The New England Patriots find themselves trending in the right direction after celebrating back-to-back wins the first time all season. As team captain Matthew Slater pointed out on Thursday, though, “[f]our wins in this league is not going to get you anything. Being .500 in this league is not going to get you anything either.”
In order to keep up the momentum and move into a winning record for the first time all season, the Patriots therefore will need to keep the foot on the gas heading into their Week 9 meeting with the Carolina Panthers — a team that is also 4-4 but coming into the contest in a fairly different position: Carolina lost four straight before a win last Sunday, and could be without quarterback Sam Darnold (concussion/shoulder) and running back Christian McCaffrey (hamstring).
The circumstances therefore seem to favor the Patriots. For them to improve to 5-4 on the year, however, they need to continue limiting their mistakes and get good performances out of some key players. When it comes to the matchup with the Panthers, those are as follows.
FB Jakob Johnson
Carolina fields one of the best defenses in the game due to the unit’s ability to apply pressure quickly and immediately pursue the ball carriers or intended targets in the passing game. The group’s collective speed is legit, and it has helped the Panthers limit opposing offenses to a mere 19.9 points per game. That said, all that speed comes at a price: Carolina is susceptible to power.
The Patriots have never been afraid of relying on the power run game if an opportunity to use it presents itself, and this week could be just that. This means that the big guys up front should see plenty of action: the offensive line, obviously, as well as tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, and fullback Jakob Johnson.
Johnson in particular should play a prominent role on Sunday. The third-year man will again function as the lead-blocker for the team’s between-the-tackles running backs — Damien Harris and, if active, Rhamondre Stevenson — and be tasked with clearing out second-level defenders. They may be fast to close in, but Johnson’s diagnosing skills and physicality work in his favor.
CB Joejuan Williams
With number one cornerback J.C. Jackson missing Wednesday’s and Thursday’s practices due to an illness, the Patriots might be forced to shake up their cornerback group against the Panthers. While Jackson could very well make the trip and suit up on Sunday, there is no telling whether he will be able to go start-to-finish at his usual consistently high level.
In any case, the Patriots’ third outside cornerback — Joejuan Williams — should be ready for an increased workload. Williams has had some issues taking on a bigger role in Week 5 against the Houston Texans, but he has quietly played some solid football over the past two weeks. New England could use his size against big-bodied Carolina wideouts Terrace Marshall Jr. or Robby Anderson.
WR Jakobi Meyers and WR Kendrick Bourne
As we pointed out in our offensive preview, one of the Patriots’ goals against the Panthers defense has to be to get the football out of quarterback Mac Jones’ hands quickly without relying on the screen too much. That means that the team’s interior wide receivers could see plenty of passes coming their way: Jakobi Meyers and Kendrick Bourne.
Meyers is the Patriots’ most consistent pass catcher and has been able to quickly get open in the short and intermediate area. This ability could be key versus a Carolina team that has proven itself capable of quickly disrupting the pocket.
As for Bourne, he is headed into Week 9 after a disappointing game in Los Angeles last Sunday. While the first-year Patriot did manage to catch four passes for 38 yards against the Chargers, he also lost a fumble that resulted in him getting benched. Bourne will again play a starter-level role this week, and the Patriots will count on him to bounce back.
C David Andrews
A significant reason for the Panthers’ defensive success is their ability to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks. While the team did have a three-week dry spell in that regard earlier this year, it has proven itself more than capable of making life hard for passers by using multiple fronts and blitz packages.
Accordingly, the Patriots’ protection needs to be on point. Rookie quarterback Mac Jones plays an important role in diagnosing the defense and making the correct decisions, but so does center David Andrews. Not only will the team captain be responsible for keeping the frontside clean, he also is making the protection calls together with his QB. Any breakdowns could have dramatic results for New England.