Panthers' run committment will test Redskins' defense

ASHBURN, Va. -- Three things I learned about the Washington Redskins' opponent Sunday, the Carolina Panthers, after watching their games, talking to players and coaches and doing a little reading:

Cam Newton has flaws… and is very good. Newton hasn’t completed a high percentage of passes, partly because his average air yards per attempt is the highest in the NFL (not to mention his receivers aren't the greatest). He’s not just looking to dump the ball off. He knows he can stand in longer than most quarterbacks because of his size so he looks for chunk plays; he’s always reminded me of Ben Roethlisberger. But Newton also completes a lower percentage because of inconsistent mechanics. He can make terrific throws without having his lower body pointed in the proper direction. It’s a knack, but it also can get him in trouble. (He threw an interception against Indianapolis when he threw downfield awkwardly, leaning back and his feet pointing to the sideline.) He can be forced into bad mechanics via pressure, but that doesn’t always equal a bad throw. Sometimes he’s very accurate like this, but it does lead to interceptions. (He has nine and his interception percentage of 3.3 is tied for 4th worst in the NFL.) However, Newton is an absolute weapon for the Panthers. Because of his size, on zone-read runs he’s just as likely to turn upfield as he is to go outside. Carolina likes using him on draws and he will run in the red zone. He's a legitimate MVP candidate.

They will pound the ball. The Redskins’ run defense has not performed well for five games now. Yes, the Saints got a lot of yards on one run last week, but that’s an issue that keeps occurring so it can’t be dismissed. If the defense doesn’t perform better against the run this week, it’ll be a long day. Carolina has run the ball 303 times this season -- 29 times more than any team in the NFL. The Panthers have dropped back to pass 307 times. They want to run power and will use a lot of pulling action for Jonathan Stewart and zone-read runs. He doesn’t average a lot per carry (3.92) and has 18 carries that have lost yards (ninth highest in the NFL), but they remain committed to the run so it doesn’t matter. Because of this commitment, there’s a lot of play-action -- 27.2 percent of Newton’s throws occur off this look (second highest in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Information). They will use the zone-read play-action pass. Newton does not sell it like some other quarterbacks, but because of his arm strength and the Panthers’ commitment to the run, it’s not as necessary. They have a deep threat in speedy receiver Ted Ginn. If a defense falls for even a halfway decent fake, he’ll go by you (right, Indianapolis?). Tight end Greg Olsen is their best target, however. He can line up anywhere and run a route. He’s run wheel routes while positioned on the line, for example. He’ll look as if he’s staying in to block, engage, and then release. He’s the one to watch.

Carolina's defense is superior vs. the pass, OK vs. the run. The Panthers have fantastic talent, with three players performing at a high level: corner Josh Norman, middle linebacker Luke Kuechly and defensive tackle Kawann Short. Kuechly does such a good job of anticipating runs and beating blocks. Fellow linebacker Thomas Davis does a good job in this area, too, but not like Kuechly. The latter consistently forces linemen to abandon double-teams or combo blocks too soon and rarely misses a tackle. The Panthers, though, are not an elite run defense. They will use movement up front, which can cause problems. They don't allow many long gains, just a lot of consistent grind-out yards. Carolina is weakest on runs to the outside. Counters and two-TE sets have worked against them. If the Redskins run well, they absolutely have a shot at winning. Short has played well all year and consistently gets penetration. He has a team-high six sacks. The Panthers have 26 sacks so they will apply pressure. Norman has been one of the NFL's best corners all season and will play on either side. Rookie linebacker Shaq Thompson is a big hitter. The Panthers struggle to cover tight ends; safety Roman Harper will cover them, but it’s really a group-wide failure. (Sometimes corner Charles Tillman has covered them out wide and Davis allowed a touchdown pass against the Colts, letting the tight end get inside despite leverage.)