CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Aqib Talib is expected to play, Alfonzo Dennard and Steve Gregory have been ruled out, and Shane Vereen's anticipated return is imminent. While the Patriots are coming off a bye week, they have plenty of moving parts heading into Monday night's game against the Panthers.
Here's what to watch for, with that in mind:
1. Offensive substitutions -- So Vereen is now back in the mix. Last time we saw him, he put up 101 yards on 14 carries against the Buffalo Bills. That was 10 weeks ago. He has the ability to be a prolific third-down back, coming out of the backfield as a receiver or lining up in the slot. That's always been the vision for him with the Patriots. Let's see how he is integrated in his first game back and who loses snaps in his return.
2. Defensive substitutions -- Dennard apparently tweaked his knee in practice, because he's been ruled out for tonight. It would seem like a simple swap with Dennard out and Talib in, but the Patriots' star corner still has a concerning hip problem that could limit his snaps. That means the Patriots will have to do some shuffling within the secondary. And they will likely not have Devin McCourty to rely on as a pinch cornerback with Gregory out. So the extra duties will fall on Kyle Arrington, Marquice Cole, and Logan Ryan. We'll be paying close attention to who is in which packages.
3. How will the Patriots contain Cam Newton in the running game? -- Outside containment, both from the defensive ends and linebackers, will be critical for the Patriots when facing a quarterback like Newton who can split defenders with his speed. The best route, in my opinion, is to funnel him inside toward the tackles and inside linebackers who can bring him down. Those defensive players -- Brandon Spikes, Joe Vellano, Chris Jones, and Isaac Sopoaga -- will play a crucial role in stopping Newton and the Panthers' three-pronged running game. DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Steward, and Mike Tolbert are all exceptionally good running backs that can't be given space and, in the case of Tolbert, need extra tacklers. There will be a close eye on their performance tonight.