The NFL’s No. 1 offense and No. 1 defense in yards per game will face off when the Panthers visit the Patriots on Sunday.
Carolina comes to New England at 2-1 after falling in Week 3 to the Saints, which New England beat in Week 2 in New Orleans.
As the Patriots aim for their third straight win, here are some Panthers story lines to keep an eye on:
Quarterback Cam Newton, whose shoulder woes have caused him to miss practice time, hasn’t thrown a touchdown pass since Week 1 and is sitting on two touchdown passes to four interceptions on the season. He recorded a 43.8 passer rating against the Saints, threw three interceptions, and failed to connect on downfield shots.
“And while Newton is completing more passes (61.4 percent) than he did in 2015, when he finished at a career-low 52.9 percent, he’s not hitting any of the long throws that used to be his trademark,” the Charlotte Observer’s Joseph Person wrote. “Through Sunday’s game, Newton was among the lowest-ranked starting quarterbacks in terms of passer rating.”
And the Panthers are tied with the Bengals and Dolphins for the league’s worst red-zone offense. Carolina has scored a touchdown on just 2 of 8 trips inside the 20-yard line. Through three games, Carolina ranks 28th in the league in yards per game (276.7), 30th in passing yards per game (168.3), and 13th in rushing yards per game (108.3). Newton also has been sacked 10 times, tied for ninth-most in the league.
After Sunday’s loss, Newton, who is without his favorite target, tight end Greg Olsen (foot surgery), asked for patience from the fan base as the Panthers try to work out the kinks.
“I’m frustrated with my lackluster performance and knowing that we are better than the performances we’ve been putting on the past couple of weeks,” he said. “But listen — just be patient and know that big things are ahead for us. This year’s Panthers team has big things to do.”
Although Olsen is recovering from surgery and receiver Kelvin Benjamin’s status for Sunday is uncertain, Newton has another big-bodied target and other fast options in the offense. Devin Funchess (6-feet-4-inches, 225 pounds) has 10 catches on 18 targets for 146 yards while averaging 14.6 yards per grab. There is also rookie Christian McCaffrey, who can rush the ball, produce in the passing game, and serve as a sparkplug returner. Against the Saints, McCaffrey recorded his first 100-yard receiving game, catching nine passes on 11 targets and averaging 11.2 yards per reception.
Russell Shepard (6-1, 195) played a season-high 64.4 percent of snaps against the Saints but was targeted just once and did not record a catch. Curtis Samuel (5-11, 195) also reached his season high for snaps in Week 3, playing 61 percent. He caught two passes on five targets for 5 yards and got one carry that he took 31 yards.
While Olsen’s backup, Ed Dickson, is not known as a pass-catching tight end, the 6-4, 255-pounder prides himself on his versatility and ability to contribute serviceably as a blocker.
Dickson was targeted just once against the Saints, an 8-yard catch, but coach Ron Rivera said after that he would like the offense to involve him more.
“I was open a few times, but Cam makes great reads,” Dickson said. “We’ve just got to get our timing and everything down pat. We’ll be all right.”
The injured parties
The MRI on Benjamin’s knee did not reveal any structural damage. It is the same knee in which he tore the ACL and missed the 2015 season.
“That’s a positive. That’s one thing we can say,” Dickson said. “But we need him. We need everybody on this team.”
Center Ryan Kalil (neck) has missed the last two games and did not practice Wednesday. Tyler Larsen, who went undrafted out of Utah State three years ago, started in Kalil’s stead in Weeks 2 and 3. Rivera has not given a timeline for Kalil.
Linebackers Thomas Davis and Jeremy Cash also did not practice Wednesday. Davis left the game against the Saints with a rib injury. Cash has missed the last two games with a calf injury.
Shoot the gap
After giving up a combined 120 rushing yards in their first two outings, the Panthers allowed the Saints to pile up 149 yards and 5.5 yards per carry.
The line — which has seen Kawann Short, Star Lotulelei, Mario Addison, Charles Johnson, and Julius Peppers each play at least 50 percent of defensive snaps — struggled with poor communication and gap discipline, Short said.
“I think the biggest thing right here is that we have to get penetration up front and we have to stay in our gaps,” defensive coordinator Steve Wilks said. “The linebackers have to do a better job of playing downhill, playing with their hands, and the cornerbacks, which we have talked about, have to do a better job on perimeter runs.”
Despite New Orleans exposing some holes in the front, the Panthers’ defensive unit is still atop the league in yards per game (251.7). But in the Patriots, they will face the league’s most productive offense.
“We know they’re good,” Short said. “We know they’re very disciplined. We’ve got to come out and communicate. Everybody has to come out in one sound.”
Second(ary) to none?
Carolina did not give up a passing touchdown in its first two outings.
Then, it faced Drew Brees in Week 3.
Brees completed nearly 76 percent of his passes for 220 yards and three touchdowns in a win. Against second-year cornerbacks James Bradberry and Daryl Worley, Brees utilized his well-known pump fake. Brees also got safety Mike Adams to bite on a 40-yard touchdown pass to Ted Ginn Jr.
Brees recorded a 149.3 passer rating when throwing at Bradberry, according to Pro Football Focus, and Worley gave up a 5-yard touchdown to Michael Thomas after falling in coverage.
“I think it’s just eye discipline, and then understanding the personnel that’s in the game,” Wilks said. “We try to pride ourselves on playing smart.
“We just have to be smart, keep our eyes on our luggage, and be in much better position.”
No matter, the unit still ranks third in the league, allowing 162 passing yards per game.
“If we can shore up some of the mental errors we have, I feel very confident going up to New England and matching up with these guys,” free safety Kurt Coleman said.
Correction: A previous version of this post stated the Panthers’ record is 1-2. It is 2-1.