The Oakland Raiders lucked out when Luke Kuechly was deemed out of their contest last weekend.
Kuechly is one of the best if not the best inside linebacker in the NFL not only because on top of being an elite run stuffer, he is in a league of his own when it comes to coverage ability. The Carolina Panthers take advantage of his cover ability by playing a Tampa 2 coverage. The coverage requires a linebacker that is able to run down the field with tight ends and receivers which Kuechly does extremely well. However, he suffered a concussion in Week 10 and is out indefinitely.
The Raiders exposed his absence by attacking the deep middle of the field in the passing game.
Tampa 2 is a two-high coverage, which means there are two safeties deep. The two safeties split the deep part of the field in half and are each responsible for covering one-half. The two outside corners are responsible for the flat area of the field, but their depth and technique could change depending on the call. The outside linebackers are responsible for underneath zones.
The key to the defense working is the middle linebacker. He has to run with tight ends or receivers that run into the intermediate or deep middle of the field. The safeties could help but will be more concerned with the area between the hashmark to sideline.
Without Kuechly, the defense would have a major liability in the middle of it. The linebacker that would replace him was Chris Klein, who isn’t bad, but was exposed by the Raiders offense.
I wrote before the game about how offensive coordinator, Bill Musgrave, should test which ever Panthers linebacker that was going to fill in for Kuechly in the deep middle, and that is exactly what Musgrave did. In the article, there was a clip of the Raiders running an all verticals concept against the Steelers’ Tampa 2 defense. Coincidently, the Raiders ran the same exactly play against the Panthers.
The difference between this play and the one the Raiders ran against the Steelers is that Andres Holmes is running the bender route to split the two safeties. Klein is responsible for running with Holmes. The safety to the right is so concerned with helping Klein, that he locks onto Holmes even as Carr begins his throwing motion to throw to Johnny Holton, who is wide open in the area the safety vacated. Carr places the ball perfectly for a huge pass play, exploiting Klein in coverage would be an important strategy as the game went on.
This play came on the game-winning drive. Musgrave knew the Panthers were going to use a lot of Tampa 2 coverage, so he adjusted his shallow cross concept to get Crabtree isolated with Klein by having Crabtree line up a slot to run a bender right down the middle of the field.
Musgrave calls the adjusted shallow cross play and sure enough the Panthers come out in Tampa 2. The Panthers tried hard to disguise the coverage as cover-1 but Carr sees the safety rotation when the ball is snapped and looks right to Crabtree who is matched up with Klein. Carr gets hit as he’s throwing and under throws the ball, but Crabtree is able to come up with the catch anyways. Needless to say, Klein had a rough day.
Both of these plays went for big yardage and led to critical scores. Credit coach Musgrave for recognizing a potential match-up problem with Kuechly being out and devising ways to exploit them. The Panthers should expect opponents to follow this blue print and adjust or they will continue to give up big plays.