It has been a long time (13 days) since the New England Patriots took the field, but it is finally the weekend, which means it’s nearly time to see our Pats back on the field. There will be many dynamic players on the field on ‘Monday Night Football’, but there are a few that I will be focusing on, as two of the top teams in the league get set to battle. Here are four guys to keep an eye on, this Monday night in Carolina.
1. Luke Kuechly
A member of the 2012 draft class, Kuechly has amazed in his first two years in the league. He has quickly established himself as one of the top middle linebackers in the NFL, as he leads one of, if not the best front sevens in the league. Kuechly led the NFL in total tackles last year, and he has the Panthers defense on track to be a dominant force for years to come. He will get a tough test this week, in the form of Tom Brady and the recently explosive Patriot offense. Kuechly will be tasked with not only slowing down the NFL’s eight best rushing attack, but Rob Gronkowski is also coming to town, and I am sure that Brady will get Gronk isolated on Kuechly more than once, as this game progresses. Gronk is one of the hardest guys to cover in the league, and Kuechly will have his hands full with big number 87 all game long.
2. Isaac Sopoaga
Sopoaga came over to New England at the trade deadline, and even though he got limited action two weeks ago versus Pittsburgh, it was obvious that he would make an impact for this team. Like Kuechly, Sopoaga will be faced with a big challenge this week, as the Panthers boast the 10th best rush offense in the league. Carolina has ran the ball 292 times, which puts them at fifth in the NFL. They are a run-first team, and if you want to beat them, you must slow down that running game. With Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, and Jerod Mayo all gone for the season, a lot of pressure is now on Sopoaga’s shoulders, and this week’s contest with the Panthers, is Sopoaga’s first real test.
3. Aqib Talib
It is not 100% certain that Talib will play in this game, but all signs do point towards him being active, after he injured his hip a couple of weeks ago against the Saints. While Carolina does not throw the ball often, it will be important for New England to try and pressure Cam Newton, and come up with some turnovers. However the Panthers have excelled in this category through nine games this year, as they have turned the ball over a mere 13 times, tied for sixth in the league. This is part of what has made them so successful over the past month. They play good defense, and don’t turn the football over on the offensive side of the ball. But if Aqib Talib is able to go, he presents Newton and company with a major obstacle towards their “no turnover” game-plan. Talib has come up with four interceptions in only six games played this year, because of his lock-down coverage, and aggressive nature when it comes to going after the football. He could make a big difference in this game, if he plays like he did earlier in the year, possibly being the difference between a win and loss for New England.
4. Greg Olsen
Olsen is was one of Cam Newton’s top targets, hauling in 35 balls for 440 yards, and three touchdowns through nine games this year. He is a big guy with some speed (similar to Gronk), which makes him a tough cover for linebackers and safeties across the NFL. Covering tight ends and running backs is not exactly the strength of the Patriots linebackers, especially with top man Jerod Mayo gone for the year. Brandon Spikes and Dont’a Hightower are both terrific run defenders, and I expect them to have big games in that department. But they struggle in pass coverage, which may result in a productive day for Greg Olsen.