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Crunching The Numbers: Carolina Panthers

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After a big win over the Cardinals, can the Eagles keep rolling against the 4-1 Panthers?

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NFL: Carolina Panthers at Detroit Lions Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the Week 6 edition of Crunching The Numbers! This is a series of weekly game previews where I use a set of selected statistics to make some suggestions about how the Eagles should handle their upcoming opponent. Some background on my methodology (and an archive of previous posts) can be found in this hub.

We’ll get to the Panthers in a minute, but first I want to review how some of my game plan “suggestions” held up during the Eagles’ thrashing of the Cardinals. This is something I’ll do every week as a self-assessment of my posts. My two main points were:

  1. The Eagles should be aggressive when they have the ball, as Arizona is more likely to give up touchdowns than hold teams to field goals.
  2. The Eagles should avoid blitzing “like the plague” because their lack of speed in the secondary will haunt them if they bring too much heat, especially in a Bruce Arians vertical offense.

As far as the first point goes, I was specifically talking about fourth downs, but the Eagles were so damn good at converting third downs on their first three scoring drives that the need to go for it on fourth all but vanished. That being said, they were still fairly aggressive, especially when dialing up that deep bomb to Agholor on third-and-nineteen when most teams would have called a draw play. Still, the game got out of hand so quickly that being aggressive wasn’t really all that necessary, so I’ll call that a wash.

In the comment section, my suggestion that they back off the blitz was somewhat controversial, as community members used the lack of speed in the secondary as rationale that they should blitz more, not less. Interestingly enough, members over at Revenge of the Birds were terrified of us being able to generate pressure with three or four down linemen. In any case, from what I found the Eagles sent five or more rushers on 13 out of 44 passing plays, for a blitz rate of 29.5%. For what it’s worth, that’s about in line with the league-wide average this season. That is certainly not “avoiding the blitz like the plague,” but it’s not going all-out either, so I stand by my original claim.

But enough about the Cardinals. That game is in the books. Let’s talk about the Panthers. Below is a table of five statistics I use to judge each team. The number in parenthesis is the league rank. Bold-face numbers indicate which team has the advantage for that particular statistic.

Matt Takes

On the whole, these teams are pretty evenly matched. Each club has a significant advantage in one statistic - OY/CMP for Carolina and OY/PT for Philadelphia - and are either very close or just middle-of-the-pack in other categories.

As far as the Eagles go, I won’t touch up on them too much since we’ll see their statistics every week. If there is a significant week-to-week spike or decline in a certain area I’ll discuss it, but for now the most important thing to note is that they are top-ten in every category except for OY/CMP, where they are not very good at all. This is encouraging considering how much the injury bug has bit them this season. And their weakest area can at least be partially explained by the injury to Darby. Once he’s back to full health this team has the potential to kick it into another gear.

Of course, they won’t have Darby when they face the Panthers. Will that be the difference when they make the trip down to Charlotte on Thursday?

When The Eagles Have The Ball

Both of these teams are going to be hell-bent on playing “keep-away” from the opposing offense. Through five games, they have both been the best in the league at this. While I am a big fan of deferring the opening kick to the second half - and Doug is too, as this is what he normally does - there is a part of me that wants to see the Eagles take the ball to start the game and grind out a seven-minute touchdown drive to set the tone early. I won’t be upset if they win the toss and defer, but the defense better be ready to play physical football right out of the gate if that happens.

This is the second straight week where the Eagles will face a team that is in the bottom 12 of OY/PT. Because of this, I will stick to my same assertion that they need to stay aggressive. The Panthers, like the Cardinals, are more likely to give up the touchdown if you can move the ball on them. Staying aggressive on fourth downs will also have the added benefit of keeping the ball out of Newton’s hands, which should be a top priority of the offensive gameplan. Possessions will not come as often as they had in previous games and it’s important that Wentz and Company does everything they can to make each one count.

I also want to see the Eagles go deep on one of their first two possessions. Even make it the opening play (this was a popular move by Pederson’s mentor, Andy Reid). The Panthers are second in the league in OY/CMP. They do an excellent job of keeping everything in front of them. If the Eagles can show early that they aren’t afraid to test the back end of the secondary, they won’t be given much at all to work with by the defense. Those clock-churning, methodical drives are easier to achieve if they are able to cultivate the intermediate passing game over the middle. The best way to accomplish this is by forcing the defense to respect the deep ball.

When The Panthers Have The Ball

The Eagles are twenty-fourth in OY/CMP but seventh in OY/PT. This is a great indicator that Schwartz is deploying a “bend but don’t break” defense. This matches up very well with the Panthers... if the offense is able to score. This will be a demanding game on Schwartz as his style of play will depend on the performance of the offense. If Wentz is having difficulty putting together scoring drives, the defense will need to force more punts early to give him more opportunities to get things going. On the other hand, if the offense is clicking, Schwartz can play a more relaxed style of defense and tighten up in the red zone.

Again, in this game I wouldn’t blitz more than average. Until they get Darby’s (and later Jones’) speed back, there is too much opportunity for Newton to burn them. Cam is sixth in the league in YPA so having both safeties available to cover deep and intermediate routes will be key to limiting the damage he can cause. Additionally, Christian McCaffery is evolving into a nice weapon in the passing game. I have no doubt he’ll serve as a safety valve should Cam find himself under pressure (if he doesn’t take off with it himself). The Eagles are better off playing contain, dropping seven into coverage, and forcing the Panthers to take what they give them instead of taking what they want.

Closing Thoughts

This game will serve as a great litmus test for the Eagles. It’s played on the road, on a short week, against a formidable opponent. The Panthers will be the best team they’ve played since benching Seumalo, so now is as good an opportunity than ever to show that they’ve improved since falling to the Chiefs back in Week 2.

Statistically, these teams are pretty even. However, Carolina has the benefit of playing for the home crowd. If the Eagles want to walk out of that stadium with a win heading into a long break before the Redskins game, they’ll have to bring some extra fire with them onto the field.