Five on Cam’s Cats
PHILADELPHIA (973espn.com) - You might not know it but the unbeaten Carolina Panthers are on quite the roll.
The Panthers' Week 6 comeback win at Seattle was the team's ninth consecutive victory dating back to last season, the longest winning streak in franchise history and the longest active run in the NFL.
The two-time defending NFC South champions will be a far different bunch than the one that showed up in Philadelphia last season when the Eagles drubbed them, 45-21, sacking Cam Newton nine times. The currently struggling Jordan Matthews also has one of the best weeks of his rookie season against Carolina, snaring seven passes for 138 yards and two touchdowns.
Newton was a stationary target in that one, hampered by a plethora of injuries, including a recent ankle surgery and Connor Barwin had a career day playing spy, amassing 3 1/2 sacks against perhaps the best dual-threat QB in history.
(Listen to John McMullen discuss the Panthers and Eagles keys to the game)
The problem this time is that the 6-foot-5, 260-pound Newton will be showing up in Charlotte Sunday night completely healthy. On paper the Carolina offense isn't all that impressive, just 28th in the NFL overall with the 30th ranked passing game. And without Kelvin Benjamin, who was lost for the season to a torn ACL, Carolina has some real issues at wide receiver.
That said, they are always dangerous thanks to Newton, the only player in NFL history to start a career with four consecutive seasons with 3,000-plus passing yards and 500-or-more on the ground. Already the former Heisman Trophy winner is second in NFL history with 27 career games with both a passing and rushing touchdown, including last week's thrilling comeback win in Seattle.
His uniqueness is further displayed by the fact that is the only quarterback in NFL history to pass for at least 250 yards with two touchdowns and rush for at least 100 yards with a touchdown in a game. And he has accomplished the feat twice. He's also got four games with at least 200 passing yards, multiple touchdown passes and at least 80 rushing yards and a touchdown run, again the most in history.
The point being is that Cam can beat you in multiple ways and despite last season's success, the Eagles are under no illusion that things are going to go that smoothly again.
"I think Cam last year was different," Eagles coach Chip Kelly admitted. "Cam was coming off an ankle surgery and he wasn't really running. They weren't really running him that much. He's playing different this year. I've said it before, I don't think a lot of the things we did last year are really what we are going to be doing this year."
Two things define Carolina football -- Cam and a dominant defense. Through six weeks, the Panthers' stop unit is again among the best in the NFL, ranking seventh in total defense.
If Carolina finishes top 10 again, it will be the fourth consecutive season that Sean McDermott, an ex-Eagles defensive coordinator, has turned that trick in the Tar Heel State. Only Carolina, Seattle and San Francisco have each fielded a top-10 defense for three straight years.
Like Bill Davis' D, the Panthers like to turn it over and Carolina is tied for second in the league NFL with eight interceptions, with two of those returned for touchdowns. Cornerback Josh Norman, who returned both of those pick sixes, is the star on the back end and is playing at an All-Pro level
The real stalwarts of the unit, however, are the team's two three-down linebackers, Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. After missing three games due to a concussion suffered in the first half of Week 1 at Jacksonville, Kuechly returned to the starting lineup against the Seahawks, responding with a team-leading 16 tackles. Davis, meanwhile, is a tackling machine who already has two sacks, two INTs, three pass breakups and a forced fumble.
"He's a true three-down linebacker, he's sideline-to-sideline, and [he’s] one of the fastest linebackers in the league," Kelly said of Davis. "Now that you have Kuechly back with him, that's why I said that pair is the best pair we'll face. They don't come off the field and they shouldn't come off the field. They can cover tight ends and they can cover running backs and then they can run sideline-to-sideline. ...Now with Luke back, you have both those guys in there and that's a tall task for us."
Carolina didn't produce a takeaway for the first time in 2015 last week but is tied for the NFL lead plus-6 turnover differential, a daunting figure considering Sam Bradford's penchant for throwing the football to the other team..
Panthers tight end Greg Olsen is what Eagles fans want Zach Ertz to be. Back in '14, Olsen earned his first Pro Bowl selection after finishing the regular season with 84 receptions for 1,008 yards and six receiving touchdowns. With Benjamin gone, he's by far Carolina's top receiving threat and one of the tougher matchups Malcolm Jenkins and Walter Thurmond will face all season.
Olsen already has two 100-yard receiving games this year and ranks fourth in the NFL at his position in receiving yards (425), is tied for ninth in receptions (24) and is deadlocked for fourth with three receiving touchdowns despite playing only five of the six weeks.
"He's probably one of the best pass-receiving tight ends in the league, and he is a big target of theirs," Davis said of Olsen. "He runs great routes; he's a primary in a lot of their route patterns, and he's playing at a high level. And (for) Cam, it is kind of his comfort zone getting it to (Olsen) and finding him. You throw it anywhere near him, he catches it. He's really hitting his stride and is one of their top targets."
POWERFUL RUNNING GAME
The Panthers racked up 135 rushing yards in Seattle last week, the team's 16th consecutive game with at least 100. Newton is obviously a big part of that success but so is powerful running back Jonathan Stewart, who leads the Panthers with 298 rushing yards on 79 carries.
Since Week 13 of last year, Stewart has rushed for 977 yards, the second-most in the NFL during that time with three 100-yard games over that span. Stewart's no home-run hitter but at 235 pounds, he's a handful and the Philadelphia front seven could have issues later in the game if that pesky time of possession issue pops up again.
"The challenge is they are going to try to pound you and they have got a back in Jonathan who is a big, physical downhill running back," Kelly said. "And then you have a quarterback – and it’s different than other zone-read-type teams you face where it' a quick, agile quarterback that's going to break outside -- in Cam who can pound you, too, because he's -- unlike many quarterbacks -- got to be the biggest quarterback in the league from that standpoint in terms of rushing.
"So I think they are just going to try to wear you down and pound you a little bit. I think their offensive line is built that way. Their running game is built that way, so it's can we stand in there and go to toe-to-toe with them, is going to be the challenge for us."
PETERS AND JOHNSON
It's no coincidence that the Eagles have started to turn the corner at the same time that the offensive line play has picked up dramatically, specifically from the two tackles, All-Pro Jason Peters and his bookend Lane Johnson. According to ProFootballFocus.com Philadelphia's OTs pitched a shutout against the Giants, recording perfect pass protection grades in 43 dropbacks. Meanwhile, the Eagles offensive line as a whole also had it's best game.
The pivot point was before the Saints win when Peters blew up at practice after a series of questions about his quad injury and the line's underwhelming play to that point. Carolina, which no longer has Greg Hardy rushing the passer, will have to hope the big man doesn't feel disrespected this week.
"You're talking about a perennial Pro Bowl player. So if J gives up one play where a guy beats him around the edge, it's like, ‘Oh, my God, what's wrong with Jason Peters?’ But if it's anybody else, you don't say that," Kelly said. "So if he blocks his guy 79 times and on the 80th time he gets beat, ‘It's what's wrong with J.P.?’ I think it's just that we have such a high standard for him and he has such a high standard for himself. But he did play his best game this past week and I think he's playing really, really well right now."
973espn.com prediction: Until Bradford proves he cam play a clean game, it's tough to pick the Eagles on the road against an unbeaten team. Panthers 20, Eagles 17
-John McMullen covers the Eagles and the NFL for 973espn.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JFMcMullen