The New England Patriots are set to take on the red hot Carolina Panthers on Monday night at the Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina. Carolina comes into this matchup winners of five straight and the national hype around their success is seemingly growing by the hour. Panthers head coach Ron Rivera has his defense playing as good as any unit in the league. They are holding opponents to under thirteen points per game and have no apparent weaknesses.
The Patriots are also riding some considerable momentum after scoring 51 points against the Pittsburgh Steelers in week eight. That’s the most points ever scored against a Pittsburgh defense and the highest single game point total throughout the entire the NFL this season.
With both teams enjoying success, this should be a fun game to watch on Monday night. As the Patriots continue to their preparations for Carolina, let’s take a look at some key questions for week eleven.
1. Can the Patriots stop the Panthers front seven.
By far the most impressive part of the Panthers defense is the front seven and their ability to generate pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott is very creative with his blitz packages and it has been extremely effective at collapsing the pocket. The Panthers are eighth in the league in quarterback sacks and excel at making tackles behind the line of scrimmage. They will present a real challenge for a Patriots offensive line that has struggled at times this season. It’s games like this that can define units and the Patriots are well aware of the challenge they face on Monday night. If the Panthers have success stopping the run, it will be critical for Logan Mankins and company to keep the pocket safe for quarterback Tom Brady. It’s games like this with matchups against premiere units that bring out the best in Mankins, so expect him to be a real factor in this one. The Patriots are also more likely to keep a back or a tight end in pass protection in this one, which could mean more playing time for Legarrette Blount, who excels at pass blocking. Whether the Patriots can keep Tom Brady off the turf consistently will be the key factor in this game.
2. Will Cam Newton be a factor on the ground?
The Panthers are the first real read option team the Patriots have played this season and Cam Newton is about as good as they come in running that style of offense. Given the injuries the Patriots have on defense, expect the Panthers to feature the read option on Monday. The loss of Jerod Mayo really hurts the Patriots as his speed and ability to burst into tackling lanes was the Patriots best tool to defend against the option. Brandon Spikes does not have the speed or quickness to fill that role, so look for linebacker Dont’a Hightower to be primarily responsible for defending against the read option on Monday. If Newton is able to get outside the pocket and enjoy success running the football, it will be a long night for Bill Belichick’s defense.
3. Can Josh McDaniels and Tom Brady solve the Panthers D?
The Patriots offense is coming off its best performance of the season and with a bye week to rest, they will be as healthy as they have been all season. Monday night will mark the first time this season that Tom Brady will have Danny Amendola, Rob Gronkowski, and Shane Vereen as this disposal. We saw just how effective Vereen can be in the week one win against the Bills, so getting him back should be a huge boost for this offense. The timing could not be better for his return, either, as Vereen is the perfect option to rely on for quick release short passes. Look for Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to dial Vereen’s number on screen passes consistently. If the Patriots have success in the short passing game, it could neutralize the Panthers front seven and open things up down the field for Aaron Dobson and Rob Gronkowksi. Vereen could be just the tool Brady and McDaniels need to solve the Panthers defense.
4. Can the Patriots defense improve?
The talking heads around the NFL have frequently noted the Patriots defense as much improved from recent years, but the fact of the matter is that lately they have been challenged lately. The injuries on defense have started catching up with the team and their ability to stop the run has suffered. They will be seriously tested on Monday as the Panthers will look to exploit the Patriots run defense with talented running back DeAngelo Williams. Williams is averaging 4.2 yards per carry and should get a good opportunity on Monday to add to his 565 rushing yards on the season. The Patriots will need to stop Williams if they want any hope of coming out on top.
It’s not only the Patriots run defense that has suffered lately, however. The secondary has also not been as sharp recently as we’ve seen them this year. The return of cornerback Aqib Talib should help, but the Patriots are likely to be without safety Steve Gregory, who broke his wrist in the game against the Steelers. If Gregory can’t go on Monday night, the Patriots will start rookie Duron Harmon in his place. If that’s the case, looks for the Panthers to challenge the Patriots defense more vertically with veteran Steve Smith. How Harmon plays will go a long way to determining the outcome of this game.
The Patriots don’t usually lose coming out of bye weeks, but the challenge of facing Carolina will be a true test for this team and will show just how good the 2013 Patriots are. Tom Brady generally shines in Monday night spotlight and you should expect him to bring his A game in this one. While the Panthers defense will succeed at frustrating him, Brady and running back Stevan Ridley will make enough plays to come out on top.
Patriots 28 – Panthers 24