To the non-observer, this weekend’s matchup between the Oakland Raiders and Carolina Panthers won’t sound all that interesting. However, for those who have followed the NFL all season, this game will showcase some of the best talent you’ve never heard of before now.
Most of this talent belongs to Carolina, winners of three of its last four games. The 5-9 Panthers have the stars we all know like Cam Newton and Steve Smith, but many would be shocked to find out the team’s defense is actually ranked 10th in the league. The defensive unit’s success stems from the play of rookie linebacker Luke Kuechly and his 138 tackles, second-most in the NFL this season. In addition, defensive ends like Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy help to keep constant pressure on the quarterback and free up space for Keuchly to roam.
The strength of the Panthers’ defense is defending the pass, giving up a measly 218 yards per game. That 10th-ranked pass defense is aided by the pass rush of Hardy and Johnson, both of whom have more than 10 sacks. The secondary isn’t the best at intercepting passes, but they are excellent at knocking down passes. When teams run the ball against Carolina, Kuechly is the main man to plug up the holes and bring down the ball carrier. However, he gets help from Thomas Davis, who is no slouch himself with 91 tackles this season.
Newton is the main chunk of the Panthers’ offense, leading the team with more than 3,200 passing yards and nearly 650 rushing yards. His main target in the air is Smith, who he has targeted 121 times this season with 66 catches, 1,056 yards and three touchdowns to show for it. Newton has gotten better at looking for other receivers and Brandon LaFell has benefited from that with 34 catches for more than 550 yards and four scores. In addition, Newton has gotten comfortable with his tight end Greg Olsen, who has five touchdown catches and 59 receptions overall this season.
Unlike last week’s game with the Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland cannot just sell out on the run because Carolina is prolific enough in the passing game to burn the secondary. On the other side of the ball, the Raiders’ offense must figure out its identity and figure out whether or not it wants to go to the ground 30 times a game or if it wants to air it out like it’s done all season. The only thing we know for sure is, this game is not one to sleep on on Sunday.