Here’s a look at some key Carolina players to watch.
With Darnold (concussion) “extremely limited” at Carolina’s Wednesday practice and even coach Matt Rhule uncertain of his starter’s status, Walker has taken all the Panthers’ first-team reps at quarterback and is preparing as if he’ll start.
Walker was an undrafted free agent and XFL standout, and has shown he isn’t afraid to let it fly.
Walker’s career average yards per attempt (aDoT) of 10.9 is notably higher than Darnold’s lifetime mark of 8.8 yards and 2021 aDoT of 7.9 yards. He’ll likely try to test the Patriots down the field with burners D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson.
That also means Walker is liable to give the Patriots’ defense chances to obtain the football. He has thrown five interceptions against just one touchdown and has almost as many turnover-worthy plays as big-time throws in his career.
Still, the gunslinging Walker might pose more of a threat than Darnold, who has never beaten the Patriots in three career starts and, quite frankly, plays terribly against them (53.2 completion percentage, 1 TD, 6 INTs).
Though Moore leads the team in receiving by a wide margin, Patriots coach Bill Belichick has singled out Anderson as a difficult receiver to scheme for.
The former Jet hasn’t done much this season (18 catches, 204 yards, two touchdowns) after posting career highs in receptions (95) and receiving yards (1,096) last year in his first season with Carolina. But his speed remains a major threat, especially if the Patriots’ secondary is missing J.C. Jackson on Sunday.
Jackson missed two practices with an illness, but returned Friday. Jalen Mills and Joejuan Williams can play outside cornerback, but would be challenged against receivers as dynamic as Anderson and Moore and would almost certainly require the Patriots to have a lot of safety help.
If Jackson plays and shadows Moore as he has other top receivers, that could still leave Anderson with favorable matchups against Mills and Myles Bryant in the slot, where the speedy receiver spends a good amount of time.
Brian Burns/Haason Reddick
Carolina pressures quarterbacks at a top-five rate in the league, and the dangerous edge-rushing combination of Burns and Reddick is arguably the engine that makes that pass rush go.
Burns has 27 pressures, which is a top-20 mark in the NFL, and has five sacks, including three in the first three games. Reddick has fewer pressures (21) but more sacks (7½).
Since their first three games, both have started seeing more chips from running backs and tight ends, which has slowed their production. Look for New England to copy that plan, especially after it worked pretty well against Chargers star Joey Bosa last week.
The problem: If you devote too much attention to one of them, the other might get a one-on-one matchup to exploit.
The Patriots’ offensive line has done a better job of keeping defenders off quarterback Mac Jones in recent weeks.
Rhule indicated Gilmore might not play many snaps against the Patriots as he continues working back from the quad injury that landed him on the PUP list to start the season. Most likely, he’ll play primarily a third-down role as he did against Atlanta.
When he’s on the field, though, New England should treat its former top cornerback as if he’s the same guy he’s been for years.
Gilmore shadowed the Falcons’ best receiving threat, tight end Kyle Pitts, whenever the two were in the game and even nabbed his game-sealing interception while covering him. Gilmore’s physicality was on display, and his mobility looked no worse for the wear.
With that third-down role in mind, expect Gilmore to be a chess piece the Panthers could use against Jakobi Meyers — arguably Jones’s favorite security blanket — or even Kendrick Bourne and Hunter Henry, who have both improved as the year has progressed.
The Patriots might be able to test Gilmore on well-timed deep digs and in-breaking routes when he’s in zone coverage. That formula worked when New England went after Tampa Bay’s veteran corner Richard Sherman as he was finding his legs early in the season.