There’s no one better able to break down the New England Patriots upcoming opponents than head coach Bill Belichick, so I’m going to avoid reinventing a worse wheel by simply sharing what Belichick and his coaching staff had to say about the Carolina Panthers offensive skill players.
Quarterback Cam Newton
tl;dr: Newton is a good decision maker that is a running threat and can still throw the ball.
“I think when you’re talking about mobile quarterbacks, guys that are tough to handle, tackle, can throw, run, make good decision – I mean, I would put Newton at the top of the list,” Belichick said. “Not saying that there aren’t a lot of other good players that do that, but I would say, of all the guys we play or have played recently in the last couple of years, I would definitely put him – he’s the hardest guy to deal with.
“He makes good decisions, he can run, he’s strong, he’s hard to tackle. He can do a lot of different things, beat you in a lot of different ways. We saw that in the game down there in ‘13, so I would put him at the top of the list. Not saying the other guys aren’t a problem, because they are, but he’s public enemy No. 1.”
Belichick is hyping up Newton and his raw abilities, although we haven’t been able to see them in action for over a year.
“[Newton’s] shoulder still isn't 100% from his offseason surgery and he's showing signs of rust from not having an offseason to throw,” CatScratchReader’s Bradley Smith tells the Pulpit. “We're hopeful that he can fix it by Sunday, but honestly it's not looking good at this point.”
Running back Christian McCaffrey
tl;dr: He can run and he can catch like a receiver. He opens up the wildcat and triple option offense.
“I mean, he’s definitely a passing threat, and a running threat and a return threat,” Belichick said. “He's kind of a running back to receiver, but they can get him the ball in a lot of different ways. Some of those passes that are in the receiving category are really, I'd say, pretty close to runs. But regardless, he's a very explosive player, a dangerous player.”
“We have to first of all find them [on the field], and second of all make sure that we have them properly defended,” Belichick said about McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel, who is OUT for the game. “Sometimes they use them as decoys to open up other parts of the offense, as well. They have a good group of skill players and a great quarterback, running back, a big receiver, a couple of specialty players in Samuel and McCaffrey that they've added to the team.
“They've got a little bit of a different twist to their offense in the way that they use those guys with specialty plays and with [Cam] Newton's ability to improvise and have running plays where they run the option, things like that. That’s a lot to get ready for and they have a lot of good players.”
Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia shared his thoughts on McCaffrey, too.
“I mean [Christian] McCaffrey is definitely someone that has I think has expanded their offense in general in what Coach [Mike] Shula has been able to do on the offensive side of the ball utilizing him in really kind of a multiple role position, both in the backfield, out of the backfield, some motion, some different things they’ve aligned him in,” Patricia said. “Wildcat would be another one that he’s had a role in too. He’s just a very elusive player. [He’s] got great burst, acceleration, good vision, really good space player, can catch the ball extremely well. [He] definitely is a guy that can turn big plays out of nothing and just really an overall huge part of dangerousness that their offense now has with him out there on the field.
“I think what they’ve tried to do with Cam Newton obviously being the threat that he is, both as a quarterback in the pocket, quarterback out of the pocket and also in the run game. When you mix kind of the element of him, McCaffrey with [Jonathan] Stewart in the run game, from that standpoint you have three different points of attack. There’s often times where all three of them will be out there together, both backs will be out on the field together and you’ve got to be able to handle the different types of run packages that they present.
“Then along with that what they can do is move the formation or they can spread it out and put you into a bind from a passing standpoint because now with McCaffrey either releasing from the backfield or out of the backfield he’s in a really threatening position of wide receiver or receiving standpoint also. It’s a really difficult combination to handle, to match up against. You’re talking about three excellent players there that are going to be in close proximity or can also spread you out in space situations too. “
Running back Jonathan Stewart
tl;dr: Stewart is a runner, but he makes it more difficult for the linebackers to predict the play with both Stewart and McCaffrey in the backfield.
“You just have to be disciplined in your reads,” Belichick said about both Stewart and McCaffrey in the backfield. “There's only one runner back there. If he's back there with a tight end or a fullback or something like that, I mean, you know who the runner's going to be. I mean, it could be a pass, but you know who basically is going to carry the ball. With two guys back there, then misdirection plays and reading your keys and making sure that you defend your responsibility, because there's more than one guy that can carry it, becomes more critical, which is the way it was when I came into the league when there were two running backs.
“So the halfback blocked, the fullback ran. The fullback blocked, the halfback ran, and your keying system was, for linebackers, much more difficult then because of the different combinations of plays that they had. As that's evolved to a one-back set, again, for the most part, we know who's going to carry the ball, and so that's just changed a little bit.
“When you put two guys back there, especially if you're not used to doing it, understanding that there's probably not a lot of one guy is blocking for the other guy plays – there's more of one guy runs here and the other guy runs somewhere else, which guy has the ball – you have to defend both of them as opposed to having lead blockers. I wouldn't say that that's featured, but when you have two guys going in different directions, then that can slow down the defense.”
Wide receivers Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess
tl;dr: Two, big, vertical receivers that are never really covered because of their size.
“He’s a big target,” Belichick said about Benjamin. “[Devin] Funchess, too. Those guys are like having tight ends flexed out there. Plus they have the tight end with [Ed] Dickson, so you’re looking at a very big group. Again, unless you have somebody with that kind of height and length, which nobody really does, wherever the receiver is there is somewhere you can throw him the ball that the defender can’t get it, so he’s never really covered even if he’s covered. You either throw it high, or if he’s on one side you throw it to the other side and he can reach it and the defender cant.
“Yeah, those guys are big targets. Benjamin’s a good route runner. He uses his size and can body up the defenders, get position, catches the ball, can use his body to protect the catch. He’s a clutch guy for them, third-down, red area, critical situations. He makes a lot of plays.”
Patricia had a little bit to add, too.
“I’ll tell you in general as an offense, I think right now their skill players are extremely fit for the system that they’re running,” Patricia added. “Kelvin Benjamin, [Devin] Funchess – two very large receivers. [They’re] guys that can push the ball vertical downfield, have great hands, they’re long, they can really cause some problems from the standpoint of coverage where the quarterback can throw the ball up. Obviously the quarterback is a very strong-armed guy, a guy that can get the ball vertical downfield so now he’s got big targets to be able to throw the ball to.”
tl;dr: The Panthers miss Greg Olsen at tight end.
“A couple other guys that you’re going to see in there too, obviously [Russell] Shepard will be in there,” Patricia said. “[Damiere] Byrd, who is extremely fast. This guy is a very explosive guy who can get downfield quickly.
“Certainly at the tight end position [Greg] Olsen was obviously a great player for them. With him not being out there now, [Ed] Dickson is really increasing his role out there in the tight end position. [Chris] Manhertz would be the other tight end. They’ll run multiple tight ends and then they’ll get into some extra offensive linemen packages also with those tight ends now that Olsen is not playing.
“They’re going to give you enough stuff in the front. They’re going to try to really try to run the ball at you, try to beat you up up front, try to push the ball and really try to use their passing game to not only now go vertical, but then use some of those skill players to get the ball out into space quickly and attack you that way also.”
- Cam Newton is tough to tackle, makes good decisions, and can both run and throw the ball.
- Christian McCaffrey can both run and catch and the Panthers like to use him in the backfield to add more moving pieces and distract the defense.
- Jonathan Stewart will run the ball, but plays some of the triple option or wildcat with Newton and McCaffrey.
- Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess are two big receivers that use their size to box out smaller defensive backs.
- Greg Olsen is out with an injury and the Panthers don’t really have another player that has been able to step up in his place.