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October 23, 2015

Five matchups to watch Sunday night between the Eagles and Panthers

Eagles NFL
102315CamNewtonFletcherCox Matt Rourke/for PhillyVoice

The Eagles administered a beating to Cam Newton a season ago.

In the Eagles-Panthers matchup in 2014, the Eagles sacked Cam Newton nine times and forced five turnovers in a 45-21 bludgeoning. This is not the same Panthers team the Eagles saw a year ago. The Panthers have won their last nine regular season games going back to last season, and are rolling. Here are five matchups to watch this week between the Eagles and Panthers.

1) RB Jonathan Stewart and QB Cam Newton vs. the Eagles run defense

The strength of the Panthers' offense, for years, has always been their rushing attack, and that's no different this year. The Panthers lead the NFL in rushing attempts per game, with 32.8.

"The challenge is they are going to try to pound you," said Chip Kelly to reporters this week. "They have got a back in Jonathan Stewart who is a big, physical downhill running back. And then you have a quarterback – and it’s different than other zone-read-type teams you face where it' a quick, agile quarterback that's going to break outside -- in Cam who can pound you, too, because he's, unlike many quarterbacks, got to be the biggest quarterback in the league from that standpoint in terms of rushing. Him and Roethlisberger. But [the Steelers] don't run Ben; [the Panthers] run Cam.

"So I think they are just going to try to wear you down and pound you a little bit. I think their offensive line is built that way. Their running game is built that way, so can we stand in there and go to toe-to-toe with them, is going to be the challenge for us."

What the Panthers like to do offensively matches up nicely with what the Eagles do well defensively -- stop the run. Here is what the Eagles have done in the run game against each of their six opponents so far this season:

Opponent Rushes Yards YPC TD 
Falcons 35 105 3.0 
Cowboys 33 109 3.3 
Jets 16 47 2.9 
 Redskins32 127 4.0 
Saints21 96 4.6 
Giants 23 81 3.5 
TOTAL 160 565 3.5 

There's an argument to be made that the Eagles have the best run defense in the NFL, especially considering they're rarely committing a safety into the box to help against the run.

2) Greg Olsen vs. the Eagles' safeties and linebackers

The Panthers' best weapon in the passing game, by far, is tight end Greg Olsen. The Panthers' receiving numbers:

 PlayerRec Yards YPC TD 
 Greg Olsen24 374 15.6 
 Ted Ginn13 224 17.2 
 Corey Brown95 11.9 
 Jerricho Cotchery77 11.0 
 Brenton Bersin67 13.4 

Olsen isn't your ordinary "security blanket" type of tight end. He gets vertical and makes plays down the field. He's also very dangerous getting yards after the catch on shorter receptions. On the season, he has 15.6 yards per catch and 7 catches of 20+ yards. The entire rest of the team has 6. He's really one of the more underrated players in the NFL.

Olsen will pose a big challenge for the Eagles' linebackers and safeties. Malcolm Jenkins, Walter Thurmond and Jordan Hicks can all cover. The challenge for the Panthers, scheme-wise, will be to try to get Olsen lined up on DeMeco Ryans in space.

3) The Eagles' vertical game vs. the Panthers' safeties

The Panthers' safeties are Roman Harper and Kurt Coleman.

Harper is in his 10th year in the NFL, so he has experience, but he is not a guy you want covering receivers down the field. His strength has always been in run support, and he was always a good blitzer when he played with the Saints. Harper once had a season in which he had 7.5 sacks from his safety spot (he has 18 sacks for his career).

Meanwhile, Kurt Coleman is Kurt Coleman.

As we pointed out on Thursday, many of Sam Bradford's misses have been underthrows, which Chip Kelly attributed to Bradford guiding the ball instead of just letting it rip. If Bradford gets a chance to exploit the Panthers' safeties, he has to be able to take advantage.

In a way, the Panthers' biggest weakness on defense (on paper) is negated to some degree by Bradford's inability to be accurate with the ball down the field.

4) Jordan Matthews vs. Josh Norman and Bene' Benwikere

A season ago, Jordan Matthews killed the Panthers. On one single drive in that game, Matthews caught four passes for 73 yards and a TD. Here they were:

Nickelback Bene Benwikere was injured last season when the Panthers faced the Eagles. Benwikere is better than the mush the Panthers covered Matthews with above, and he has the size (6'0, 195) to match up with him. Or the Panthers could opt to have stud CB Josh Norman (also 6'0, 195) follow Matthews all over the field. According to Panthers ESPN reporter David Newton, Carolina has had Norman trail receivers who often play in the slot.

Norman has been asked to shadow the opposing team’s top receiver much of the season. He’s moved inside a few times to do that.

In just five games, Norman has 4 INTs, 2 pick-sixes, 8 pass breakups, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery.

5) Ted Ginn vs. Darren Sproles

Both the Panthers and the Eagles have extremely dangerous returners. Ted Ginn has seven career return touchdowns. Darren Sproles has eight. In what could be a defensive struggle, one big play by the return guys could turn the game.

Follow Jimmy on Twitter: @JimmyKempski