The Evolution of Ron Meeks' defense pt. 2

Last week we looked at the first six games of the Panthers' 2009 season, and the growing pains associated with it. This was a moment in time where the Panthers were reeling. Offensively the team was struggling, constantly turning the ball over and failing to convert 3rd downs. Defensively the Panthers could not force turnovers or were incredibly weak against the run, however, it appeared that over time the defense was starting to understand Ron Meeks system more and buying in to his defensive philosophy.

Today we're looking at the defensive turning point of the season onwards. This point was the week 8 game vs. Arizona. It was this moment in the season that Ron Meeks moved from a strict Cover 2 defense and began utilizing a Cover 1 in order to get more pressure on the QB. Today, we're going to look at what the Cover 1 is, what the differences are from the Cover 2 and finally look at the results when Meeks put this defense into place.

Join me... after the jump

To briefly recap the Cover 2 defense is one that utilizes two safeties and makes them responsible for half the field each in pass defense. This may give up some yards on short patterns, but ultimately prevents the deep play. It puts a lot of pressure on LBs as it makes them responsible for the opposing TE, which is a difficult matchup.

Now, the Cover 1 is essentially half of the Cover 2. What I mean by this is that rather than having two safeties cover one half of the field each you have one safety responsible for the entire deep part of the field. This is a very risky prospect as it requires a smart, fast moving FS to be able to react to any WR, because if the WR is able to get past the corner there is very little in the way of deep defense with just one safety. However, this is counteracted by a new position on the field, the rover (or roverback).

The rover is a much misunderstood and underutilized position in the NFL. What it requires is an incredibly tactile and intelligent safety who can react to what is happening on the field and have the ability to both move up and stand in as a 4th linebacker,  drop back and play like a true safety or nickelback, or be a key blitzer when needed. The rover will typically be moving all over the field pre snap gauging the defense and picking his mark. In Ron Meeks' defense Chris Harris is our rover. The only other team that truly utilizes a rover on a regular basis is Pittsburgh with Troy Polamalu. The characteristic people often use to describe Polamalu is saying he is always ‘Flying around the field' this has a lot to do with his role as a rover, as well as his talent.

Without having a true zone or man to cover the rover is able to read and react more than sticking to a called play. This can also make it very much a risk v. reward style of defense, but the additional pressure in undeniable. If the offense knows that the potential of a safety blitz is there on any passing down they need to make blocking adjustments, the rover can then show blitz and drop back into pass coverage creating matchup problems. Essentially the rover creates chaos, and Meeks knew the Panthers needed to be more aggressive and a little more chaotic on the defensive end of the ball.

Chris Harris was the perfect player to utilize in this role. Harris is a strong body, a hard hitter and has an insanely high football IQ. This means that some of those ‘risks' perpetuated by choosing the wrong course of action don't occur as often. This also influenced the FS position quite a bit. Meeks was able to choose from two very skilled FS. Charles Godfrey had a toolset that allowed him to be better at pure coverage, but not necessarily a better playmaker, meanwhile rookie Sherrod Martin is more of a ball hawk and playmaker, but his coverage skills are not at Godfrey's level. Ultimately I think this is why Meeks chose to go with Godfrey again after Martin had played so well. Yes, Martin may get you an extra INT here or there, but Charles Godfrey is better equipped not to get burnt, so it covers both bases.

Before I get into the raw numbers on just how much the defense improved it's important to understand why this cover one would create more turnovers. I see three specific aspects as why this occurs:

  1. More pressure on the QB: When you have a safety that can always blitz more often than not you'll have someone in the opposing backfield all the time. This naturally creates mistakes.
  2. Forces the RB/FB to account for the rover: Rather than being an additional hindrance to the pass rusher the RBs need to worry about the rover on a blitz. Meaning if the DE beats his man he has a clear path to the QB resulting in more FF.
  3. Confusion: Will the rover blitz? Will the rover drop back? This can put the offense in two minds and put them on their heels, often resulting in mistakes.

Now, let's look at the raw numbers and compare the 1st half and 2nd half of the season. I'm going to look at the sacks, forced fumbles, interceptions and total positive defensive moves.

 

Sacks

Forced Fumbles

Interceptions

Total

1st six games of 2009

15

8

3

26

Final 10 games of 2009

17

10

19

46

 

On a superficial level is looks like the Panthers' production for sacks and FF was worse after Meeks changed the scheme, however, let's not forget that Thomas Davis was injured in week 9 and this greatly changed the defense too. I don't doubt that with Davis in the lineup for those final 8 games we would see more disparity in those numbers.

I think it's pretty clear what happened here. The defense became vastly more aggressive and effective after Ron Meeks moved to team into his cover one scheme with Chris Harris as rover. Coupled with a QB change and a lack of mistakes on the offensive end it became clear just how effective the Panthers can be, this is the source of my personal optimism for the 2010 campaign.

As we sit now in the offseason we can look back on the final 10 games and watch as Ron Meeks and the Carolina Panthers build his defense for 2010. Right now there's very little that needs to be done other than get players healthy. I think the aspect we should be most hopeful in is that Meeks was tactile during the 2009 season. He saw a scheme that didn't utilize his players to the best of their ability, and changed it to play to their strengths. Is there any doubt a player like Julius Peppers would want to stay if his coordinator let him use his talents to the best of their ability rather than suffocating him in a constrictive system? If this freedom and tactility remains in 2010 and beyond I can't wait to see how Ron Meeks defense evolves next.

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