Previewing Philadelphia Eagles at Carolina Panthers on NFL Week 6 Thursday Night Football...
Carolina's offensive transformation to more spread formations and quick-timed throws has yet to unfold the way some (like yours truly) worried it might. There has been some productive use of pre-snap motion and three-receiver bunches, but spread formations and quick-timed throws remain few and far between, which is good. Cam Newton, who has been excellent the past two weeks, is best suited for the downfield, deep dropback passing game that, along with a power running game, has long defined this offense.
In their traditional approach, the Panthers are still successfully incorporating Christian McCaffrey. Featured in their pre-snap movement and formation wrinkling, McCaffrey has consistently drawn (and capitalized on) favorable matchups in space. As a zone-based defense, the Eagles can be vulnerable to dictated matchups like this. Fortunately, Philadelphia’s three underneath players—Nigel Bradham, Jordan Hicks and flat/slot man Malcolm Jenkins—have the awareness and athleticism to respond. It’ll be fun watching them against McCaffrey.
Carolina’s defense (also very much zone-based) hinges on its pass rush. Philadelphia’s pass protection has been sturdy, especially at left tackle, where 35-year-old Jason Peters now prospers on savvy technique, but right tackle Lane Johnson is out tonight with a concussion. Backup Halapoulivaati Vaitai improved over the course of last season, but Panthers defensive ends Charles Johnson and the ageless Julius Peppers will be licking their chops. Also, Carolina sent an unusual number of fire-zone blitzes after Matthew Stafford last week, rushing an extra guy off the edge and playing Cover 3 (as opposed to man-to-man) behind it. The Eagles have a deeper dropback passing scheme this season, and they should expect some of those fire-zone pressures.
Against three-receiver sets on first or second down, the Panthers have been playing their base 4–3 instead of nickel—in this package, linebacker Shaq Thompson essentially plays slot corner—so expect the Eagles to try and either get improving-but-still-developing slot man Nelson Agholor involved early. Or, better yet, they could slide Alshon Jeffery inside to get him going—too often he’s been bested by opposing No. 1 corners. Panthers second-year corner James Bradberry, who has outstanding awareness in zone, will likely be Jeffery’s shadow tonight… but not if Jeffery plays the slot on early downs.
Bold Prediction: Carolina’s offensive line is coming off perhaps its best game (especially left tackle Matt Kalil), but Philadelphia’s high-octane four-man rush will sack Newton at least four times—and five if defensive tackle Fletcher Cox returns from his calf injury as expected.