The Opposite Sideline: Panthers rolling
Each Thursday, Press-Gazette Media will get the lowdown on the Green Bay Packers’ next opponent from a beat writer who covers that team.
They lost their star wide receiver to a season-ending knee injury in August. But thanks to a dynamic quarterback and a resilient defense, they won their first six games and created a Super Bowl buzz.
Unlike the Green Bay Packers, however, the Carolina Panthers prevailed again this week to improve to 7-0 and stand as the NFC’s only remaining unbeaten.
Despite the absence of wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, their 2014 top draft choice who as a rookie caught 73 passes for 1,008 yards and nine touchdown, the Panthers are scoring enough to win thanks to dual-threat quarterback Cam Newton, resurgent running back Jonathan Stewart and a physical defense led by linebacker Luke Kuechly.
We asked beat writer Jonathan Jones of the Charlotte Observer to answer a few questions about what the Packers can expect Sunday when they visit the Panthers at Bank of America Stadium:
Are you surprised the Panthers are unbeaten? How have they managed it?
“Pretty surprised. Before the season you looked at their schedule and you said, OK, they could start 4-0. But I’m a lifelong North Carolinian, I’ve watched this team all 21 years and I know fast starts really aren’t their thing. So you say 4-0 maybe, but 3-1 probably, they’ll drop one they shouldn’t. After the bye they had Seattle, Philly, Indianapolis and Green Bay. Before the season, that looked like a murderer’s row. So you think if they get out of that 2-2, they’re fine. At best, I thought they’d come out of all that 6-2, but here they are with a chance to go 8-0.
“As for how they’ve done it, Cam has really stepped up. … Cam is never going to blow you away with his stats, he’s not going to have a 70 percent completion rate or pass for 5,000 yards. And he is going to give up the football. But some of the other stats I could point to: Whenever he runs, 40 percent of the time he gets a first down, which is by far the best mark in the NFL. … He’s putting up points. He’s accounted for 15 touchdowns so far.
“This isn’t a world-beating defense. It’s a top-10 defense with some elite players at positions, but there are some holes in this defense. They’re not the Denver Broncos but they’re still getting it done.”
On that Panthers defense, everyone knows about linebacker Luke Kuechly, but who else should the Packers be wary of?
“Thomas Davis is, along with (Tampa Bay’s) Lavonte David, probably the best 4-3 outside linebacker in the NFL but you don’t hear a lot about him. … He’s a guy who can fly around, who’s going to be able to rush the edge against the Packers. Josh Norman at corner is the guy everyone is talking about this season. He really has emerged. He played really well against Julio Jones last year; in the two games against Atlanta I think he held Jones to 110 yards combined. But this year he’s been other-worldly … Darrelle Revis is an all-time great, but if you’re talking about cornerback play just this year, it’s him and it’s Revis and there’s really not a close No. 3. And then Kawann Short at defensive tackle, a second-round pick out of Purdue in his third year, he’s been rushing the passer like he’s a defensive end. So those guys and Kuechly, there are four elite players on the defense.”
How will the defense try to stop Aaron Rodgers? Will they try to emulate what the Broncos did?
“They won’t. They can’t because they don’t have not only the scheme (the Panthers play a 4-3, the Broncos a 3-4), they don’t have the personnel that Denver has. DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller are some different dudes. I could see them loading up the box against the Packers like most teams have done and put a single-high safety up there. But I really think they’re going to go back to what a lot of teams did before this season and do a Cover-2. Just because, while Norman is elite right now, and Roman Harper and Kurt Coleman are two good safeties, you worry about that other cornerback position. Peanut Tillman shows that he’s 30-plus. Bene Benwikere, the second-year player, has gotten picked on the last two weeks. I still remember that beat-down last year at Lambeau where Rodgers just picked them apart (in a 38-17 Packers victory). The secondary is much better than last year, but there are still holes in that secondary that I think Rodgers can exploit.”
Just as the Packers lost Jordy Nelson, the Panthers took a big hit to the passing game losing Kelvin Benjamin. What has been the effect and how have they coped?
“Well, they haven’t compensated very well for it. They’ve skated by, basically. Ted Ginn Jr. is a No. 1 receiver for the first time since his second year in Miami (career-high 56 catches in 2008). … He’s been a castoff, he was called a bust everywhere he went for the last eight years and the only place he’s succeeded is Carolina, but he’s not a No. 1 receiver, he’s a No. 3 receiver in a good offense. … The constant has been Greg Olsen, and everyone kind of got to know him last year during his Pro Bowl season, he’s well on his way to a second one. It’s mind-boggling that teams do not double-cover Greg Olsen. I do not get it. It’s very clear that he’s the only real threat in this Panthers passing game. I think he could have another big day; I know the Packers have given up a couple of big ones to tight ends the past two games, and I don’t see why he can’t make it a third if they’re not going to double him.”
As far as the running game, is it mainly Cam Newton or has Jonathan Stewart revived his game?
“Yeah, Stew is looking like the guy we all thought he could be at Oregon back in the day. He’s running really hard, he doesn’t go down at first contact. … But what makes this offense work is not just Cam’s running ability, but just the threat that he’s going to run. People have to respect it so much, he’s getting more yards on scrambles than on designed runs. … So it’s Stewart’s hard running, it’s Cam’s scrambling ability but then what really makes it work, and what the Panthers kind of emphasize, is just his threat to run.”
Are you surprised the Packers are favored by 2 ½ points, and how do you think it will play out?
“I’m not surprised the Packers are favored, that’s what you get when you are so consistently good over so many years. And we know the stat: Aaron Rodgers hasn’t lost back-to-back games since 2010. Carolina is not historically a tough place to play, so I completely understand why the Packers are favored. I think it’s going to be close game. I honestly think the Panthers are going to lose, just because the Packers are the Packers. That doesn’t mean these two teams won’t be able to meet in January; I think the Panthers are for real. But it’s just like last week: It’s not like the Packers are a bad team because they lost to Denver. I think it’s going to be the case this week where the Panthers are for real, they’re just going to lose a close one to Green Bay.”