What To Watch For When Patriots Host Panthers Sunday In Foxboro

By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — The Patriots and Panthers both enter Sunday’s game with 2-1 records, though they don’t appear to be on the same path.

The Patriots have shaken off a brutal fourth quarter in their season opener to put up 36-point performances in back-to-back weeks to regain control of the start to their season.

The Panthers, meanwhile, beat up on a bad 49ers team, squeaked past the Bills in a 9-3 game, and then got blown out by a Saints team that was 0-2.

Cam Newton doesn’t look like himself, Kelvin Benjamin is dealing with a knee injury, and with a tough schedule over the next six weeks looming, there’s not tremendous enthusiasm surrounding the Panthers.

That being said, a victory in Foxboro tends to provide the type of enthusiasm boost that a team in Carolina’s position needs badly. And if the Patriots’ defense doesn’t turn a corner quickly, another surprising home loss could bite them.

With that being established, here’s what to be looking for when the teams kick off on Sunday afternoon.

Defense, Defense, Defense

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Malcolm Butler (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

The Patriots’ offense is dynamic. The defense? It’s brutal.

Choose your statistical category — any one, really — and the Pats are sitting at or near the bottom of the league. In yards allowed, they rank 32nd. In points allowed, they rank 32nd. In passing yards allowed, they rank 32nd. In passing touchdowns allowed, they rank 32nd. In yards per rushing attempt, they rank 31st. In sacks, they’re tied for 21st.

It’s a grisly picture for the New England defense, which just got carved up by a rookie QB on the road making his second career start. (In fairness, the Patriots’ defense did come up with a big interception during the game, and one more on a last-second Hail Mary.)

But if ever there was an opportunity to turn things around ever so slightly, it would be this week. The Panthers rank 28th in yards per game thus far, and they’re the NFL’s fourth-worst scoring team. Kelvin Benjamin might play Sunday, but after suffering a knee injury last week, it’d be surprising if he’s operating at 100 percent.

Malcolm Butler had a much better performance last week than what he had in the first two games, but the defensive backfield has yet to have a cohesive game together. Trey Flowers and Deatrich Wise have looked good in bursts, but the Patriots are tied for 21st in the league with just six sacks.

There are pieces, to be sure, it’s just yet to all come together.

Add in a potential return of Dont’a Hightower for the Patriots, and it feels like this is the week that the defense starts to look like that of a legitimate Super Bowl contender. If it doesn’t? It might be time to ring an alarm bell or two.

Protection Plan

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Julius Peppers hits Brian Hoyer. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Tom Brady is tough. Real tough. You can hit him a lot, and he’s still going to try to throw a touchdown right in your eye. He’s nuts like that.

But, well, despite what he might believe, he’s still a human. And if he continues to get pummeled at the rate he’s getting pummeled, he has a less-than-ideal chance of even surviving the regular season.

It’s true that Brady has been named AFC Offensive Player of the Week for two straight weeks, but here’s a look at how he spent much of this past Sunday:

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Tom Brady, Jadeveon Clowney (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

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Tom Brady gets hit by Whitney Mercilus. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Carolina enters Sunday’s game with a middle-of-the-pack eight sacks, and stopping them completely won’t be easy. Like Brady, Julius Peppers is tapping into the fountain of youth, leading the Panthers with 2.5 sacks so ar.

Brady may say he feels great, and he probably does. But allowing him to take nearly two dozen hits through three games is not really a sustainable business plan. The Patriots offensive line needs to protect him better, period.

Rookie Sensation

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Christian McCaffrey (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Last week, Desaun Watson was the rookie sensation who put forth a surprisingly effective performance in the Patriots’ own building. Will it be Christian McCaffrey this week?

The eighth overall pick in last spring’s draft, McCaffrey has two solid performances in his first three pro games. He caught nine passes for 101 yards in his NFL debut vs. San Francisco, and he rushed for 47 yards on 13 carries while catching five passes for 38 yards in Week 3 vs. New Orleans. In his three games, he’s gained 246 yards from scrimmage on 43 total touches, averaging 5.72 yards per touch.

Part of the Patriots’ defensive issues has been containing rookies. Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt ran for 148 yards and a touchdown and also caught five passes for 98 yards and two more scores. Saints rookie running back Alvin Kamara was stopped on the ground, but he did catch three passes for 51 yards, including a 38-yarder. And Watson rushed for 41 yards and threw for 301 yards last week.

In the case of Hunt, it killed the Patriots. Kamara’s contributions didn’t matter much for the Saints. Watson came about as close to winning as possible.

One way or another, McCaffrey figures to be an important part of Carolina’s game plan for Sunday. The Patriots are going to be hoping for some improvement in slowing him down.

Back To The Ground

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Mike Gillislee carries the ball against the Houston Texan. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Tom Brady did everything last week for the Patriots, and that’s largely because he had to. The Patriots had no running game whatsoever.

Mike Gillislee ran for 31 yards on 12 carries. James White contributed with 17 yards on five carries. Brady himself was the third-leading rusher with just six yards.

It wasn’t just the totals, either, as Gillislee was stuffed on a third-and-1 attempt in the fourth quarter, forcing a Patriots punt.

This isn’t what the Patriots envisioned when they assembled a backfield with Gillislee, White, Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead. Though Burkhead is out with a rib injury, the backfield should be able to endure without him.

Gillislee scored three times in the season opener, but so far he has just 145 rushing yards on 45 carries for just a 3.2 yard-per-carry average.

Carolina has allowed 4.1 yards per carry this season, which puts them smack-dab in the middle of the NFL’s rankings. The opportunities should be there.

For as long as Tom Brady is on the roster, the running game will never be the focal point. But it has to be existent.

You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

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