Although players still have not returned to Gillette Stadium — this is the final day of their six-day bye-week break — Patriots coach Bill Belichick and coordinators Josh McDaniels and Matt Patricia have returned, and have started studying the Carolina Panthers, whom the Patriots will play on “Monday Night Football” next week.
It isn’t new for New England to talk up an opponent, but with the 6-3 Panthers coming off a road win against the defending NFC champion 49ers, Belichick & Co. sounded impressed.
“It certainly has been interesting watching Carolina play,” said Belichick. “They really played well on the road yesterday.
“They’re a good football team doing a lot of things well. They have a good offense, disruptive players on defense, a ball-hawking secondary, they capitalize on miscues by the offense. They’re an opportunistic team.
“They’re a real solid team all the way around, playing well now. It will be a big challenge for us going down there Monday night. There will be a lot of energy in the stadium. We’ll have to match that.”
Carolina quarterback Cam Newton is in a similar mold as Buffalo’s E.J. Manuel, the Jets’ Geno Smith, and the Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger: quarterbacks who are almost more dangerous on the move than when they’re in the pocket, and who are capable of making plays with their legs.
Belichick said having already faced those quarterbacks can help the Patriots.
“I think a lot of the plays Carolina runs we’ve seen from Buffalo and the Jets,” he said. “They run a lot of under-center plays, they’re not in the gun nearly as much as Philadelphia and Buffalo. They have a good mix with the running game and passing game. They’re a well-balanced team.
“We have seen some of those plays, we’ve worked on basic blocking schemes, how to fit them, but always a little bit different from week to week. But there definitely are similarities to players you mentioned.”
McDaniels is impressed with the Panthers’ defense, which is giving up fewer than 13 points per game and has 21 takeaways.
“This is obviously a very highly ranked defense in basically every statistical category, and they should be,” said McDaniels. “This is a good, well-rounded group of players with, I would say, a lot of guys capable of making big plays.
“They certainly have been able to turn the ball over. They have one of the better linebackers in football in [former Boston College standout Luke] Kuechly. They get an incredible amount of pressure on the quarterback without having to blitz, which is a luxury that some teams have and some teams don’t.
“All the things you’d want in a defense, they have them. They’re playing as well as any group we’ve seen all year.”
With so many backup quarterbacks forced onto the field in recent weeks because of injuries — the Bears’ Jay Cutler, the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers, and Manuel are among the starters who have missed time — McDaniels was asked to evaluate Tom Brady’s backup, Ryan Mallett, who has yet to take a snap this season:
“I think Ryan comes to work every week with a great attitude and a great approach,” McDaniels said. “He prepares as if he’s playing. He’s continuing to work at what it means to be a quarterback in this league.
“He’s really done a nice job of trying to give the defense a good look each week, which I think is an underrated part of a quarterback’s preparation. But you get the opportunity to go back there and make reads and work on fundamentals and lead that [scout] team . . . He’s taken a lot of leadership and responsibility there.
“Ryan’s done a good job of pushing himself to get better and improve, and we have a lot of confidence in him.”