Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Surprising Panthers stingy with the ball
EN ROUTE to a 7-2 record that has featured only one real laugher, and has more often than that required them to overcome some sort of shortcoming, the Patriots have won games this season by going 4-for-19 and 2-for-10 in converting third downs. They've had six contests in which their conversion rate was less than last year's league-leading average, yet they've won four of them. They've shown an ability to survive struggles in that area.
But when New England heads to Carolina on Monday night, it must be better in third-down situations on both sides of the ball - because what may be the hottest team has built its five-game winning streak, and its own 6-3 record, in large part on dominating in those very situations.
The Panthers weren't expected to make a lot of noise in the NFC South this season, and some wondered how long head coach Ron Rivera would last after his team was 1-3 a week into October. But since then they've turned things around dramatically behind the NFL's second-best scoring defense (12.8 points per game) and an offense that makes up for its mediocre overall numbers with a knack for getting what it needs.
Carolina's overall ability to control a game is reflected in the fact they've held the ball for longer than any team in football this season - and that's a direct testament to its ability to win battles on third down. The Panther offense has converted 46.2 percent of its opportunities, which is third-best, while its defense has allowed only 33.9 percent of tries to be converted against it. That's fifth-best, and a primary reason why no club has allowed fewer first downs than Carolina.
"They're hard to run on. They don't give up many points. They're good in the red area. They're good on third down. They're really disciplined, they're sound," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. "There's not many plays where you feel like 'well, this will be an easy 10 yards here, or an easy 15 yards here,' that type of thing. You've got to really work for everything you get, earn all of your yards."
Offensively, the Patriots come in with reason to be hopeful, having hung 55 points on the Steelers before their bye week, and now appearing set to add multi-dimensional back Shane Vereen into the mix again as he returns from injured reserve. Even with right tackle Sebastian Vollmer out for the season, they're probably as healthy on that side of the line of scrimmage as they've been this year.
And so they must hope that with health comes an improvement on those critical kick-or-stick situations. Especially against the Panthers. The Patriots rank 25th in the NFL after converting just 34.9 percent of third-down opportunities thus far, while - though climbing recently - they're still No. 19 in red-zone efficiency (with a 53 percent touchdown rate), and thus it'll be that much more difficult to win Monday night if they can't take better advantage of their chances in Charlotte, because those chances aren't likely to be many on Monday night.
"This isn't a game where you can really not be good in those areas. You can't turn it over, you can't have negative plays," said Pats quarterback Tom Brady. "They lead the league in time of possession, second in scoring defense. There are no shortcuts, it's just us going out and executing the plays that are there. There's really great execution that we need to have."
"They don't give up a lot of big plays, really good in situational football," added offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. "(The Panthers) sack the quarterback, create turnovers. It's all the things that you would want in a defense, and they have them and they are obviously playing as well as any group that we've played all year."
That defense becomes all the more daunting when its paired with a complementary offense that manages the game - and that's what the Panthers have. Cam Newton's attack is toward the bottom of the league in terms of total offense, and right in the middle of the pack as far as points go, though they somehow find ways to make plays when it's time to move the chains.
And what's troubling for New England is that as the injuries have mounted, it has regressed in terms of preventing that. After a good start, the Patriots have slid to 24th in third-down defense (40.3 percent), and it appears a problem that's plagued them in recent seasons might be turning into an issue again.
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OVERRATED: The green dot. The Patriots are expected to be without starting safety Steve Gregory today, meaning a new Patriot defender will need to have speakers in his helmet and communicate the defensive signals. That won't be where New England misses him most, though; they'll miss his presence during the play more.
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UNDERRATED: Charles Johnson. He doesn't have the big name of some other pass rushers, but he has 5.5 sacks in the past four weeks, 8.5 sacks this season, and 41.5 since 2010. Along with Greg Hardy, he'll need to be contained by the Patriots line.
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KEEP AN EYE ON.: Luke Kuechly. A year after leading the NFL with 164 tackles, the Boston College product enters this week 16th, with 75 takedowns - but he continues to be a constant presence around the ball whether chasing down runners or defending against the pass, as reflected in his three interceptions and five pass breakups. He's a difference maker at linebacker.
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KEY MATCHUP: Aqib Talib vs. Steve Smith. When Talib was last on the field, he was shutting down Saints tight end Jimmy Graham. If he returns from a hip injury Monday, as expected, he'll get his chance to show what he can do against the smaller Smith - who, at 34, remains his team's top receiver.
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STAT OF THE WEEK: Offensively, the Panthers are the NFL's fourth-worst team in terms of gaining yards on first down - averaging 5.34 per play - although they've gone three-and-out at the second-lowest rate in the league (14.4 percent). That's a credit to the Carolina offense's ability to make plays on the later downs, and to keep some semblance of rhythm offensively.
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.