Scouting The Panthers: Cam Newton’s Struggles Limiting Carolina’s Potential

After scoring a dramatic win over the Houston Texans this past weekend, the New England Patriots will look to improve to 3-1 this Sunday as they host the Carolina Panthers at Gillette Stadium.

Here’s a quick rundown of what to expect from the Panthers:

OFFENSE
— The Panthers’ offense has been far from explosive this season. They’ve managed just three total touchdowns through three games despite playing two of the worst defenses in the NFL (the San Francisco 49ers in Week 1 and the New Orleans Saints in Week 3).

Their passing attack has been particularly punchless, as Carolina ranks in the bottom six in the league in both passing yards (29th) and completion percentage (27th).

— The Patriots struggled to corral Deshaun Watson in Sunday’s win over the Houston Texans, so they also should have a tough time defending Panthers dual-threat quarterback Cam Newton, right?

That line of thinking makes sense, but Newton has not looked like a top-flight QB this season. He tossed three interceptions Sunday in a 34-16 loss to the previously winless Saints — his four picks this season are tied for second-most in the league — and he’s averaging just 3.3 yards per carry when he tucks the ball and runs.

Newton never has averaged fewer than 4.0 yards per carry any of his NFL seasons, and he picked up 5 or more yards per rush in each of his first four pro campaigns (2011 to 2014).

— Injuries elsewhere in the Panthers’ offense haven’t helped matters. Second-team All-Pro tight end Greg Olsen is on injured reserve after breaking his foot in Week 2, and No. 1 receiver Kelvin Benjamin hurt his knee against the Saints, though an MRI revealed no structural damage.

— First-round draft pick Christian McCaffrey hasn’t done much on the ground yet (25 carries for 73 yards over his first three NFL games), but he had a breakout game as a pass-catcher Sunday, finishing with nine receptions for 101 yards against the Saints.

Anything done against the miserable New Orleans defense has to be taken with a grain of salt, but the Patriots have been nearly as bad as the Saints at covering running backs out of the backfield this season. Their 253 receiving yards allowed to opposing backs ranks second-to-last in the NFL, ahead of only New Orleans (290).

Moral of the story: You probably want to start McCaffrey in fantasy this week.

Veteran Jonathan Stewart has been Carolina’s top rushing threat this season, leading the team with 162 yards on 45 carries.

DEFENSE
— After surrendering two field goals and nothing more over its first two games, Carolina’s defense was gashed for 34 points and four touchdowns in Sunday’s loss to New Orleans. Still, they’re ranked second in the NFL in both points and yards allowed.

— The strength of the Panthers’ D is their linebacking corps, which boasts arguably Carolina’s best player, Luke Kuechly.

Kuechly, a four-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro, now is fully healthy after a serious concussion cost him the final six games of last season. Through the first three weeks of this season, he’s tallied 12 tackles, two pass breakups, one interception and one forced fumble.

Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels raved about the Boston College product Tuesday in a conference call.

“He’s an exceptional player,” McDaniels said. “The first thing I’d say is that I’m not sure we’ll play against a better field general, a guy that has command over what they’re doing on defense and obviously is well prepared. You can tell. It jumps out on the film that he’s done his homework. He works extremely hard to be prepared for each opponent that they play.”

McDaniels went on to call Kuechly “probably the best pass game linebacker that we play.”

In Carolina’s 4-3 base defense, Kuechly is flanked by 34-year-old Thomas Davis — who left last week’s game with a rib injury but later returned — and 2015 first-round draft pick Shaq Thompson, a former Boston Red Sox minor leaguer.

— Carolina’s defensive line is a veteran unit featuring Charles Johnson (31 years old) and Mario Addison (30) on the ends and Star Lotulelei (27) and Kawann Short (28) inside. Ageless wonder Julius Peppers (37) also has played 50 percent of defensive snaps this season as a rotational D-end.

The Panthers’ front seven struggled against the run Sunday, letting up 149 rushing yards to the Saints’ trio of backs after allowing 120 total yards on the ground over the first two.

— The Panthers have fared well against the pass this season despite employing a secondary devoid of marquee names. Second-year pros James Bradberry and Daryl Worley start at the cornerback spots, with veterans Mike Adams and Kurt Coleman back at safety.

That unit has allowed the third-fewest passing yards in the NFL this season and fourth-fewest yards per pass attempt.

Thumbnail photo via Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY Sports Images

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