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October 11, 2017

Eagles vs. Panthers: 5 matchups to watch

Eagles NFL

The 4-1 Carolina Panthers were a dominant team in 2015, when they started 14-0, finished 15-1, and lost in the Super Bowl to the Denver Broncos. In 2016, they started 1-5 and finished at 6-10. Make no mistake, this Panthers team is closer to the dominant team it was in 2015 than the disappointing one it was in 2016.

Here are five matchups to watch this Thursday in Charlotte:

1) The Eagles' rushing attack vs. the Panthers' front seven

Barring any roster moves, the Eagles' offensive line depth chart heading into Thursday night will look something like this, sans Lane Johnson:

Jason Peters *Stefen Wisniewski Jason Kelce Brandon Brooks Halapoulivaati Vaitai 
 Halapoulivaati VaitaiChance Warmack Stefen Wisniewski Chance Warmack Isaac Seumalo 

*The Eagles will also continue to mix in Chance Warmack at LG for no good reason.

The Eagles' offensive line has been outstanding so far this season, especially the last three weeks in the run game. During their three-game winning streak, the Eagles have gained 173.6 rushing yards per game on the ground. On the season as a whole, they are averaging 138.8 yards per game on the ground, which is fifth in the NFL.

The Panthers, meanwhile, are sixth in the NFL defensively against the run, as they allow just 78.8 rushing yards per game. That is nothing new for the Panthers, who were fourth against the run in 2015 and sixth against the run in 2016, even when they were a 6-10 team.

The Panthers' success against the run is due to the tackling machine tandem of Luke Kuechley and Thomas Davis, who have each had at least 100 tackles every season since 2012. Both Kuechley and Davis (and even Shaq Thompson for that matter) have great speed and instincts, with the ability to run sideline to sideline.

2) The Eagles' corners vs. the Panthers' behemoth wide receivers

A week ago against the Cardinals, the Eagles faced a track team at wide receiver. This week, they'll face an entirely different kind of challenge, when they will have to handle the Panthers' enormous wide receivers.

The Panthers' starting wide receivers are Kelvin Benjamin (6'5, 240) and Devin Funchess (6'4, 232), who have combined this season for 41 catches, 541 yards, and 4 TDs. 

Jim Schwartz didn't offer much in the way of insight on how to cover bigger receivers.

"I mean, there are big wideouts everywhere," he said. "There are ways to cover them, we just have to play whoever they line up. It doesn't matter if they're little five-foot-eight guys or six-foot-five guys."

It is likely that rookie corner Rasul Douglas (6'2, 209) will see his share of action Thursday night against that duo.

3) The Panthers' rushing offense vs. the Eagles' rush D

Here are the Panthers' rushing numbers in each of the last 10 years:

 YearRush YPG NFL Rank 
  2008 152.3 
 2010115.4 13 
 2013 126.611 
 2016113.4 10 
 201798.6 19 

As you can see, the Panthers have consistently been a great running team over the last decade, but have not gotten off to a good start running the football in 2017, as they average just 98.6 rushing yards per game and a measly 3.4 yards per carry. None of the Panthers' primary runners have gotten on track just yet:

 PlayerRush Yards YPC TD 
 Jonathan Stewart77 251 3.3 
 Christian McCaffrey34 96 2.8 
 Cam Newton29 90 3.1 
TOTAL 140 437 3.1 

Conversely, the Eagles have bottled up the run all season long. The Eagles are allowing 62.8 rushing yards per game, which is second in the NFL. The Eagles need to stop the run first, make the Panthers one-dimensional, then try to attack Cam Newton when Carolina tries to throw down the field.

4) The Panthers' pass protection vs. the Eagles' defensive front

The Eagles will likely be without Fletcher Cox for the second straight week, but the Eagles' defensive line has been able to make plays without him. The Panthers have a good veteran group along their offensive line, but they've given up 15 sacks on the season, often when Cam Newton holds onto the ball for a long time.

The Eagles must be sure to finish when they get to Newton, who is often difficult to bring down.

5) Christian McCaffrey vs. the Eagles' secondary

The Panthers have something of an oddball weapon in their offense in first round rookie Christian McCaffrey, who leads the team in receptions, with 27. While listed as a running back, McCaffrey spends more time playing the role of a wide receiver. Here he is snagging nine passes against the Saints Week 3:

"(They use McCaffrey) a lot of different ways," said Schwartz. "Get him the ball in the run game, use him as a true wide receiver, and then get him option routes out of the backfield. A lot like a Darren Sproles."

McCaffrey could very well be the Panthers' most dangerous player on offense, with Greg Olsen out. The Eagles have to game plan a way in which he does not become an X-factor.

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