Nov 3, 2013; Foxborough, MA, USA;Pittsburgh Steelers strong safety Shamarko Thomas (29) hits New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) during the first half at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

New England Patriots to Test Carolina Panthers with Aerial Attack


The Carolina Panthers have arrived, folks.

With the 10-9 victory at San Francisco last weekend, Ron Rivera’s squad put the entire NFL on notice. They had defeated the team that came up four yards short of winning the Super Bowl.

And they did it at the Niners’ house.

Now that they’ve shown their defensive prowess against the best team in the NFC from last year, the best team in the AFC over the last dozen years is coming to Carolina’s house this week.

The hill is a high one to climb once again for the Panthers. The Patriots have started putting things together in their intricate passing game as the young receivers Tom Brady has had to work with are starting to see the proverbial light bulb coming on.

Add to it the fact that TE Rob Gronkowski has returned to form, RB Stevan Ridley has really made an impact in the absence of Shane Vereen, and that Vereen himself is coming back off of injury, and the Patriot offense looks to be relatively healthy entering this weekend’s contest in Charlotte.

While I’ll be doing a statistical comparison between the two this weekend for the purpose of specifics, I can already say a few things about this match-up.

The San Fran game was completely strength-against-strength. The Niners are, as I mentioned last week, pretty much a mirror image of the Panthers in both personnel and in schemes.

Not so for the Patriots.

New England’s passing game has been a bit down, but it has allowed their offense to launch a more balanced attack. You’re always going to have an eye on Tom Terrific, but Bill Belichick likes to run the ball more often than is generally known. For his part, Brady has no issue yelling the “KILL, KILL, KILL” which tells the offense to run the alternate play called in the huddle.

You see, teams often call two plays in the huddle – sometimes three – and let the signal-caller pick which one looks best to use based on the pre-snap read.

Sure, there are the usual platitudes about “winning the turnover battle” and “converting on 3rd down” or “not allowing the big play,” but you can say those things about ANY ball game.

I mean, who wins by turning the ball over, not converting third downs, and giving up big plays all day?

Not many.

Oct 27, 2013; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots running back Stevan Ridley (22) runs against the Miami Dolphins during the fourth quarter of their 27-17 win at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Patriots’ offense vs. Carolina’s defense:

The Pats come in knowing that they will probably be unable to sustain much of a running attack against the NFL’s best defense. Yes, I said it. Sorry Kansas City, but the Panthers allowed only nine points on the road to last year’s NFC Champion. KC has to play Denver twice and the Panthers have to play the Saints twice, and those four games should finally settle things, but for now, the Panthers have demonstrated their mettle.

Brady hates getting touched. He hates it. If a defender hits the ground and his little finger grazes a shoelace on Tom’s foot, Tom cries to the officials about a roughing the passer penalty and often gets it. He has some sort of self-important “aura” that, by now, has most officials intimidated into throwing the flag on plays that shouldn’t be a penalty and now with even stricter rules about contacting the QB, he’s likely to draw several personal foul penalties no matter what happens.

Brady’s working the refs aside, the Panther defensive front-four is the best at generating organic pressure even without resorting to the blitz. If they can do that consistently, that leaves seven defenders to cover. Brady’s great at knowing who should be open in the pre-snap read, based on match-ups, but Carolina’s newly-acquired tandem of safeties in Quentin Mikell and Mike Mitchell should make things more difficult for Gronk over the middle. Last week, Luke Kuechly was covering San Fran’s tight end one-on-one in man coverage and in fact forced a long incompletion on a play where the TE was hauling the ball in.

Kuechly and Thomas Davis both can go sideline to sideline and make running difficult at BEST on any given play.

The biggest key is to get pressure on Tom Brady, and this is where Carolina has several advantages:

Carolina has the best defensive line in the NFL. Ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson each average roughly a sack a week and goodness knows how many more pressures they get.

Nov 3, 2013; Charlotte, NC, USA; Atlanta Falcons running back Steven Jackson (39) is tackled by Carolina Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson (95) and defensive tackle Star Lotulelei (98) in the first quarter at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The rookie duo of Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, along with veteran D’Wan Edwards, are able to help collapse the pocket in the middle, and that’s a highly underrated defensive ability.

You see, when ends come around and battle the tackles, it’s often to the side and/or behind the QB dropping back. To make the throw, Brady would have to simply step up in the pocket, trusting his tackles to route the ends around him and release the ball before they have a chance to get to him.

When the pocket is being pushed up the middle, Brady won’t be able to step into the throw. That alone will destroy his timing routes and Sean McDermott, Carolina’s defensive coordinator, loves blitzing the “A” gap – the gap on either side of the center – and Tom Brady is many things, but an elusive scrambler he is not.

The only real way to slow down that type of rush is to run the ball on the edges, and I haven’t seen anyone able to do that against Carolina’s defense yet. I suspect New England may get a couple of decent runs doing this because of the defense looking for the pass, but McDermott will adjust and make sure those edges are sealed.

If the Panthers can get that inside pressure on Brady early, New England may find scoring at a premium and Carolina already has two blueprints in-house on how to defeat them.

The two blueprints are David Gettleman, and David Gettleman.

Gettleman was one of the “higher-ups” in the two Super Bowls where the New York Giants defeated the Patriots, including the David Tyree helmet-catch to beat an 18-0 Patriots squad that had Randy Moss in his prime on the outside and MANY MANY more offensive weapons than the 2013 iteration has.

Why did that last sentence sound like Commandant Lassard of the “Police Academy” movies?

Anyhow, pressuring Brady up the middle should be the key to the defensive effort this weekend. If Carolina can do that, it’ll be a long day for New England.

Nov 3, 2013; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers fullback Mike Tolbert (35) runs as Atlanta Falcons defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi (96) defends in the fourth quarter. The Panthers defeated the Falcons 34-10 at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Carolina’s offense vs. Patriots’ defense:

Carolina is a power running team, period. No secret.

Again, I haven’t even looked at the statistics, but I do know that New England has trouble against the run – forget the fact that many teams may be throwing a lot against them; that’s because New England is often playing with a lead. Not quite so much this season, but still more than many teams.

They do NOT have the services of their main run-stopper, MLB Jerod Mayo, for the remainder of the season. Sure, you can replace him with a warm body but you can’t replace his talent. This alone will help Carolina’s ability to run inside so they’ll likely keep pounding that rock unless and until the Patriots demonstrate an ability to stop it on a regular basis.

I think this is the game that Riverboat Ron breaks out the vertical passing game out of the mothballs. He knows Belichick & company have had an extra week to study their tendencies and he’s going to break the mold in some of his calls – both offensively and defensively – just to get into the heads of the Patriots players and coaches in hopes of finding a way to stretch the field on either a wrong defensive call or playing off that deep-out pass set and look.

Either way, we should see at least one deep pass attempt per quarter in this game by the Panthers if nothing else to keep the safeties from creeping up to stop the run.

Nov 10, 2013; San Francisco, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) escapes Carolina Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson (95) and defensive end Greg Hardy (76) during the fourth quarter at Candlestick Park. The Carolina Panthers defeated the San Francisco 49ers 10-9. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Both sides know the Patriots are going to be playing against the run on first down, so I’m thinking that first down is exactly when we might see some of these deep play-action passes. Whether they hit big or not, it’ll force New England into honoring at least Ted Ginn’s deep speed and Steve Smith’s tackle-breaking ability. This will open the run a little more and hopefully wind up giving the Panthers some room.

All this having been said, I think we will see Cam take off scrambling. The Patriots do have a pretty good pass rush but the Panthers’ offense, by design, thwarts a lot of it. They run the ball more than most, throw a lot of screens and slants, and generally haven’t been playing “long ball” much this year. Part of that is due to the injuries on the offensive line’s interior but if Jordan Gross can handle Chandler Jones, Cam might just have some time to get that ball downfield once in a while.

Remember (or have you younger fans heard of) the “No-Name defense?”

Carolina’s offense is very similar when you think about it. They have four different guys who have 350+ receiving yards, much like the Patriots do, but for different reasons.

What the Panthers have that the Pats don’t are four runners that can do damage if you include Cam. Stewart and Tolbert can also catch and run with power while DeAngelo Williams is the speed threat out of the backfield.

For the Patriots’ part, Shane Vereen can catch out of the backfield but isn’t really an accomplished runner. Stevan Ridley is an accomplished runner between the tackles but has a pair of meat hooks and is rarely targeted in the passing game.

The Panthers really have no single “go-to” guy for the Patriots to plan for but seven or eight different players who can do what they’re asked to do, and do it fairly well.

Rarely will you see Brandon LaFell on a “streak” pattern…but he’s a possession receiver and not asked to run them. You won’t see Ted Ginn making too many big grabs over the middle in traffic, but that’s what Steve Smith and TE Greg Olson are for.

Bye week or not, the Patriots are going to have their hands full at Bank of America Stadium Monday night. They aren’t the juggernaut they used to be, although they only have two losses and are a team on the rise, much like the Panthers and their three losses.

Bye week or not, Panthers General Manager David Gettleman has more knowledge of the Patriots than most, and that only helps their chances.

The biggest difference I see is that Carolina has that brick wall defense to fall back on if they struggle on offense while the Patriots do not. The key again is getting in Brady’s face early and often while Belichick counters with random “hurry-up” offenses to try to keep the Panthers from substituting and allowing the Patriots to exploit mismatches.

It’ll all go out the window if Brady gets rattled, and I think the Panthers’ pass rush is going to cause him some fits early on. If that’s the case, it could be a long evening for Brady and the Patriots.

Early prediction for a final score?

Panthers 20, Patriots 17

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  • ahrcshaw

    I could not have said it better myself if I had a year to come up with the answers. Very good analysis, you should be commended. That said: Go Panthers and pound those NE Pats Monday night in our house.

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