensive unit. The Redskins have surrendered 28.4 points per game, fifth-most in the NFL. These crushing injuries, combined with a significant decline in the play of former stalwart LB London Fletcher (14 missed tackles, compared to 14 in all of 2011), will likely keep Washington out of the playoffs in a loaded NFC. Fans of the team should be encouraged by the exciting play of the offense, however, and can look forward to a healthier defense in 2013.
Panthers Defensive Ends vs. Redskins Offensive Tackles
Carolina’s defensive ends have emerged as the strength of their defense at the season’s halfway mark. Starters Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy have each turned in excellent seasons so far, against both the run and the pass. Both rank among PFF’s Top 10 4-3 Defensive Ends for Pass Rushing Productivity, with Johnson’s score of 13.4 trailing only Miami’s Cameron Wake. The pair has also shined in run defense. Hardy’s Run Stop Percentage of 10.4 ranks second for his position, while Johnson’s score of 6.5 ranks 11th. Rookie DE Lorenzo Alexander has fit right in, tallying a stellar PRP of 11.4 in limited reps.
After struggling as a rookie, and having his sophomore season cut short by a suspension, LT Trent Williams is finally playing with the kind of consistency that Mike Shanahan had envisioned when he selected Williams with his first draft pick as head coach of the Redskins. Through eight games, Williams has yet to grade negatively as a pass blocker, and he ranks 11th at his position with a Pass Blocking Efficiency of 96.6. He has also done solid work in the running game, as his cumulative Run Block grade of +5.2 suggests. On the other side of the line, RT Tyler Polumbus seems to have turned a corner in recent weeks, after struggling mightily early in the season. He has graded positively in each of the past three games, and has surrendered just four total pressures over that span. Both he and Williams will need to be at their best on Sunday in order to keep the Panthers talented trio of DE’s at bay.
Alfred Morris and RG3 vs. Panthers Linebackers
Productive rookies Morris and Griffin have injected new life into Washington’s once-stagnant offense, and both players have spent the season as mainstays on PFF’s Race for Rookie of the Year. Workhorse Morris (717 rushing yards) has joined the long line of unheralded backs that have thrived in Shanahan’s zone blocking scheme, and ranks in the Top 5 in nearly every PFF metric for running backs. He has forced 23 missed tackles on the ground, and gained an impressive 2.86 Yards After Contact per Attempt, on his way to an Elusive Rating of 45.8, fourth-best among all running backs. While his contributions as a passer should not be overlooked, Griffin has been spectacular as a runner. He has already gained a whopping 476 yards on the ground, and could realistically join Michael Vick on the list of QB’s who have rushed for 1,000 yards in a single season. Griffin has been devastating both on designed QB runs and on scrambles, and his total of six rushing TD’s trails only Arian Foster for the league lead.
In what seems to be an annual tradition for Carolina, the team’s talented core of linebackers has once again been weakened by injuries. Thomas Davis missed time earlier in the year, and star Jon Beason was placed on IR last week. The team prepared themselves well for this run of injuries by drafting LB Luke Kuechly in the first round of this year’s draft. The rookie struggled to adjust to the NFL game earlier in the year, but his play has improved since replacing Beason at MLB, recording a solid Run Stop Percentage of 10.1. LB James Anderson has been the group’s most consistent player against the run, posting a Run Stop Percentage of 11.2 (fourth among 4-3 OLB’s), and missing just three tackles. The Panthers’ front seven will need to prevent Griffin and Morris from getting through to the secondary — S Charles Godfrey ranks 59th out of 60 eligible safeties with a pitiful Tackling Efficiency of 4.6, and has missed 11 tackles.
Steve Smith vs. Josh Wilson and DeAngelo Hall
Despite some inconsistent quarterback play and a nearly non-existent running game, WR Steve Smith continues to produce at a Pro-Bowl level. His 2.49 Yards Per Route Run ranks sixth among wide receivers, and he continues to be an exceptionally reliable target for Newton. Smith has dropped just three out of 38 catchable passes, earning a 7.89 Drop Rate that ranks in the top 20 of eligible receivers. Smith is also still a dangerous deep threat, gaining 201 yards on just five catches of balls thrown 20 or more yards.
Smith will most likely find himself lined up across from CB Josh Wilson for the majority of the game, though he may find himself opposite DeAngelo Hall as well — though Hall is currently in danger of being suspended by the league due to an altercation with an official last week. While Wilson has played fairly well in coverage this year, allowing a respectable one reception per 11.8 coverage snaps, Hall’s play has declined significantly since his Pro-Bowl form of 2010. He has allowed 1.83 Yards per Coverage Snap, fifth-worst among corners. The pair has been terrible at limiting Yards After the Catch, as Wilson and Hall rank third and fourth from the bottom among all cornerbacks in this metric. Though Smith is Carolina’s lone threat at the receiver position, he remains a game-breaker, and the Redskins’ CB’s will need to do a better job limiting YAC if they hope to beat the Panthers this week.