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Panthers vs. Eagles preview

Before the season, this matchup between the Carolina Panthers and the Philadelphia Eagles figured to be one of the glamour games of the week. Two NFC division winners from 2013, Chip Kelly’s go-go offense against Ron Rivera’s stone-wall defense. This one had it all.

Well, it’s still pretty interesting. The Panthers are 3-5-1 after starting the season 2-0. They need to get things heading in the right direction now, before the resurgent New Orleans Saints get a grip on the NFC South. And the Eagles are 6-2, but about to turn control of their offense over to Mark Sanchez.

These are two teams at a crossroads. David Newton, who covers the Panthers, and Phil Sheridan, who covers the Eagles, look at the matchup.

Phil Sheridan: A lot of little questions boil down to one big one: What the heck happened? Not only were the Panthers 12-4 last season, they started this season by winning their first two games. They seemed to be in a groove. Now they’re 3-5-1 and seem to be in a rut. Was it injuries? The Greg Hardy thing? Something else?

David Newton: If I had a nickel for every time another writer or fan asked that question I wouldn’t be here answering this question. It was everything you mentioned. Cam Newton missed the first game with fractured ribs and wasn’t turned loose to run on his surgically repaired ankle until the sixth game. Starting running back DeAngelo Williams has played 2½ games. In Thursday night’s loss to New Orleans three starters were missing on the offensive line. But the loss of Hardy had the biggest impact. It took away a key ingredient from the defensive scheme in that he excelled at pressuring the quarterback, stopping the run and dropping into coverage. Plus, it was a distraction. I should just copy this and paste it for next week’s preview.

The Panthers are close to 100 percent healthy for this one, but injuries to Philadelphia will play a role in this game. How will having Mark Sanchez instead of Nick Foles at quarterback impact the offense?

Sheridan: Well, I don’t expect Chip Kelly to incorporate the Butt Fumble into his offensive repertoire. And actually, it was surprising to watch Sanchez last week and feel like you were basically watching Foles. They don’t seem that similar at first blush, but the results were very similar. Sanchez even threw two picks to go with his two touchdowns.

The other difference: Sanchez can move better than Foles. Yes, so can your Aunt Gertie. But even that little extra speed and agility add an element to the offense that was missing. While Foles was throwing 27 touchdowns and only two interceptions, that element didn’t seem like a big deal. This year, it kind of did.

Ultimately, though, I thought the biggest impact on the offense was in the play calling. Foles dropped back 16 times in the first quarter Sunday, while LeSean McCoy ran the ball just three times. In the final three quarters, Sanchez dropped back to pass 26 times. Kelly called 31 running plays in those three quarters. That’s a significant difference.

Cam Newton is not having a great year. Has he regressed a bit, or is he just one of those quarterbacks who doesn’t have enough of a supporting cast to work with?

Newton: Another one I need to put on a save-get key. He actually was throwing better than I’d ever seen him until injuries to the line – coupled with those at running back – got out of control. Seriously, the Panthers started four undrafted linemen last week and two undrafted rookies on the left side who should have been on the practice squad. It’s hard to totally blame Newton for throwing off his back foot so much since he’s constantly under duress. It’s had a trickle-down effect in that tight end Greg Olsen, who was having a Pro Bowl year receiving, has had to stay in to block the past two games. On top of that, Newton has tried to do too much and has gotten away from the fundamentals he’d sharpened while recovering from ankle surgery.

I see that the Eagles lost their leading tackler in linebacker DeMeco Ryans. How will that impact a defense that like Carolina’s has allowed a lot of points this season?

Sheridan: OK, that explains what happened to Olsen’s numbers. Important stuff when planning my fantasy team this weekend.

The Eagles' defense is a complicated little puzzle. The transition from a 4-3 to Bill Davis’ 3-4 scheme is an incomplete process. They’re better, but still not consistently good. So what you get are stretches where they look really dominant and disruptive, followed by mind-blowing lapses in which the secondary forgets to cover anybody.

That’s prelude to saying it’s hard to gauge how the absence of a solid veteran like Ryans will affect this group. The Eagles could rally around their fallen leader, or they could fall apart. I’m guessing the end result will be somewhere in the middle.

With Mychal Kendricks looking fully recovered from his calf injury, I would expect the Eagles to be OK at linebacker. They will have a tough time if Newton gets loose, but most teams do. Bottom line: They will play really well for much of the game, but are vulnerable to a big play at the end that turns it all around. And that was true with Ryans on the field, so it’s just as true without him.

Rivera and Sean McDermott spent a lot of time in Philadelphia with the late Jim Johnson, Andy Reid’s defensive coordinator. They seemed to have a pretty good replica going in Carolina. All of a sudden, the Panthers are allowing 26 points per game and are down around Atlanta and Jacksonville in total defense. Is the defense fixable this season?

Newton: It actually has played fairly well the past two weeks despite the results. Seattle had only 13 points in a 13-9 victory and the 28 points New Orleans scored is a bit deceptive. One touchdown came after the Panthers turned the ball over at their own 4-yard line. Another was aided by a somewhat questionable pass interference penalty in the end zone with six seconds left in the first half. The Panthers slowly but surely are getting back to stopping the run, and the secondary has improved since cornerback Josh Norman became a starter. If they can do that and force a few turnovers as they have lately, they can keep this one close.

Speaking of turnovers, the Eagles have a league-worst 21. How do you get to 6-2 with that many turnovers?

Sheridan: It isn’t easy. Chip Kelly says twice a week that the Eagles can’t keep this up and have success, then they go out, turn the ball over four times and beat Houston 31-21.

One concrete answer (the abstract ones have to do with the football gods playing tricks on us) is the run of success the Eagles had with defensive and special-teams touchdowns. Those seven scores helped offset what was being lost with the offensive miscues.

That has slowed down a bit, which was inevitable. The Eagles have continued to be pretty successful. I think another overlooked aspect is that Kelly’s hurry-up offense stresses running a lot of offensive plays. That means that wasting a possession with a turnover isn’t as costly. The Eagles will just make up that possession with another one or three later.

They also tend to score pretty quickly when the offense is really clicking. They ran the ball four times in Houston and went 80 yards for a touchdown. That’s not the kind of thing you can count on, which is why Kelly keeps saying that the turnovers have to stop, which is where we came in.