By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Panthers enter Foxboro with plenty of high-end talent for the Patriots to worry about on both sides of the ball. Quarterback Cam Newton has been bad this season, but could be due to bounce back against the Pats’ struggling defense. Linebacker Luke Kuechly is perhaps the best midfield defender in the NFL, and Thomas Davis is not far behind him. Kelvin Benjamin (if healthy) is as dangerous as anyone as a big downfield receiver.
But this isn’t about any of those guys. Those are all practically household names. There are a few other names to consider when looking at how the Patriots may approach the Panthers, especially for Tom Brady and the offense. These relatively unheralded Panthers defenders could make an impact on Sunday, whether it’s by making stops or getting burned down the field.
Here are some names to learn before Sunday’s game in Foxboro. Hopefully, for the Patriots’ sake, Brady and his weapons are giving them plenty of camera time.
Cornerbacks Ray Bradberry and Daryl Worley
The Panthers boast arguably the most dynamic front-seven in the league, with Kawaan Short wreaking havoc in the middle of the defensive line and their ridiculous linebacking corps smothering pass-catchers in coverage. Rob Gronkowski and the Patriots’ stable of running backs have a heck of a challenge ahead of them in the passing game against those guys.
But in the secondary? Carolina has plenty of size and potential back there, but lack experience. They may also lack the requisite skills to cover the likes of Brandin Cooks. Bradberry and Worley, in particular, will have targets on their backs in their attempts to cover No. 14.
Worley stands at 6-foot-1 and 204 pounds and is known for his size and strength, but lacks polish as a second-year player. He may have success on Sunday if he matches up against Chris Hogan, but if he gets caught in a matchup against Cooks he could have trouble. Worley really faltered in the red zone against the Saints, when Drew Brees got him to bite on a play-action fake and lofted an open touchdown to Brandon Coleman right over his head.
Bradberry, a second-year player drafted 62nd (two picks after Cyrus Jones) in the 2016 NFL Draft, graded very poorly in the Panthers’ 34-13 loss to the Saints last weekend with a 40.0 overall from Pro Football Focus. His biggest mistake came against Saints burner Ted Ginn Jr., who burned the corner with a double-move and got behind him for a 40-yard touchdown.
He played much better in Week 2 against the Bills, allowing just two catches on five targets for 21 yards and ramping up the physicality. The 6-foot-1, 212-pound Bradberry would also be better suited matched up against Hogan, but there’s always the chance that Brady gets Cooks one-on-one with him. If that happens, look out below.
Ultimately, the Saints are going to need one of these guys to cover Cooks down the field. It’s worth noting that the Panthers’ safeties have been even worse, as Mike Adams and Kurt Coleman have averaged a horrendous 45.7 coverage grade so far from PFF. If Brady can consistently get the ball in Cooks’ hands, the receiver will have a good chance to go off.
Linebacker Shaq Thompson
Kuechly and Davis grab all the headlines for the Panthers’ linebackers, and for good reason. But Thompson has also been a major factor on the Panthers defense so far in 2017, especially in coverage. His overall grade on PFF right now is an “above average” 81.8, and his coverage rates an 82. Jourdan Rodrigue of The Herald-Sun in Durham, N.C. noted that Thompson was used as an extra safety in the Panthers’ “Big Nickel” package against the Saints, which is indicative of his ability to cover running backs and tight ends in space.
It’s likely that Kuechly or Davis shadow Gronkowski in coverage, leaving the 6-foot-2, 231-pound Thompson to handle the backs. James White and Dion Lewis may have trouble gaining extra yardage after the catch if Thompson can stay on top of them. His presence is a key reason why Brady will have to escape pressure and get favorable matchups in the secondary in order to have success against the Panthers defense.
Who are the Panthers you’ll be keeping an eye on in Foxboro this weekend?
Matt Dolloff is a writer/producer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, CBS, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.