When this usually elite team faded to a 6-10 record in 2016, nobody seemed to see it coming. Well, it got their attention and there seems to be a sense of urgency for the Carolina Panthers heading into 2017. They spent a lot of money in free agency, which has not been their style, and they really are working to address the holes in this roster while also giving quarterback Cam Newton more weapons on offense.
After breaking down the film, what’s apparent is a versatile offense that can attack a defense in a variety of ways but many of those weapons are new. On the other side of the ball, the Panthers have arguably the best front seven in the NFL and a young secondary that is making steady progress. It is hard to imagine that 2017 will be anything but a huge bounce-back year for the Panthers.
This has been a diverse and creative offense for several years, but it faltered in 2016. The Panthers have added pieces that should get them back to elite status. They have the most distinctive run game in the league, and the passing game shows glimpses of excellence. When Newton is in sync, it is a tough offense to defend because they can attack aa defense in so many ways. Because opponents must count Newton as a running back, it forces an extra defender into the box, and that often opens up the run game and gives this attacking force plenty of options.
The Greg Olsen factor
The receiving corps should be better, but Olsen is still the go-to guy in this passing game, and he is involved in most of their big plays. There are two tight ends on the left and two wide receivers out wide on this play. The defense rushes four, with seven in coverage, and shows a cover 2 that transitions to a cover 1 on the snap as the running back draws coverage from one of the safeties.
Carolina plays combo coverages (man and zone) and tries to “lure” the single high safety to his right by releasing the receiver on the left on a vertical route and the outside tight end on a quick out route, and that is what it gets. Olsen, the inside tight end, has a lot of room in the middle of the field to work and gets a free release and attacks on a seam route vs. the safety, who is out of position and scrambling to recover. The result is a 29-yard touchdown reception on a play the Panthers love to run.
The Panthers arguably have the best front seven in the NFL, which is a good thing, and that really helps a young secondary. Their defensive line eats up blocks and the linebackers make most of the plays (better inside rush than edge rush). They prefer to get to the QB with their front four and limited blitzes, and while they will tease you with man coverage looks, on the snap they often drop into zone coverages (cover 1-2-3), and play with excellent discipline and poise. They communicate well and are constantly changing up their looks to confuse the offense.
Play smart and communicate
A simple rush 4/drop 7 scheme (5 under/2 deep combo coverages). The tight end on the right runs right at Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly, trying to hold him, as the defense assumes that he will cover the tight end shallow and leave a big hole in the middle of the cover 2. The inside WR on the right runs a seam route as the cornerback covering him initially drops into his zone.
Kuechly drops into the deep middle and leaves the tight end, getting the depth needed to intercept the ball as the QB doesn’t expect him to be there. Excellent turn and run recognition to take away the cover 2 hole that every offense wants to attack. These guys talk to each other, they sync up their coverages, and they rarely have breakdowns.
5 additional summer film evaluations
- The LBs are critical in this defense — The linebacking trio of Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Shaq Thompson may be the best in the NFL and because they can cover, they stay on the field on third down and don’t get caught in bad matchup situations vs. spread offensive looks. However, the defensive tackles, Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei, must take on blockers and protect them, especially Kuechly, and this defense asks the linebackers to make most of the plays.
- Pass rush dictates coverages — They quietly produced 47 sacks in 2016 (second in the NFL), and they did it with a lot of players and without an elite edge rusher. But now they have free agent Julius Peppers. If they can get to the QB with four rushers, they can drop into their base cover 3 zones. And if the pressure isn’t there, they can bring more blitzes and play man behind it with a young secondary that they are starting to trust more in coverage.
- Is this pass offense in a “makeover”? — Even though Newton loves to throw the deep ball, this may be an attack that concentrates on intermediate/short passes and a lot of yards after the catch. There are big and physical receivers who can catch over the middle and in a crowd, rookie running backs Christian McCaffrey and Alex Armah, who can work a lot of underneath routes, and Newton always has tight end Olsen as his seam routes guy and rookie receiver Curtis Samuel may be his next vertical Ted Ginn Jr. on occasional deep shots. This passing game may look a lot like what is seen in New England.
- Revamped OL is key to run game — New left tackle Matt Kalil is expected to anchor this offensive line and the coaches feel good about their interior three (if they stay healthy). They have a huge question at right tackle, which is critical in this right-handed run game. There will be fewer power sets in the run game, with more wide runs and a lot of traps and whams, and this line is athletic enough to give them the movement they need.
- Both coordinators are under pressure — Steve Wilks takes over defense for Sean McDermott and inherits a young and improving group that is expected to be much better in 2017. He must get the secondary to the next level (he is a former defensive backs coach), but the real key is what he does as a first-time play caller. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula took a lot of heat for the regression of this offense in 2016, but has added weapons and can work with a lot of pieces. So there should be no excuse if the offense fails to produce big numbers.
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