By Gregory Hunt
Although quarterback Cam Newton is the face of the Carolina Panthers franchise, the reason why the team is challenging for the NFC South title is because of a defense that is playing at an elite level. The New England Patriots have struggled against stronger-than-average defenses all season, so they will have their work cut out for them when they visit the Panthers next Monday night at Bank of America Stadium.
After starting out 1-3, the Panthers have won five games in a row to come into Week 11 with a 6-3 record, one game behind the New Orleans Saints in the NFC South. In Week 10, Carolina scratched out a 10-9 road win over the defending NFC champion San Francisco 49ers. The Panthers are 2-3 all-time against the Patriots, including a 32-29 loss to New England in Super Bowl XXXVIII on February 1, 2004. The teams last met on December 13, 2009 at Gillette Stadium, and the Patriots came away with a 20-10 victory.
Panthers on Offense
Cam Newton took the NFL by storm in 2011, when he was named AP Offensive Rookie of the Year after throwing for 21 touchdowns and rushing for 14 more. He rushed for more than 700 yards in each of his first two seasons in the NFL, and while he is not running as much this season, he still possesses incredible speed and elusiveness for a man that’s 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds. In leading the Panthers to six wins so far this year, he has already matched his win total from his rookie season, and a win over the Patriots next Monday will match his career high from 2012.
Newton’s favorite target is veteran wide receiver Steve Smith, who is in his 13th NFL season, all with the Panthers. The 34-year-old Smith is averaging only 10.7 yards per catch, so he’s not the deep threat he used to be, but he leads the team in receptions with 42. On the ground, Carolina’s primary running back is DeAngelo Williams, who is 10th in the NFL in rushing with 565 yards. In short-yardage situations, look for fullback Mike Tolbert to get the ball. Tolbert is a bruising back who knocked out San Francisco defensive back Eric Reid on an attempted tackle last week.
Panthers on Defense
The Panthers have the only defense in the NFL that’s ranked in the top 10 in passing defense (4th), rushing defense (2nd), total defense (2nd) and scoring defense (2nd). During the current five-game winning streak, the Panthers have given up no more than 15 points in any single game.
Defensive end Charles Johnson is having a monster year with 8.5 sacks, and his fellow defensive end Greg Hardy has six sacks of his own. The Panthers also have the most interceptions in the NFL with 13, tied with the Buffalo Bills, Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks. Seven different players have recorded a pick this year, led by safety Mike Mitchell and linebacker Luke Kuechly with three apiece.
Over the past four games, the Patriots offense has started to resemble its old self, especially now that tight end Rob Gronkowski and wide receiver Danny Amendola are healthy again. However, in going on the road against a solid defense like Carolina’s, New England quarterback Tom Brady will face his toughest challenge of the season so far.
If the New England offense struggles to score points against Carolina, then the biggest key to this game will be the performances of rookie defensive linemen Joe Vellano and Chris Jones, who have been forced into action by injuries to veterans Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly. Another key is the return of cornerback Aqib Talib, who has missed the past three games with a hip injury, but his status won’t be known until the first practice participation report for Week 11 is issued on Wednesday.
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Gregory Hunt is a Boston native and a life-long fan of the Patriots, Red Sox, Bruins and Celtics. He’s also particularly fond of lacrosse, IndyCar racing and women’s college basketball. He currently works for Examiner.com where he serves as the Senior Manager of Content and Media Access. He also writes for Examiner.com as the New England Patriots Examiner. His work can be found on aExaminer.com.