QB, RB questions abound for Panthers vs. incoming Pats
The New England Patriots finally have their offense revved up at a pretty good clip.
On Sunday will come a different type of challenge in the Carolina Panthers, who’ve been mostly strong on defense.
The teams will meet in Charlotte, N.C., with one of them set to move above the .500 mark.
“All of our players are improving, and our team has improved,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said.
Both teams hold 4-4 records.
The Patriots are coming off wins against the New York Jets and Los Angeles Chargers. Those have come with perhaps the Pats’ two best offensive performances.
Carolina should present a stiff defense, giving up an average of 19.9 points per game.
The Panthers have 21 sacks this season. Patriots quarterback Mac Jones has been sacked just twice across the past two games.
“They mix their fronts. That’s difficult for the offense,” Belichick said. “Those seven guys can be in different positions. … It has certainly been interesting this week taking a look at the Panthers. I’m impressed with the physicality and the toughness and the competitiveness of the team.”
The Panthers played their past two games on the road, scoring a total of one touchdown. But Zane Gonzalez’s four field goals gave them a lift in a 19-13 victory at Atlanta, snapping a four-game losing streak. That included a 57-yarder on his way to being named the NFC Special Teams Player of the Week.
There are several unanswered questions about Carolina’s offense, beginning at quarterback. Sam Darnold left in the fourth quarter at Atlanta, entering the concussion protocol, and P.J. Walker filled in.
Darnold did little in Wednesday’s practice, also dealing with a shoulder ailment. Panthers coach Matt Rhule said Walker has been put in challenging situations.
“One of the things about being a back-up quarterback for us, you’re always going in in a dire situation,” Rhule said. “I don’t think there’s a guy in the locker room who doesn’t believe in him.”
Belichick said Walker appears to be more elusive than Darnold, whose status isn’t likely to be resolved until the weekend. The New England coach said Walker’s arm strength has been evident, even referencing what he has seen by reviewing Carolina’s preseason games.
Carolina could receive a boost if running back Christian McCaffrey plays; he’s back at practice after a stint on injured reserve. He hasn’t played since the third game of the season.
“(Panthers receiver D.J.) Moore and McCaffrey are two of the more explosive players in the league,” Belichick said. “They can really score from about any place on the field. There’s a lot of juice there.”
Rhule said: “Hopefully, we’ll have (McCaffrey). We’ll know more as the week goes on.”
The Panthers have thrived when they’ve had long drives.
“They do a good job of forcing you to play a lot of defensive plays,” Belichick said, pointing to concern about Carolina’s time of possession. “They don’t make a lot of mistakes in the running game. … That will be a challenge, trying to get them in long-yardage situations.”
The Patriots have been steady on the ground as well. Running back Damien Harris has a rushing touchdown in each of the past four games – including two against the Jets — and ranks sixth in NFL rushing with 517 yards.
Jakobi Meyers, who played at North Carolina State, is New England’s top receiver with 45 catches and 427 yards.
Cornerback Stephon Gilmore played in his first game for the Panthers last week, taking part in 17 defensive plays — frequently on third downs. He joined Carolina several weeks ago after a stellar run with the Patriots.
“I have a ton of respect for him,” Belichick said.
The Patriots are 3-0 on the road. This will mark the second consecutive road game for New England.
Carolina is 4-2 in regular-season matchups with the Patriots, winning the past two meetings.
Since 2002, New England holds the best inter-conference record in the NFL, winning 59 of 79 games against NFC opponents.
–Field Level Media