Stevan Ridley Igniting Running Game, Containing Cam Newton Among Keys for Patriots Against Panthers

Stevan Ridley, Michael Hoomanawanui, Dimitri PattersonThe Patriots are preparing for a primetime  party in Carolina on Monday, and it should be a great battle between two of the NFL’s best teams.

The Panthers are the hottest team in the NFL not named the Chiefs right now, winning five straight and boasting a Super Bowl-caliber defense. Having a versatile threat like Cam Newton at quarterback and a deep option like Steve Smith on the outside certainly doesn’t hurt either.

Bill Belichick rarely loses when he has multiple weeks to prepare for an opponent, though, going 10-3 following bye weeks since taking over as the Patriots’ head coach in 2000. The Patriots have also won nine of their last 10 games coming off a bye week, meaning that Newton and the Panthers will be hard-pressed to actually pull out a win, even at home, on Monday.

There’s lots to look forward to in this one, so let’s jump in and see what some of the keys are in this week’s Patriots Three and Out.

1. Get the ground game going — The Panthers have the NFL’s second-best run defense only to that of the Jets. So, Stevan Ridley, LeGarrette Blount and maybe even a healed up Shane Vereen will be relied upon heavily to try and establish some semblance of balance on offense.

Ridley has done a great job of reestablishing himself as one of the NFL’s premier tailbacks in recent weeks and he’ll need to continue that stretch in Carolina, although he’ll certainly have his work cut out for him. If Vereen is finally healthy and able to return, he can provide a nice spark in the passing game and will be important to help change up the pace. Defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy will be applying consistent pressure to Brady, so establishing a ground game and limiting the Panthers’ pass rush will be a huge help.

2. Containing Cam — The Patriots haven’t faced a legitimate dual-threat quarterback all season. So, they’re in for quite a challenge with Cam Newton on Monday night.

Newton has been much more accurate and efficient passing the ball this season, completing a career-high 63 percent of his passes and turning the ball over just eight times through nine games. He’s been especially good over the past five weeks, too, completing better than 67 percent of his throws and scoring 10 touchdowns (seven passing, three rushing) to just three interceptions. Aside from the passing efficiency, Newton is also averaging better than four yards per carry and has scored four rushing touchdowns this season.

Bill Belichick has had two weeks to draw up a gameplan for Newton, which should give the Patriots at least some advantage against him. Getting Aqib Talib back would help significantly, but containing Newton will really come down to Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich‘s pressure up front as well as the linebackers’ spying on him in the pocket and making sure he doesn’t break contain.

3. Spreading it around — Tom Brady‘s accuracy struggles seem to be a thing of the past, at least his performance against the Steelers would lead you to believe so. The Panthers’ defense will challenge the renewed Brady, forcing him to get rid of the ball early and likely blanketing Rob Gronkowski over the middle. So, Brady will need to use all his resources and spread the ball around to create passing lanes.

Danny Amendola and Aaron Dobson both proved to be reliable weapons for Brady two weeks ago, and he’ll need to find them as well as Julian Edelman and maybe even Kenbrell Thompkins — given he’s active. Getting all his options involved, including the running backs, will make Brady’s life much easier and open the game up the way the Patriots want.

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