INDIANAPOLIS – A capsule look at the Colts' opponent this week, the Carolina Panthers of the NFC South.
Synopsis: In the Colts' final game against NFC South opponents, the Carolina Panthers will travel to Indianapolis in a week 12 match-up at Lucas Oil Stadium. (The Colts have faced Tampa Bay, New Orleans and Atlanta already this season.)
Despite holding a record of 2-8, Carolina has established itself as one of the most prolific offenses in the NFL. Quarterback Cam Newton leads the way for this dangerous unit that currently ranks fifth in the NFL in total offense per game (400.9), and seventh in rushing yards per game (128.7).
With an electrifying trio of weapons in the running game, headlined by DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Newton, the Panthers boast one of the league's most dynamic ground attacks. The trio has found the end zone 12 times rushing the ball, and all three rank in the top 35 in NFL rushing yards.
In week 11 against Detroit, Newton was able to break the NFL record for the most rushing touchdowns by a rookie quarterback. He had two against the Lions, bringing his season total to nine. The previous mark of seven rookie rushing touchdowns by a quarterback was held by Vince Young. Newton is just three touchdowns away from tying the league record for the most seasonal rushing touchdowns by a quarterback. The mark was set in 1976 by Steve Grogan of New England.
The Colts understand that they will need to force Newton to earn his yardage by completing difficult throws, a task easier said than done.
"That's just a situation where you just have to be smart," said safety Antoine Bethea regarding Cam Newton's ability to run the ball. "(You) kind of game plan to really not let him beat you with his feet. Most definitely we want him to beat (us) with his arm, but that's a phase of the game, the quarterback running, that can really get tough throughout the game. Hopefully, we'll dial some things up and limit that."
Head Coach Jim Caldwell also is aware of Newton's proficiency carrying the football, and he anticipates the defense being forced to deal with a number of difficult situations.
"(He is) a talented guy," said Caldwell. "You look at him in terms of what he (can do), he runs the ball well, he's carried the ball 77 times and leads his team in rushing touchdowns with nine. He's a talented guy that can do a number of different things. He can really put stress on a defense."
The Panthers will travel to Indianapolis following a difficult 49-35 loss at the hands of Detroit. After surrendering the third-most points in franchise history (49), the most total net yards (495) and the most first downs (29), Carolina will be looking to improve upon its play defensively.
Injuries have taken a toll on the Panthers' defense, but Head Coach Ron Rivera does not want to make excuses for his team's performance.
"I really don't want to give an excuse. You play who is on your team. You play the hand that you're dealt," said Rivera. "You'd like to hope and believe that when somebody steps in for somebody else, the other 10 guys rally around him. Maybe it's unrealistic, but these guys are in the league for a reason. They're professionals who have made it to the NFL level."
The Colts will look to attack a Carolina defensive unit that is allowing 28.6 points per game, a total that ranks 31st in the NFL. Indianapolis is coming off a bye week and hopes the rest will aid the offense.
One area that has received extra attention for Indianapolis has been finishing strongly at the end of halves. The Colts have struggled this season to gain momentum and sustain drives in situations where Caldwell has seen the club have success in the past.
"(It is) an area where we have typically been pretty strong. You look at last year and I think we led the league in terms of points just before the half," said Caldwell. "This year, obviously, we have not been able to kind of close things out. Our drives at the end of the game, our drive at the end of the Cincinnati game, opportunities that you have to function well and get yourself in position to score. We haven't done a very good job of that at this stage. It's something that we've got to continually work on. We worked on it a little bit last week during the bye week, just trying to finish and get ourselves in position to score, and we'll continue to do so this week as well."
The Panthers currently hold the all-time regular season advantage, 3-1, but Indianapolis will look to close the gap on Carolina come Sunday. A Colts victory also would make it consecutive victories in the series for Indianapolis. The Colts were the victors in the last matchup in 2007 at Carolina, 31-7.
*2011 Record: *2-8, Fourth in NFC South.
*Head Coach: *Ron Rivera, 1st season as Panthers and NFL Head Coach (2-8).
*Last game: *The Carolina Panthers traveled to Ford Field to face the Detroit Lions. Despite holding a 27-14 advantage heading into the half, Carolina could not keep pace with Detroit, surrendering 35 second-half points to the Lions. The 49-35 defeat at Detroit was the third loss in a row for Carolina, and it dropped the team's record to 2-8 on the season.
*2011 NFL Rankings: *Offense – Overall, 5th (400.9); Rushing, 7th (128.7); Passing, 9th (272.2); Defense – Overall, 27th (374.8); Rushing, 30th (140.7); Passing, 17th (234.1).
*2011 Leading Passer: *Cam Newton (219-365 comp., 2,885 yards, 60.0 pct., 12 TDs, 14 INTs, 80.0 rating).
*2011 Leading Rusher: *DeAngelo Williams (93 carries, 471 yards, 1 TD).
*2011 Leading Receiver: *Steve Smith (56 receptions, 992 yards, 5 TDs).
2011 Leading Sacker: Charles Johnson (7.0).
2011 Turnover Breakdown: -5 (Tied-24th).
First-round draft choice: Cam Newton, quarterback. With the 1st overall selection in the 2011 NFL draft, the Carolina Panthers selected Cam Newton out of Auburn University. In his final season at Auburn, Newton was named the 76th Heisman Trophy winner, and the third in Auburn history. He also received the Davey O'Brien Award, the Maxwell Award and the Manning Award. He was named the SEC Offensive Player-of-the-Year and Associated Press National Player-of-the- Year. Newton also helped lead Auburn to the BCS National Championship.
*2010 Review: *The Carolina Panthers finished the 2010 season with a mark of 2-14. Despite making the playoffs in 2008 with a record of 12-4, Carolina elected to part ways with former Head Coach John Fox. Ron Rivera was tabbed as the successor to Fox, and with the opportunity to coach Carolina came the first overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft. The Panthers selected quarterback Cam Newton with the first pick, marking a new era for the Panthers.
Last time in Playoffs: L, 33-13 vs. Arizona (2008).
*Last time in Super Bowl: *2004.
*Super Bowl Championships: *None.
*2010 Pro Bowl Selections: *Jon Beason LB, Jordan Gross OT, Ryan Kalil C.
Quotable I: On the loss to the Detroit Lions:
"The first half we came out explosive, the way football is supposed to be played. The second half, we came out almost like we were just trying to hold on, and you can't do that against a team with the explosive offense they have and the talent they have on defense."
--- Panthers Quarterback Cam Newton
Quotable II: On the defense's struggles in the second half against Detroit:
"There was a lot that didn't work after the second quarter. I've watched it probably six or seven times already, trying to find solutions. It comes back to having the right call, putting ourselves in position to make plays and when the play is there to be made, making the play."
--- Panthers Defensive Coordinator Sean McDermott