Eagles-Panthers Preview: At Least One Philly Will Win
I honestly don't know what to make of either team when the Philadelphia Eagles travel to Carolina to play the Panthers on Sunday night.
The Eagles have struggled mightily just to get to 3-3 and the Panthers are 5-0. That would seem to tilt this matchup heavily in Carolina's favor, but the Eagles tamed the Panthers last season 45-21. Panthers QB Cam Newton is being mentioned as an early MVP candidate. Eagles QB Sam Bradford has been mentioned as needing to sit on the bench due to his terrible play. But there is also the fact that the Panthers 5-0 record was built against teams with a combined 9-20 record and they don't have a win over a team with a winning record.
Since none of that tells us who will win this game, let's take a look at the matchups.
Eagles Offense versus Panthers Defense
The Eagles are winning in spite of Bradford, not because of him. His 9 INTs are tied for the 2nd most in the NFL and his 4 redzone INTs are twice as many as any other QB in the league. In short he has been horrible. He looks tentative under pressure and obviously doesn't have the confidence to step into his throws under pressure. That's what happens when you blow out an ACL twice in two years and it's the main reason for all those bad throws. The Eagles offense is ranked 14th (249.8 ypg) in the NFL and 10th in scoring (24 ppg), but the turnovers are killing them.
Former Eagles defensive coordinator Sean McDermott is the Panthers defensive coordinator (under defensive-minded head coach Ron Rivera) and his unit is 7th overall (338 ypg) in the NFL. They have the 2nd best opponent passer rating (68.8), 5th best opponent completion percentage (59.3), are 11th in sacks (10) and have given up the fewest TD passes (5) in the entire NFL. And that was while they were missing their best player, MLB Luke Kuechly for 3 of their 5 games. He's back now and things do not look promising for Bradford.
Will Sam Bradford throw more TDs or INTs against Carolina
While Bradford has been terrible, his receivers aren't giving him much help. The receivers have dropped 21 passes, which is an unacceptable number. Jordan Matthews was expected to be the No.1 WR, but he seems to have a problem catching the ball or holding onto the ball once he catches it. Riley Cooper has been playing well lately, but he's still Riley Cooper. The Panthers have the 15th ranked pass defense (241.4 ypg) and they have three good CBs, Chris Tillman, Josh Norman and slot CB Bene Benwikere. They will also use safety Roman Harper to cover TE Zach Ertz, after he spent last week covering Seattle's Jimmy Graham.
What the Eagles need to do in this game is establish the running game. The Eagles have started to run the ball better in recent weeks, averaging 137.7 rushing yards in the last four games. Even DeMarco Murray has starting to run for positive yardage lately. Murray had 109 yards on 22 carries last week against the Giants. He's rushed for 192 yards over the last two weeks, after rushing for only 47 yards in the 3 games he played before that. They also have Ryan Matthews, who is getting less carries, but doing more with them. They will need to be on their game against the Panthers 12th ranked run defense (96.6 ypg).
The Eagles offensive line is playing better, but the Panthers present a much harder challenge than they've seen in the last few games. DT Kawann Short is the reigning NFC Defensive Player of the Week and they traded for DE Jared Allen recently. LT Jason Peters and LG Allen Barbre are going to have their hands full. Then there is the little matter of the Carolina LBs, which might be the fastest trio in the NFL. Kuechly is in between Thomas Davis and Shaq Thompson, forming a tough group to run or pass against.
Panthers Offense Versus Eagles Defense
Last year, the Eagles used OLB Conner Barwin to spy on QB Cam Newton. It worked pretty well, as the Eagles sacked Newton nine times in that game. While Newton is garnering national attention this season for his play, he isn't doing it by passing the ball. The Panthers offense is ranked 28th overall (334.2 ypg) and only 30th in passing (201.4 ypg). That can be attributed to Newton's .554 completion percentage on the year. That ranks 33rd out of 34 qualifying QBs. And despite his running ability, 6 of the 10 sacks on Newton have come on blitzes. Expect the Eagles to bring lots of pressure on Sunday night.
Another reason why Carolina's passing attack is so anemic is that they don't have any decent receivers after Kelvin Benjamin was lost to an ACL injury in the preseason. WRs Ted Ginn Jr, Jericho Cotchery, Philly Brown and rookie Devin Funchess have combined for just 33 receptions. That's even worse than the Eagles. But their ineptitude is offset by TE Greg Olsen. Olsen leads the team with 24 catches for 374 yards (15.6 ypc) and 3 TDs. The bet here is that the Eagles take their chances with single coverage on the outside with CBs Nolan Carroll and Byron Maxwell and use one of their safeties, Walter Thurmond or Malcolm Jenkins, to cover Olsen. The scary thing there is that big-money free agent bust Maxwell stinks.
The Panthers are 3rd in rushing (132.8 ypg), but that's mostly due to Newton's 225 yards rushing and 3 TDs on the ground. They also lead the NFL in rushing attempts with 32.8 per game. RB Jonathan Stewart has only rushed for 298 yards and 3.8 yards per carry. He is not a threat, especially against the Eagles 8th ranked run defense (94.2 ypg). The Eagles have also allowed a league-best 3.8 rushing first downs per game. That's impressive.
Carolina's offensive line has only allowed Newton to be sacked 10 times, even though he holds the ball longer than almost every other QB in the NFL. But that line will be tested against an Eagles team that is sure to blitz constantly. As I said, Barwin will most likely spy Newton and therefore blitz often. And Fletcher Cox is going to destroy LT Michael Oher and LG Andrew Norwell. The biggest question for the Eagles will be the health of their LBs. DeMeco Ryans injured his hamstring on Monday night and is questionable. Kiko Alonzo isn't ready to come back and Mychal Kendricks is finally back at practice after missing the majority of the season with his own hamstring injury. So much for all that sports science crap from head coach Chip Kelly. The good news is that rookie LB Jordan Hicks has been a beast.
The Eagles have one of the best special teams units, top to bottom, in the entire NFL. Everybody already knows about how dangerous Darren Sproles is returning punts, averaging 15.7 yards a return with a TD. But Philly's coverage units are 5th in punt coverage (5.4) and 8th in kick coverage (21.1). Donnie Jones is having another great season and even new kicker Caleb Sturgis has made 6 FGs in a row. Panthers punter Brad Nortman is 26th in net average (36.4) and has had 15 of his 24 punts returned. That's not good news for the Panthers against Sproles. And somehow Carolina kicker Graham Gano has had 2 FG attempts blocked. Ted Ginn Jr returns punts and Fozzy Whittaker returns kickoffs. The Eagles coverage units should be able to contain those two with ease.
The last time Darren Sproles faced the Panthers
Chip Kelly is supposed to be an offensive genius, yet his team is winning with defense. Defensive coordinator Billy Davis finally has some players on his side of the ball and he's making the most of them. Carolina's Ron Rivera is a defensive-minded coach, who might remind some Philly fans of the Buddy Ryan days. No, he doesn't blitz on every other down, but he does rely on his defense to dominate games and asks his mobile QB to carry the entire offense. Yes, I just compared Newton to Randall Cunningham.
The Panthers have the superior record, but it was gained against inferior opponents. The Eagles are on a two-game winning streak in spite of their turnover-prone QB. Cam Newton is having a great season so far, but the last time he faced a Billy Davis defense, that wasn't even close to as good as this one, he had his worst game of the season last year. The Eagles are on a short week after playing Monday night and they have to travel to Carolina. That is a problem for the Eagles. So is the fact that they can't really rely on forcing 2 turnovers on the first 3 plays the Panthers run, like they did last year.
The Panthers are the better team, in spite of their lack of a passing game, mostly because Sam Bradford can't stop throwing the ball to the other team. Against this Carolina defense, Bradford might just see the bench for the first time this season and that would mean that Mark Sanchez is playing. If that happens, the game is out of hand and the season might be circling the bowl. Anything can happen, of course, but I just don't see the Eagles being able to score enough against a tough Panthers defense.
At the very least, one "Philly" will win the game. Carolina has a WR with the nickname "Philly", because he grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs. I'm reaching. I now.
Panthers 23 - Eagles 20