Panthers’ Rushing Attack vs. Browns’ Run Defense
The Panthers run game did not start the season off great but has picked it up as of late. This is one matchup they have to win if they want to stretch the win streak to three. The Cleveland Browns have been awful against the run this year, currently rank 31st, and have given up 1,927 rushing yards this season (137.6 yards per game). Last week could possibly have been their worst performance of the season as the Cincinnati Bengals ran for 244 yards and three touchdowns on their way to a 30-0 victory.
The Browns may get some help stopping the run with the possibility of middle linebacker Karlos Dansby returning this week. He has missed the past four games with a knee injury but has been practicing on a limited basis. This should help them a little bit but the matchup would still favor the Panthers.
The Panthers meanwhile have started to find some life on the ground and is something defenses now have to account for. Since their bye week, the Panthers have averaged 190.6 rushing yards per game mostly behind Jonathan Stewart, who is accounting for 105 of those yards.
If Cam Newton plays this week, the run game is going to be especially important because it will keep pressure off the quarterback. The less Newton has to throw the less chance there is of him taking a hit and possibly re-aggravating his back.
The Panthers defense is going to be focused on Johnny Manziel and try and rattle him. He is only making his second career start and his first was about as bad as it can get. He only threw for 80 yards and two interceptions against the Bengals. The Panthers are going to want the rookie quarterback to hold the ball as long as possible to allow the pass rush to get to him. This is where Josh Norman comes in.
He will most likely be lined up against the Browns’ wide receiver Josh Gordon, who was the league leader a season ago in receiving yards. Norman has really stepped up as of late and has the look of a shutdown cornerback. The Browns could potentially be without Andrew Hawkins this week due to injury, who is the team’s leading receiver. If Hawkins is not able to go that basically leaves Gordon as the only option. If Norman is able to stay with him this should cause problems for Manziel and either force him to throw a bad pass or start trying to scramble. A strong performance from the secondary on Sunday will go a long way in shutting down the Browns’ offense.
Another matchup the Panthers should win on Sunday is right in the middle of the trenches between defensive tackle Star Lotulelei and Browns’ center Nick McDonald. Cleveland’s offense suffered a major blow when they lost center Alex Mack for the season, who is one of the better centers in the game today. They have had to turn to McDonald who has struggled and according to Pro Football Focus is the third worst center this season (overall rating of -21.6).
Since Lotulelei returned from an ankle injury suffered in Week 10 against the Philadelphia Eagles, he really hasn’t been much of a factor, playing a total of 46 snaps the past two weeks. This would be the perfect game for him to get back to playing the way he did during his rookie year last season.
The Panthers defense will look for Lotulelei to not only get penetration on run plays and stop the play before it even starts but also on passing plays. If he can collapse the pocket from the middle it won’t allow Manziel to step into his throws and force him to scramble outside, hopefully right into one of the Panthers defensive ends.