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Panthers: What To Watch

Posted Nov 25, 2012

No one could have expected when the schedule came out that these two teams would combine for only five wins on the season to date. Still, both teams have hopes of salvaging the season with late-season runs. We've got your breakdown on the important dynamics heading into Monday Night Football.

When The Eagles Have The Ball

First, any discussion about the offense begins with who is going to suit up for the Eagles on Monday night.

Nick Foles had an uneven performance in his starting debut vs. the Redskins completing 21-of-46 attempts for 204 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions. Again, it was Foles' first career NFL start. He will have a chance to make amends as he will make his second start for the injured Michael Vick.

Another rookie in Bryce Brown will start at running back. Brown has 141 rushing yards averaging 4.4 per carry this season. A hard runner, the 6-0, 220-pound Brown gained 49 yards against the Saints and 39 yards last Sunday vs. Washington.

The Eagles will have a jump on the Panthers in that they are very familiar with head coach Ron Rivera and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, who are both former assistants in Philadelphia. McDermott runs a 4-3 base and has crafted some very creative schemes in the past. Carolina has struggled to put teams away this season. Five of the team’s last six losses have come despite leading in the fourth quarter. The Panthers rank 24th in points allowed and 19th in the NFL in yards allowed. They are 11th in sacks with 26, tied for 16th in interceptions with eight and tied for 13th with six fumble recoveries.

Up front, the Panthers pass rush is strong on both sides with one of the league's most underrated defensive ends in Charles Johnson on the right side and Greg Hardy on the left side. A big reason the Panthers allowed Julius Peppers to leave in free agency a few years ago was the emergence of Johnson. The 6-2, 285-pound Johnson is a sixth-year pro who leads the team with 8.5 sacks. King Dunlap at left tackle will be in charge of keeping Johnson contained. Hardy, meanwhile, is no slouch with 7.0 sacks on the season which will be a challenge for Dennis Kelly at the right tackle spot. Up the middle, defensive tackle Dwan Edwards has 5.0 sacks. Rookie defensive lineman Frank Alexander has the size at 6-4, 270 pounds to be on the field for all three downs and play both at end and on the inside.

At linebacker, it's another rookie who is leading the charge. The No. 9 overall pick in this year's draft, Luke Kuechly, has stabilized the defense since taking over the middle spot for an injured Jon Beason earlier in the season. Kuechly is a tackling machine with tremendous instincts. Weakside linebacker Thomas Davis, who has also played safety in his career, has returned to form after battling knee injuries throughout his career. He has played more games this year than in the previous three combined. Strongside linebacker James Anderson also has a nose for the ball. Back in Week 3, he had a franchise-record 20 tackles against the Giants. Last year, he set the team record with 174 tackles.

Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn is only 5-8, 190 pounds, but he recorded his third-career interception return for a touchdown last Sunday against Tampa Bay. On the right side is rookie Josh Norman, who presents more size at 6-0, 195 pounds. At safety, the Panthers have a pair of fifth-year players in Charles Godfrey on the strong side and free agent addition Haruki Namamura, who has been targeted and beat for some big plays in 2012.

Eagles Projected Starting Lineup
Offense Defense
QB Nick Foles LDE Jason Babin
RB Bryce Brown LDT Cullen Jenkins
FB Stanley Havili RDT Fletcher Cox
WR Jeremy Maclin RDE Trent Cole
LT King Dunlap WILL LB Akeem Jordan
LG Evan Mathis MIKE LB DeMeco Ryans
C Dallas Reynolds SAM LB Mychal Kendricks
RG Jake Scott LCB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie
RT Dennis Kelly RCB Nnamdi Asomugha
TE Brent Celek SS Nate Allen
WR DeSean Jackson FS Kurt Coleman

When The Panthers Have The Ball

With all the talk surrounding a supposedly diminished Cam Newton, the real issue with the Panthers offense has been the disappearance of what was a dominating rushing attack in 2011. Last year, the Panthers were the NFL's best running team on a per-run basis, as they averaged 5.41 yards per rush (they were third in the league with 150.5 rushing yards per game). This year, the Panthers have fallen to 17th in the league, averaging only 4.04 yards per rush (and 16th with 107.9 rushing yards per game). The dropoff can be seen especially in the production of the running backs. Last year, DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart combined for 1,597 rushing yards and each averaged 5.4 yards per carry. This year, that tandem is on pace to run for only 928 yards and each is averaging fewer than 4.0 yards per carry. In fact, Newton is the Panthers' leading rusher this year with 394 yards rushing on the season.

The decline is interesting because it doesn't seem like it can be pinned on a new-look or ravaged offensive line. Four of the 2011 starter returned to the offensive line for the Panthers, with only rookie second-round Amini Silatolu stepping into the lineup (at left guard), though Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil did go on injured reserve after five games. Jordan Gross and Byron Bell remain the stalwart tackles and Geoff Hangartner, the previous right guard, moved to center in Kalil's absence (leaving previously untested Jeff Byers to fill the right guard slot).

Either way, the Eagles defense, which ranks in the middle of the NFL pack in terms of run defense, will still be tested by the creative mind of Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinksi. After last week's performance against the Redskins, in which the defense was mostly disciplined and steady but was victimized by a few big plays downfield, the Eagles will still look for ways to bounce back. Rookie second-round pick Vinny Curry will be active for the first time this season, and perhaps he'll bring some extra juice to a defense that could use some.

But Newton will still be the focus. Gifted with a rocket right arm and the physicality of a linebacker, Newton came into this season with the highest of expectations. But he's thrown 10 interceptions to only nine touchdowns and his quarterback rating of 79 (after an 84.5 rating last season) ranks 26th among 33 qualifying quarterbacks. Of course, for a player as talented as Newton, there is still worlds of hope and the Panthers will be committed to him long term. Now, it's about finding the right pieces with which to surround the quarterback.

Newton's two primary targets are the pugnacious veteran wide receiver Steve Smith and tight end Greg Olsen, though the Eagles would be wary not to sleep on Brandon LaFell. After last week's coverage breakdown on a long touchdown to Redskins receiver Aldrick Robinson, back seven discipline in the passing game will be a major focus, especially since Newton has the arm to throw the ball places many quarterbacks wouldn't dream of. But Newton can also be sloppy with the football, so a defense that has registered only one interception in the last six games would be wise to take advantage of any such opportunities for a game-changing turnover.

Panthers Projected Starting Lineup
Offense Defense
WR Steve Smith LDE Greg Hardy
LT Jordan Gross DT Dwan Edwards
LG Amini Silatolu NT Ron Edwards
C Geoff Hangartner RDE Charles Johnson
RG Jeff Byers SLB James Anderson
RT Byron Bell MLB Luke Kuechly
TE Greg Olsen WLB Thomas Davis
WR Brandon LaFell LCB Captain Munnerlyn
QB Cam Newton SS Charles Godfrey
FB Mike Tolbert FS Haruki Nakamura
RB Jonathan Stewart RCB Josh Norman

Players To Watch

RB Bryce Brown

Coming out of high school, running back Bryce Brown was widely considered the nation’s best running back prospect. And while his college career didn’t pan out, Brown has shown flashes of that projected brilliance this season with the Eagles. With LeSean McCoy's status up in the air for Monday night’s game with a concussion, Brown may have the chance to showcase those abilities.

Brown had five carries for 35 yards in last Sunday’s loss in Washington, but showed nice speed and burst. And at 6-0 and 223 pounds, Brown has the size to bowl over defenders. Brown hasn’t carried the ball more than five times in a game this year, but he turned heads in the preseason. He carried 28 times for 122 yards and a score.

Brown came to Training Camp just looking to make the roster. But his strong play and impressive ability earned him the primary backup spot. Now, he may have a chance to make a difference for the Eagles on a national stage.

QB Cam Newton

As a rookie, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton took the league by storm. In 16 games, he threw for a rookie-record 4,051 yards, scored 21 touchdowns through the air and a rookie-record 14 on the ground. Needless to say, he was named Offensive Rookie of the Year and was a Pro Bowl selection.

This year, however, has been much different. Newton is currently ranked 16th in the league with 2,395 yards passing and has thrown nine touchdowns to 10 interceptions. And while Newton is still a threat on the ground, he hasn’t matched last year’s success there, either. To date, he has rushed for 394 yards and four touchdowns, but has fumbled nine times, losing three. Newton has sub-par accuracy, but can make plays downfield with his arm and legs.

The Eagles' defense was burned by a quarterback with similar skills last week in Robert Griffin III. This time around, they should be able to use what they learned against Griffin III to slow down Newton and the Panthers' offense.

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