ReFo: Patriots @ Panthers, Week 11
Building a four-game winning streak against some of the lower lights of the league this year had the Carolina Panthers splitting opinions little more than a week ago. Were they a team on the rise or a team just good enough to beat the teams they should but short of that next step? Well, after backing up last week’s victory over the San Francisco 49ers with this win over the New England Patriots — a thriller in front of a national audience — the Panthers will now surely be riding a wave of positive momentum not only on the field but also in the court of public opinion.
This game had everything and is widely being lauded as the game of the season so far. Astounding individual plays, a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter and a failed answer to that from the Patriots that ended in the sort of controversial officiating call that seems (in recent times at least) cement these games in our memory. This wasn’t the case of an upstart team coming up and blindsiding an established team with a fast start and holding on, the Panthers went toe-to-toe with the Patriots the whole game in a close give-and-take battle, coming up with the plays throughout the game to edge the victory.
There will be frustration for the Patriots at this defeat (not just based upon how they might view the final call of the game) but that there were missed opportunities to make the kind of decisive plays that they are accustomed to making to win tight games. They allowed Cam Newton to make plays with his legs for key conversions and missed out on grabbing a turnover that could have turned the game — one opportunity standing out in particular where two defensive backs collided going for a badly forced ball ensuring neither got the takeaway.
New England – Three Performances of Note
Slow Getting Gronkowski Involved
Such an important part of the Patriots’ passing game and disproportionately targeted upon his return from injury in Week 7 (32 targets in three games before the bye week) the Patriots took their time getting Rob Gronkowski involved as a receiver this week. He made his mark eventually and perhaps if the final play had gone differently the focus of this section would have been about the Patriots getting him involved in the passing game just in time.
Gronkowski wasn’t targeted until the start of the second quarter and was only targeted once more in the first half, a third down play which set up a more manageable field goal from Stephen Gostkowski. Targeted only four times between the numbers, Gronkowski caught three of them (the fourth being the final play interception) only really making the impact you might have expected on post routes behind Luke Kuechly and in front of the safeties once on his fourth down conversion that kick-started the Patriots’ final drive, a 23-yard gain. Gronkowski’s targets were split between six different defenders and the Patriots will, perhaps, be disappointed that they couldn’t isolate a single matchup to exploit.
Tough Return for Talib
Things looked good for Aqib Talib (-1.6) as last night’s game got underway. His first target looked like he would continue his exemplary pre-injury shutdown form as he sent the Panthers packing with a three-and-out on their opening drive, quickly reading and cutting off a slant by Steve Smith, breaking up the pass Newton forced into Talib’s coverage. From there, however, the evening went downhill both in terms of coverage and discipline as things got testy with Smith.
On the next drive Talib was left frustrated as he was beaten deep by Smith (nearly but not quite dragging his way back to the ball) for a 42-yard gain that got the Panther offense going. Talib responded positively a couple of plays later beating a Richard Brockel block to chop down DeAngelo Williams for a 2-yard gain. On the following play, though, he surrendered a first down and compounded that conversion with an unnecessary roughness penalty which was added to later by a pass interference penalty on Smith and another first down conversion late in the third quarter. This was always going to be a fiery matchup between two fierce competitors but having landed the first blow on the opening drive, Talib was left second best as he renewed acquaintances with his former NFC South foe.
Inconsistent Return for Vereen
Returning from a hand injury it probably shouldn’t be surprising that Shane Vereen put two passes on the ground, but they were the downs of a performance that otherwise showed the versatility that Vereen brings to the New England offense — a role that will presumably stabilize and grow as he settles back in. Limited to one carry, Vereen still collected a first down from it. Adjusting to a big gap on the backside, Vereen chose not to follow a pull by Logan Mankins, instead driving through contact from Luke Kuechly for an extra 5 yards and the conversion.
As a receiver, Vereen worked from out wide (six routes) but predominantly from the backfield, missing his biggest opportunity to positively impact the game late on the game’s final drive. The Patriots got the matchup they wanted with 23 seconds left: Luke Kuechly tracking Vereen on a wheel route to the left side. Vereen had a step, a catch at the very least takes the Patriots inside the 30-yard line, but he put the pass down. A solid return for Vereen, but this drop ensured the Patriots took close to an extra 20 seconds they couldn’t afford on that final drive.
Carolina – Three Performances of Note
Newton Makes the Plays that Count
This game was never going to be about Newton making all the throws and putting in a peerless display as a passer, I think we’re all aware at that point that isn’t the most likely outcome. However, what Newton showed in this victory is that his ability to make plays with his legs can win games against the league’s best, not just against the middle- and lower-ranked teams in the league. The plays Newton was able to make on scrambles — find and exploit gaps in the Patriots’ pass rushing lanes for three third down conversions — might have seen other defenses described as ill-prepared or naïve. One of those did see Newton go full on athletic freak both in terms of strength and speed to pick up the conversion but he showed why his blend of passing ability and athleticism makes him so difficult to defend. His strike to Greg Olsen for his second scoring pass, ensuring Devin McCourty had no chance to cut it off, showed his threat as a passer, but the general inaccuracy in his game was still present. He was, to an extent, fortunate that two Patriots’ defenders got in each other’s way, leaving his biggest mistake of the game unpunished with what could have been a game-changing turnover.
Rookie Tackles Continue to Shine
So devoid of quality at defensive tackle for so long, the Panthers’ rookie pairing of Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei didn’t go quietly into the night in front of a national audience. Continuing to play off the bench, Short made one of the game’s biggest plays sliding inside of Marcus Cannon to tackle Stevan Ridley and in the process force a fumble and the first turnover of the game from the Patriots’ runner. This came in a crucial stretch for the Panthers’ defense having surrendered two attempts to get off the field (one fourth down and one third down) earlier in the drive to penalties where it would have been all too easy to fold and surrender six points to the Patriots.
Instead, they stood tall with a tackle for loss on Ridley followed by Short’s impact play. He paired that with solid pass rush to earn his highest single game grade of the season (+3.6), returning to the form he showed in the first month of the season. The Panthers’ first-round pick Lotulelei bounced back from a tough game against the 49ers’ strong interior offensive line last week with his first sack since Week 3 and a trio of stops against the run including a particularly impressive play working off a trap block for a tackle. It’s still early days, but Carolina fans will continue to be encouraged by the development of their interior duo.
Left Side Leaves its Mark
Protecting for a mobile quarterback isn’t always the easiest of jobs, but the left side of the Panthers’ offensive line played their part yesterday with Jordan Gross and Ryan Kalil going a step further to add value as run blockers. Gross’ terrific all-around game (+5.5 overall, +2.5 pass block, +2.6 run block) takes his overall grade for the season to +22.3, second at this stage behind only Joe Staley of the 49ers. Against the run he had his way with Chris Jones on down blocks and also made a couple of nice blocks pulling out into space to the left side. At the heart of the line, Kalil gave up one hurry on a bullrush to Isaac Sopoaga but answered back with solid run blocking on the occasions the Panthers’ line was called upon to block for designed runs. The issues for the Panthers’ on the ground tended to come from at fullback and tight end where Greg Olsen (-1.4) and Richard Brockel (-2.0) had rough outings.
– Newton made the most of his targets outside the numbers last night. Of his 28 passes, 18 were outside the numbers collecting 179 yards and two scores compared to only 30 yards on targets between the numbers, none of which were aimed 10 or more yards downfield.
– Rob Ninkovich led the Patriots with seven defensive stops this week taking his season total to 30 trailing only Lamarr Houston and team-mate Chandler Jones among 4-3 defensive ends.
– Completing an all-Rutgers safety pairing for the Patriots, Duron Harmon (+1.3) recorded a stop against the run and eased Greg Olsen out of reaching a deep pass to the back of the end zone in a solid first career start.
PFF Game Ball
It may have been his only catch on three targets but it was the most important offensive play of the game as Ted Ginn shook the tackle of Kyle Arrington before turning on the jets to outrun the Patriots’ pursuit to the end zone, turning the most benign of hitches into the game-winning score in a flash.
Follow Ben on Twitter @PFF_Ben