Re: Carolina will be a REAL challenge
posted at 11/11/2013 10:59 PM EST
I normally try to say bad things about an opponent. Carolina is good. They're #1 on my newest NFL rankings, with a bullet. But, New England is good too.
Carolina's run versus pass numbers are skewed by their being way ahead in the fourth quarter of most games, but it's safe to say that Carolina depends on its running attack. They are 29th in the NFL in offensive passing yardage per game. Cam Newton can't sling it that well, perhaps because he keeps getting hit on running plays which doesn't improve his aim, and it's hard to throw on the run.
New England really misses Vince, Kelly and the possibility of Armstead up front, but the defense always were constructed to stop the run first, from the strong safety up to the nose tackle. They were getting by even without Soap. It's good that Soap has had two more weeks to learn the play book, because the Patriots are in love with complex defenses. Soap almost certainly will be playing nose against Carolina's great front line. Note that Carolina has had two injuries at the guard position this season, so they're not perfect.
Cam is a load to bring down, and most of the Patriot team can handle that. The whole team from strong safety to nose tackle is heavy, and BB can stack the defensive line as needed against run-first teams. 248 pound QB Cam Newton can't actually outrun Brandon Spikes or Hightower with a 4.6 40 time (although numbers of scat backs can outrun the heavy LBs, and they are often trouble). The team has been playing running QBs for much of the season, including 241 pound Big Ben Roofies at Pittsburgh last game.
It's strength versus strength as the Patriots passing/running attack faces the Carolina defense. Carolina's D-line is good at allowing no running holes, but they're up against a pretty good O-line made better if Gronkowski regains his form as a run blocker. He didn't do that against Pittsburgh. One more big problem. Brady will be running his hurryup on many plays, and when somebody doesn't line up properly, the team tends to exploit the problem. I don't know of another team that plays the hurryup half as well.
Carolina's defensive pass yardage per game is also skewed versus their defensive run yardage, because Carolina is often well ahead in the fourth quarter. They're known for a great pass-rushing line that allows them to drop 7 into coverage and still get after the quarterback. In New England's passing offense they have a full basket of unusual problems. First, it's rare to find any one defender that can cover Gronk. Double teams do the job but that leaves a hole elsewhere on the field. Second, most teams don't have a particular player that can single-cover Danny Amendola. This type of slot cornerback exists, prototypically a small, extremely quick, aggressive player who can play bump and run, but most teams can't afford one of these. Carolina may want to keep a safety back to cover Dobson deep, or they may be able to single cover him downfield in a Revis Island situation. We'll see. A fierce pass rush isn't of any use if Brady gets rid of the football quick, and Brady may be the NFL's leader in this stat. Finally, Brady set an NFL record for first downs in a season last year. Even the best defense gets gassed after ten quick plays in a row downfield, and after 70 defensive plays a game. New England is fortunate to have such a unique system, where teams find themselves unprepared to handle its unique features.
In defeating San Francisco, Carolina is looking for a first round bye in its conference. They played a super-rough game and had a 3000 mile commute home. These players are a bit exhausted this week, perhaps. Can the Panthers summon the same amount of energy to play a non-conference team, where non-conference games aren't as involved in crucial conference tiebreakers that determine playoff seedings?
By comparison, the Patriots didn't play anybody last week. I'm more worried about the Patriots being exhausted for Denver than I am about the Patriots trying to save anything up for Denver.
Finally there's the issue of a number of the Patriot starters -- Gronk, Amendola, Vereen, Soap, Talib -- all showing up and making a difference. Usually a team is missing key people, not adding a flock of experienced starters to a team. New England exploded for 55 points against a reputedly ok Pittsburgh defense, but Gronk's blocking was rusty against Pitts, perhaps Amendola was rusty after so much layoff, Soap was brand new, Talib was out and Vereen was out. What if everybody decides to show up next week? Carolina has no 2013 video tape of Gronk blocking for Vereen -- that's just going to happen blind for Carolina if Vereen comes off IR on Saturday or on Sunday. It's key that veterans are coming back, not rookies, because then Brady can play the team's hurryup more effectively, with more chaos, with more serious gassing of Carolina's linemen. There's also the practice factor for various team rookies -- Aaron Dobson, Duron Harmon, Logan Ryan, Jamie Collins, Chris Jones, Michael Buchanan, Ryan Allen -- getting better from week to week. A prototypical Bill Belichick team plays loose in September and tough in December because of all the new talent coming in.
Carolina's one point win was impressive, but it's worth noting how much closer the game was than one point. Carolina's only touchdown came on a fourth down effort. Further, Carolina fumbled the ball twice on their last drive, but managed to recover both fumbles to preserve the game. Nice downing of a punt on the 1 yard line, also.
Finally, Carolina's right linebacker Chase Blackburn aggravated his chronic foot problem and stayed out of the second half of the San Francisco game. There might be some dropoff at this position next week if Blackburn's foot slows him down or keeps him out.