FOXBORO, Mass. — The bye week was supposed to cure all the Patriots’ injuries. It didn’t quite work out that way, though.
As the Patriots head to Carolina for their only Monday night game of the season, there’s more question marks than ever in the defensive backfield. Aqib Talib and Kyle Arrington are questionable with hip and groin injuries, respectively, and Steve Gregory and Alfonzo Dennard have already been ruled out. Gregory has a broken thumb and Dennard has a knee injury. Arrington is expected to play, according to a source.
That leaves Devin McCourty as the only healthy starter among the defensive backs. Duron Harmon is expected to start in Gregory’s place. Logan Ryan and Marquice Cole should continue to see increased reps if Talib or Dennard can’t go.
The Patriots can afford to give Gregory, Dennard and perhaps even Talib a rest against the Panthers, though. They’ll need nearly everyone healthy against the Broncos in Week 12, when they’ll have to match up against Wes Welker, Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Julius Thomas.
Cam Newton is dangerous, and Steve Smith still has some left in the tank, but the Panthers don’t possess the same type of targets as a team like the Broncos. The Patriots would be wise to rest up some defensive backs if it means getting them back for Denver.
That’s because the Panthers are much better on the ground than they are through the air. And they know that. Carolina has run the ball more than they’ve passed this year. It would take the Patriots gaining a big lead for the Panthers to have to start throwing the ball more. And with Rob Gronkowski, Shane Vereen and Danny Amendola all back on offense, the Patriots could likely win if the game came down to a shootout.
It helps that New England has impressive depth in the secondary. Harmon has played well in dime, Ryan has been a solid playmaker and Cole has been adept in the slot. If Talib plays, the defense shouldn’t take too big of a hit.
Carolina won’t be comfortable if they’re forced to pass too much. Out of Carolina’s three losses, they’ve passed more than they’ve run in two of them.
Of course, it will be difficult for the Patriots to get a big lead on the Panthers. Carolina has yet to allow a first-quarter touchdown. But if the Patriots’ offense plays as well against the Panthers as they did against the Steelers before the bye, it would be difficult for any defense to stop them.
The Patriots’ pass rush won’t be able to go full steam against Newton since he’s dangerous with his legs. And he could burn New England’s defense if he’s allowed out of the pocket too often. Luckily, the Patriots have developed some solid options at getting after the quarterback from inside. Chris Jones has five sacks on the season and Chandler Jones and Andre Carter have both had strong moments rushing from the inside.
Both players had impressive games against another mobile quarterback, Geno Smith. Chris Jones had two sacks in Week 7 againts the Jets and Chandler Jones recorded two sacks in each of the Patriots two games against New York.
There are certainly ways the Panthers can beat New England. Newton and Carolina’s run game could gash the Patriots’ front seven and the Panthers’ defense will make it tough on Stevan Ridley and New England’s run game. But with strong depth and a good pass rush, the Patriots’ pass defense should be able to hold up even after losing two starters.