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Tape Study: What to expect from the Panthers

The Giants take on the Panthers this Sunday, with Carolina coming off their very early bye week at 2-1. Here's what I saw watching their first three games on tape.

When the Panthers have the ball…

The Spotlight: Cam Newton

Newton is still the centerpiece of everything the Panthers do offensively. He is a threat to run on every play and at 245 pounds, is a load to tackle. A good deal of Carolina's runs appear to include an option for Newton to read the defense and keep it if he deems it prudent. They design runs for him both inside and outside all over the field, and on draws and power runs in goal-to-go situations.

Inside the Numbers: Cam Newton has the third-most rushing yards for a quarterback in NFL history with 4,456. His 57 rushing touchdowns are the most all-time for a quarterback. This season, the Panthers have scored a touchdown on 100% of their drives in goal-to-go situations inside the five, in large part due to Newton's running ability. Newton's 7.2 yards per carry vs. the Giants is his highest average versus any team (minimum three games played against them).

“He’s big and he’s physical, and you’ve got to really make an effort to get him to the ground. He’s a big 260-pound guy. He plays above the rim, he can see what he’s throwing to because he’s so tall. I think (Norv Turner) is doing a good job of featuring him as a runner, a lot of structured quarterback-type runs. There’s a lot of eye candy to that to try to get you going one direction, then they’re willing with him to pull it and run. They’re doing a good job with that, they’re doing what works for them – fake it to (Christian McCaffrey), let him run, give it to McCaffrey, let him fake it, those type things.” Giants Head Coach Pat Shurmur

As a passer, Newton has one of the strongest arms in the league and can make all the throws. His accuracy is inconsistent, as he can sometimes flat out miss open receivers down the field wide or high. He is completing 67.4% of his passes, which would be by far the best of his career. The last time he completed 60% of his passes was in 2013.

Inside the Numbers: Cam Newton has struggled in his first game after a Panthers bye week. He is just 3-4 in those games, averaging 228 yards per game on 53% passing with eight interceptions to just three touchdowns and a 64.0 quarterback rating.

Despite the fact Newton likes to push the ball down the field, he has only thrown one interception this year and hasn't put the ball in danger much. He likes to hit his receivers on deep out and in cuts in front of the safeties. Newton will hang in the pocket and patiently wait to see if those routes develop before checking down. 

Inside the Numbers: The Panthers have only two giveaways this season, and opponents have scored no points off of those turnovers.

The Matchup: Christian McCaffrey

The Giants will have to deal with the two best receiving running backs in the league in consecutive weeks. Last week it was Alvin Kamara, and this week it is Christian McCaffrey. In just three games, McCaffrey has 22 catches for 157 yards and is a comfortable check-down option for Newton if things aren't open down the field.

The Panthers don't put McCaffrey in the slot or out wide as a wide receiver nearly as much as the Saints do with Kamara. Most of his targets come from when he lines up in the backfield. They will use him in the screen game and try to get him in space against linebackers with a two-way go.

Inside the Numbers: McCaffrey is second in the league at 142.7 scrimmage yards per game. He leads his team in rushing yards and receptions (22) and is second in receiving yards to Devin Funchess.

The Panthers are using McCaffrey much more as a traditional running back this year, and he has proven to be a decisive one-cut running back. He will not dally in the backfield and attacks the hole quickly. At only 5-11 and 205 pounds, McCaffrey won't bulldoze people or push the pile much, but he has shown the strength and balance to break tackles.

Inside the Numbers: McCaffrey set career highs in carries (28) and rushing yards (184) in Week 3 against the Bengals.

Aside from his excellent hands and route running, McCaffrey's best trait is his elusiveness. He is extremely quick and hard to take down in the open field. It will be important to swarm to the ball once he catches it in order to gang tackle him. His speed can turn a short catch or run into a long, game-changing play very quickly.

Inside the Numbers: McCaffrey is averaging 5.9 yards per carry and has run the ball nearly twice as many times to the right as he has to the left. According to Pro Football Focus, he has had the most success running to the left, however, where he has run 16 times for 112 yards with three rushes of 10 yards or more.

“One thing about him, when I turn the tape on, I see an explosive guy who’s not afraid. He’s shifty, he can do all those things in space, but he’s not afraid to put his foot down, lower his pads, and he’s going to try and run someone over. Those are the kinds of backs that as a defensive coach you have a lot of respect for, that when it’s time to put your pads down and get those tough two yards, this is a guy who’s going to put his pads down and get the tough two yards.” Giants Defensive Coordinator James Bettcher

Brees has had issues with interceptions in past seasons, but this year he has protected the football and thrown no interceptions. None of his passes have been close to being picked off.

Inside the Numbers: Drew Brees has the highest passer rating (112.1) of any quarterback that has faced the Giants in the Super Bowl era (minimum 200 attempts). He is 5-2 against the Giants, with a 67% completion percentage, 311 yards per game, 20 touchdowns and four interceptions.

Panthers Offensive Scheme and Tendencies

• Norv Turner was handed the keys to the Panthers offense this year, and it is impressive how he has combined what he likes to do with what Cam Newton excels at. He left all the read-option stuff in the playbook and has used Newton's arm strength as a weapon in a downfield passing attack. There are vertical and intermediate routes nearly every play that will consistently challenge the Giants safeties (and linebackers in zone) to be in the right spot to prevent chunk plays.

• With all those vertical routes dragging defenders away from the line of scrimmage, McCaffrey often leaks out of the backfield to catch short passes that can turn into five to eight-yard gains with potential for more if he can make the initial defender(s) miss.

Inside the Numbers: Despite the fact the Panthers run a lot of vertical and intermediate routes, they only have seven completions of 20 yards or more, tied for the fewest in the league with the Cowboys and Titans. Newton's passer rating on throws that travel greater than 20 yards in the air is only 39.6. The Panthers do have three runs of 20 yards or more, tied for fifth most in the league and 18 rushes of 10 yards or more, tied for third most in the league. With all cumulative stats, it is important to note the Panthers have played only three games while most other NFL teams have played four.

• The offensive line was a major concern for the Panthers coming into the season, especially after season-ending injuries to left tackle Matt Kalil before the season started and to starting right tackle Daryl Williams in Week 1 against Dallas. Trai Turner, the team's starting right guard, missed the last two weeks with a concussion but is expected to return this week. Despite those issues, the Panthers offensive line has protected long enough to give Cam Newton time to get the ball down the field without getting pummeled. The interior and left side of the offensive line is where defenses have had the most success attacking. Newton has been sacked six times this year.

Inside the Numbers: Through the first three weeks of the season (the last time the Panthers played), Pro Football Focus had the Panthers offensive line rated as the 18th-best unit in the league. Right tackle and 2017 second round pick Taylor Moton has been the star as the highest graded right tackle in the league by Pro Football Focus through the first three weeks.

• The Panthers use their receivers in fairly distinct roles. Devin Funchess is Newton's go-to receiver and he usually lines up on the left side of the formation. He is a bigger receiver at 6-5 and 236 pounds who does his damage on passes in the 10 to 20-yard range on deep in cuts and out routes. He has a big catch radius but lacks the burner speed to get behind defenders. Janoris Jenkins usually handles receivers like this extremely well.

• Torrey Smith is the Panthers' deep threat. He hasn't connected on a big play yet, with his longest catch being just 26 yards, but he is the player the Panthers want to stretch the field with. He lines up on the right side of the formation. Jarius Wright is their slot receiver and operates mostly in the short to intermediate range between the numbers.

• DJ Moore, the 24th overall pick of the 2018 NFL Draft, has only had 67 offensive snaps, and at least for now, has mostly been used on gadget plays. They will motion him through the backfield on fake end-arounds, or try to get it to him in space near the line of scrimmage. He only has two catches this year, but one went for 51 yards and a touchdown. He is still learning the nuances of playing wide receiver but is extremely dangerous with the ball in his hands in run-after-the-catch situations. You get the feeling his breakout game is coming soon.

• Ian Thomas has taken Greg Olsen's snaps at tight end. Thomas is a raw athlete with good speed, but the rookie fourth-round pick is still figuring things out.

• The read option is the basis of the Panthers running game and features unique action in the backfield, including players other than McCaffrey or CJ Anderson and Newton, to try to confuse the defense. Newton does an excellent job holding the ball in front of the running back for a long time before making the decision whether to hand off or keep, which puts pressure on a defense's discipline.

Inside the Numbers: The Panthers lead the NFL with 166 yards per game, while the Giants are 29th in rush defense (126 yards per game). According to Pro Football Focus, the Panthers lead the league with three yards before contact, and are second in the NFL with .26 missed tackles per attempt. The Panthers have the second-highest first-half rush percentage in the league at 48.4%. They run it on first down just under 54% of the time, the seventh-highest rate in the league. Sixty percent (60%) of the Panthers' first down runs go for four yards or more, the highest rate in the league.

“Their misdirection, guys like McCaffrey catching the ball out of the backfield. Cam Newton holding their zone read longer than most quarterbacks will hold it. Sometimes, he just takes it when he shouldn’t take it. On those, you just have to play sound defense. You’ve got to play sound defense against him and be able to tackle these guys. They can make big gains.” Safety Landon Collins

When the Giants have the ball:

The Spotlight: Luke Kuechly 

Kuechly is one of the best two-way linebackers in football. He flows to the ball in the running game, excels in coverage in space, and diagnoses what offenses are trying to do as well as anyone in the league. He plays MIKE linebacker for the Panthers and is healthy.

There isn't much Kuechly can't do, but his greatest strength is in coverage, and it will be fun watching him match up with Saquon Barkley throughout the game. Kuechly is also essential to the Carolina pass defense. In their Cover 3 heavy scheme, he has to handle a large portion of the middle of the field and, for the most part, does it well. The seam can be vulnerable against Cover 3, but Kuechly often takes care of that.

Kuechly runs sideline to sideline in the run game, and is a sure tackler. He is also used as an A-gap blitzer on certain plays. He and Eli Manning will be matching wits throughout the game as their two units constantly adjust to one another

Inside the Numbers: Kuechly had 15 interceptions in his first six years in the league. He already has another one this year. Pro Football Focus has him graded as the 11th-best coverage linebacker in the league this season.

He’s obviously extremely fast, but he prepares hard, he feels things out, he senses things and just finds a way to be around the ball, so he’s just all over the place directing traffic and getting those guys lined up in the right spot. Giants Quarterback Eli Manning

The Matchup: Kawann Short

The Giants have faced a number of excellent pass rushing defensive ends so far this year, but they haven't seen a defensive tackle like Kawann Short. Despite not posting eye-popping numbers, he is one of the top interior defensive linemen against the run and pass in the NFL.

Short will line up near Will Hernandez, giving the Giants rookie second round pick his biggest test of the season. Short plays with strength, quickness and technique in either one-on-one situations or in pass rush games with defensive end Mario Addison. Against the run, he is stout and difficult to move off his spot.

Inside the Numbers: Short has had six or more sacks in each of his last three seasons. So far this season, he has two sacks, two quarterback hits and six hurries in only three games played. Pro Football Focus has him graded as the 12th-best interior defensive lineman in football based on his 2018 performance thus far.

He's a big, strong guy that moves well laterally, is very well aware of what is going on in the backfield. We’re just going to have to come out and be smart with him and be technically sound. This is not a guy you want to go through the motions with. Giants Guard Will Hernandez

Panthers Defensive Scheme and Tendencies

• The Panthers play Cover 3 zone defense almost exclusively. Mike Adams plays the single-high safety position with Colin Jones or possibly new addition Eric Reid playing closer to the line of scrimmage. On second or third and very long, the Panthers will occasionally play two-deep coverage, often quarters, but it is rare.

• Panther cornerbacks James Bradberry and Donte Jackson make it a point not to get beat over the top outside. You can still get chunk plays against the Panthers defense, but those often come on deep crossing routes or flag routes in front of the three defensive backs in the deep zone. It does often take time for those routes to develop. Both cornerbacks are sure tacklers and do a nice job of preventing runs after the catch on plays in front of them. They are also not shy about supporting in the run game. Captain Munnerlyn has a lot of experience as their slot cornerback.

Inside the Numbers: In Week 2 against the Falcons, Carolina kept Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley under control, holding them to nine catches for 128 yards. The Bengals had more success with chunk plays in Week 3, with Tyler Boyd catching a 49-yard pass on a scramble drill, and a couple others for 20+ yards. A.J. Green caught one for 31 yards as well.

• The Panthers second-most disruptive defensive lineman after Kawann Short is right defensive end Mario Addison. He had 11 sacks last season and already has 2.5 this year. According to Pro Football Focus' tracking, he also has three quarterback hurries. Carolina will run a lot of twists and other pass rush games with Addison and Short to try and confuse offensive lines. Giants left tackle Nate Solder and left guard Will Hernandez will have to work together well to keep Eli Manning protected.

• The Panthers play a traditional four-man front, though in obvious passing situations, they will sometimes stand up their fourth rusher to try to confuse the offense. They will blitz their linebackers into the A gap occasionally (and also fake it before dropping into coverage), and will sometimes bring a defensive back off the edge, but they prefer to rush only four and trust their linemen to get home.

“They have a good defensive line. They do a good job bringing different pressures, moving around. We just have to make sure we’re all on the same page, understanding our assignments, where we’re going and if we get everything blocked up, here’s a chance to get the ball down the field.” Giants Quarterback Eli Manning

Keep an eye on these five players as the Giants take on the Panthers.