The Patriots come into Sunday’s game against the 4-4 Carolina Panthers with their best win of the season in tow after knocking off the Los Angeles Chargers last weekend.
Meanwhile, the Panthers finally managed to stop a four-game skid with a win over the Atlanta Falcons as they try to recover the form that saw them start 3-0.
On paper, New England has momentum on its side, has played more consistent football to start the season despite also being 4-4, and has fewer major health question marks to answer this week, with the Panthers unsure of whether star running back Christian McCaffrey or starting quarterback Sam Darnold will suit up on Sunday.
But the Patriots would be unwise to overlook their mercurial NFC South opponent and the talent they boast on both sides of the football, including one very notable player who said he’ll be bringing some extra motivation to the table to beat the team he was on just a few weeks ago.
With Sam Darnold (concussion) “extremely limited” at Carolina’s Wednesday practice and even head coach Matt Rhule uncertain of his starter’s status, Walker has taken all the Panthers’ first-team reps at quarterback and is preparing as if he’ll start against New England.
Unlike Darnold, the Patriots don’t have nearly as much on-the-job experience playing against the former undrafted free agent and XFL standout.
For starters, Walker isn’t afraid to let it fly.
Walker’s career average yards per attempt (aDoT) of 10.9 is notably higher than Darnold’s lifetime mark of 8.8 yards and 2021 aDoT of 7.9 yards. He’ll likely try to test the Patriots down the field with burners like D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson at his disposal outside.
Naturally, that also means Walker is liable to give the Patriots’ defense chances to swipe the football from him. According to Pro Football Focus, he has thrown five interceptions against just one touchdown and has almost as many turnover-worthy plays as big-time throws in his career.
Still, the gunslinging Walker might pose more of a threat than Darnold, who has never beaten the Patriots in three career starts and, quite frankly, plays terribly against them (53.2 completion percentage, 1 TD, 6 INTs).
Though Moore leads the team in receiving by a wide margin, the Patriots will be sure not to forget about Anderson, whom Belichick has singled out as a problematic receiver to scheme for.
The former Jet hasn’t done much this season (18 catches for 204 yards and two touchdowns) after posting career-highs in receptions (95) and receiving yards (1,096) last year in his first season with Carolina.
But the deep speed remains a major threat, especially if the Patriots’ secondary is missing J.C. Jackson on Sunday.
Jackson has missed two straight practices with an illness, which could mean New England is forced to go with Jalen Mills and Joejuan Williams as its outside cornerbacks. That’s a terrible spot against receivers as dynamic as Anderson and Moore and would almost certainly require the Patriots to have a lot of safety help over the top.
But if Jackson does play and shadows Moore as he has other top receivers, that could still leave Anderson with favorable matchups against Mills and Myles Bryant in the slot, where the speedy receiver spends a good amount of time. That’s a dangerous proposition.
Brian Burns/Haason Reddick
Carolina pressures quarterbacks at a top-five rate in the league, and the deadly edge-rushing combination of Burns and Reddick is arguably the engine that makes that pass rush go.
Burns has 27 pressures on the season, which is a top-20 mark in the NFL (via PFF), and has five sacks this season, including three in the first three games of the season. Reddick has fewer pressures (21) but more sacks, with his nine quarterback takedowns tied for second in the league with four players (including Matthew Judon).
Since their first three games, both have started seeing more chips from running backs and tight ends, which has slowed down their production. Look for New England to copy that plan, especially after it worked pretty well against Los Angeles Chargers star Joey Bosa last week.
The problem: if you devote too much attention to one of them, the other might get a one-on-one matchup to exploit.
The Patriots’ new-look offensive line has done a better job recently of keeping defenders off of Mac Jones in recent weeks. They can’t afford to slip up against the Panthers.
Rhule indicated Gilmore might not play many snaps against the Patriots as he continues working back from the quad injury that landed him on the PUP list to start the season. Most likely, he’ll play primarily a third-down role as he did against Atlanta.
When he’s on the field, though, New England should treat him as if he’s the same guy he’s been for years.
Gilmore shadowed the Falcons’s best receiving threat, tight end Kyle Pitts, all over the field whenever the two were in the game and even nabbed his game-sealing interception while covering him. His physicality was on display, and his mobility looked no worse for the wear.
With that third-down role in mind, expect Gilmore to be a chess piece the Panthers could use against Jakobi Meyers—arguably Jones’s favorite security blanket—or even Kendrick Bourne and Hunter Henry, who have both risen in Mac Jones’s favor as the year has progressed.
But while Gilmore looks healthy, the Patriots might be able to test him on well-timed deep digs and in-breaking routes when he’s in zone coverage. That formula worked when New England went after Tampa Bay’s veteran corner Richard Sherman as he was finding his legs early in the season.
Just don’t misplace the ball, or the ex-Patriot can still make you pay for it.
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