A detailed look at the key players to watch for the Carolina Panthers, and the Kansas City Chiefs’ keys to victory leading up to their Week 10 game at noon at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte. The game will air on CBS (Ch. 5 in Kansas City).
Coach: Ron Rivera (50-37-1) is in his sixth year as an NFL head coach, all with the Carolina Panthers. Prior to landing the Carolina job in 2011, the 54-year-old was a longtime linebacker with the Chicago Bears — he was a starter for the ’85 Super Bowl team — and spent 14 years as a defensive assistant, linebackers coach and defensive coordinator for three teams. In 2010 — his last year as the Chargers’ defensive coordinator — he guided the league’s top-ranked defense. He saved his job in 2013 by adopting an aggressive style in game-management situations, earning the nickname “Riverboat Ron,” but in Carolina, he’s built an old-school team that relies on running the ball and being stout and imposing on defense.
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Offense: Mike Shula, 51, is in his fourth year as Rivera’s offensive coordinator and his eighth overall as an NFL coordinator. The Panthers use a power-based man/gap blocking scheme up front and sprinkle in some zone-read, option plays and designed runs for star quarterback Cam Newton. “I don’t think anybody runs an offense like theirs,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. “I think it’s unique to them.” The Panthers rank 15th in the league in passing and ninth in rushing. The Panthers have passed the ball 54 percent of the time and have gone shotgun on approximately 64 percent of their offensive plays. The Panthers like to use two backs — fullback Mike Tolbert is in the game approximately 27 percent of the time — and they’ll also use two tight ends about 38 percent of the time.
Defense: Sean McDermott, 42, is in his sixth year as Rivera’s defensive coordinator and his eighth overall as an NFL defensive coordinator — he spent 2009 and 2010 as Chiefs coach Andy Reid’s DC in Philadelphia, where he tutored under Jim Johnson, one of the league’s best defensive coordinators. “Sean learned from the very, very best,” co-offensive coordinator Brad Childress said. McDermott uses a traditional 4-3 defensive front that is all about downhill, physical football. They generally prefer to generate pressure with stunts up front but they’ve increasingly sent corners and linebackers on blitzes. He is very good at disguising blitzes so they can’t be identified until the last second. The Panthers rank 29th in passing defense and third in rushing defense. They also rank fourth in the NFL with 24 sacks and 11th in turnovers forced with 11.
Special teams: Thomas McGaughey is in his first year as Rivera’s special-teams coach and third overall as a NFL special-teams coach. Kicker Graham Gano has converted 78 percent of his field goals, which is 24th in the league. He is sixth in the league in touchback percentage. Punter Andy Lee has dropped 18 punts inside the 20. The Panthers’ kick-return unit is in the middle of the pack (22nd), stats-wise, while their punt-return unit is 29th. Their kick-coverage unit ranks third, while their punt-coverage unit ranks 31st — they surrendered a touchdown to Minnesota.
Four keys to a Chiefs victory
1. Get Alex out alive
No, this is not a joke. Forget their record; the Panthers feature a big, quick and physical defensive front. It’s probably the best the Chiefs have faced this year, and Childress agrees. “This may be the best front seven we’ve seen,” Childress said. These dudes are nasty, now, and the safeties are also disciplined in their rush lanes. And if you get down against them early, it’s open season on your quarterback, and for obvious reasons, that would be a nightmare scenario for the Chiefs. So the gameplan could be this: run the football, run some more and call lots of playaction with six, seven or eight guys blocking with the occasional downfield shot mixed in — and yes, the latter will be very important against a youngish group of corners that might also be prone to miscommunication on short combo routes. Reid could call a normal game and come out throwing — it’s tough to say with Reid — but if the Chiefs don’t leave blockers in to protect (or they call they zone-read stuff) and Smith gets hurt, Reid will open himself up to plenty of second-guessing.
2. Communicate up front
The Panthers run a healthy amount of pass-rush games and stunts up front, which has hurt the Chiefs in the past. The o-line better be on-point with their pass-offs on twists, particularly on ones that feature ends looping around inside. “Oh you’ve got to be,” Childress said. “In a loud environment, we always talk about overcommunciate clarity. There’s no such thing as too much clarity.” The Panthers also like to walk star linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, Sr., up to the line of scrimmage and threaten to blitz in a bid to create confusion, so Smith will have to help his youngish line get the protection set. If you let these guys start teeing off on your quarterback early, they’ll start swaggering around and gaining confidence, and it’s going to be a long day ... especially since they generally prefer to send four to generate pressure. That means seven men could be in coverage, which is very difficult to throw against. You also have to be aware of blitzing little guys. The guards — Zach Fulton and Laurent Duvernay-Tardif — better keep their heads on a swivel. If they do, they should be able to throw outside the numbers against a young, inexperienced group of corners.
3. Swarm Stewart ... and wrap up
You thought Chris Ivory was a load last week, when Jacksonville rushed 32 times for 205 yards? Wait ’til you get a load of the Panthers. Carolina would love nothing more than to pound it down the Chiefs’ throats, and they’ve got the personnel to do it against the league’s 27th-ranked run defense. It’s a big, slew-footed offensive line full of a maulers, and when bowling-ball running back Jonathan Stewart — a quick, strong, patient runner who the No. 86 player on the NFL’s top 100 — gets rolling, this offense is basically unstoppable. The Chiefs, who have missed far too many tackles while interspersing spotty gap discipline and physicality, better be ready to wrap up Sunday, and that doesn’t just go for the front seven. Along with the speedy Ted Ginn, Jr., the Panthers also feature a pair of enormous receivers (Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess) who can outmuscle you at the point of attack and are difficult to bring down. Marcus Peters, Phillip Gaines and Steven Nelson — all of whom stand 6 feet or shorter — better be ready.
4. Spy Superman
Teams have had success spying star quarterback Cam Newton. It could be with an inside linebacker, a safety, a quick edge rusher ... whatever. But when the Panthers are going to pass, you’ve got to make this guy beat you with his arm. It’s a howitzer, and he can do it — he can absolutely fit the ball into some tiny windows due to his gun — but if he gets going on the ground, and you can’t stop that, it’s going to be a long day. When he tries to run, someone — actually, everyone — should be waiting to pounce. “Everybody tries (to spy),” Sutton said. “But to be honest, a spy doesn’t guarantee you’re gonna get him down. You’ve still got to tackle him, you’ve still got to be fast enough to get him.” By the way, the Chiefs might be wise to do that while also bringing heat; Newton’s protection has been subpar, and these big linemen can be exploited by speed. Dee Ford and the Chiefs’ interior linemen — Jaye Howard, Dontari Poe and Chris Jones — need to do work. And Justin Houston too, provided he plays. There will be sack opportunities, provided they can stop some of the run. Teams have had success against the Panthers’ zone-read running plays by getting upfield and attacking the mesh point (the moment where the quarterback decides to keep it or hand off). It will be interesting to see if Sutton attempts to do the same.
Four Panthers to watch
No. 1, QB Cam Newton, 27 years old, 6-5, 245, sixth season
Ranked No. 1 on the NFL’s Top 100 list for 2016. Reigning NFL MVP has completed 57.6 percent of his passes for 1,733 yards, nine touchdowns and six interceptions. Has rushed 45 times for 207 yards and three touchdowns. Physical freak with a superb combination of rare size and very good top-end speed and elusiveness. A bonafide running threat with good vision, patience and power as a runner; is an ideal fit for Carolina’s run-heavy, zone-run power-based offense. “Superb athlete,” Sutton said. “Great speed, great size. Highly competitive. He’s as good as any running back in our league.” Does not slide; prefers to dive headfirst when running, which opens him up to some massive licks, which defenses have readily taken. He’s also taken a number of big (and potentially illegal) hits in the pocket that have not been called. Possesses outstanding arm talent; one of the strongest arms in the league. Can make every throw and fit the ball into tight spaces. Mechanics and footwork can be sluggish, but he has the arm to compensate. Accuracy can be spotty — he’ll miss some touch throws — and he does not always throw with ideal anticipation. Will throw off his back foot, like most quarterbacks, in the face of the rush. Is very difficult to bring down in the pocket; the play is never over until he’s on the ground. Excitable player who loves to celebrate and talk trash. Feeds off big plays and is difficult to stop when things are going well.
No. 88, TE Greg Olsen, 31 years old, 6-5, 255, 10th season
Ranked No. 38 on the NFL’s Top 100 list for 2016. Is Newton’s security blanket; leads the Panthers in catches (45) and receiving yards (673). Second in receiving touchdowns (three). Plus athlete who can win 1-on-1 vs. linebackers. Very good, subtle route runner who knows how to use his body to get open. Consistent, steady player who has been doing this for a long time. Can make the tough catch — has very good ball skills — and is someone who must always be accounted for, especially in the red zone and on third downs. Superb production over the last several seasons; caught 77 passes for 1,104 yards and seven touchdowns last season. “Like a lot of their receivers, he has a big catch radius, which is really helpful to any quarterback because, even if you’re off 6 to 8 inches in any direction, he’s capable of going to get that thing,” Sutton said. “He’s got good leaping ability, excellent hands and I think they have great trust in him.”
No. 99, DT Kawann “K.K.” Short, 27 years old, 6-3, 315, fourth season
Ranked No. 58 on the NFL’s Top 100 list for 2016. Is coming off a breakout 11-sack season in which he recorded his first all-pro and Pro Bowl nods. Expected to get paid this offseason and didn’t; is now entering the final year of his rookie deal and is slated to be a free agent in 2017. Disruptive three-technique who is starting to turn it on after a slow start; has recorded 26 tackles, seven quarterback pressures and two sacks and a pass deflection in eight games. Will shade off the center and play some three-technique, too. Good burst off the snap and overall quickness. Is stout against the run and has some pass-rush juice; can consistently collapse the pocket with his plus hand usage. Can pursue laterally and plays with good effort. “A load in the middle,” Childress said. “Him and (defensive tackle Star) Lotulelei are substantial up front. They’re great pocket pushers, and that’s every bit as important in affecting the quarterback as a speed rush off the edge.”
No. 59, ILB Luke Kuechly, 25 years old, 6-3, 238, fifth season
Ranked No. 7 on the NFL’s Top 100 list for 2016. The NFL’s best, most complete inside linebacker. Leads the Panthers with 80 tackles — 31 more than the next guy, fellow Pro Bowler Thomas Davis, Sr. — three quarterback hurries, two sacks and two interceptions. Gym rat with elite eyes and outstanding instincts. “He’s the smartest guy on the defense, maybe the smartest guy on the field,” Childress said. “He sees stuff before anybody sees it. There’s no question he directs the show. You can see his frustration when they don’t make a play that he knows is going to be there.” Good athlete with burst who can win in the phone booth but also run sideline-to-sideline. Ferocious tackler who is always around the ball, even on intermediate passes. Regularly sniffs out screens and draws with the best of them. Not an elite cover player but his instincts still make him a three-down stud who never has to come off the field. Has some juice through the gap when blitzing. The best inside linebacker in football.
Projected Panthers two-deep
KEY: Bold=Player to Watch, C=Captain, AP=2015 All-Pro, PB=2015 Pro Bowl, *=See “additional notes” section below for more info on player
No., Name, Ht., Wt., Years
No. 1 Cam Newton (C, PB, AP), 6-5, 245, 6 | 3 Derek Anderson, 6-6, 235, 12
28 Jonathan Stewart (PB), 5-10, 240, 9 | 43 Fozzy Whittaker, 5-10, 205, 4
*35 Mike Tolbert (PB, AP), 5-9, 250, 9
*13 Kelvin Benjamin, 6-5, 245, 3 | 17 Devin Funchess, 6-4, 225, 2
*19 Ted Ginn, Jr., 5-11, 180, 10 | Corey “Philly” Brown
88 Greg Olsen (C, PB, AP), 6-5, 255, 10 | 84 Ed Dickson, 6-4, 255, 7
*74 Mike Remmers, 6-5, 310, 4 | 78 Donald Hawkins, 6-4, 310, 2
68 Andrew Norwell, 6-6, 325, 3 | 69 Tyler Larsen, 6-4, 335, 1
*67 Ryan Kalil (C, PB, AP), 6-2, 300, 10 | *66 Gino Gradkowski, 6-3, 300, 5
70 Trai Turner (PB), 6-3, 310, 3 | 79 Chris Scott, 6-4, 340, 5
60 Daryl Williams, 6-6, 335, 2 | 78 Donald Hawkins, 6-4, 310, 2
*95 Charles Johnson (C), 6-2, 275, 10 | *97 Mario Addison, 6-3, 260, 6
98 Star Lotulelei, 6-2, 315, 4 | 77 Kyle Love, 6-1, 315, 5
99 Kawann Short (PB, AP), 6-3, 315, 4 | 92 Vernon Butler, 6-4, 325, R
96 Wes Horton, 6-5, 265, 4 | *94 Kony Ealy, 6-4, 275, 3
*56 A.J. Klein, 6-1, 240, 4 | 54 Shaq Thompson, 6-0, 230, 2
59 Luke Kuechly (C, PB, AP), 6-3, 238, 5 | 56 A.J. Klein, 6-1, 240, 4
*58 Thomas Davis, Sr. (C, PB, AP), 6-1, 235, 12 | 55 David Mayo, 6-2, 245, 2
*24 James Bradberry, 6-1, 210, R | 27 Robert McClain, 5-9, 195, 5
*20 Kurt Coleman, 5-11, 200, 7 | 22 Michael Griffin, 6-0, 215, 10
*22 Michael Griffin, 6-0, 215, 10 | *33 Tre Boston, 6-1, 205, 3
*26 Daryl Worley, 6-1, 205, R | 23 Leonard Johnson, 5-10, 202, 5
9 Graham Gano, 6-2, 205, 7
8 Andy Lee, 6-1, 185, 13
19 Ted Ginn, Jr., 5-11, 180, 10
19 Ted Ginn, Jr., 5-11, 180, 10
44 J.J. Jansen, 6-2, 240, 9
Bonus notes on the Panthers
*Benjamin is a massive target with better-than-you-think speed. Whoever lines up across from him better buckle his chinstrap.
*Ginn used to be a one-trick deep-ball pony, but he’s improved. He can work the sidelines and intermediate a bit, but the Panthers’ inability to protect Newton has hindered his deep-ball opportunities.
*The Chiefs will be lucky if Kalil, a Pro Bowl center who is the No. 79 player on the NFL’s Top 100, doesn’t play. His replacement isn’t as battle-tested or physical at the point of attack, plus Kalil is the rock of the offensive line.
*If Oher can’t play, the Chiefs should take advantage of that. Remmers is better on the right side but can be stressed by speed, nevertheless; perhaps Dee Ford (nine sacks) will get a few cracks at him.
*The Panthers’ ends — particularly Johnson and Addison — are very quick when looping inside on stunts. Ealy has been more effective since he started coming off the bench a few weeks ago, too.
*Klein will get the nod if Thompson can’t play due to a knee injury. When Thompson is healthy, the Panthers might have the best corps of 4-3 linebackers in the NFL. A potential break for the Chiefs.
*Davis, Sr., is outstanding. The No. 54 ranked player on the NFL’s Top 100 has repeatedly overcome multiple injuries (three torn ACLs) to become one of the league’s best three-down linebackers. Tight end Travis Kelce will have his work cut out for him if he sees much of Davis, Sr., and Kuechly ... these two are fearsome roaming underneath in zone coverage.
*This very young cornerback corps can fall victim to double moves. The Chiefs might be wise to see if Tyreek Hill and Chris Conley can get open downfield, even if Jeremy Maclin (groin) can’t play. The Panthers gave up 450 yards through the air twice this season, so they can be had — if the quarterback is given time.
*Coleman, a Chief in 2014, is a very good player for the Panthers. He emerged as a playmaker last year, recording seven interceptions after a one-year stint in Kansas City that helped revive his career.
*The Panthers have been rotating Boston and Griffin a bit.
*Spencer Ware (three fumbles) and the rest of the Chiefs’ backs better keep the football high and tight this week. These guys actively look to punch it out, especially in or around scrums.
Prediction: Panthers 23-16
Don’t be fooled by the Panthers’ record; they are 2-0 since the bye and playing very well right. Straight up: these dudes play old-school, grown-man football. The Chiefs need to come into Bank of America Stadium with an edge. Otherwise they’ll have a hard time running the ball — and thus, having a chance — on the league’s third-ranked run defense. But the Panthers are 3-5 for a reason — their corners are young and can be had — so if the Chiefs can run the ball, the protection holds and they find a way to contain Newton, a fifth straight win is certainly possible.