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Five things you have to know about the Panthers

11.12.13 at 1:03 pm ET
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The Patriots visit the Panthers in Carolina next Monday. Here are five things you have to know about the Panthers, who are second in the NFC South at 6-3.

1. Their defense is legit

The Carolina defense has become one of the best in the league over the course of the first nine games of the season, particularly when it comes to stopping the run. The Panthers have allowed an average of 82 rushing yards per game, the second-best total in the league. (While the personnel and scheme is different, it’s worth mentioning that after this week, the Patriots will have faced the two best run defenses in the league — the Jets are tops at 73.8 rushing yards per game.) Defensive linemen Star Lotulelei and Greg Hardy are two of the best in the NFL when it comes to slowing down opposing running games, and they get a boost from former BC linebacker Luke Kuechly. Only two teams have broken 100 yards on the ground against the Panthers — the Bills (149 yards on Sept. 15) and Niners (105 on Nov. 10). On the other side, the Patriots are 5-0 when they rush for 100 yards or more as a team. Should make for a terrific matchup.

2. They’ve had success running the football

The Panthers have surpassed 100 yards on the ground as a team in eight of their nine games this season, and in the one game where they didn’t get o the century mark — Oct. 6 against the Cardinals — they were only five yards removed. DeAngelo Williams is their lead back, having rushed for 565 yards on 135 carries (4.2 yards per carry) to this point in the season. Their second best option on the ground is quarterback Cam Newton, who has 268 rushing yards on 62 carries (4.3 yards per carry) and four rushing touchdowns. (In two-plus years, he has 26 rushing touchdowns.) As a team, they average 4.0 yards per carry, and will provide a stern test for a New England run defense that has struggled over the last month-plus after losing Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly to season-ending injuries.

3. Newton is starting to click

The light is apparently come on for Newton, who is in the midst of an impressive stretch of games. He’s not only shown an ability to tuck the ball away and make plays with his feet, but his 62.7 completion percentage (after dipping under 60 percent last season) is an indication that he’s making good decisions with the football. That’s not to say he doesn’t make good decisions all the time, but he’s got a respectable 13-to-8 touchdown-to-interception ratio, with just three picks over the last five games. It will be interesting to see how the Patriots decide to defend Newton, a mobile quarterback who can run. In the past, when facing quarterbacks who can move, the Patriots have preached a philosophy of containment as opposed to straight pass rush. Keep him in the pocket, maintain gap discipline and (specifically for ends Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones) don’t overrun the quarterback when you do get into the backfield.

4. They don’t have a singularly elite pass catcher

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but important to remember for several reasons, not the least of which who Aqib Talib might draw if he does return to action this week. The Panthers don’€™t have anyone in the league in the Top 50 in receiving yards, they do have four guys (wide receiver Steve Smith, tight end Greg Olsen, wide receiver Brandon LaFell and wide receiver Ted Ginn) who all have at least 380 receiving yards. That depth will likely test the depth of the New England secondary. The feeling here is that if Talib is OK to play, he’ll draw Smith — the veteran isn’t the elite-level deep threat he used to be (he’s fifth on the Panthers in yards per catch at 10.7), but he’s still feisty enough to create problems for opposing defenses.

5. They’re good at forcing takeaways

Carolina has 21 takeaways this season — 13 picks and eight fumbles — which is second-best in the NFC and fourth-best in the NFL behind the Chiefs (23), Cowboys and Seahawks (22). Overall, the Panthers and plus-eight, trailing only the Cowboys at plus-11. Leading the way is Kuechly and safety Mike Mitchell, who each have a team-high three picks through the first nine games. Safety Robert Lester and corner Drayton Florence have two each.

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