Due to its short schedule compared to other major sports, the NFL limits how many times we can see teams and players play each other if they are in separate conferences. For example, can we really call Aaron Rodgers vs. Tom Brady a rivalry if they’ve only faced off once?
Andy Dalton and the Bengals vs. Cam Newton and the Panthers is a matchup we’ve only seen once in the now eight years the two have been in the league, and that game ended in a tie. Technically a quarterback vs. a quarterback isn’t really a matchup, but these four are, and they’re the ones to watch for as the Bengals travel to North Carolina to face the Panthers.
LG Clint Boling vs. DT Kawann Short
Everyone knows linebacker Luke Kuechly is the best player and leader of the Panthers defense, but one of the guys playing in front of him still doesn’t get the credit he deserves.
Short is not quite the talent the Bengals very own Geno Atkins is at rushing the passer from an under tackle alignment, but he’s closer than you think. The sixth-year pass rusher has two sacks and as many tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage as Atkins (five) through the first two games of the season.
Another similarity Short shares with Atkins is his propensity to face off against the left guard the vast majority of the time, meaning he will be battling with the most experienced member of the Bengals offensive line in Clint Boling.
Boling has only gotten beaten a handful of times thus far in pass protection and has graded out as the Bengals best offensive lineman so far with a score of 69.8. This is the matchup in the trenches despite the Bengals starting Trey Hopkins at center for the first time in his career.
RE Carl Lawson vs. LT Chris Clark
While the matchup between Boling and Short should be pretty even, this one may favor the Bengals a bit more.
Lawson has yet to record a sack through two games but has gotten close numerous times. There’s little reason to panic however because his start of the season is reminiscent of last year. The big difference is Lawson has taken over twice as many snaps compared to this time last year. But we all remember when he went off against the Packers backup left tackle Kyle Murphy in Week 3 and was given many more snaps to do so.
Lawson won’t be given a huge increase in usage like got last year, but he once again will face off against a backup at left tackle in Clark to notch his first sack(s) of the season. Clark has been in the league since 2008 and has jumped around in his career since making his debut in 2010.
He’s well past the height of his career and had a shaky performance last week against the Falcons. The only reason he’s starting is because of Daryl Williams’ injury forced him into the lineup, and Lawson should have his way with him all day.
Bengals linebackers vs. RB Christian McCaffrey
The Bengals defense is designed to sacrifice yards underneath for the sake of limiting explosive plays. That plan is fruitless when explosive plays happen regardless because of bad tackling underneath.
This was the case a few times with the Bengals second level defense against Alex Collins of the Ravens getting the ball in space. Missed tackles led to big plays and yards after the catch. The Bengals linebackers cannot have a repeat performance against a better receiving back that is the focal point of the Panthers passing game.
McCaffrey is arguably a better receiver than he is a running back, but he’s an elusive ball carrier nonetheless. Against the Falcons, he caught 14(!) passes for 102 yards, with almost all of that coming after the catch. Quarterback Cam Newton found him releasing into the flats after acting like an extra blocker a lot. He’s a danger on screens and the option route over the middle is another staple for him.
He’ll no doubt get a ton of targets again this week, and the Bengals linebackers can’t really stop that from happening. What they can do is wrap him up and minimize the damage he can create in the open field.
CB Dre Kirkpatrick vs. WR Torrey Smith
I mentioned Kirkpatrick as a player to watch in this game here, and his matchup against Smith will be an enticing one for both sides. Kirkpatrick had a back-and-forth bout with speedy receiver John Brown of the Ravens in Week 2, and Smith typically runs routes from the right side of the Panthers offense, which is Kirkpatrick’s domain on the left side of the defense.
Most Panthers fans don’t have the highest opinion of Smith, but to his credit, he’s done a better job this year of creating separation. He’s the Panthers most active deep target, and Kirkpatrick better be ready to run miles once again to defend him with Newton’s cannon of an arm targeting him downfield.