The Washington Football Team is hitting the road looking to build momentum off its 29-19 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with a trip to face the Carolina Panthers. Here are three keys to the game, presented by Van Metre.
1. Expect anything from Carolina's offense.
Carolina has added a well-known wrinkle to its offense by bringing back Cam Newton after releasing him in 2020. The former MVP didn't play much in the Panthers' 34-10 win over the Arizona Cardinals, but his two touchdowns (one passing, one rushing) did have a definitive impact.
As defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said Thursday, it would be difficult for a player even of Newton's skillset to completely learn the Panthers' system in less than two weeks. He has shown, however, that he is still capable of inflicting damage on defenses.
Newton's first team reps have increased this week, and on Friday Panthers head coach Matt Rhule announced that Newton will be the starting quarterback against for Week 11. Rhule also added that PJ Walkers will "probably" get some snaps as well, so Del Rio said the defense will prepare for Newton and PJ Walker.
"They showed a little bit last week," Del Rio said of the Panthers and Newton. "Some of the Q runs, some of the Q power, some of that stuff that he does. He's unique. He's a unique guy, super talented, a guy with the history."
2. Maintain the offensive consistency from Tampa Bay.
Washington had been preaching consistency for weeks prior to its game against the Buccaneers. It failed to accomplish that against the Broncos and Packers, but with last year's Super Bowl champions coming to FedExField, it finally showed itself with five scoring drives on eight possessions.
"You just measured yourself to Goliath, alright?" Rivera said to his team after the win. "You just measured yourself and you found out who you are and what you're capable of."
Tampa Bay's defense has been one of the better performing units, but Carolina is just as heralded and even better in some areas. It comes into the Week 12 game with the league's second-best defense (280.7 yards allowed per game) giving up a league-low 173.7 passing yard average.
Facing top defenses is nothing new to Washington by now. The Packers, Broncos and Buccaneers all boasted top units before their matchups. Washington out-gained all of them, but the main difference is that it managed to put up points against the Buccaneers where it couldn't against the Packers and Broncos.
In order for Washington to give itself a chance, it will need to figure out how to exploit the Panthers, who have the fourth-lowest third down conversion rate in the NFL.
3. Protect Heinicke against a quality pass rush.
There's a lot to account for when it comes to the Panthers' defense, from second-year safety Jeremy Chinn leading the team in tackles to the duo of Donte Jackson and Stephon Gilmore combining for four interceptions and 10 pass breakups. It's pass-rush, though, is one of the biggest reasons why the unit is so proficient.
Led by Haason Reddick, whose 9.5 sacks are fifth in the NFL, leads a defense that has amassed 27 sacks through 10 games. The Panthers' adjusted sack rate of 9.5% is the best in the league, and linebacker Shaq Thompson has the eighth-best pass rushing grade in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus.
Washington has generally been effective at containing opposing pass rushes, although Taylor Heinicke has been sacked 14 times in the past three games. Granted, some of those sacks can be credited to Heinicke scrambling in the backfield, but that doesn't change the fact that Washington's offensive line will need to play well so Heinicke can have a clean pocket against the league's best secondary from a statistical standpoint.
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