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Eagles-Panthers Preview: More Clark Kent Than Superman
The Carolina Panthers won the NFC South in 2013 with a 12-4 record and started off the 2014 season 2-0. Since then, things haven't gone very well for Carolina and their "Man of Steel", Cam Newton. They are currently 3-5-1 and haven't won a game since Oct. 5, due to injuries and ineffective play. They actually started four undrafted offensive linemen last week, which help lead to yet another loss. And the team is 1-5-1 since they put DE Greg Hardy on the exempt list until his domestic abuse case is resolved.
Some of that is quite familiar to Philadelphia Eagles fans, as the Panthers come to town to face the Eagles on Monday Night Football.
The Eagles also won their division last season and haven't played as well this season. Of course, the Eagles have actually managed a 6-2 record so far in 2014 in spite of less than stellar play from some of their stars. The Eagles have also been ravaged with injuries along their offensive line, as they have used 10 different players already and with RG Todd Herremans going on the IR, they will not have their projected starting 5 play a single game together this season. Also, they lost their defensive leader in LB DeMeco Ryans to a season-ending Achilles injury last week. Only time will tell if his absence is as devastating to the Eagles as Hardy's has been to the Panthers.
With all that in mind, let's take a look at the matchup for Monday night.
Cam Newton is Being Replaced
Eagles Offense Versus Panthers Defense
By now, everybody knows that Mark Sanchez has taken over at quarterback for the Eagles after Nick Foles' shoulder injury. Sanchez came in and led the Eagles to a win last week over the Tennessee Titans, but it wasn't exactly pretty. Yes, Sanchez threw 2 TDs and the team was 3-for-3 in the redzone, but he also threw 2 INTs and threw several other passes right to defenders, who dropped the easy pick. Sanchez has 70 career TDs and 71 career INTs, so all those delusional fans who think he is an upgrade over Foles are clueless. The only hope for Eagles fans is that Chip Kelly's offense is quarterback-proof. By that I mean, maybe it doesn't matter who the quarterback is. Maybe it's more about the system, than the actual player running the system. "Butt Fumble" Sanchez is surely going to put that theory to the test.
The Eagles offensive numbers are relatively impressive (4th in the NFL in scoring, 4th in total offense, 5th in passing yards and 8th in rushing yards per game), but they might not hold true with a new quarterback. Luckily for Philly fans, what will hold true is that the Panthers are a horrible defensive team. They are 25th in scoring defense (26.2 points per game), 24th in total defense (378.1 yards per game) and 17th in passing defense (246.2 ypg). The loss of Hardy is the biggest reason. He excelled at rushing the QB, stopping the run and even dropping into coverage. You just can't lose a talent like that and expect to play as well. The Panthers have allowed at least 24 points to six of their last seven opponents.
The one good thing about the Panthers' pass defense is that they still have a decent pass rush and have 9 interceptions, including one that CB Antoine Cason returned 81 yards for a TD. And the secondary has improved since cornerback Josh Norman became a starter. That's not good news with the turnover-prone Sanchez making his first start since Dec. 30, 2012, but at least he has the reigning NFC Offensive Player of the Week in WR Jeremy Maclin. Maclin has had back-to-back games with over 150 yards receiving and 2 TDs. He is 5th in the NFL with 790 receiving yards and tied for 4th with 8 TDs. The Eagles would be wise to get him the ball early and often.
Of course, the Eagles won last year with the No. 1 rushing offense in the NFL. With all of the injuries to the offensive line, they haven't been able to dominate on the ground so far this season. But last week, center Jason Kelce came back and the team finally committed to the running game, after Chip Kelly exorcised the ghost of Andy Reid from his pass-happy play-calling. LeSean McCoy led the NFL in rushing last season, but struggled to find room early this season. He's been doing much better lately, gaining at least 80 yards in four straight games. Plus, the trio of McCoy, Darren Sproles and Chris Polk combined for nearly 200 yards last week against the Titans. The Eagles need to continue to pound the running game, to keep the pressure off Sanchez. Luckily, the Panthers are a lowly 26th against the run (131.9 ypg). Their best defender is MLB Luke Kuechly, who is the reigning AP Defensive Player of the Year, one year after being named the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year. He has 99 tackles this season and has already forced 10 turnovers during this short career. It's a good thing the Eagles get All Pro LG Even Mathis back this week.
Panthers Offense Versus Eagles Defense
The Carolina offense is not good. They are ranked 26th in total offense (321.2 ypg) and 25th in scoring ( 19.7 ppg). Part of that is due to the injuries along the line, but part of it is that Cam Newton hasn't played very well. Newton is the first player in NFL history to have 10,000 yards passing and 2,000 yards rushing in his first four seasons, but that doesn't mean much for this particular season. He has thrown only 8 TDs in his 8 starts, after missing the opener with fractured ribs. On the bright side, he has only thrown 5 interceptions. He is still a threat to run the ball though, so expect LB Mychal Kendricks to keep an eye on him all game. Just don't expect to see Newton doing that stupid "Superman" act of his too often. Opposing defenses seem to have enough Kryptonite against him this season.
The Panthers offensive line will finally be healthy this week with the return of LG Amini Silatolu and LT Byron Bell. That is welcome news to Newton, with DE Fletcher Cox and OLB Trent Cole on the other side of the line. Assuming the line gives Newton time to throw, he most likely be looking for WR Kelvin Benjamin. The 6-foot-5, 240 pound receiver has 40 receptions for 589 yards and 5 TDs this season. Eagles CBs Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher are better working against bigger receivers, but they still aren't very good no matter who the receivers are. Another knock against the Eagles is the return of safety Nate Allen. Allen is guaranteed to allow a long TD pass, when he gets fooled on a play-action pass. He is simply terrible. Another weapon for Newton is THE Greg Olsen, who has 589 yards receiving and 5 TDs. Olsen has been stuck as a blocker the last few weeks, but should get out and cause problems for the Eagles secondary now that the Panthers O-line is healthy again.
While Newton has always been a dangerous runner, the same cannot be said for the guys who are actually paid to be running backs for Carolina. The Panthers average 3.7 yards per attempt and don't have a single rusher with over 300 yards rushing this season. Jonathan Stewart has only played in six games and DeAngelo Williams has only played in three games. Both should play in this one, but neither one is exactly dangerous. The Panthers are ranked 26th in rushing (94.7 ypg). The Ryans injury will hurt the Eagles run defense, since he not only makes the defensive calls on the field, but will be replaced by Casey Matthews and Emmanuel Acho. That drop-off in talent is immense and the Eagles were already ranked only 20th against the run (116.9 ypg).
The Carolina offense has struggled recently, averaging only 9.5 points and 248.5 yards per game in losses to Seattle and New Orleans. They also have had 5 giveaways in their last three games, after having only 7 turnovers in their first 6 games. Well see on Monday night if that gets cleaned up with the return to health of Carolina's offensive line.
Is there a worse announcer in any sport than Jon Gruden?
The Eagles have the best overall special teams units in the entire NFL, but they'll actually face a team with special teams units almost as good as they are this week. Nobody has scored as many special teams touchdowns as the Eagles, but Carolina's Corey "Philly" Brown (He was born in Springfield, PA) is averaging 11.4 yards per punt return and has a 79-yard return TD. The Eagles punt coverage unit is allowing just 7.1 yards per return. And while Eagles kicker Cody Parkey is tied for 6th in the NFL with 30 touchbacks on kickoffs, Carolina's Graham Gano is even better with 32 touchbacks. Eagles punter Donnie Jones leads the NFL with 18 punts downed inside the 20 yard line and Darren Sproles is 2nd in punt return average at 15.4 ypr. This will be a tough test for both teams.
Both coaches led their teams to division titles and the playoffs last season, but Ron Rivera is having a tough season in Carolina this year. His team's production is down on both sides of the ball, but with no team having a winning record in the NFC South this season, there is still hope for the Panthers to turn it around. Both Rivera and his defensive coordinator Sean McDermott are former Eagles coaches. Chip Kelly's team has overcome all the injuries that Rivera's Panthers could not and sit with a 6-2 record at the half-way point. But now that Kelly has to go with a backup quarterback for the second year in a row (Foles backed up Michael Vick to start last season, remember?), his "genius" will surely be tested.
Cam Newton Thinks He's Superman
The Eagles are clearly the better team in this prime-time matchup. They are better in all three phases of the game, but while the Panthers are getting healthy, the Eagles now have to deal with the loss of their quarterback on offense and their "quarterback" on defense (Ryans). If Kelly doesn't become a passaholic again and sticks to the running game, Sanchez should be fine. If Sanchez has to win this or any game on his own, the Eagles are in trouble. The Eagles defense just needs to contain Newton's running and keep the Carolina receivers in front of them. That's easier said than done with their secondary, but it's the plan.
The talent advantage for the Eagles should win out in this one.
Eagles 31 - Panthers 20