Pan­thers wary of high-oc­tane Pa­tri­ots of­fense

Pawtucket Times - - SPORTS - By KYLE HIGHTOWER As­so­ci­ated Press

FOXBORO — The Carolina Pan­thers' de­fense made a state­ment dur­ing the first two weeks of the sea­son when it held the San Fran­cisco 49ers and Buf­falo Bills to a com­bined six points in back-to-back vic­to­ries.

It took a step back­ward in last week's loss 34-13 to New Or­leans, but still is the NFL's top-ranked de­fense en­ter­ing Sun­day's matchup with New Eng­land. Through three games, Carolina is al­low­ing just 252 yards per game.

The Pan­thers (2-1) now are hop­ing to fix what­ever vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties were ex­posed against the Saints as they pre­pare to face Tom Brady and a Pa­tri­ots of­fense that is av­er­ag­ing a league-best 441 yards per game.

Carolina coach Ron Rivera said that even at 40 years old, he thinks Brady is as for­mi­da­ble as ever. He said the ab­sence of re­ceiver Ju­lian Edel­man has only caused Brady to make mi­nor ad­just­ments.

“You see him spread­ing the ball out a lit­tle more — mostly out of ne­ces­sity,” Rivera said. “But he still has an ar­ray of weapons. He just doesn't have that one sin­gu­lar guy that he's had in the past.”

Whether he has a go-to guy or not, as the Pa­tri­ots (2-1) pre­pare for their tough­est de­fen­sive test of the sea­son, the of­fen­sive line's abil­ity to pro­tect Brady will be in the spot­light.

Brady was sacked 15 times dur­ing his ab­bre­vi­ated 12-game reg­u­lar sea­son in 2016. That num­ber is al­ready up to 10 this sea­son.

But Brady main­tains his re­cov­ery time is also bet­ter be­cause he has learned how to ab­sorb pun­ish­ment dur­ing his ca­reer.

“You do have to learn how to find the way down in a way that you'll be able to get up and try to play the next play,” Brady said. “There's some luck in­volved, but let's go again, baby. Let's line them up and play.”

The Pan­thers have done a good job get­ting af­ter the quar­ter­back this sea­son, post­ing eight to­tal sacks. At 37, line­backer Julius Pep­pers leads the team with 2 1/2 sacks.

But line­backer Luke Kuechly, who has a team-best 25 tack­les, said they can't ig­nore the ver­sa­til­ity of New Eng­land' run game. Mike Gil­lislee is tied for the NFL lead with four rush­ing scores, and James White has 12 catches for 126 yards.

“They got some­thing for ev­ery­thing,” Kuechly said. “I think that's what makes them unique is they've got guys than can run the ball, they've got guys that can catch the ball . ... We've got to have our eyes open and see who's com­ing in the game.”

Here are some things to watch in Sun­day's game:

MILE­STONE WATCH: With 185 ca­reer reg­u­lar-sea­son vic­to­ries as a start­ing quar­ter­back, Brady is one win from ty­ing Brett Favre and Pey­ton Man­ning (186) for the most in NFL his­tory.

CAP­TAIN, MY CAP­TAIN: Pan­thers vet­eran nickel back Cap­tain Mun­ner­lyn was shocked and up­set that he only played 11 snaps against Drew Brees and the Saints in Carolina's 34-13 loss on Sun­day. This week, he let coaches know about it.

“I didn't come here for that,” said Mun­ner­lyn, who signed a four-year, $17.5 mil­lion deal to re­turn to the Pan­thers. “And I told them. I ex­pressed my feel­ings. I want to play.”

Mun­ner­lyn av­er­aged 31 snaps in the team's first two games against Buf­falo and San Fran­cisco.

Rivera said the team will look at ways to get Mun­ner­lyn back on the field against the Pa­tri­ots and Brady. With start­ing cor­ner­back Daryl Wor­ley bat­tling a shoul­der in­jury, that could mean Mun­ner­lyn has to play some on the out­side.

McCAF­FREY'S ROLE: Rookie run­ning back Chris­tian McCaf­frey saw an ex­panded role as a re­ceiver last week with tight end Greg Olsen (bro­ken foot) out and wide re­ceiver Kelvin Ben­jamin miss­ing the fi­nal three quar­ters with a strained knee.

McCaf­frey was re­ally the one weapon Cam New­ton had in the pass­ing game, haul­ing in nine catches for 101 yards.

The Pan­thers have strug­gled all sea­son with pick­ing up big chunk plays and were held to just 13 points by the Saints, who had the NFL's 32nd ranked de­fense com­ing into last week's game. This week, New Eng­land is No. 32, but New­ton has strug­gled against all com­pe­ti­tion this sea­son with twice as many in­ter­cep­tions (four) as TD passes (two).

PER­FECT GANO: Pan­thers kicker Gra­ham Gano was locked in a kick­ing bat­tle with Har­ri­son Butker in the pre­sea­son, but emerged as the starter and has re­sponded by mak­ing all eight field goal at­tempts this sea­son. Carolina had signed Butker to the prac­tice squad, but the Kansas City Chiefs claimed him off waivers ear­lier this week.

File photo by Louri­ann Mardo-Zayat / lmzart­works.com

Tom Brady (12) and the No. 1 Pa­tri­ots of­fense will face its big­gest test of the young sea­son when Carolina and its No. 1 de­fense comes to Gil­lette Sta­dium to­mor­row af­ter­noon.

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