In preparation for the Super Bowl, Inside the Pylon’s editors have compiled everything we have on the Carolina Panthers defense.
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:
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.
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:
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 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.
With 1:51 left in the 3rd quarter of the Divisional Round, Josh Norman came up with a huge sack of Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson. Norman didn’t sack Wilson on a blitz but, rather, actually had Cover 2 responsibility on the play. Yet the cornerback showed great field and route awareness, vacating his zone and making a play on Wilson.
Seattle came out in an empty formation with three receivers left and two on the right. Norman is deployed on the right, responsible for the short/flat area to that side. At the snap, Marshawn Lynch (#24) runs a drag route while Doug Baldwin (#89) runs a seam route:
At first, Norman attacks downhill toward the drag route. However, with Lynch leaving his zone and no one coming towards his area of responsibility, Norman spots Wilson attempting to leave the pocket. Instead of “covering grass,” Norman voids the zone and goes after the quarterback:
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Wilson, of course, is elite at buying time with his feet and loves to get outside the pocket. Norman prevents this with his instincts and speed. Norman takes a calculated risk, pursuing the sack. However, he can see that nobody is in his zone. Norman gambles the Baldwin is not running a corner or deep out route instead of a seam. Had he guessed wrong, the corner would have been completely out of position, leaving the defense vulnerable to a big gain.
Norman appears to have reacted instinctively based on his film study of Seattle’s route combination tendencies, or perhaps something that happened earlier in the game. Norman’s all-pro play this season has earned him the freedom and discretion from the coaching staff to abandon responsibilities to make the big play in certain situations, and it paid off here.
The game was a holiday showcase for an underappreciated Carolina team and their defensive leader, middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, who snared a pair of second-quarter interceptions that essentially put the game out of reach.
The Panthers love their zone defenses and they go to one of their favorites looks – Tampa 2, the coverage scheme made famous by Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffin when they coached the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense in the 1990s. Tampa 2 has fallen out of favor in recent years because there aren’t enough middle linebackers who can perform the tasks needed. The middle linebacker in a Tampa 2 scheme needs the traditional qualities of a “Mike” ‒ intelligence, instincts, and toughness in run support ‒ but he also the coverage abilities of a safety to defend the deep middle of the field, one of the most vulnerable areas in a traditional Cover 2. Effectively, he must possess the range and instincts to play two positions at once.
Down 13-3 and facing 2nd-and-13 on their own 17-yard-line, the Cowboys line up with trips right:
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Enter Luke Kuechly. The Cowboys use a variant of the dagger concept to stress the deep middle area where Kuechly (#59) is responsible. Tight end Jason Witten (#82) runs vertically up the seam, while wideout Terrance Williams (#82) runs a deep dig into the vacated area. The play initially develops as Jason Garrett drew it up, with Kuechly following Witten up the seam. But, as Kuechly sees Williams cut, the linebacker reacts. He passes Witten to safety Roman Harper (#41) and jumps Williams’s dig route for the interception. He gets a few timely blocks and returns the pick for a touchdown.
Kuechly draws praise for his range and speed ‒ and rightly so ‒ but this play is as much about his recognition skills and the precision of Carolina’s zone scheme. Kuechly understands how Dallas is trying to attack and anticipates the dig route. His trust in Harper to pick up the seam is a key part of why he has the confidence to attempt plays like this.
Foolishly, Romo tests Kuechly again on the very next play:
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Again the Cowboys line up with trips to the right and plan to attack the middle of the field vertically. Receiver Cole Beasley (#11) in the outside slot runs the seam route, while Witten executes a post from the inside slot toward the middle of the field.
This isn’t a true Tampa 2 look ‒ the Panthers blitz up front, so they use some man-to-man concepts on the outside ‒ but the middle linebacker has to cover a large swath of the field. Kuechly stays with Witten on the post, and Romo tries to squeeze the throw in to his veteran tight end. At the decision point for Romo, Witten appears to have half a step on Kuechly, but the tight end can’t pull away from the speedy linebacker and the pass is slightly underthrown. Kuechly makes it two interceptions in two plays.
This play shows off Kuechly’s range. He starts the play on the 24-yard line ‒ just four yards off the line of scrimmage ‒ and catches the interception at about the 44-yard line. Twenty yards in reverse is a lot of ground to cover for a linebacker, but Kuechly looks like a defensive back trailing, running with the tight end, and plucking the pass out of the air.
Zone defenses are tough to play because modern passing offenses excel at attacking the soft spots between zones, especially in the middle of the field, but linebackers with the coverage skills of Kuechly ‒ along with Davis and Thompson ‒ shrink the gaps between zones and make passing to the middle a hazardous proposition. Romo and the Cowboys found that out the hard way. If the fans, critics, and Vegas experts paid attention between servings of Turkey on Thursday, they learned how interceptions by Luke Kuechly are just the beginning of that lesson.
Let’s look at Allen here, from Carolina’s game against the Philadelphia Eagles. With just under three minutes remaining, the Eagles have the football and trail by eight. They face 1st and 10 on their own 15-yard line, and have quarterback Sam Bradford in the shotgun with 11 personnel, using pro formation on the right and slot alignment left. The Panthers have their 4-2-5 sub package on the field, showing Cover 1:
Allen is matched up against reserve Matt Tobin (#64), as starting left tackle Jason Peters suffered a knee injury earlier in the game. The veteran DE lines up in a wide 9 alignment, well outside Tobin’s left shoulder:
As the play begins, the LT looks to have the advantage. He begins with a decent kick slide with his left foot, and seems to have inside leverage. But then he looks to control the DE with his initial punch:
As with the previous example, the LT misses the punch, as Allen dips his inside shoulder under the arms of Tobin. The DE then uses a rip move, driving his left fist toward the sky under the arms of the tackle. This shifts the leverage immediately, giving Allen the inside track toward Bradford. Tobin is helpless as the defensive end drives his quarterback into the turf with a key sack.
The matchup between the Indianapolis offense and the Carolina defense is a matter of strength versus strength, as the Colts’ weapons try to find space to operate against that talented back seven. But whether Luck has the time to get the ball out to those skill position players might just come down to the matter of timing of Castonzo getting a punch on Allen.
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Inside The Pylon covers the NFL and college football, reviewing the film, breaking down matchups, and looking at the issues, on and off the field.
All video and images courtesy NFL Game Pass.