AbsolutAnalysis: The Carolina Panthers

In an exclusive NFC Championship preview, Seahawks.NET welcomes back our very own Matt "Absolutplayer" Lathrop, for another playbook breakdown. Today, Matt turns his attention to Seattle's Sunday opponent - the Carolina Panthers.

When the Carolina Panthers played the Chicago Bears last weekend at Soldier Field, it showed the nation a lot about each team. I took a look at the game this past week and have summarized my thoughts and notes about the Panthers into one tasty little package for all you Seahawks fans. I hope you enjoy it.

Panthers Offense

Running the Ball: There are a couple things that stand out right away about Carolina's running game. Above all, they love to put a lot of players at the point of attack on a given run play. Whether that means using a fullback and putting a tight end in the back field, or pulling a couple linemen on a toss, the Panthers often try to out-man the defense and give the running back as much protection as possible. They tend to use the TE as an H-Back, motioning him around, putting him at the wing spot or in the backfield with a fullback to give a flexbone look. If the TE isn’t going to be shifting or in motion, then you can bet another position will be. On occasion, the Panthers brought a flanker in on short motion to give them another man in the tackle box. Many teams use motion to force the defense into a certain alignment or coverage, or to show what type of coverage they are playing, but Carolina isn’t afraid to bring a wideout into the box and have him go find a linebacker to block on a run play.

I was asked to talk about Nick Goings a little bit; how his running style differs from DeShaun Foster’s, and how the playcalling changes. From what I understand, Goings has the reputation of a north-and-south runner who hits the hole with a full head of steam. My thoughts of Goings from the Bears game, is that he is certainly a better runner on plays that don’t require a whole lot of decision making or ask him to possibly bend a play around to the backside. This is no insult to Goings, but after watching him, I can conclude that he is not a shifty, gliding runner. When he runs into a wall or a force defender, his feet tend to stop before he changes directions.

I’ll show you a couple types of plays to illustrate my point.

The first play is a pretty standard iso that a team would run against a base 4-3 defense. The linemen combo downhill to the backside linebacker, getting a double team on the defensive tackles, and then one OL sliding off to pick up the linebacker as he pursues. The FB leads up on the unblocked linebacker and the HB is on a straight track upfield. Here it is:

Below is an iso that the Panthers ran against the Bears. This uses a flanker who motions in, and an adjustment to a CB blitzing off the edge.

Now, we will look at the type of play run by Carolina that Goings struggled with. The difference in the blocking up front on this play is that the line isn’t blocking downhill to their back side linebackers, but uphill to the playside linebackers. The play starts out to the left, all the linemen are blocking to the left, and Goings needs to find a lane, which will probably be behind the blocks to the right. As you can see, the Bears blitz a safety and drop a DE into coverage, while slanting the interior tackles strong. This makes for easy combos up front, as the slanting tackles tell the offensive linemen who will stay with the tackles and who will slide off to a linebacker.

Here are a couple indicators of this type of play: Linemen stepping with the running back with combos to the play side linebacker, a running back stepping laterally and getting the ball a bit later than on the pervious type of play, and the lack of cut blocking on the backside of the play – if you cut block on the backside, you end up clogging up your cut back lanes by dropping the defensive player (and yourself) onto the ground where your RB is looking for a lane.

Passing the Ball: Alright, alright, alright…everyone wants to know what Steve Smith’s kryptonite is. According to the Bears, the solution is to not let him on the field and put pressure on Delhomme. I know this isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but Smith all but disappeared in the 2nd quarter when the Bears got hot. They had a nice long drive, held onto the ball, and then came screaming after Delhomme when Carolina had the ball. Looks like playing good offense is the best defense against Steve Smith. Of course, not falling on your can when you’re covering him helps too. My two cents on this guy is that he is obviously a special receiver who is hot right now, and the Bears made the mistake of not knowing where he was at all times.

On a couple big completions, Smith was able to find a window down the field because an unaware nickel back or linebacker playing underneath had lost sight of him and focused too much on the eyes of the quarterback. I don’t think it’s a good idea to change the way you play defense in the championship game to accommodate one player, but it will certainly behoove the Seahawks to keep tabs on him at all times. A good offense and not losing track of #89 looks to be the best way to slow him down. Sounds simple, but we’ve all seen what happens if you don’t.

One thing I liked that the Bears did defensively was put a bracket on Smith with a couple of D’s, depending on where he was lined up. For example, in a doubles or twins formation with Smith split to the two-receiver side, they used a nickel back to play the underneath hook to curl, split the receivers with a safety, and aligned the CB normally. This allowed for the safety to be the backside of the bracket against the slot, and the underneath of the bracket against the split end. The Bears did run a nice slant/short route combo with a slot and split end that was effective against this defense.

I also wanted to mention Carolina’s use of play action and pass protection. The Panthers don’t have the greatest play action series in the league. Delhomme is unconvincing at selling the run, and the protection from play action leaves something to be desired. The backs and tight ends aren’t exceptional pass protectors, and Delhomme is often left vulnerable after the fake. Since the Panthers usually use two backs, it limits the number of targets Delhomme has coming off play action. Our linebackers and safeties shouldn’t have much trouble recognizing play action, which will give us an advantage in coverage and pressuring the QB.

Panthers Defense

The first thing we notice about the Carolina's defense is that they aren’t scared to play cover 1 or 0. They have no problem bringing extra pressure and manning up everywhere else. The fact that they let Ken Lucas press his man and play some bump and run when they are blitzing shows their confidence in his ability as a cover corner. I noticed that when they were playing man, the opposite CB played with a cushion while Lucas was up in his receiver’s face. I did notice that during the 2nd quarter, Carolina backed the corners off and played more pure zone, and less bump and run. During this time Grossman marched the Bears down the field and was able to put some points up and keep Delhomme and Co. off the field.

When the Panthers do blitz, they are pretty good at hiding it and bringing players from all over. They brought pressure from the safeties, cornerback, and obviously linebackers. Their most successful blitz was a double A gap fire with both linebackers coming right up the middle. Early in the game, they ran this with a LB/DT stunt and got in the backfield quickly. I also recall one play where the Panthers brought three defenders right up the middle. Two players fired up each A gap on the snap, and a delayed blitz followed right up the A gap after them. This style of blitz was easily the most effective against the Bears, and I have no doubt we will see some of the same on Sunday. The key to beating delays is to first know that your opponent has them and will use them, and then to be patient with your reads as a back or an uncovered lineman.

The Bears had the most success against the Panther blitz when they kept plenty of players in to protect Rex Grossman, and only put two or three receivers downfield. When Chicago would release five men and only use the five linemen to protect, Carolina was able to produce significant pressure and slow the Bears’ offense down considerably. Chicago’s play action was also moderately effective against Carolina, especially against a blitzing defense. A couple times the Panther linebackers were slow to recover off play action to drop into coverage against a TE. In fact, the Bears got a touchdown from that. According to the Bears, extra protection and good routes will beat this defense’s blitz.

When it comes to running the ball, there really isn’t anything special the Seahawks can do, other than to know their assignments and execute. I’ve said before that in the national media, too much emphasis is put on gameplanning and not enough is put on execution. The Panthers have a great defense, and in order to be successful, we simply need to continue being outstanding at what we do. We’ve got good plays, we just need to be on the same page during the game and put out a great effort. The Panthers’ defensive tackles are very good at penetrating and getting up field, so the Seahawks’ line needs to keep them moving so the lanes open up for Shaun.

The final note I have is that Ken Lucas had better get called for at least three illegal contact penalties. God knows he had his share when he was with the Hawks, and he still managed to get away with a couple last weekend. He’s a hell of a corner, but if we keep an extra guy or two in to protect Hass, we have receivers that run good routes and will be successful against a talented secondary.

There you have it - my take on the Panthers based on what I saw last weekend. If you have any questions or comments, please email me at ‘mattlathrop [at] gmail.com‘. If you think I’m a complete rube, then email my editor.

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