The Patriots and Panthers meet in the preseason Week 3 matchup and a very important one in more than one aspect this week. This is the final tuneup for the starting units for both teams, what has normally been deemed a dress rehearsal for the regular season. The starters will mostly sit next week as the players on the bubble will get one more chance to show what they have before the final cut downs to the 53-man roster begin.
Last season, Cam Newton and the Panthers shredded the Patriots in Foxboro and Newton afterward didn’t even consider New England a playoff team, calling their game against the Eagles, “the first playoff team we’ve faced.” If this were a regular season game, that would get a bit of play with Bill Belichick and the coaches but this won’t be the case. However, he’ll be sure to remind them of what the Panthers did to them that day.
So, from a Patriots perspective, here are the things to watch for this week as the Pats try to prepare themselves for the regular season.
Newton Presents First Test Against a Mobile QB: The Patriots are going to face a mobile quarterback for the first time this summer and will be facing one against DeShaun Watson and the Texans to start the season. With no joint practices, the Patriots defense has had to face only Tom Brady and Brian Hoyer, for the most part, this summer, other than their two preseason tilts, neither against a mobile QB.
In the game last year, won by Carolina on an FG by Graham Gano as time ran out, Newton sliced and diced the Patriots defense, going 22-29 for 316 yards with three TDs and one Interception. He also ran eight times for 44 yards and a touchdown. The designed runs and QB draws the Panthers ran last year will be a big focus of the defense this week. The Pats were sliced and diced on those last year, as well as the defensive backfield breakdowns where Carolina hit big play after big play.
Newton should play well into the second half of this one and this will be a big test for the young defenders and prepare them for Watson, although he may not taking off and running as much, at least early in the season after tearing his ACL last season.
With this first matchup in mind…
Carolina TEs, RBs Against the NE LBs in Space: This is a very big test for the linebackers this week who looked suspect against the Redskins but much better against the Eagles a week ago. With Newton’s legs, he will stress the second level of the defense as he is a threat to take off and run at any time. But he also has great targets in the passing game at the tight end position with Greg Olsen and RB Christian McCaffrey.
Both are a tough assignment in any scenario, McCaffrey caught 80 passes out of the backfield in 2017 and Olsen who missed nine games due to injury in 2017 is a huge target for Newton and will be looking to set the tone for the season with a strong game this week.
The Panthers looked to upgrade their backfield this spring and brought in former Broncos RB C.J. Anderson who is a dual threat to run or catch a pass out of the backfield. He had 28 catches a year ago.
This week’s test will be a big barometer for the Pats LBs, considered a weak spot a year ago. Dont’a Hightower should see the field extensively in the first half, but we also expect to see what rookie LB Ja’Whaun Bentley can do against this talented group. Kyle Van Noy and Marquis Flowers should also see plenty of snaps against Newton.
Time For Decker, and Dorsett to Show Up: Time is running short for Eric Decker and Phillip Dorsett if they want to make the 53-man roster. Kenny Britt had a very impressive spring until, in the last minicamp drill, hurt his hamstring. It was deemed at the time minor. He’s been invisible ever since and hasn’t practiced all summer. He was released on Wednesday.
Decker was signed after Jordan Matthews hurt his hamstring and was released. To say that he hasn’t stood out is an understatement. He’s yet to catch a pass in two preseason games and has shown a tendency for drops, both in practice and in the game. Both of these players could use at least a couple of receptions to show up on the scoresheet to give the coaches some confidence heading into September.
Decker was signed to a very team-friendly contract and his only guaranteed cash was his $75,000 signing bonus. There is no dead money involved with him. He can be cut loose with no salary cap hit if the coaches decide to release him.
The other missing WR has been Phillip Dorsett. He was regularly one of the best receivers on the field during the early days of training camp. He’s cooled way off since then and you never hear his name called. He’s been virtually invisible in the preseason as well.
Carolina’s defense looks to be very solid in the front seven but there are questions for the unit in the secondary. They’ll be looking to solidify things back there while the Patriots and Brady are looking to find out who’s going to be ready to go Week 1.
These two guys have to build some chemistry with QB Tom Brady heading into the regular season. Neither of them are filling anyone with confidence that they’re ready to do so, once the games are for real. Friday night is a big game for both and the clock is ticking.
Patriots Running Game vs Panthers Defense: The New England running game has looked good thus far this preseason with Jeremy Hill and James White leading the way. Rookie Ralph Webb, and veterans Mike Gillislee and Brandon Bolden have also been productive in spurts thus far this summer.
However, Sony Michel, the Pats first-round draft pick has been absent since August 1 when he left practice early after injuring his knee. Later, it was reported that he had fluid drained from it and he’d be out “about 10 days”. We really don’t expect to see Michel until the regular season. Rex Burkhead has been out with what has been termed a slight tear in his knee. He returned to practice Sunday and has been limited in practice since then. It seems doubtful that he’ll play on Friday.
Missing two of their key pieces at the running back position really limits the offense, because we’ve yet to see what they can do with all of their weapons present. The Panthers run defense was stout last year allowing only about 80 yards per game which was 11th best in the NFL last year.
I’d look for Hill and White to get the majority of the early work with Gillislee and Webb, both fighting for roster spots to go all out when they’re in the game. Carolina’s front seven, led by Luke Kuechly is very stout and will be a good barometer for the ground game this week. They were mostly solid last week but did give up a few big runs.
Young Players Get a Big Game to Step Up: The bottom end of the 53-man roster is still wide open for the Patriots and there are still plenty of roster spots that are far from settled. For some of the younger players, playing the Panthers in a dress rehearsal is a huge opportunity to show what they can do.
On offense, the aforementioned Webb at running back is a long-shot to make the roster. However, if Michel or Burkhead isn’t ready to start the season, that may open the door a crack for him to work his way into a roster spot Wide receivers Braxton Berrios and Riley McCarron are definitely on the bubble right now. Neither has shown much in the passing game while both have punt return capabilities, they haven’t stood out as a positive there either. Berrios has been banged up and is now back at practice and this will be a big game for both to showcase their talents.
On defense, Bentley has already solidified a roster spot. Now he’s playing to earn reps with the starting unit. But some other young players have plenty to play for. Keionta Davis, the productive edge rusher from Chattanooga who missed all of his rookie season with a bulging disc in his neck, has shown up and fighting for a roster spot. He’s still on the outside looking in, but he and Vincent Valentine are looking to turn some heads.
In the secondary, Stephon Gilmore, Eric Rowe and Duke Dawson, by virtue of his draft status are locked for the roster. Veterans Jonathan Jones, and Cyrus Jones have just returned to practice after off-season surgeries cut their 2017 short. They’re fighting it out with newcomer Jason McCourty and rookies J.C. Jackson, Keion Crossen as well as Ryan Lewis, Jomal Wiltz and Ryan Lewis. Those eight are probably fighting it out for three slots. It will be intriguing to watch.