By: Steve Balestrieri
This week’s Monday Night Football matchup features the New England Patriots (7-2) traveling to Charlotte to take on the Carolina Panthers (6-3), game time is scheduled for 8:30 p.m.
The broadcast will be on ESPN with their normal crew of Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden on the call doing the play-by-play and color analyst duties.
The Patriots enter from their bye week and two weeks ago throttled Pittsburgh 55-31 as the offense finally showed some signs of coming together as they are now getting healthy for the first time this season.
Carolina comes in on a five game winning streak and fresh off of a big 10-9 win over the San Francisco 49ers on the road. During the current streak, the Panthers #2 ranked defense hasn’t given up more than 15 points in any of the games.
We here at PatsFans.com are going to try something a little bit different this season. Our new weekly column, the “Razor’s Edge” gives a quick break down on some of the key matchups of the game and what to look for in how the game plays out.
The Patriots and Panthers have only met five times in their history with one of those contests being Super Bowl XXXVIII in Houston. They’ve split the two games in Charlotte with the last trip there for New England being in 2005. Overall the Patriots hold a 3-2 advantage with the last meeting being back in 2009 in Foxborough.
The New England offense is finally showing signs of being healthy for the first time and the results were impressive rolling up over 600 yards of offense and 55 points against the Steelers. Having Danny Amendola and Rob Gronkowski at close to 100 percent did wonders for Tom Brady and the offense.
Shane Vereen should return to action on Monday night for New England.
(USA TODAY Images)
This allowed the running game to keep the attack balanced and they ran for 197 yards. Rookie WR Aaron Dobson is also showing signs of becoming a key part of this offense, in recent games he and Brady are connecting more and more and against Pittsburgh he had his first 100 yard receiving game.
And the offense should get back RB Shane Vereen for this one, he’s been out since the opener in Buffalo with a broken wrist but should help the offense as he’s a good threat to both run and catch the ball out of the backfield. Monday’s game will be a big test against one of the better defenses in the league.
Patriots RBs vs Panthers Front Seven- NE 129.1 YPG, 4.4 YPC Edge Panthers
The Patriots rolled up 197 yards on the Steelers two weeks ago but the sledding is going to be much tougher this time around. Carolina’s front seven is one of the best in the NFL and they are outstanding against the run allowing only 82 yards per game.
Star Lotulelei and Dwan Edwards are doing a great job of clogging up the middle, allowing linebackers Luke Keuchly and Thomas Davis to fly around the field and make plays. They aren’t the biggest LBs out there but they’re fast, athletic and are always around the football.
The Patriots running game has been utilizing a three-headed monster of Stevan Ridley, LaGarrette Blount, and Brandon Bolden. This week they should get back Shane Vereen which will keep the defense on their toes. The key will be to stay patient and trust in the running game, it isn’t going to be easy, but sticking with it will pay dividends later in the game.
Patriots WRs vs Panthers Secondary- NE 232 YPG Edge Patriots
The key here is the pass protection, Carolina is very good at getting pressure on the QB and their DEs Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy do a great job of getting after it with 14.5 sacks combined between them. Last week they spearheaded a six sack performance against the Niners allowing less than 100 yards passing.
Look for the Patriots to spread them out and try to get the short passing game going, getting the ball out of Brady’s hands quickly and using the crossing routes underneath. Rob Gronkowski is key here; he presents size mismatches against either Keuchly or SS Quentin Mikell and could not only be a big part of the attack, but clear out room for the slot guys, Amendola and Julian Edelman to operate. Aaron Dobson is rapidly rounding into form as the Pats “X”-WR and is becoming a consistent target for Brady outside the numbers.
The Patriots can find room to throw against the Panthers’ secondary and having Vereen out of the backfield will help but the offensive line of Dante Scarnecchia will have to do a better job of protecting Tom Brady this week, how well they do that will ultimately decide on who wins this game.
All of the injuries on the Patriots defense began to take their effect on them against the Steelers, Ben Roethlisberger threw for 400 yards and was able to put 31 points on the board. The rush defense, missing so many key pieces has been hard hit by opponents. New DT/NT Isaac Sopoaga figured in a few key plays and should be given a larger role this week.
Aqib Talib should also make his return on Monday for the Pats defense
(USA TODAY Images)
The secondary too has been hit by injuries, Aqib Talib has missed the past few games and Steve Gregory broke his thumb against Pittsburgh testing the Patriots depth in the back end. Talib should return this week and his presence solidifies the defensive backfield. Gregory is expected to miss a few weeks while he heals and will be replaced by Duron Harmon or perhaps by Ed Reed who has been the subject of so many rumors this week after being released by the Texans.
A bright spot for the Patriots has been the pass rush, which has generated 29 sacks this season. Chandler Jones leads the list with 8.5, followed by rookie Chris Jones who has tallied 5 sacks in just six games.
Panthers RBs vs NE Front Seven- Carolina 127.8 YPG, 3.9 YPC Edge Panthers
Carolina has also used a three pronged rushing attack with DeAngelo Williams, Mike Tolbert and QB Cam Newton running the ball effectively. And they just got back RB Jonathan Stewart recently which is a big plus for them.
The Patriots rush defense has suffered with no Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly and Jerod Mayo allowing a whopping 146.8 yards per game in the last 5 contests. They brought in run-stuffer Isaac Sopoaga from the Eagles and he should play a bigger role this week.
The pressure will be on the Patriots linebackers, Brandon Spikes and Dont’a Hightower to help stem the tide on Monday. Both are big, physical, down-hill style players and very effective in the running game.
Panthers WRs vs NE Secondary-Carolina 198 YPG Edge Patriots
The key here from a Patriots perspective will be to contain Cam Newton, the pass rush can’t pin their ears back and allow Newton to make plays with his feet, rushing out of the pocket or to scramble and hit throws down the field.
Steve Smith remains a dangerous threat down the field and will garner a lot of attention from both Newton and the Patriots secondary. But after him the Panthers aerial attack isn’t a dynamic group. Ted Ginn and Brandon LaFell are good receivers but not game breakers. Look for Newton to test the Patriots middle with TE Greg Olsen.
With Talib scheduled to return, the Patriots should be able to do a good job in slowing down the Panthers’ passing game. But much of this will be determined by how well they can defend the run.
Special Teams- Edge Patriots
Both team’s kicking games are about even, the Panthers Graham Gano and New England’s Stephen Gostkowski, are very solid. The punting numbers are between the Pats Ryan Allen and Carolina’s Brad Nortman are about the same.
The Patriots get the edge in the punt return game with Julian Edelman over Ted Ginn for the Panthers. The Patriots coverage units have been excellent this season and have been outstanding in kickoff coverage (20.7 YPR).
LaGarrette Blount has been doing a much better job of returning kicks lately and looks to be close to breaking a big return. This could also be the week that KR Leon Washington returns; he’s been limited to just one snap on the season after having been signed as a free agent this spring to boost the team’s kick return game.
Patriots Player to Watch- Shane Vereen
Vereen was looked to this season to replace the departed Danny Woodhead and be the Patriots third down back providing a good running presence to go along with a dangerous option out of the backfield.
Down the stretch last season we saw glimpses of that and expectations were high this summer. In the team’s first game in Buffalo, he showed what he’s capable of gaining over 100 yards on the ground and catching 7 passes for 58 more. But he broke his wrist in that game and has been on the IR Designated to Return list.
Vereen has been practicing for the past few weeks and has been doing so without a cast, he’s eligible to return this week and should play on Monday night. I wouldn’t expect to see a lot of snaps this week as his use will be limited until he can get back into game shape.
But as we saw against the Texans in the playoffs last season, with 3 TDs (2 receiving, one on a 33 yard pass) he can really tip the scales in favor of the offense. Lined up in the backfield, and then put in motion to the outside, he’s a huge mismatch for a linebacker to cover.
Thus far in 2013 during his absence, the Patriots have had only 28 receptions to the running backs in nine games (Bolden 17, Ridley 9 and Develin 2), Vereen had seven in just the first game and will open up an entirely other dimension to the passing game.
Against such a stout defense in Carolina’s that could be a big weapon this week…
****Stay Tuned to PatsFans.com this week as we’ll be doing some live in-game chat during MNF discussing the game.****