NFL Preview Week 3: NFC South Rivals Carolina and New Orleans Clash

Two weeks into the 2015 NFL season, the Carolina Panthers have met or exceeded expectations, while NFC South rivals the New Orleans Saints have fallen far short. Dave Archibald looks at the Panthers stout defense and Saints faltering offense.

The Panthers have ridden a swarming, blitz-heavy zone scheme to one of the stingiest pass defenses in the league and a 2-0 record. The Saints have struggled to score points, ranking just 23rd in scoring offense after finishing in the top 12 in that category eight years in a row, and possess an 0-2 record after a home loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Carolina and New Orleans square off Sunday, with the Panthers looking to establish themselves as top dogs… er, cats, in the division and the Saints looking to climb back into the thick of things with a win.

Rollin’ on a River

The Panthers had a solid pass defense in 2014, ranking 12th in the NFL in opponent yards per attempt, but they’ve jumped to the top ranking early in the 2015 season. Part of that is their first two opponents the Jacksonville Jaguars and Houston Texans, neither of whom frighten anyone, and part is a secondary keyed by emerging cornerbacks Josh Norman and Bené Benwikere. Ultimately, the major component to their success is a top linebacker unit and a scheme that pressures and confuses opponents while remaining fundamentally sound.

The bread-and-butter of the Carolina defense is zone coverage, usually Cover 3. While the idea of a zone-based defense might conjure up images of easy completions in front of soft, vanilla coverage, the Panthers put an aggressive spin on basic zone concepts that, combined with some terrific personnel at linebacker, allow them to use zones in ways most teams cannot. Pre-snap, they create confusion on both the back end and at the line of scrimmage. They rarely play the coverage scheme they show pre-snap; they will show two high safeties and then shift into one-high at the snap, or show press and then roll into zone:

Carolina-rolls-press-cover-1-into-cover-2-markup

On 3rd-and-9 against the Jaguars, the Panthers align their cornerbacks on the line of scrimmage in press coverage with one high safety – it’s a Cover 1 look. Just before the snap, however, safety Kurt Coleman (#20) backpedals from the box out to the deep part of the field. The corners jam but then drop into underneath zones. The Panthers, showing Cover 1 pre-snap, have shifted to Cover 2. Jacksonville’s quarterback, perhaps a bit confused, throws the ball out of bounds and the Jaguars have to punt.

Drop Me a Line(backer)

Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott loves to blitz, but for every blitz he shows there are many more snaps where he shows pressure and then drops players into coverage, sometimes not only the defenders one expects:

Sugar-A-Gaps-Cover-3-stop-on-4th-and-5-EZ-markup-2

Here on 4th-and-5, the Panthers “sugar” the A-gap, feinting an double A-gap blitz, by placing linebackers Thomas Davis (#58) and Shaq Thompson (#54) on either side of Houston Texans center Ben Jones (#60). Neither blitzes, but Jones has to account for them, which makes him late to help when Kyle Love (#93) swims past the left guard. Love gets pressure on quarterback Ryan Mallett (#15), who zips the ball out to running back Jonathan Grimes (#41). Davis and Thompson are ready, however, and Thompson “clicks and closes” and drills Grimes well short of the first down.

Most teams, even predominantly zone defenses, use man-to-man coverage on downs like 4th-and-5. It is generally thought to be too easy to complete short passes against zone coverage and defenses are conceding the conversion by playing “soft.” The above play illustrates that the Carolina defense isn’t “conceding” anything, and it certainly isn’t soft. The system demands uber-athletic linebackers, and Carolina is loaded: Davis, Thompson, and 2013 Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly, all of whom can blitz or cover with equal aplomb, and have the range to show blitz at the line of scrimmage and still drop into a zone. Kuechly, however, suffered a concussion in Week 1 and is questionable for the contest, which might put the versatile rookie Thompson and 24-year-old A.J. Klein in larger roles.

Wheel’s On Fire

Carolina’s defense flummoxed Houston and Jacksonville, but there isn’t much that Saints head coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees haven’t seen. They have a repertoire of zone-beating concepts to use against the Panthers:

Wheel-route-to-CJ-Spiller-vs-C3-gain-of-19-markup

Here the Saints use the “exit-enter” concept against Tampa Bay’s Cover 3, running one receiver out of an area – in this case, wideout Marques Colston (#12) – only to send another, halfback C.J. Spiller (#28), into the vacated zone. Colston’s route keeps cornerback Johnthan Banks (#27) away and also sets something of a pick on linebacker Danny Lansanah (#51). Spiller runs a wheel route up the sideline and Brees hits him perfectly in stride for a 19-yard gain.

Trouble Downfield

The Saints have had a lot of success throwing to running backs in 2015, with Spiller, Mark Ingram, and Khiry Robinson combining for 182 yards through the air on 20 targets, an impressive 9.1 yards per attempt average. The problem has come in targeting their wideouts and tight ends, where Brees is averaging a mere 6.5 yards per attempt. Even when they have the perfect play called, they often can’t connect.

Lavonte-David-breaks-up-in-cut-at-intermediate-level-markup

The Buccaneers are again in Cover 3, and the Saints have a great play call to attack that look. They run a play fake to draw the linebackers up and send wideout Brandin Cooks (#10) deep to command the attention of the left cornerback and the free safety. They send receivers Colston and Willie Snead (#83) on square-ins to the empty area between those levels. It should be a nice gain, but Lavonte David makes an amazing individual play, recovering from an initial step in to drop into coverage and tip away the pass intended for Colston. Brees is suffering from a bruised throwing shoulder, and the lack of zip on this throw gave David the opportunity to recover. Given Carolina’s athletic linebackers, the throwing windows won’t be any bigger Sunday.

Maybe It Won’t Be a Brees

At this time it’s not clear whether his shoulder injury will allow Brees to play. Veteran Luke McCown has thrown just one pass in his three seasons as Brees’ backup, though perhaps given the chance he would really shine. If Brees ends up missing a significant stretch of time, New Orleans might turn to third-round rookie Garrett Grayson to get him some seasoning.

The health statuses of Brees and Kuechly, both question marks at this time, loom large over the divisional showdown. Carolina has the linebacker depth to weather a Kuechly absence, but the same is not true for New Orleans and their signal-caller. The Saints pass defense is allowing a league-worst 8.9 yards per drop back and figure to struggle containing Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and star tight end Greg Olsen – they need to put up points to win. That has been an issue in 2015 even with a healthy Brees, and if he isn’t close to 100%, it looks like another long day for the winless Saints, and another big win for the Panthers.

Follow Dave on Twitter @davearchie.

Dave Archibald knows pass defense, specifically how coverage, the pass rush, excellent cornerbacks, versatile safeties and in-game adjustments can make a big difference.

All video and images courtesy NFL Game Pass.

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