The 3-3 Eagles are coming off consecutive wins against the New Orleans Saints and New York Giants in which they outscored their opponents 66-24, and they now have won three of their last four games after going 1-4 to start the season. This week, though, they are going up against the 5-0 Carolina Panthers, who are coming off of a comeback win against the Seattle Seahawks. When the Eagles and Panthers met last season, the Eagles handily defeated the Carolina Panthers, 45-21, scoring 31 points in the first half alone to take a 31-7 lead into the half. This year, though, Cam Newton is not ailing from injuries that limited his production last season, such as ankle surgery, fractured ribs, or a near-fatal car crash.
The Carolina Panthers are 5-0; however, the team has benefitted from an opportunistic schedule to start the season. The opponents they have beaten – Jaguars, Texans, Saints, Buccaneers, and Seahawks – have a combined record of 9-20. As a result, it’s hard to judge the team at this point as they still have a lot to prove.
Run/Pass Ratio: The Carolina Panthers rank first in the league in rushing attempts, running the ball 51-percent of the time against 49-percent passing. That stat, however, is altered by the fact that Cam Newton has run the ball 50 times so far this season. The Eagles, in contrast, have a 59-percent pass to 41-percent rush ratio.
Panthers vs. Eagles Pass Defense: Both teams rank highly in yards-per-attempt allowed to opposing quarterbacks: Carolina (3rd, 6.1) and Eagles (6th, 6.6). Yet, the Eagles have given up an average of 20 more yards-per-game to quarterbacks through the air. Therefore, statistically speaking, the Panthers have the edge in passing defense.
Panthers QB: The main characteristic about Cam Newton is that, as described above, he is a dual threat. The massive 6-foot-5, 245-pound signal caller has 50 rushes this season, which is almost half the 103 he had all of last season. On those 50 rushes, he has 225 yards and 3 touchdowns, whereas he had 539 yards rushing and 5 touchdowns all last year. They use a variety of read options and triple options to spark Newton on the ground.
Thus, using a spy to minimize the effectiveness of a quarterback who is averaging ten rushes a game will be crucial for the Eagles. That duty will be in large part be given to Connor Barwin, who handled the job well last year and had 3 1/2 sacks in the Eagles’ blowout win. Overall, the Eagles held Newton to 6 yards on two rushes, but Newton was nursing an ankle injury, and his current offensive line has three new starters who are doing a much better job blocking.
Through the air, Newton has thrown for 1,078 yards in five games on a team that ranks 30th in the league in passing yards-per-game (201). Sam Bradford, in contrast, has thrown for a 12th-ranked 1,573 yards, and the Eagles average 250 yards-per-game, ranking 14th. Shutting down the Panthers rushing attack, then, seems more important than stopping their passing production.
Eagles QB: Sam Bradford has not had a great start to the season, and it seems like he is making mental errors while becoming accustomed to the offense. He does not seem to understand what his receivers are going to do when they are given option routes, and his decision making has been substandard. He is currently tied for the second-most interceptions (9), behind only Peyton Manning (10), and that is not a statistic in which you want to be trailing Peyton Manning. His turnovers, including five interceptions in the past two weeks, will become costly when the Eagles play more opportunistic teams than the Saints and Giants.
Cam Newton’s 83.2 passer rating is only marginally better than Bradford’s 80, but Newton has five less interceptions than Bradford. Therefore, they’re not that different statistically through the air, except that Bradford has 1,561 yards through six games to Newton’s 1,078 through five. However, their teams use different schemes regarding running and passing. Sam Bradford will have to become more acclimated to the mental aspect of the offense if the Eagles want to defeat the top-tier teams in the league.
Panthers Wide Receivers: Carolina has just 356 yards after-the-catch receiving, a production that ties the Minnesota Vikings for least in the league. In addition, Carolina has only 14 plays that have gone for 20 yards or more, ranking last in that category, too. 6-foot-5, 240-pound Kelvin Benjamin, who had three receptions for 70 yards and 2 touchdowns against the Eagles last season, was a revelation in his rookie season with the Panthers last year, finishing the season tied with Greg Olsen in yards (1,008) and leading the team in touchdowns with nine. However, after tearing his left Achilles, he is out for the entire 2015 season, and no other wide receiver has filled in for his production consistently.
That leaves tight end Greg Olsen, who is seeing 29 percent of Cam Newton’s targets, as the primary receiver with little production of significance coming from any other receiver on the team. Therefore, stopping Olsen, who had six receptions for 119 yards against the Eagles last year, will be crucial for the Eagles. Ted Ginn could be a surprising player against the Eagles, but his targets have decreased significantly since the first two weeks of the season, and, against the Seahawks, he was second in routes run (29) to Corey Brown (35). If the Eagles can shut down Olsen, they will likely be able to shut down the Panthers through the air.
Eagles Wide Receivers: When the Eagles played the Panthers last season, Jordan Matthews had his best game of the season with seven receptions for 138 yards and two touchdowns. This season, though, Matthews does not have Jeremy Maclin to draw attention away from him, and that loss is hurting his overall production. Currently, Matthews is 14th in the league amongst all wide receivers in total targets and 13th in receptions, but he is ranked 23rd in receiving yards. Teams are focused on limiting his yards-after-catch. Matthews has more yards through six games this season (384) than last season (226), but he has the second most drops in the NFL.
Nelson Agholor was out last week and appears likely to miss the game this week. In his absence, Riley Cooper, who played the fewest number of snaps amongst all receivers, became the top producer on the team. However, it is impossible to predict how Chip Kelly will portion his snaps if Agholor is out again. Tight end Zach Ertz received the most snaps, but his production was minimal. Josh Huff, too, did not produce much with increased snaps, and only Miles Austin saw increased production with more snaps. Nonetheless, how Chip Kelly will use his wide receivers against the Panthers is anyone’s guess.
Panthers vs. Eagles Rush Defense: The Panthers rank 12th in run defense and have allowed 483 yards through five games. They are ranked 15th in the league in rushing average (3.9). The Eagles are ranked 8th in run defense (565 yards through six games) and 3rd in rushing average (3.5). The teams are close is average rushing yards allowed per game: Eagles (94.2) and Panthers (96.6).
Panthers Running Backs: After scoring zero touchdowns in Weeks 1-4, Jonathan Stewart bounced back and scored two touchdowns against the Seahawks last week. However, his highest rushing total for the season, 78 yards, came against the Seahawks last week. Clearly, he is not the most prolific runner in the NFL. Stewart has 298 yards rushing this season, but Cam Newton has 225, even though Stewart has 79 rushing attempts to Newton’s 50. They don’t have any running backs of note behind Stewart. Therefore, the rushing attack begins and ends with Newton and Stewart. Thanks in large part to Newton, though, who has rushed for a first down on 36-percent of his rushing attempts (18 of 50) – more than any other quarterback in the league – the Panthers are averaging 133 yards-per-game, ranking third in the league. In comparison, the Eagles are averaging 101 yards-per-game, ranking 19th in the league.
Eagles Running Backs: DeMarco Murray is making a significant claim on the lead-back role in Philadelphia through the past two games. In that span, Murray has more attempts than Ryan Matthews by 42-17. Classifying Matthews as the change-of-pace back to Murray as the featured back is a fair statement at this point. Darren Sproles, with a combined seven rushes for 31 yards over the past two weeks, has disappeared from the backfield and, after playing on only 31-percent of the Eagles’ snaps against the Giants, was thrown to twice. He is the primary punt returner, but it is fair to question his role outside of that duty.
Overall, Murray is playing better with increased rushes. He had four runs of ten yards or more last week after having just five through the first five weeks. He will likely receive around 20 attempts again against the Panthers but will go up against two top-tier linebackers: Luke Kuechly, undeniably one of the best linebackers in the league, and Thomas Davis. On the defensive line, he’ll have to contend with Kawaan Short, who was the NFC Defensive Player of the Week in Week 6. Nonetheless, he should be in line for another big game.
Score Prediction: Eagles 24, Panthers 20