NFC West: 2013 NFL Week 7 Double Coverage

Sam Bradford and Cam NewtonUSA TODAY SportsQuarterbacks Sam Bradford and Cam Newton led their teams to victory last week.
The Carolina Panthers and St. Louis Rams put on an offensive showcase in a 2003 NFC divisional playoff game at the Edwards Jones Dome. The Rams overcame an 11-point deficit in the final 2:39 of regulation and the Panthers ended the 29-23 double-overtime thriller with a 69-yard touchdown catch by Steve Smith.

They were two teams loaded with offensive weapons, from St. Louis' Marshall Faulk and Isaac Bruce to Carolina's Smith and Stephen Davis. They had identities.

Fast-forward 10 years to Sunday's game at Bank of America Stadium, where both the Panthers (2-3) and Rams (3-3) are searching for an identity. ESPN.com Panthers team reporter David Newton and Rams team reporter Nick Wagoner are here to break down the 2013 version of this matchup:

David Newton: Nick, it seems both teams have been waiting for their quarterbacks to become consistent winners since they were drafted No. 1, St. Louis' Sam Bradford in 2010 and Carolina's Cam Newton in 2011. Why has it taken so long for Bradford to get there, if he is?

Nick Wagoner: Well, I don't think he is there yet. This is the first year Bradford has had any sort of continuity in terms of scheme, and in the past he's dealt with a mediocre receiver corps and offensive lines that aren't much better. He's not devoid of blame, though. Bradford has had issues in the past with going through progressions and locking onto receivers, among other fundamental problems. He's been up and down this year, but has done a really good job of protecting the ball. Now that the Rams seem to have some semblance of a competent running game, he's been better in the past couple of weeks.

Ultimately, the jury is still out on whether he's the long-term answer, but if he can continue to take care of the ball and toss touchdown passes in leading the Rams to more wins, that picture suddenly gains clarity.

I'm going to ask you to try to analyze Newton. From afar, it seems he struggles with consistency. Is that the case and how do you think he's adjusted to life after Rob Chudzinski?

Newton: Cam Newton's consistency remains a question. Yes, his career-high 143.4 passer rating against Minnesota in Game 5 was impressive, but do you know the last time he topped 100.0 in consecutive weeks during the first six games? Never. Sunday was only the second time this season he completed more than 60 percent of his passes and only the eighth in the past 21 games. His passer rating looks like a yo-yo -- 97.3 to 79.8 to 104.4 to 47.8 to 143.4.

As for life without Chudzinski, it has been a learning process. New offensive coordinator Mike Shula is attempting to go with a more traditional ground game out of the I-formation, but each week he's figuring out better ways to utilize his quarterback's natural abilities. In the long run, he'll make Newton a better quarterback who will have a much longer career relying on his arm more than his legs.

While we're on offense, Carolina's running game ranks seventh in the NFL and the Rams rank 30th against the run. Is this misleading or an area you expect the Panthers to exploit?

Wagoner: Without question, it's the latter. Carolina would be silly not to attack heavily in the run game. The Rams' problems really seem to come in the back seven. Linebacker Alec Ogletree has trouble getting off blocks and is inconsistent tackling, and the Rams aren't getting reliable run support at safety. Darian Stewart has filled in for rookie T.J. McDonald and has really struggled. On top of that, the Rams continue to have issues with being consistently assignment-sound with everyone fitting the proper gaps on run plays.

The Rams' offense, on the other hand, has started to find success in recent weeks with rookie Zac Stacy as the lead back. Carolina has been quite good statistically against the run. Not that the Panthers were bad against the run last year, but what allowed them to go from middle of the pack to upper tier in that area, and do you think that level of success will be sustained over the course of the year?

Newton: First, yes, the Panthers can sustain it. No question the front seven is one of the best in the league. The addition of first-round pick Star Lotulelei and second-round pick Kawann Short at tackle has been key, particularly Lotulelei. He has been as disruptive in the middle as any tackle the Panthers have had since Kris Jenkins was a four-time Pro Bowl selection here. End Greg Hardy has stepped up his game as well, even though statistics might not show it.

Then there is the real strength of this group, the linebackers. Trading Jon Beason to the Giants has been a positive. With Beason out and Chase Blackburn in, defensive coordinator Sean McDermott has had more flexibility with his schemes. Thomas Davis is playing more on the weak side, where Beason was, and has three sacks over the past three games. He has never had more than 3.5 in a season. Blackburn can play either spot as well. And while his tackles are down because Davis and Blackburn have been making so many plays, middle linebacker Luke Kuechly continues to perform at the level that earned him the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year a season ago.

This unit is fundamentally strong. It doesn't need a lot of elaborate blitzes to stop the run or pressure the quarterback. Just ask Adrian Peterson how good the Panthers are. He had a season-low 62 rushing yards, and 31 of those came on one carry.

An area that rarely gets discussed in Double Coverage is special teams. Panthers kicker Graham Gano, who has been flawless on field goals, has had only one kickoff not reach the end zone all season. How key have special teams been for the Rams?

Wagoner: The Rams' special teams have been alternately excellent and awful. They have perhaps one of the best coverage units in the league, with punter Johnny Hekker and kicker Greg Zuerlein having been nearly flawless in their respective disciplines and the young cover guys getting down the field and making tackles consistently. But the Rams have racked up 18 special-teams penalties, with the bulk of those coming on punt returns. That has been maddening for them because many of those infractions have wiped out long returns from rookie Tavon Austin. Progress was made Sunday in that regard, and the Rams even got a touchdown on kick coverage against Houston. The talent is in place in all areas of the special teams. They just need to keep eliminating mistakes and be more consistent.

Getting back to Carolina's defense, I see that the Panthers haven't been too shabby against the pass this year, either. Does that group have any real weaknesses or areas that opponents have been able to exploit? If so, what are they?

Newton: The secondary was suspect before the season and even into the first two games. Since injuries shook things up in Week 2, the Panthers have found the right combination and been solid. They give up passes underneath, as their 68.4 completion percentage -- second worst in the NFL -- attests. Minnesota took advantage last week when Matt Cassel completed 32 passes. But Carolina tackled well and held most of those to short gains.

If I had to pick one weakness, though, I would say left cornerback Josh Thomas. He's solid against the run but soft at times against the pass. If the Rams are to put many points on the board they'll definitely have to do it through the air.

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Vernon Davis and Chris JohnsonGetty ImagesTitans RB Chris Johnson will need to pick up his production in order to pull off an upset over Vernon Davis and the 49ers.
As with the Chiefs and the Seahawks the past two weeks, the Titans look at the 49ers and see a team they want to become.

While Tennessee has pledged to be run-centric and earn the tough yard, San Francisco’s been doing it.

Sunday at LP Field in Nashville, the 49ers will be looking for a fourth consecutive win, while the Titans will be trying to avoid a third consecutive loss.

The Titans are probably getting the 49ers at a bad time -- those bad showings at Seattle and against Indianapolis are an old memory already, as the Niners have scored an average of 34 points over the past three weeks.

The Niners are probably getting the Titans at a good time -- with starting quarterback Jake Locker sidelined, Ryan Fitzpatrick has struggled and Tennessee has topped out at 17 points.

Let’s check out some of what’s been going on.

Bill, we know the Niners struggled at Seattle and against Indianapolis. What's keyed their bounce back?

Bill Williamson: Paul, this was a team in crisis. The Niners lost to the Seahawks and the Colts by a combined score of 56-10. Star pass-rusher Aldon Smith went into an alcohol treatment center a day after the loss to the Colts. But on a short week, the 49ers went to St. Louis and saved their season. They focused on being the 49ers -- they went back to a power running game on offense and they rededicated to stopping the run on defense. The approach has worked beautifully. The 49ers have won three straight games and have outscored their opponents 101-34. Paul, does Tennessee have the means to stop the 49ers’ run and to run on the 49ers?

Paul Kuharsky: The Titans' defense is for real. They’ve made good game-to-game adjustments and have been really solid on third down. The new blood has taken a team that gave up a ton of points in 2012 and really settled things down. That starts with strong safety Bernard Pollard, but also includes Ropati Pitoitua, a run-stopping end who leads the team in sacks. Defensive assistant Gregg Williams’ fingerprints are all over disguised fronts, more frequent blitzes and regular man-to-man coverage. The biggest thing for slowing 49ers running back Frank Gore is getting a crowd to him and tackling well, and the Titans have been pretty good at both. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick running could be a bigger concern, as Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson really hurt the Titans more than RB Marshawn Lynch did last week.

The Titans want to be a physical team that can run and stop the run. Kansas City and Seattle just showed them how it's done. How much does San Francisco fit that mold?

Williamson: Yes, as I mentioned above, that is the 49ers' mantra. In a passing league, the 49ers do their work on the ground -- by running on offense and by stopping the run on defense. The focus on the run breeds success in the passing game on offense and it allows the 49ers to tee off against the pass on defense. The 49ers miss injured receivers Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham, but Kaepernick gets it done in the passing game with tight end Vernon Davis and receiver Anquan Boldin. Davis had 180 yards receiving in Week 6. It was tied for the third-best receiving game by a tight end in the NFL in 20 years. In Week 1, Boldin had 13 catches and 208 receiving yards. Defensively, the 49ers have taken advantage of their success against the run by forcing 10 turnovers in the past three games against frustrated offenses.

Paul, do you think the Titans are capable of stopping that turnover trend?

Kuharsky: It would take a major shift. With Locker in charge through the bulk of four games, the Titans didn’t turn the ball over at all. In the past two games, they’ve given it away five times. And to go with his four interceptions, Fitzpatrick has put the ball on the ground three times but has gotten away with it. To play his best, Fitzpatrick probably needs to take some risks. But it’s got to be smart risk. If he overthrows guys or throws too far inside on a ball that has to be outside, as he did in Seattle, the Titans will have problems. The Niners are on a good takeaway streak and the Titans are on a bad giveaway streak. If that doesn’t change, the Titans will have no chance. And I see no reason from the Titans' side to think they can fix it against a tough opponent.

Bill, we see a lot of 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh's news conference personality. What's his game-coaching personality? How do you rate him as a strategist and game manager?

Williamson: Yes, Paul, Harbaugh certainly has carved a persona for himself. But his success as a head coach cannot be denied. He built up programs at the college levels at the University of San Diego and at Stanford and then has made the 49ers an elite program again in less than three years as an NFL coach. The 49ers became an instant legitimate program when Harbaugh took over. He and his coaches are known as teachers and his game-day approach is aggressive on both sides of the ball. This team always seems prepared. It is a huge positive sign that Harbaugh’s team has responded with three straight wins after it lost back-to-back games under Harbaugh for the first time. Paul, how do you see the coaching matchup unfolding Sunday?


Kuharsky: Mike Munchak hasn’t proved that he’s an NFL coach with staying power yet. I give the check mark to the opponent in coaching any time it’s an established head coach and staff going against the Titans. Williams has helped transform the defense as a senior assistant. But the offense is still very much a work in progress. It’s a team that rebuilt that interior offensive line and said that would be the key to fixing things. And Chris Johnson is averaging 3.1 yards a carry and the Titans are making a change to Brian Schwenke at center for this game.

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