The New England Patriots draw the Carolina Panthers in Week 11 on Monday Night Football. The Patriots are coming off of their Week 10 bye as they prepare for their only Monday Night Football game of 2013. The Patriots get back some familiar faces Monday Night in what should be a vital test for both teams. This is a bit of a “prove me” game for both organizations. The Panthers are looking to establish their credibility in the form of a big win over a perennial winner, while the Patriots look to prove they can go up against a top notch defense and slow down a game-breaking quarterback in Cam Newton. As these two teams head into their Monday Night matchup, here’s a look at some of the key players to keep an eye on for New England.
After missing nine weeks following surgery to repair a broken bone in his hand, Shane Vereen is finally ready to return to action for the Patriots. The versatile back out of the University of Cal will yield immediate results for Tom Brady and the Patriots offensive attack. Vereen is a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses with his unique ability to line up virtually anywhere on the field as either a back or a receiver. The Patriots offense has been visibly lacking in Vereen’s absence, but has gained some steam over their past few outings. Up to this point, the Patriots offense hasn’t truly formed an identity, despite their 7-2 record. Look for Tom Brady to get back to his old ways of dictating advantageous mismatches against defenders now that he once again has his full complement of weapons. Vereen is the type of player who not only gets himself open, but also has the ability to open up space and draw away defenders for his teammates. Expect to see Vereen used heavily on Monday Night in a number of different roles. According to Ian Rapoport, Vereen is likely to see 10-14 touches against Carolina, but if he starts rolling, I expect that number to go out the window.
This matchup with Carolina has Amendola written all over it. The Panthers boast one of the top defenses in all of football, specifically their front seven. Up front, the Panthers are men amongst boys in the trenches with the likes Kawaan Short, Dwan Edwards, and the emerging rookie, Star Lotulelei. The Patriots are obviously well aware of just how much pressure the Panthers are able to generate at the point of attack, so look for the New England to avoid going at the teeth of the Carolina defense. Instead, look for the Patriots to implement a game plan highlighted by short routes and bubble screens with the occasional draw or run up the middle to keep the defense honest. Offensive Coordinator, Josh McDaniels, will likely do his best at calling plays that allow Brady to get the ball out as quickly as possible. With such a short window to work with in the pocket, Danny Amendola should be the primary benefactor of the majority of the quick routes near the line of scrimmage. Now that the Patriots have their full complement of weapons for the first time in 2013, Danny Amendola can finally be used in the role he was brought in to fill. Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Dobson will take care of the deep routes down the field while Amendola and Vereen look to cut up the underbelly of the Panthers defense working underneath. With the defense forced to keep an eye out on all the Patriots weapons for once, the Patriots offense should finally resemble what Patriots Nation had envisioned entering 2013.
The man-child is back. Talib is officially listed as questionable, but with Alfonzo Dennard and Steve Gregory already ruled out, look for Talib to return to action Monday Night. When Talib is on the field for New England, their defense plays with a noticeably different attitude. Talib provides a fear factor that the Patriots simply cannot achieve without his presence on the field. Look for Talib to lock horns with the Panthers number one wide out, Steve Smith. When healthy this season, Talib has played at an All-Pro level as one of the most dominating corners in the NFL. This week’s matchup with Smith should be a fine litmus test to see where his hip issues are. The Panthers are notorious for broken plays and big strikes down the field with Cam Newton at quarterback. Newton’s rare running skills opens up and often creates second and third chance opportunities for his receivers to break off their routes and find open space. A big key for Talib in Week 11 will be making sure he keeps a body on Smith at all times, primarily when things break down in the pocket for Newton. If Talib allows Smith to wander, he could have a big day as Newton looks for him when the heat is on.
Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich
The very outcome of Monday Night’s game may rest on the shoulders of these two defensive ends. As mentioned above, Cam Newton is the poster child of mobile quarterbacks. When Newton sees a running lane and gains a head of steam, you better watch out. Newton is far from a traditional stand up in the pocket and throw type of quarterback. Rather, he represents the new generation of quarterbacks who are equal parts thrower and runner. The key for New England on Monday Night will be forcing Newton to stay in the pocket. If the Patriots are able to establish and maintain an edge on the pocket, they should force Newton in the more traditional role of a pocket passer. A lot of the pressure to keep Newton inside the pocket will be on Jones and Ninkovich. The duo did a solid job in Week 9 against another mobile quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger, although he certainly is anywhere near the caliber of athlete Newton is. Jones and Ninkovich did a nice job of forcing Big Ben to remain in the pocket, rather than letting him get outside of the tackles and improvise, where he has the ability to kill a defense. Newton is a very similar quarterback in this sense, he loves to set up shop outside of the tackles and see what he can create with his athleticism. Bill Belichick has been very successful through the years corralling the new breed of mobile quarterbacks. His game plans have forced those quarterbacks into roles they aren’t comfortable with, thus forcing those quarterbacks to beat then with their arms and brains, not their legs. Cam Newton is definitely an electrifying player, but when he’s stuck in the pocket, he’s nothing more than just an average quarterback. If Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich can set the edge of Newton, the Patriots may post some high sack totals Monday Night.