The Carolina Panthers punt coverage team, centered around big-leg punter Brad Nortman, appears pedestrian by most statistical measures. Chuck Zodda looks at how box score scouting can be affected by one big mistake from the Panthers punt unit.
Brad Nortman ranked just 18th in gross average and 17th in net average this season. The Panthers coverage unit ranks 17th in yards per return and 18th in total return yards given up. And it is also one of only 10 units across the league to have given up a punt return touchdown. Stripping out this return, Carolina gives up just 5.6 yards per return, which would have placed it 6th in the league.
Facing the New Orleans Saints in Week 3, Carolina’s first kick was delivered from its 34-yard line. However, a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the Panthers nullified what would have been a 56-yard punt with a muffed catch, pinning the Saints at their 6-yard line. Instead, Nortman and Carolina were forced to kick again, this time from their own 19-yard line:
Punting from the left hash, Nortman lines up just inside, suggesting a slight angle to the left. To this point in the season, the Panthers had not employed directional punting at all, with nearly every kick landing between the hashes. This angle here suggests a target between the left numbers and left hash rather than a steeper directional kick towards the left sideline. The Saints show six men near the line of scrimmage, double-teaming both gunners and prioritizing a return over getting any pressure on Nortman.
The snap from J.J. Jansen (#44) is clean and Nortman gets the ball away with no issues:
The look from New Orleans immediately indicates a wall return to Carolina’s right. The left side of the Panthers line is allowed a free release (green box), while the right side of the New Orleans front utilizes hold up technique to keep Carolina from getting upfield.
Notice how this immediately elongates the Carolina punt unit and stretches it vertically, which is a key goal of a wall return.
Carolina’s right gunner takes an inside release, driving hard towards the center of field, suggesting the pre-snap alignment from Nortman indeed signified a kick to the left; this inside release takes him out of the exact area the return will eventually target. Nortman’s hips are also pointing to the left numbers, giving further confirmation of the intention of a left punt.
The situation goes from bad to ugly as the punt travels downfield:
Carolina’s coverage slants to the left, with seven men inside the right hash (blue circles). They run unimpeded towards Marcus Murphy (#48), the New Orleans returner.
While a quick gallop downfield is always good to get the blood moving, it should also set off alarms in the Panthers’ heads: A lack of any resistance in football is generally a sign that a play is targeting the area you vacated, rather than where you are headed.
On offense, this phenomenon shows up most often on screen plays. On punts, it shows up on wall returns. The lack of even token resistance should immediately get heads on a swivel to see where the blocking will eventually come from. In this case, New Orleans has stacked its blockers just outside the right hash (orange box) and is getting ready to earhole half of the Carolina coverage unit.
Carolina does get one defender in position to make a play, but he is quickly sealed off as Murphy catches the ball:
Murphy bounces quickly to the right of the frame as the rest of the Saints line up their blocks. As he accelerates laterally, he faces pressure from another Panthers defender:Murphy kicks into a higher gear as he makes for the corner. With his head up, he likely sees the strong blocking setting up in front of him as he pushes for the edge. As he gains ground on the one defender who has a chance, the football equivalent of an asteroid the size of Texas creates a path in front of him:
The Saints stack their blocks right on the numbers in absolutely beautiful fashion. The three closest Carolina defenders are taken out as Murphy turns the corner with one man to beat. Nortman has tracked over in a safety role, looking to make a tackle, or at least slow Murphy down a little.
Unfortunately, Nortman takes arguably the worst angle ever witnessed in the ancient and revered history of punt coverage:
Nortman opts instead to slide to avoid contact with both blockers bearing down on him, ending up nearly out-of-bounds:
Not having to slow down, Murphy continues up the sideline at full speed before cutting back against the grain behind the triple-team block on the last Carolina defender. As he cuts to the inside, Murphy has nothing but green grass in front of him:
Carolina’s coverage unit is typically outstanding: Their tape shows good spacing and tracking of the football along with the outstanding tackling that is typical of their defense. However, their lack of awareness on this play was shocking to see from what is usually a strong unit. While the Denver Broncos do not feature a dynamic return game, this play shows that the Panthers do have weaknesses in this phase that can be exploited. Look to see if Denver employs similar strategies this weekend, as this could be a game decided by field position and big special teams plays.
Follow Chuck on Twitter @ITP_ChuckZ.
Chuck Zodda knows the importance of staying in your lane, how to fake a punt return, the humanity of punters, proper placekicking technique and the Jets.
All video and images courtesy NFL Game Pass.