COMMENTARY | The New England Patriots face off with the Carolina Panthers in what looked to be a battle of two struggling franchises just a few weeks ago. But things have changed for both Tom Brady's and Cam Newton's teams, and both are playing some of their best football of the year heading in to this Monday night matchup. Here are five keys for the Pats against a Panthers' team that's won five-straight games:
1. Make Cam Newton throw, and throw often.
The Panthers may have won five straight, but Newton hasn't thrown for 300 yards in any of them. In fact, Newton has thrown for more than 300 yards just once all season, and it came in a loss against Arizona. During this win streak, Carolina has relied on its run game for offense and Newton has been able to selectively take advantage of play action opportunities to strike in the passing game. He was especially effective throwing the ball on third down in the second half against San Francisco last week, going 6-8, and 4-5 to Steve Smith.
But while Carolina is 29th in the NFL in passing, it boasts a top-10 rushing offense. Between DeAngelo Williams, Mike Tolbert and now a returning Jonathan Stewart, the Panthers have the ability to rotate in fresh running backs all game long. That places a lot of stress on New England's banged up defensive line, and rookies Chris Jones and Joe Vellano. Both have proven to be solid finds for Bill Belichick and his staff, but have struggled to hold up to the run game without All-Pro Vince Willfork. The Patriots' trade for Isaac Sopoaga should make a significant impact here. Sopoaga only played 24 snaps in his first game for New England against the Steelers, but he showed up with a pass defensed, and was in on a critical fourth down stop. At 330 pounds, Sopoaga adds significant bulk to the Patriots defensive front on early downs, and that could be the key against a Carolina offense that wants to run the football and create manageable third downs.
2. Keep Newton in the pocket.
Speaking of the Carolina run game, Newton remains a major threat. Despite dropping more than a yard-per-carry off his career average this year, he's still at a robust 4.2 and is the Panthers' second leading rusher.
New England will dial up a similar game-plan to what they used last week against Ben Roethlisberger, forcing Big Ben to throw from the pocket. That required players like Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich to stay extremely sound in their lanes, to keep Roethlisberger from slipping out to either throw on the run or take off down the field.
If Pats cornerback Aqib Talib is really ready to return from his hip injury, it would allow Bill Belichick to match him up with Steve Smith and really force Newton to find other options down the field. If Newton can find a way to throw for 400 yards and four touchdowns targeting Greg Olsen and Brandon LaFell, he deserves the win.
3. Don't let the former Boston College star dominate on defense.
If there was anyone left who didn't know Luke Kuechly, they do now. Kuechly was the best defender on the field against San Francisco, and that's saying something. He earned Defensive Player of the Week honors for his 11 tackles (two for losses) and a sack, and helped Carolina keep the 49'ers out of the end zone.
The Patriots are coming off their best offensive performance of the season, a 55-point explosion against the Steelers. But the Steeler defense is only similar to Carolina's in reputation. Tom Brady will find the Panthers' front seven to be much more similar to what he faced against the Cincinnati Bengals in week five.
Patriots fans will remember that game well, although most would like to forget. Tom Brady's streak of 52-straight games with a touchdown pass was unceremoniously ended, and New England was held without a touchdown for the first time since 2009.
Meanwhile, Kuechly's Panthers are second in the NFL in total defense, but more impressively, second in points allowed per game, just percentage points behind the Kansas City Chiefs at 12.8.
In fact, they've only allowed 115 points all season long. Given that the Patriots scored almost half that in their last game alone, if Brady can orchestrate a similar effort Monday night it will go a long way to proving that the Pats offense is, in fact, back on track.
4. Find a way to run the football.
It won't be easy. The Panthers are barely allowing 80 yards per game on the ground. But a huge key to the Pats' offensive explosion against the Steelers was Stevan Ridley's breakout game of 2013. Ridley rushed for 115 yards and two touchdowns on 26 carries against the Steelers, and that finally opened up the play action pass for Tom Brady to have his best game of the season.
Another potential return could alter this one for New England in a positive way. Shane Vereen is eligible to return from his broken hand, after missing the last eight games. Vereen has been practicing for the last two weeks, and seems to be in line to play his first game since week one.
Vereen would instantly take over for Brandon Bolden as the Patriots top passing back, and he's proven to be a big play option. But his presence doesn't just impact the passing game.
In week 1 against Buffalo, Vereen was a true dual threat, rushing for 101 yards on 14 carries, and also hauling in 7 passes for 58 yards.
Vereen's addition to the offense allows Josh McDaniels and Tom Brady to be a little less predictable, while also adding another explosive option.
5. Handle the Panthers' pass rush.
Obviously this is easier said than done, but the Patriots have really struggled against the better pressure defenses in the NFL. Carolina is tied with the Patriots, with 29 sacks this season. But they're able to generate most of that pressure without needing to blitz. Defensive end Charles Johnson leads the way with 8.5 sacks this season, but fellow end Greg Hardy isn't far behind with five. But three other Panthers have at least two sacks on the season, so Carolina has a variety of ways to disrupt the passing game.
Tom Brady has already been sacked 26 times this year, and the offensive line has been uncharacteristically inconsistent.
Patriots' Pro-Bowl offensive lineman Logan Mankins is on record as saying the Pats' line is capable of handling a physical and pressure based defensive line, but it just hasn't played well against those types this season. But that has been a bit of an Achilles heel of the Patriots over the last few seasons, going all the way back to its struggles in Super Bowls against the New York Giants.
By slamming the door on the running game, Carolina forces offenses into obvious passing situations where they can tee off on the quarterback. The Patriots must be able to run the football, in order to allow Brady to get the ball out of his hand quickly on short-strike passes, and open the door to the big play on play action.
Evan Fitzgerald was born and raised near Boston, following all things New England sports. A veteran of nearly a decade in sports journalism, he covered the NFL since 2007. Evan can now be seen covering college sports for the Big 10 Network.
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