CHARLOTTE, S.C. (WSPA) – The Carolina Panthers are a lot healthier coming off of their bye week and now prepare for the 4-8 Denver Broncos.
Carolina entered the bye week coming off of a loss to the Minnesota Vikings, which came one week after recording their first win since October 11. Now, the Panthers get ready to take on an ailing Denver Broncos team that has had its share of struggles this season.
Teddy Bridgewater returned to action against the Vikings in what was a competitive, one-point loss. He had an up and down game, though started strong. It didn’t help that the team lacked enough of a run game to sustain drives as they ran for just over 3 yards per carry. Mike Davis managed just 55 yards in the contest, but did draw six targets in the passing game. Christian McCaffrey was expected to return to the lineup this week after sustaining a shoulder and thigh injury. But he didn’t practice on Thursday and it was reported in the afternoon that he is not expected to play on Sunday. So Carolina will once again be without its star, but at this point the consensus appears to be: if there’s any doubt of his health, hold him out. And that is how the situation has unfolded at this point.
There was a slight outbreak of COVID-19 issues within the organization as well, with several players including receivers D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel being added to the reserve/COVID list. They’ll need five straight negative tests to be able to be active on Sunday.
The good news for the lineup is that cornerback Donte Jackson is set to make his return after missing two games due to a toe injury. He’s logged limited practice sessions at the time of this writing and appears to be in line to start against the Broncos. That will be a boost to a secondary that has shown significant improvement over the last couple of weeks, while Jeremy Chinn continues to solidify himself as the top Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
Denver has had a similar run this season as Carolina. Apart from having the same record, they’ve played many of the same teams as their divisions play each other in 2020. The Broncos have been competitive in losses, particularly against KC, ATL, PIT while they’ve had an impressive win as well (against the resurgent Miami Dolphins in week 11. Carolina has also been competitive in losses (KC, LV, NO, ATL) while also pulling off an upset win over Arizona in week 4.
These teams have plenty of similarities in the way they’re constructed as well. Both have young, explosive talent on offense with an improving, and rebuilding defense.
Denver has quite a few weapons to account for on offense. Young receivers Tim Patrick and rookie Jerry Jeudy, are having highly productive years while the leader of the group, tight end Noah Fant has established himself as a matchup nightmare in year two. Patrick is one of the big-play threats and leads the team in receiving yards (607), touchdowns (5), and comes in second with 15.2 yards per reception. Jeudy is a fantastic route runner, especially for a rookie, and is also capable of racking up the yards after catch on any play. He currently leads the team with 15.6 yards per reception, and has added two scores as well. Fant, at 6’4”, 250 lbs, is a difficult matchup for almost any defense. He’s much more of a vertical threat tight end than a blocking one, which makes his skillset a difficult one to pair with a safety or linebacker. He’s one of the faster, if not the fastest at the position in the league and he has shown great ability to extend plays well beyond the point of the catch. Overall, this young corps has established a good rapport with young quarterback Drew Lock.
Lock, however, has had a tumultuous season. After injuring his collarbone early in the season he returned to the lineup in week six, but has struggled with accuracy and efficiency since. This season he’s completed just over 55% of his passes and thrown nine touchdowns to 13 interceptions (2nd in the NFL). Since his return he’s thrown at least one interception in every game, including a four INT performance against Las Vegas a few weeks ago. Lock is definitely mobile and can extend plays or scramble for first downs, but he’s been heavily pressured this season and has been baited into poor decisions. But the second-year QB has plenty of talent to work with, which makes this offense a threat on any given Sunday.
As for the defense, edge rusher/defensive end Bradley Chubb stands out among the rest. He’s primarily a pass rusher, but can play the run as well. He leads the team in tackles for loss (9) and sacks (7.5) and is a hefty challenge for opposing tackles. Outside linebacker Malik Reed isn’t far behind Chubb with 6.5 sacks this season. Even without all-pro edge rusher Von Miller they’ve been able to get after the quarterback. They’ve recorded 32 total sacks this season (8th in the NFL).
At linebacker they have leading tackler Alexander Johnson, an all around quality middle linebacker alongside Josey Jewell in Vic Fangio’s 3-4 system. Jewell is about as sound as they come. He’s very disciplined, and great against the run, but has limitations in coverage. On the back end, fress safety Justin Simmons is one of the best in the league. He’s very rangy and is a turnover machine as he’s always around the play. He has four interceptions this season to go along with seven pass deflections and a fumble recovery as well. Not to mention he’s second on the team with 76 total tackles. He’s very active against the run and rarely misses a tackle. They’ve got an opportunistic player at each level, so the Panthers will need to dot their I’s and cross their T’s to come away with a win.
The Panthers have been pretty good at holding onto the football this season and this upcoming contest will require the same effort as the Broncos have proven to be opportunistic and capitalize off of opponents’ mistakes. The offensive line will be tested as well, especially on the outside with Chubb and Reed coming off the edge. If Bridgewater can find some time to throw and successfully run play action then Carolina will be set up well to win on Sunday.
However, the defense will need to get consistent pressure on Drew Lock in order to throw the young quarterback off rhythm and avoid big shots downfield. There are too many offensive weapons on the Broncos to provide any cushion. And bracketed Noah Fant will likely be an area of focus for Rhule and defensive coordinator Phil Snow to take away his effectiveness in the middle of the field.
Both teams have had a rough season, overall, but this game will serve as a springboard as they eye the final three games with the aim of ending on a strong note.