Patriots looking to solve Panthers’ touted defense
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) runs from Pittsburgh Steelers strong safety Troy Polamalu (43) in the first quarter of an NFL football game Sunday, Nov. 3, 2013, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
New York Giants' David Wilson, right, is tackled by Carolina Panthers' Luke Kuechly, left, during the first half of an NFL football game in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Sept. 22, 2013. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Nearly everyone on the New England Patriots knew the statistics of their next opponent.
It’s hard not to be aware. The Carolina Panthers rank near the top of the league in virtually every defensive category.
“They’ve got every stat, every category – third down, red area, sacks, and they turn it over. They’ve got it all,” Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said yesterday of their Monday Night Football foe. “They’re one of the best defenses in the league. So we have to play really well.”
More like perfect.
The Panthers (6-3) are second in the league in fewest points (12.8) and yards (283.3) allowed per game, and are fresh off their most impressive showing of the season Sunday when they held San Francisco to 151 yards of total offense and just nine points in winning their fifth straight game.
That’s hardly all.
The vaunted unit has allowed a league-low 144 first downs, boasts the third-most takeaways (21) and ranks sixth on third down, allowing opponents to covert on just 33.9 percent of their attempts.
Carolina’s last five opponents – Minnesota, St. Louis, Tampa Bay, Atlanta and San Francisco — scored a combined four touchdowns.
“Teams aren’t really scoring on them. They’re not doing much against them. Nine points last week from the Niners. That’s not what we want. We hopefully can do a little better than that,” said five-time Pro Bowl offensive tackle Logan Mankins. “They haven’t been giving up much of anything – the run, pass, points, they’re good in the red zone, good on third down. They’re good at everything right now.”
Despite a 7-2 mark entering their bye last week, the Patriots have experienced a roller-coaster season, with Brady adapting to a new set of young receivers and just recently benefiting from the addition of his favorite target, tight end Rob Gronkowski.
The two-time league MVP has thrown for just 2,256 yards and 13 touchdowns, and uncharacteristically ranks 27th in the league with a completion percentage of 57.1.
After nine up-and-down games, though, New England’s offense finally made some strides two weeks ago against Pittsburgh. Brady threw for a season-high 432 yards and four touchdowns in leading the Patriots to a 55-31 rout.
New England traditionally is successful coming off a bye week, too, going 10-3 under Coach Bill Belichick and 9-1 in its last 10. They will have had 15 days between games this time.
But the Patriots likely haven’t faced a more swarming and suffocating defense than they will on Monday.
“We struggle at different times for different reasons and different things – third down, red area and things like that,” Brady said. “We’re trying to make improvements in all those areas. This isn’t a game where you can really not be good in those areas.
“You can’t turn it over, you can’t have negative plays, everything that we talk about, keys to winning the game. They lead the league in time of possession, second in scoring defense. There’s no shortcuts.”
It only feels like the Panthers defensive line is taking them when they rush the quarterback.
Led by ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy, who have 8 1⁄2 and six sacks, respectively, Carolina’s front four consistently pressures opposing quarterbacks into broken plays and poor decisions. The Panthers sacked 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick six times last week.
“They are getting there with four,” said five-time Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins. “They’ve got two very good pass rushing defensive ends and then their tackles are very good at collapsing the pocket.
“It seems like a defensive meeting at the quarterback,” he added.
Then there’s Luke Kuechly.
The second-year middle linebacker registered a game-high 11 tackles against San Francisco and has 75 on the season. Mix in three interceptions, and Kuechly forces quarterbacks to think twice about letting it fly when under duress.
“They’ve got a great front and they rotate all those guys in, they’re big on rushing the quarterback, they’ve got linebackers who can tackle,” Brady said. “Luke Kuechly’s a great young player and makes tackles everywhere. If you miss a throw, it’s usually an interception.”
Considering it’s the Patriots’ lone appearance on Monday Night Football this season, Brady is even more excited than usual.
“Monday Night Football is always pretty cool, especially when you play a really good team,” he said. “It’s a fun night, it’s November, you feel the weather’s changing out there.
“It’s when the most important games are and you want to be playing in the biggest moments,” Brady added.