PFF Preview: Cardinals @ Panthers, Wild Card Round
The NFL Playoffs kick off with two teams seemingly heading in opposite directions as the Carolina Panthers (7-8-1, NFC South Champions, No. 4 seed) host the Arizona Cardinals (11-5). The Panthers went seven straight weeks without a victory including a 1-8-1 swoon from September 14th to the end of November. The month of December hit and four straight victories later, the Panthers are hosting a Cardinals team that lost just one game in the first 11 weeks of the season. Injuries derailed hopes of home-field advantage in the playoffs as the Cardinals limped to the regular season finish-line losing four of six.
Our highest-graded offensive lineman for the Cardinals is left tackle Jared Veldheer at +16.5 (ninth of 84 qualifying tackles). On the opposite end is right tackle Bobby Massie, grading at -4.0 (42nd). Veldheer has given up just one sack on the year and had just two games in which he graded in the red in pass protection, giving up nine hurries and a pair of hits in those games. Take away those two performances and he has given up less than a hurry per game. His 96.9 Pass Blocking Efficiency ranks fifth in the NFL. Massie hasn’t been as stout, charged with seven sacks, eight hits, and 27 hurries on his way to a middle of the road PBE of 94.6. He has, however, shown some stellar play against elite pass rushing defenses in Kansas City and St. Louis, holding Justin Houston to a sack and two hurries but helping to give him one of his two red grades vs. the run on the year.
The Arizona tackles are going to have their hands full with arguably the hottest defensive player in the NFL (outside of J.J. Watt) in defensive end Charles Johnson. Since Week 11, Johnson’s +20.6 overall grade is tops in the league and that even includes a bye week. Johnson’s Pass Rushing Productivity of 15.8 is better than the next closest player by 3.5 points and his 37 total pressures is better by five. By comparison, Watt’s PRP (since Week 11) is 16.0; Johnson is disrupting the opposing quarterback on a Watt-like level.
Michael Floyd – Floyd, a former first-round pick, is Arizona’s top deep threat. With 36.6% of his targets coming on deep tries (fourth in NFL), Floyd ranks eighth in Deep Passing yards at 482.
Dan Williams – Williams is seventh in the NFL with a 9.1 Run Stop Percentage among nose tackles and his +11.7 grade in run defense is eighth despite playing in fewer than 40% of his team’s snaps.
Tony Jefferson – Jefferson ranks third among safeties in Run Stop Percentage (11.0%) when lined up within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage at the snap and his 20.0 Tackling Efficiency (tackles per miss) in the passing game is fourth.
Calais Campbell – Campbell is finely getting his due in being selected to his first Pro Bowl. Only posting one red grade in any category this year (Week 1 vs the run), Campbell’s +31.1 overall is fourth among 3-4 DEs.
Ryan Lindley – Trying to stay positive when viewing Lindley proves difficult as he is last in PFF QB Rating (64.46), last in Accuracy Percentage (52.2), second to last Under Pressure, and third to last with a -10.7 grade the past three weeks.
Greg Olson – Olson cracked 1,000 yards for the first time in his career and almost matched his career-high PFF grade (+14.8 in 2012, +13.8 in 2014). His 1.88 Yards Per Route Run ranked fourth at the position.
Andrew Norwell – An undrafted rookie free agent, Norwell was inserted into the starting lineup in Week 7. After three weeks of catching up to NFL size and speed, the former Buckeye is proving he may be a long-term answer at left guard, grading as the ninth best guard at +11.1 in that span, ahead of two other high-profile rookie guards, Zack Martin and Joel Bitonio.
Bené Benwikere – The Panthers have retooled their defensive backfield because of injury and another rookie that is performing admirably is Benwikere as the Panthers have not lost a game when he starts. Since returning from a mid-season injury, Benwikere has posted just one grade not in the green with a Week 16 +0.9 and ended up with our second-best cornerback grade over the final five weeks of the season at +8.8.
Luke Kuechly – Even though Kuechly won’t be winning the Defensive Player of the Year award, he is having an even better season than last. His NFL-best +28.4 almost triples his +11.1 grade from last year as he improved in all facets of his game.
Cam Newton – Newton somehow lived up to his Superman nickname after fracturing two vertebrae. He was given designed run plays just 10 days after the accident and graded at +1.6 when running in Week 16. Week 17 proved it was no fluke as he added to that to get to +1.7 in the run game and +4.1 overall.
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