Game preview: Patriots at Panthers

Carolina Panthers

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WSPA) – The Patriots at Panthers game is previewed ahead of Sunday’s showdown at Bank of America Stadium.

This is part of a season-long preview series where we’ll break down both teams, primarily the opponent, ahead of the matchup and finish with some ‘keys of the game’ for the Panthers.

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New England Patriots

The Patriots improved to 4-4 on the season with last week’s win over the Los Angeles Chargers, 27-24. It marked their second win in a row, and their trajectory as a team has coincided with the steady improvement of rookie quarterback Mac Jones.

Like most rookies at the position, Jones has had his ups and downs through eight starts. So far he’s completed 192 of 282 pass attempts (68.1%) for 1,998 yards, nine touchdowns and six interceptions. While those are far from gaudy numbers, Jones has been efficient in his role and was especially in the team’s 54-13 drubbing of the Jets when he threw his first career 300-yard game. It’s important to note that three of his six interceptions came in one particularly bad week against the Saints. Other than that he’s been pretty consistent and has avoided the game-altering mistakes. He’s much more of a pocket passer than most young quarterbacks, so he does his damage largely on script and gets the ball out quick. So the Panthers linebackers and cornerbacks will be tested throughout to close those gaps.

INGLEWOOD, CALIFORNIA – OCTOBER 31: Mac Jones #10 of the New England Patriots calls out instructions in the second quarter against the Los Angeles Chargers at SoFi Stadium on October 31, 2021 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images)

While the Patriots have often been a team that utilizes several running backs, they’ve leaned much more heavily this year on the talent of Damien Harris. They still switch up personnel, but just less often in the backfield this year. Harris averages 4.4 yards per carry and has 517 yards and six touchdowns this season. As a team they average just over one hundred yards per game, ranking in the back half of the league.

Their two talented tight ends headlined the team’s big free agency splash this offseason. Both Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry signed lucrative deals with the Pats to be a dominant tandem. The Patriots often employ 22 personnel (two running backs and two tight ends), and so having two dynamic options at the position have opened up opportunities for the offense. Both are pretty good all-around tight ends with solid blocking ability as well as the athleticism to get open in space. This year, however, Henry has been the primary beneficiary in the scoring department as he leads the team with four receiving touchdowns.

FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – OCTOBER 24: Hunter Henry #85 of the New England Patriots catches the ball for a touchdown during the second quarter in the game against the New York Jets at Gillette Stadium on October 24, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

They don’t have a particularly explosive receiver on the outside, but Jakobi Meyers is as about reliant and consistent a wideout as they have on this team. Amazingly, he’s registered 130 catches in his NFL career, but is still seeking his first touchdown. His ability comes from his route running and his effectiveness working the middle of the field. But as evidenced by the aforementioned stat, he’s not a threat they turn to in the red zone.

Defensively, it’s a very disciplined group and stout against the run. Outside of cornerback J.C. Jackson, they don’t really have any stars, but rather a lot of solid NFL players. Basically the typical makeup of a Bill Belichick squad. They don’t blitz very often (just 20% of the time), but have a respectable 18 sacks given those numbers. They’ve been able to get pressure with four, and that can be invaluable in today’s NFL.

Lawrence Guy is the one to look out for on the defensive front. At 6’4″, 315 pounds, he’s great at stuffing lanes and taking on double teams. He’s one of the more underrated run defenders in the game, in my opinion. In the linebacker corps, Dont’a Hightower, Ja’Whaun Bentley, Kyle Van Noy and Matt Judon form a solid group. Judon is the primary pass rusher and leads the team with eight sacks. He’s rangy and very athletic. Van Noy is great in pass coverage while Bentley and Hightower are great against the run. It’s a good mix of various skillsets.

Finally we mentioned Jackson earlier and he’s the guy the Panthers will need to key in on frequently. He has three interceptions and a whopping ten pass deflections so far this season. He didn’t practice this week, however, and his status for Sunday is currently in doubt. Although, the usual Patriots injury report consists of almost every starter from week to week, as Belichick makes sure to not give the opponent any info whatsoever. Almost everyone is questionable, but several will most likely end up playing.

Below is a list of their injury report as of Saturday:

Carolina Panthers

The Panthers got back on track last week with an important win against NFC South foe Atlanta. The victory snapped a four-game losing streak, although it wasn’t without consequence as quarterback Sam Darnold went down with a concussion on a late scoring drive.

The team announced Sunday, though, that Darnold cleared the concussion protocol. And given that news it’s quite possible he’s back out there as the starter against the Patriots. If so, he’ll look to continue his turnover-free play that he achieved last week. It was the first game in five weeks he avoided a turnover.

Of course the biggest news to come out of this week was the activation of Christian McCaffrey from injured reserve. The move puts him on the active roster and sets in motion his return to the field since suffering a hamstring injury in week three. The Panthers said on Saturday that they’re “hopeful” he’ll be able to play. By all accounts it appears he will be back to action. The question then becomes will he go straight to a full-time workload or will he be eased back in? There’s no question he’s a difference-maker that this team sorely needs.

HOUSTON, TEXAS – SEPTEMBER 23: Christian McCaffrey #22 of the Carolina Panthers tries to get around the tackle of Joe Thomas #48 of the Houston Texans during a first half run at NRG Stadium on September 23, 2021 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

Shaq Thompson made his return to the field last week and made an immediate impact, recording an interception of Matt Ryan when the Falcons held a 10-6 lead and were approaching the red zone. He was a full participant Thursday and Friday and appears to have turned the corner as he nursed a foot injury. CJ Henderson is healthy as is Cam Erving and Matt Paradis, a welcome sight for Panthers fans.

Below is the Panthers injury report as of Saturday:

Keys to the game

No turnovers: The Panthers have a -4 turnover differential this season, tied for fourth-worst in the league. Taking on a team as disciplined as the Patriots, the Panthers can’t afford to have a negative differential this week. The Patriots are built to sustain drives, and run the ball, something that can deal a lethal blow after a takeaway.

Pressure Mac: The Panthers have been very effective rushing the passer this season, and they’ll need to hone in on that this week against a rather stationary quarterback that excels in rhythm. If Carolina can disrupt their flow within the first two seconds of the snap, they’ll have a great chance to add to their 21 sacks this season.

Stay disciplined: This term has shown up a couple times throughout this article and it’s because the Patriots are almost always among the fewest penalized teams in the league. They have had 46 penalties called against them this season compared to the Panthers’ 55 (according to Needless to say, Carolina needs to avoid giving away unnecessary yards and “drive killers” due to penalty.

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