On Sunday, the Green Bay Packers welcome the NFC South-leading Carolina Panthers to Lambeau Field. James Dator of Cat Scratch Reader was kind enough to answer some questions about the Panthers and provide insight into their strengths and weaknesses.
APC: After some early season struggles, Cam Newton exploded last week for nearly 300 yards through the air and another 100 on the ground. What changed for Newton, and is this the type of play you expect out of him moving forward?
That's the big question we're asking too. I'm not sure there's a good answer to it. Perhaps it's a situation where the easier answer is the correct one, but desperation played a huge role. With DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert injured the ground game was in tatters.
Against Cincinnati it was either about abandoning the run all together, or risking Cam Newton. In the end offensive coordinator Mike Shula had faith in his quarterback and it paid dividends. Now Cam has proved it I think it will continue.
APC: Following a year when the Panthers defense was one of the league's strongest, it appears the unit has regressed in 2014. How have they performed in your estimation, and what are the catalysts for the change from last season?
Carolina's defensive success in 2013 was a perfect storm that was going to be very difficult to reproduce. It required having a pass rush so dominant that issues in the secondary could be overshadowed, all while having a group of linebackers that rarely made mistakes.
This year we've seen Charles Johnson perform lackluster to start the year, Greg Hardy is lost due to his legal issues and the secondary isn't quite as good as it was a year ago. Luke Kuechly is on pace to have his best season, but the big catalyst for change has been a defensive line that isn't quite as good as it was a year ago.
APC: Carolina lost stalwart left tackle Jordan Gross this offseason to retirement. Has he been adequately replaced, and how has the offensive line performed as a whole?
Simply put: The offensive line is a disaster. I'm not sure what came over them against Cincinnati, but for the first time all year they played decently. Otherwise this is a very poor unit, especially at the tackle position.
Byron Bell was a nice UDFA pickup and a valuable rotational right tackle, but he has no business playing as a starting left tackle in the NFL. So too Nate Chandler has shown flashes on the right, but again -- he's a UDFA pickup who shouldn't be starting. The Panthers hoped the offensive line could be good enough this season, and largely they haven't.
APC: If you were game planning against the Panthers, how would you attack them on offense? On defense?
Offensively: Quick passing and attack a poor secondary with crossing and slant routes. Carolina's corners just aren't very good, but give the defensive line too much time and they'll find a way through. Challenge Luke Kuechly in pass coverage a lot. He's the best linebacker in the NFL at stopping the run and diagnosing a play pre-snap, but he has a tendency to over-pursue when covering receivers.
Defensively: Do what it takes to take Greg Olsen out of the game. It's unclear if Kelvin Benjamin will be able to play as he goes through the league's concussion protocol, so it's all about stopping the tight end. Cam Newton's running is a wild card, and if the Panthers plan to have him carry the ball another 20 times then he'll have to be spied -- but this causes problems for a linebacker grouping if they're needing to bracket a TE and worry about a running quarterback.
APC: Finally, it's prediction time. Which team wins on Sunday and why?
Oh God. This is where I'm supposed to pick the Panthers to win, right? Okay, well I'm a realist. This is a darn tough game for Carolina and on the road no less. If Cam Newton is able to have free reign then the Panthers will give the Packers a run, but as it stands I'll say the Packers win 27-21.
We'd like to thank James and Cat Scratch Reader for answering our questions. Be sure to check out our Q&A session over there as well as their fantastic coverage of all things Panthers. As always, keep your internet machines tuned to Acme Packing Company this Sunday for our comprehensive game-day coverage of Panthers vs. Packers.