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Why the Panthers will beat the Eagles (but it should be close)

Retired NFL lineman Geoff Schwartz previews what should be a real good Thursday night game.

NFL: Carolina Panthers at Detroit Lions Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Are you ready for a fantastic Thursday Night Football matchup? I know I am, and we get a treat this week — the NFC East-leading Philadelphia Eagles, 4-1, at the NFC South-leading Carolina Panthers, 4-1.

It’s only been five weeks, but these teams are in the top three in biggest winning percentage improvement. This matchup also marks just the fourth time in last four years that two opponents both at least three games over .500 will meet on TNF. This game has all the making of a old-fashion run the ball, play solid defense, and hit home runs type of game.

Carolina offense vs. Philadelphia defense

Carolina, and more specifically Cam Newton, started slow on offense through the first three weeks. I wrote a plan that the Panthers needed to follow to get back into the groove of things. I doubt Mike Shula read my article, but they have done most of what I wrote about.

First, was getting Cam Newton back into the running game. Here’s third-and-4 from Sunday where Newton runs a QB power. Running the ball with Newton allows the offense to have an extra blocker, the back. He gains a first down. This play is almost unstoppable.

The Panthers have also allowed Newton to chuck the ball deeper. It’s probable this is also occurring because his shoulder is getting stronger. In Weeks 1-3, on throws 10+ yards, Newton had a passer rating of 80.6. The last two weeks, he’s 14-18 for 388 yards, four touchdowns and a 135.2 rating.

Newton has been getting help from skill position players. Two of the most improved players in the NFL have to be Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess. They are running routes, using their size to be physical, and are making tough catches. Look at Funchess here working the back of the end zone in a scramble situation and making an excellent catch on a ball that’s a tad high.

For the first time in years, the Panthers don’t succeed in the run game like we used to see. They are still calling runs at a high level but not getting the usual yardage. Jonathan Stewart is averaging 3.3 yards per rush, a career low. McCaffrey is only averaging 4.3 rushes a game, but he’s making up for a lack of runs with 27 receptions, tied for third among NFL running backs.

The Eagles are excellent at stopping the run, with one caveat: They haven’t had to do it much. Teams are only averaging 16 runs a game against the Eagles. Their front seven is stout, led by Fletcher Cox, who’s been out with injury recently. But they can still get after it.

In Week 2, they bottled up Kareem Hunt, even though he scored two touchdowns. Take out the 53-yard score, and the Eagles held Hunt to 12 carries and 28 yards. Jim Schwartz 4-3 system allows the DL to jet up the field, which creates issues in the zone run game, and their linebackers can fly.

The Eagles are not a high-pressure team because their secondary is their weakness. They are 25th in the NFL allowing almost seven yards per pass play. The Eagles pressure on only 22 percent of their snaps, good for 23rd in the NFL. However, they are near the top of the league in quarterback hits, with 32. They often generate pressure with four or five pass rushers.

My favorite stat to look at when looking at matchups is third down success rate. The Eagles defense is fifth best on third downs, while the Panthers offense is second in the NFL on third down.

This matchup will come down to two things:

1) As usual when playing Newton, the Eagles have to find a way to hit him and confuse him with coverages. I’d expect the Eagles to bring more pressure than usual, knowing the Panthers have an excellent offensive line and four or five rushers won’t cut it. Also, the Panthers receivers are burners, so you can ask a corner to cover them maybe longer than you want.

2) The Panthers receivers should be able to have their way with the Eagles defensive backs. Philadelphia will most likely allow them to catch the ball underneath and try to be sure tacklers.

Lastly, with this being a Thursday night game, and less time to prepare, will Shula continue to be as creative? He ran the power read shovel for a touchdown against the Lions, and he’s also found ways to get backup tight end Ed Dickson wide open. Dickson had 175 yards in the win on Sunday at Detroit

Eagles offense vs. Panthers defense

The Eagles offense has improved in every single aspect in 2017, starting upfront. They have the best offensive line in the NFL right now.

Philly is rolling and even have LeGarrette Blount averaging 5.8 yards per rush this season. Blount has been most effective in the single-back formation, averaging seven yards per carry.

However, stud right tackle Lane Johnson is already ruled out for the game with a concussion. That’s a BIG loss. Last season, with Johnson, the Eagles were 5-1. Without him, 2-8.

They’ll continue to run between Jason Peters, who’s managed to block two defenders on a run play twice last weekend. These are remarkable blocks. The first, he chips the inside defender and pancakes the linebacker.

On this play, he reaches the defensive end, then blocks the free runner, who the back has to beat for a touchdown.

Along with the running game, Carson Wentz has improved in every meaningful quarterback stat. He finally has competent receivers and a favorite target: his tight end. Among NFL tight ends, Ertz leads in targets, receptions, receiving yards and receptions for a first down at 20!

What has sent Wentz over the top is his success on third down. The Eagles offense leads the league in third down percentage at 53.4 percent, and Wentz has been fantastic in this situation. Completing 71 percent of passes, for an average of 11 yards and a passer rating of 137.8.

Here’s a great example of a third down play. It’s cover zero, so everyone is pressing. The Eagles block it up and the center, Jason Kelce, takes two. Wentz avoids the rush, steps up and flings this ball deep to Nelson Agholor, who’s improved by leaps and bounds. Watch how he finishes this play. He didn’t do this last season.

The Eagles offense is going up against a well-oiled machine of the Panthers defense. Their defensive line is deep and talented, led by Kawaan Short and Julius Peppers, who looks more like 27 than 37. He’s averaging a quarterback pressure on 16 percent of his snaps (and he doesn’t even start), which is 5 percent more than Von Miller or Khalil Mack. Peppers can still stop the run too.

Overall, the Panthers rank sixth against the run.

The linebackers for the Panthers are self explanatory. Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, and Shaq Thompson are playing at such a high level. What I love watching about them is how they constantly call out the other plays the offense is running.

The Panthers switched defensive coordinators when Sean McDermott went to Buffalo to be the head coach. The new DC, Steve Wilkes, promised to bring the pressure more often, and he’s done that.

Only four teams are pressuring on more snaps than the Panthers. Wilkes has been afforded the chance to pressure so much because his secondary has continued to improve and can hold up when the pressure is blocked up.

They don’t need to hold up very often because the Panthers get to the quarterback with a variety of looks.

From 12:48 in the fourth quarter:

From 10:43 in the third quarter:

They will need every bit of this pressure concept to help defeat the Eagles offense. Like I mentioned above, the Eagles offense is first in the NFL in third down conversation rate. The Panthers defense is 10th in the NFL.

The Eagles’ game plan on the road will be simple, especially with Lane Johnson out. They will try running the ball often to give Wentz manageable third downs, knowing the Panthers will bring pressure. They don’t want to leave the backup right tackle on an island, which they’d have to do on third-and-long situations.

Look for the Panthers to double Ertz as often as possible, hoping their pressure and coverage can get home in time.

No matter the outcome of this game, I don’t see myself changing my thoughts about the future of each team.

It’s a Thursday night game, so weird things can happen on a short week. But I’m going with the Panthers to win a low-scoring, physical game.

Geoff Schwartz’s Most Disrespectful Block of Week 5