When the Patriots run
Stevan Ridley again showed just how important he is to this offense with his 21-carry, 115-yard performance against the Steelers. The 5-foot-11-inch, 225-pound tailback shook off an early fumble and rewarded the coaching staff’s faith by running with confidence and energy the rest of the day. He’ll need a similar effort under the Monday night lights to keep the Patriots balanced and keep the Panthers from teeing off on Tom Brady. Ridley attacks defenses with a quick first step and a decisive running style. He slides down the line and either explodes through a crease or gets met head-on. In either case, he keeps his legs churning until the whistle blows. He takes a lot of hits, but nobody has knocked the exuberance out of him yet. Brandon Bolden has shown he can run hard and instinctively, but inconsistency is his bugaboo. Thick tailback LeGarrette Blount (6-0, 250) is quicker and more athletic than he looks (just how does he get that helmet on?). Whether he starts or finishes, Blount will absorb some hits and inflict some damage. The left side of the New England offensive line, with guard Logan Mankins and tackle Nate Solder, will be counted on heavily. Panthers rookie nose man Star Lotulelei (6-2, 311) is a quick, explosive run-stuffer with good instincts. Fellow tackle Dwan Edwards (6-3, 290) slips blocks quickly and is a powerful tackler. Waiting at the second level is tackling machine Luke Kuechly.
Carolina defense: 82.0 (second)
When the Patriots pass
Tom Brady will need to be at his quick-thinking, distributing best against a defense that can bring pressure — with or without blitzing. Ends Charles Johnson (6 feet 2 inches, 275 pounds) and Greg Hardy (6-4, 281) are demons off the edge and have combined for 13.5 sacks. Johnson has quick feet and will charge from the outside or the inside. Hardy has a lethal first step and the power to drive blockers back. Brady can counterattack this pass rush by delivering quick hits to Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, and Rob Gronkowski. Edelman and Amendola get off the snap quickly and are adept at finding soft spots. Both have sure hands and both are fearless — a trait that produces some big plays and some big hits. Gronkowski, who will do more than his share of blocking, will turn and catch the ball quickly — particularly down the seam — to move the chains. If the short passing game gets established, Brady can stretch the field with Amendola, Aaron Dobson, and Kenbrell Thompkins. Dobson has a blend of size, speed, and strength. His propensity to drop passes — routine ones, at that — is frustrating. Thompkins also has size and speed, but his lapses in focus have led to decreased playing time. Carolina corners Captain Munnerlyn (he’s tough) and Melvin White (he’s big) are solid. Safeties Quintin Mikell (he’s wily) and Mike Mitchell (he’s athletic) cover a lot of territory.
When the Panthers run
Carolina has a healthy rushing attack led by DeAngelo Williams. A 5-foot-9-inch, 217-pounder, Williams is an explosive inside runner with exceptional vision and toughness. He runs low and with great balance. He blasts through creases and cutback lanes and shifts gears effortlessly. He has the power to break tackles but will get greedy trying to squeeze out extra yards and will take a lot of unnecessary hits, causing wear and tear. Jonathan Stewart (5-10, 235) is finally healthy, and he’s no slouch. A powerfully built tailback who gets to the second level swiftly and will exploit cutback lanes, Stewart keeps his shoulders square and will blast through arm tackles. Rugged fullback Mike Tolbert is more than just a blocker. Tolbert is a compact, 5-9, 243-pounder who barrels into defenders and bowls them over. The X factor in the rushing attack is quarterback Cam Newton. A superb athlete, the 6-5, 244-pounder is quick and shifty in the open field, and no QB has a better stiff-arm. Ryan Kalil (6-3, 295) is an active, aggressive center. He has the strength to butt heads with tackles and the quickness to pick off linebackers. New England tackles Isaac Sopoaga and Joe Vellano have to plug the holes and hold their blocks until active and instinctive Brandon Spikes and his linebacking friends come calling.
When the Panthers pass
Panthers’ key player: Luke Kuechly
Heat. Seeking. Missile. An incredibly instinctive player, the former Boston College star linebacker is a whirling dervish who is always around the ball. And by “always,” we mean “on every single play.”
HOW HE BEATS YOU: By knowing what you’re going to do — seemingly before you do. The 6-3, 235-pound Kuechly has terrific presnap recognition. He is always in motion before the snap and will rattle teeth from sideline to sideline.
HOW TO SHUT HIM DOWN: By bringing the fight to him. He lacks power, so if you can lock onto him quickly, he sometimes struggles to shed the block quickly before he pursues. That doesn’t happen often, though.
PANTHERS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Hang on: The Patriots have made a living on turnovers, so protecting the ball is imperative. You can’t give this offense extra chances.
2. Pressure points: Defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy need to maintain their high level of play and put the squeeze on Tom Brady.
3. Speed thrills: Return man Ted Ginn has blazing speed and good vision. If he can break a few good runs, it will keep the field short for the offense.
PATRIOTS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. I spies: Ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich have to do their best to keep Cam Newton contained to the pocket — and if he escapes, punish him in the open field.
2. Stick with it: Stevan Ridley and his running mates have to get the ball. A lot. It keeps the Panthers honest and prevents Tom Brady from getting crushed.
3. Quick hits: Come out smoking. The Panthers fans will be at full throat for this rare prime-time event. Take them out of it early with some big plays.