One of the more interesting subplots to Carolina’s Sunday night game against Philadelphia is: Who’s going to cover Jordan Matthews?
Matthews, the Eagles’ second-year slot receiver, had a huge game last season against the Panthers, hauling in seven passes for 138 yards and two touchdowns in Philadelphia’s 45-21 win.
Matthews, 6-3 and 212 pounds, is the Eagles’ leading receiver this season with 36 catches for 384 yards and a touchdown.
The Panthers usually put cornerback Josh Norman on the opponent’s top wideout, and he has responded with four interceptions and the highest coverage grade of any corner in Pro Football Focus’ ratings.
But Norman has lined up inside only four times among his 353 total snaps this season, according to Pro Football Focus. So unless the Panthers change their scheme and Norman’s normal responsibilities, it appears the job of guarding Matthews will fall principally on nickel corner Bené Benwikere.
Benwikere missed last year’s Eagles game with a high ankle sprain, and backup safety Colin Jones started at nickel.
Rookie linebacker Shaq Thompson would have given the Panthers a bigger option to use at nickel against Matthews, but Thompson is sidelined with a sprained MCL.
But Benwikere, 6-foot and 195 pounds, said he’s not in awe of Matthews’ size because of the big receivers the Panthers face in the NFC South.
“He’s definitely a bigger guy and he’s able to move,” Benwikere said. “That’s something I don’t look at as a challenge because we face that in our division every game.”
Benwikere said he and Jones have been practicing at nickel this week, and he doesn’t expect Norman to line up inside against the Eagles.
“We’re not trying to overthink it and do too much because Josh is normally outside,” Benwikere said.
Norman said he’s confident in his ability to play inside. But he also has faith in Benwikere, who is coming off his best game of the season last week with two pass breakups in the win at Seattle.
Norman called Benwikere a “scatty guy” with quick hips and excellent ball skills.
“When you can have a guy like that playing against Jordan Matthews in the slot, that’s awesome,” Norman said.
Eagles coach Chip Kelly said Matthews, the former Vanderbilt standout, a tough matchup.
“Some people play smaller nickel players and Jordan is a big receiver in there. A lot of people play smaller slots so the smaller nickels match up,” Kelly said. “Jordan is a big, physical guy but he can run so he can be a difficult matchup for people.”
Panthers free safety Kurt Coleman, a former Eagles player, said Kelly’s system creates space for receivers such as Matthews.
“So when they catch the ball they have room to move, room to get up the field,” Coleman said. “And that’s what the fast tempo (does). It puts people in mismatches. It puts people in bad spaces. And that’s why you have to be fundamentally sound.”
Coleman smiled when asked if he might be among those shadowing Matthews in the Panthers’ zone coverages.
“Maybe. We’ll just have to wait and see,” Coleman said. “Everybody’s an option. We’ll just say that.”