Thursday Night Football is always a spectacle. When you have two NFC giants, both at 4-1, it becomes that much more intense. In many ways, the Eagles and Panthers are very similar. An Offense that has opened up massively this season that is backed up by a stout Defense with injuries in the secondary. For the Eagles though, there’s no doubting that this is the toughest defensive challenge they’ve faced this season.
Much has been said about the resurgence of Cam Newton. Was it a dismal Patriots Defense that perhaps sugar-coated how good the mobile quarterback looked, or is this new-look Offense bringing the best out of him? After the win over Detroit, it would be hard to argue with the latter. It just so happens that the biggest change to the Panthers Offense aligns with potential weakness for the Eagles.
Last season, Panthers running backs combined for 44 receptions. The backfield has combined for 40 through the opening five games of 2017. The infusion of duality with Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey has helped open many things underneath for Cam Newton…and with a wide receiver corps now healthy once again, it hasn’t taken him long to spread the ball around.
“You have to be good in so many different areas.” Jim Schwartz told reporters on Tuesday. “He can be a pocket passer, he can run the read option, he can run designed runs, he can run off-schedule runs, but he’s as good a pocket passer as there is. So I think that’s what make it’s difficult to defend every one of those. He’s not a one-trick pony, he’s got mobility, he’s got designed runs. They do a lot of different things and we’ll have to play our best team defense.”
Jonathan Stewart and Christian McCaffrey already have 628 all-purpose yards between them this season and when you add in 90 rushing yards and two rushing scores from their athletic quarterback, the Panthers have a scheme that can burn you underneath if you overcompensate outside…which is easy to do when you considering four players have already surpassed the 200-yard receiving mark this year.
You would think that losing a franchise tight end in Greg Olsen would sting the Panthers Offense…but it’s only allowed for Ed Dickson to burst out n week five, amassing 175 yards on five receptions. It’s also meant that the Panthers have rolled out more pony-package sets with McCaffrey and Stewart, or even gone heavier at wide receiver…which is bad news for a Defense built to bend yet never break.
It all starts up front for the Philadelphia Eagles on Thursday. If they can bring pressure to a slightly wounded offensive line that have allowed 15 sacks on Cam Newton so far, it marginalizes what he can do downfield and plays into the strengths of ball-hawking linebackers Jordan Hicks and Nigel Bradham. Newton has a reputation of wobbling under pressure…and the Eagles should be able to bring the heat, with or without Fletcher Cox.
The Eagles run Defense has been ruthless this year, giving up just 314 total yards through five weeks. An average of just 62.8 yards on the ground per game have forced quarterbacks such as Eli Manning and Phillip Rivers to try and put the team on their back. Even without their most tenacious pass-rusher, the Eagles have only allowed a total of 89 rushing yards during the last two weeks.
The one team who is the exception to that rule is the franchise who handed them their only loss of the season so far; Kansas City. The Eagles battled and battled in the trenches, but a relentless backfield eventually broke free as Kareem Hunt put on the burners for a 53-yard run. The Chiefs totaled 112 rushing yards against the Eagles that day…the most a team has been able to amass against the Jim Schwartz unit so far. But this may surprisingly give the Eagles a slight advantage in preparing for Carolina.
“Yeah, in some ways it was good to have some of the Kansas City stuff that we had to prepare against.” Schwartz explained. “It’s not the same offense, but there are some similarities as far as jet sweeps and shovel passes and things like that.”
The Panthers will be looking to make a statement on Thursday night, and with one of the most electrifying dual-threat backs in recent memory at their disposal, the Offense is more dangerous than ever. If the Eagles are going to make a statement and cement their claim to the NFC crown, it begins with this game and this offense.
If Carolina fails to move the ball on the ground and the intermediate game is smothered by the Eagles front seven, it all comes down to a secondary that has outperformed everybody’s expectations given the injury bug situation. It comes down to an inaccurate quarterback under pressure and a wide receiver group that will be given cushions of space underneath in the hope that tackling is as secure as it has been all year. But that’s an if.
This game begins and ends with defending the run for the Eagles and even though they have been excellent thus far, they have only faced one exceedingly dangerous backfield. This is a unit that has pushed past Detroit, embarrassed New England and put on a show against the Niners. The Eagles will need to bring their A-game to defuse the ticking time bomb that is Cam Newton,Christian McCaffrey, Kelvin Benjamin and the Carolina Offense.
Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports