It took a year longer than I expected, but the Carolina Panthers have finally emerged as one of the better teams in the NFC. However, with their loss to the Saints last weekend dropping them out of a first placed tie for the division lead and another meeting with the Saints on tap for next week, this weekend's game against the Jets is vital for them to stay in contention for the division title. A Jets win could mean that the Panthers are on their way to missing the playoffs altogether, despite winning eight in a row to open 9-3. This is obviously an important game for them, but could they be overlooking the Jets and focusing on the rematch with the Saints instead?
After the jump, I break down the positional groupings (BGA-style!) to try and highlight what the Jets need to look out for.
Cam Newton has improved his consistency and been more efficient in his third season where he is on course for a career year statistically. That's despite the fact he only has one 300-yard game as a passer, despite having six (two of which were 400-yard games) in his first two seasons. His highest output this year was 308 yards against the Cardinals in a 22-6 loss where he threw three interceptions. His numbers have definitely benefited from the Panthers improved defense keeping games close and preventing him from needing to take risks.
Although PFF points out that Newton is one of the best passers in the NFL when pressured, that pressure does still drop his completion percentage to 51% and his QB rating to 56.9.
The Panthers' line is very good despite some injury issues over the course of the season, including the loss of guard Amini Silatolu, a very solid player. Jordan Gross is an excellent blindside pass protector and center Ryan Kalil grades out as the third best run blocking center in the NFL. In between them, Travelle Wharton hasn't given up a sack all season and is showing what a big loss he was for the Panthers in 2012 when he missed the entire season with a knee injury. He had just started to emerge at the end of the 2011 season and has picked up where he left off in 2013.
If there's a weakness, it's the right side of the line, where right tackle Byron Bell has surrendered a team leading seven sacks and 39 total pressures, along with five penalties, which also leads the team. Chris Scott is the starting left guard and should play, although he missed the last game with a knee injury. Converted defensive lineman Nate Chandler has started in his place and struggled at first but has regrouped. Scott struggles as a run blocker, while Chandler struggles in pass protection.
Veteran Geoff Hangartner gives them a reliable emergency option.
The Panthers have 12 players on injured reserve, but the only player on their current active roster that will today's game with an injury is running back Jonathan Stewart. On the face of it, this shouldn't be be a major loss as he had only averaged 30 yards per game in six appearances, but the Panthers were only 4-3 without him over the first half of the season and their loss on Sunday saw him limited to just seven snaps.
With Stewart out, fullback Mike Tolbert gets more reps as a tailback and DeAngelo Williams (who leads the team with 662 rushing yards) will start. Tolbert and Williams have caught 41 passes between them.
The Panthers rushing numbers are bolstered by Newton's scrambles. He averages 5.6 yards per carry. Stewart, Williams and Tolbert have averaged less than four yards per carry between them, so the Jets' elite run defense should be able to stifle the Panthers as long as there are no breakdowns that lead to big plays like last week.
The ageless Steve Smith is still a very dangerous player, who might have lost a step, but can still rack up numbers. His 60 receptions lead the team. The other starter, Brandon LaFell, presents a challenge for whoever covers him with a nice combination of size and athleticism. LaFell plays in the slot most of the time in three wide receiver sets, with Ted Ginn still representing a big play threat.
Tight end Greg Olsen is right on Smith's tail, just two receptions and 30 yards behind him for the team lead. He plays most of the snaps, but plenty of them are in the slot or on the outside. Ex-Jet Ben Hartsock is still with the team as a blocking tight end.
Third string tight end Richie Brockel is an interesting player. He also plays fullback and is often integral to some of the Panthers' more creative plays, which involve wildcat, unbalanced line and read-option elements.
The Panthers' defensive resurgence has been led by the main rival to Sheldon Richardson for the 2013 defensive rookie of the year award, defensive tackle Star Lotulelei. Lotulelei has been spectacular against the run, rivaling Damon Harrison's outstanding numbers. Alongside him, journeyman Colin Cole has been starting since Dwan Edwards was injured in week two, but since returning Edwards has been getting more reps than Cole off the bench. Another rookie - Kawann Short has also seen his role grow and showed tremendous promise.
They also boast two terrific pass rushing ends. Veterans Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson have 16 sacks between them. They will play the majority of the snaps, mainly in a four man front, but undrafted free agent Wes Horton and Mario Addison have two sacks each in a backup role.
Like most teams, the Panthers spend more time in nickel and dime packages than in base, so they'll often have just two linebackers in the game. Having had to deal with an injury plagued linebacker corps over the past two years, they've benefited from Thomas Davis remaining healthy this year. Entering this year, the former first rounder Davis had started just 21 games since 2008, but he's started every game and is on course for a career year. He can be dangerous when blitzing.
Second year man Luke Kuechly anchors the front seven. He's a terrific coverage linebacker and is seventh in the NFL with a team-leading 113 tackles.
Chase Blackburn is listed as the other starter, but often comes out in passing situations. Another ex-Giant, Dan Connor, is one of the primary backups.
While Santonio Holmes may not be impressed with them, the Panthers secondary grades out well, with the assistance of a very good front seven. However, they feature a collection of players who are not exactly household names. Perhaps the best known is former Bills second round pick Drayton Florence. Florence has played well and has been starting for the last two weeks after operating as the third cornerback for most of the season. The third cornerback enters the game in the nickel package, which is used a lot, and plays on the outside as starter Captain Munnerlyn moves to the slot. Last week, that was undrafted rookie Melvin White, although White had started six games in a row until moving into that role two weeks ago. White is still listed as a starter on the Panthers official depth chart. The scrappy Munnerlyn, 5-8 and 186 pounds, has started every game, doing well to have developed from slot corner into an every-down player.
Backup Josh Thomas started five games earlier in the year, but has only played 18 snaps since week seven.
At safety, 33-year old Quintin Mikell and former Raider Michael Mitchell have been starting and both have been solid but unspectacular. Mitchell is the deep guy most of the time, but the Panthers do mix it up from time to time. Mitchell was the projected late rounder that the Raiders shockingly selected in the second round in 2009.
Placekicker Graham Gano has missed three field goals this season, but is perfect on six kicks from beyond 50 yards. Also, his average start (19.2 yard line) on kickoffs is better than every placekicker in the NFL. Only Atlanta punter Michael Koenen fares better.
They have a solid punter too - Brad Nortman, who they selected in the sixth round last year, is 5th in the league in gross average and 9th in net average.
Jets fans are obviously well aware of how dangerous Ted Ginn is as a return man, but their kick coverage unit is solid too, with no 25 yard punt returns or 35 yard kickoff returns so far this year. Addison leads them with seven tackles.
I'll be back tomorrow to recap the game.