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Advanced Stats: Panthers all about defensive front seven, Cam Newton struggles under pressure

Let's fully examine the Carolina Panthers, who play host to the Buffalo Bills on Sunday.

After a tremendous 2015 season in which they went 15-1 and advanced to the Super Bowl, the Panthers experienced the typical Super Bowl hangover last year, as they finished the year 6-10.

Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly lead the way for the Panthers, but they have a variety of important role players and an exciting rookie running back in Christian McCaffrey.

To provide a deeper understanding of the Bills' Week Two opponent, here's a breakdown of the Panthers, from an advanced stats angle.

(Stats courtesy of Pro Football Focus.)

Panthers defense

For years now, the Panthers have dominated up front. Although the NFL has slowly made strides to become more of a wide-open, pass-centric league, consistently controlling the line of scrimmage -- and a few yards beyond it -- is still important.

Kuechly is the clear anchor of Carolina's defensive efforts, and it's been that way since he first stepped on the field in 2012. That year, he was PFF's No. 7 inside linebacker. His grade in 2013 led to a No. 8 ranking. The following season, he jumped to first place where he stayed until he was unseated in 2016, but only fell to the No. 2 spot. He's everywhere. His linebacker mate Thomas Davis is a smart, fluid, impact player, too. He was PFF's No. 12 4-3 outside linebacker last season and No. 8 the year before.

They overshadow defensive tackle Kawann Short, an elite disruptor, and Swiss-army knife defensive end/outside linebacker hybrid Mario Addison, who's become a blitzing extraordinaire in Carolina.

The only defensive tackle with more run "stops" than Short in 2016 was premier run-stuffer Damon Harrison of the Giants. Only five defensive tackles registered more QB pressures (sack, hit, or hurry) than Short's 49.

Addison tied Cameron Wake for the best pass-rush productivity among 4-3 outside linebackers last season. Pass-rush productivity is a score that measures how much pressure a defender gets relative to how many times he rushes the passer. He had a whopping 52 QB pressures in 2016.

In Week One, only five of the 17 defensive players who saw the field against the 49ers received negative overall grades from PFF. San Francisco quarterback Brian Hoyer was sacked four times and his offense mustered just 217 total yards.

The secondary member to watch for the Panthers is James Bradberry, 2016 second-round pick. At 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds, with nearly 33 3/8-inch arms -- which are really long -- Bradberry has an easier time than other cornerbacks do matching up with some of the larger wideouts in today's game.

He was PFF's No. 25 cornerback as a rookie while allowing an 85.5 passer rating on throws in his target area. He allowed four catches for 42 yards and a 74.7 quarterback rating in Week One.

Shaq Thompson, Kuechly and Davis' understudy at linebacker, is an intriguing player, as well. He played safety in college and uses his 4.64 to range from sideline to sideline often. It's just that the presence of Kuechly and Davis keep him off the field half the time.

Panthers offense

When Newton ran away with the NFL MVP award in 2015, the Panthers must have thrown the football a bunch and shied away from the ground game, right? After all, that's the trend in the modern-day NFL. Wrong. That season, Carolina attempted just 501 passes, the sixth-lowest total in football. Ron Rivera's crew ran it 526 times, the most in the league.

As a rushing attack, the Panthers had five players (including Newton) who averaged more than 4.0 yards per carry (with 25 or more attempts) en route to compiling 2,282 yards on the ground in 2015.

Though 2016 wasn't nearly as magical for Carolina, it stayed dedicated to the run game. As a team, the Panthers finished seventh in rushing attempts and 10th in rushing yards.

What changed then? Well, quite a bit, but Newton's step back was most noticeable and much of it had to do with how he performed under pressure.

Per PFF, the NFL's average passer rating for quarterbacks when not pressured was 100.6 last year. That league-average passer rating dipped to 66.8 when a quarterback was under pressure.

Last season, Newton's passer rating while not under pressure was 90.9. When pressured? Just 44.1, the fifth-lowest number among 37 qualifying quarterbacks.

Even in his MVP campaign of 2015, Newton was severely affected by pressure. The former No. 1 overall pick had the third-highest "without pressure" passer rating of 113.1 that year, but it dipped to 66.9 when he was pressured. In Week One, Newton's under pressure passer rating was 74.6. It was 94.6 when he threw from a clean pocket.

It's obvious quarterbacks aren't as effective when a defender is bearing down on them, but pressure has proven to recently impact Newton more than the average signal-caller.

This season, the Panthers want to add more quick passing to the offense, which is why McCaffrey, out of Stanford, was taken in the top 10 of the 2017 draft. In his first NFL game, he received 18 touches and forced four missed tackles.

Don't forget about veteran Jonathan Stewart. He's still a capable runner and will remain the workhorse until further notice. He had 20 touches (18 carries) in Week One and forced six missed tackles, which gave him the NFL's second-best elusiveness rating among running backs.

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