COMMENTARY | After 15 days of rest and preparation, the New England Patriots find themselves in Charlotte, N.C., set to face the Carolina Panthers on Monday Night Football. The Week 11 inter-conference battle is close on paper, with New England at the 7-2 mark and Carolina at 6-3. And on the field, the matchup should be an even closer one.
Both sides have their strengths, particularly on defense, as Carolina ranks second in the NFL in points and yards allowed while New England's ranks seventh and 12th, respectively. Both sides are also adept at running the ball, placing in the top-10 in terms of rushing yards. The clash of those strengths figures to dictate the momentum come 8:40 p.m. kickoff at Bank of America Stadium.
So for Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, composing a game plan to stop dynamic third-year quarterback Cam Newton and Carolina's multifaceted backfield is the task at hand.
New England's defense has conceded 128 rushing yards per game this season -- third worst in the NFL -- and is still feeling the absence of defensive tackles Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly and linebacker Jerod Mayo. In turn, Carolina's offense should pose a challenge. The system of Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula has hit its stride of late, winning five straight, featuring the strengths of a four-headed rushing attack to move the chains and subsequently lead the league in time of possession.
The dimensions of Carolina's ground game are unlike anything the Patriots have encountered this campaign. The Panthers offense is built to control the ball and deceive defenses. It is far from the pro-style offenses that New England has grown accustomed to countering. It is a unit built on speed, power and the ground, but it would be an omission to call it unbalanced.
Here is a closer look at what the Patriots defense will encounter in the Week 11 finale.
Threat of the Scramble
Behind center, Newton has rushed the ball 63 times thus far in 2013. From those reps, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 draft has amassed 266 yards and four touchdowns. And although many of his attempts have come from designed quarterback runs, many of which have come as a byproduct of tight coverage downfield.
Upon reviewing Newton's most recent performance versus the San Francisco 49ers, it's clear that he will exploit separation up the middle if the secondary is locked in on the receiving corps. Furthermore, when defensive ends and defensive tackles split outside the A- and B-gaps of the offensive line, the former Heisman Trophy winner will not hesitate to tuck and run for first downs via that entryway.
The bigger the lanes he finds, the bigger gains he takes.
New England's defensive front must confine Newton's elusiveness inside the pocket and away from scrambling opportunities. While he's a strong passer from inside the hashes, the Patriots are likely to play contain or a mush rush on Newton, setting the edge with defensive ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich, and providing less blitz in an effort to keep the defense ahead of him. This strategy relies on linebackers Brandon Spikes, Dont'a Hightower, Jamie Collins and Dane Fletcher to serve as QB spies. Moreover, it relies on emphasizing gap assignments across the defensive line.
Threat of the Intricate Run
The Panthers backfield runs four deep. Beyond Newton, there's tailbacks DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, and even fullback Mike Tolbert. Each functions symbiotically in what's become one of the most diversified run offenses in the league.
The big four has combined for 1,128 rushing yards and 10 scores through nine games. Though, what's more staggering than the production is the means to attain it. The Panthers have a penchant for complexities, turning the prototypical handoff into an art of deception.
Carolina run plays are often enhanced by pass fakes to the outside on handoffs, swaying defenses away from the point of attack. There also enhanced by fake bootlegs and tosses, and even direct snaps to running backs from the Wildcat formation.
Although if there's one aspect that continues to be a thorn in the side of would-be tacklers, it's the Panthers' use of the option. Per Nick Underhill of MassLive.com, Carolina has orchestrated 66 option plays this year, averaging out to approximately seven each game. With Newton in shotgun, the element of the unknown is unrelenting for the opposition. Waging whether or not the QB will exchange or keep the football for himself is difficult to plan for.
But one measure New England can take is from within. The team traded for veteran nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga at the Oct. 29 deadline, and his implementation should only grow in the coming weeks. Versus a squad like Carolina, the Patriots are expected to operate prevalently from the base defense in more traditional 3-4 or 4-3 sets with four defensive backs - the 6'2", 330-pounder's niche.
Threat of the Play Action
Carolina's offense may be rooted in the run and its endless tactics to attain it, yet that variable only makes the play-action pass more effective.
According to Pro Football Focus, nearly 30 percent of Newton's dropbacks result in play action -- the fifth-highest rate of any quarterback. And where there's smoke, there's fire. From play action, Newton has completed 56-of-80 passes for six touchdowns and just one interception. From regular dropbacks, he has posted a far more pedestrian 114-of-191 for seven touchdowns and seven interceptions.
The Panthers' use of play action draws the safeties closer to the line of scrimmage to defend the run. Consequently, that move frees up center field for deep digs and post routes from Carolina wide receivers Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn as well as tight end Greg Olsen.
Carolina's success off the play action is where Patriots safeties Devin McCourty and rookie Duron Harmon, as well as cornerbacks Aqib Talib, Kyle Arrington and rookie Logan Ryan come into the picture. Second-year corner Alfonzo Dennard has been ruled out with a knee injury. So for the rest of the defensive backfield, keeping an even keel will be all the more vital. Staying disciplined and letting the play filter out in the foreground may net its share of Panthers handoffs, but it will also net its share of contested passes.
New England must be geared for both.
Oliver Thomas is a Yahoo contributor who also covers the NFL and the New England Patriots for NEPatriotsDraft.com. His work has been featured on BleacherReport.com, TheFootballEducator.com, USAToday.com, Patriots.com, Boston.com and NESN.com.
You can follow Oliver on Twitter @OliverBThomas.
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