Impossible, you say? How can the reigning Superbowl champion lose to the team that had the worst record in the NFL the prior year? Any...Given...Sunday...of course. Also, keep in mind that these two teams aren't exactly the same as how they ended the season last year. Okay, sure, Green Bay has already demonstrated they're firing on all cylinders with how they took apart the New Orleans Saints. But, if you look hard at that game, Drew Brees and company had a shot at taking that one, too. The Panthers would do well to learn from that. And I'm sure they've watched the game film.
More importantly, however, Carolina is the team that's undergone major changes since last year. It's not simply the addition of Cam Newton...though, obviously, having a new signal caller handling the ball on every snap is going to immediately lead to differences in how the team plays. Instead, I'm talking primarily about the change in the coaching staff. This game will come down to preparation and game planning. These are areas I felt like John Fox, Jeff Davidson, and the rest of last year's coaching staff really let us down on. And, so far, I really like what I'm seeing from Ron Rivera, Sean McDermott, and Rob Chudzinski. Their ability to prepare our guys and plan for this specific opponent will speak volumes about the future of this team. So, let's take a peek into the mindset of the Carolina coaching staff and see if we can identify ways they might attack this Green Bay team and come away with a win. I'll offer up my two cents...
...after the jump...
Okay. First up, I think our game plan really ought to center around a couple of key concepts. I'll touch on each one and expand on them as I can. Green Bay is a really dangerous opponent. They have very few weaknesses we can exploit. We'll need a lot of things to go our way if we want to pull off the upset. But I believe it IS possible. Here's how...
Time of Possession - This is going to be huge! The Panthers need to win this battle. The longer they can keep the ball in the hands of their offense, the more they'll be able to neutralize Aaron Rodgers and his receiving corps. Because, that's going to be our biggest problem...i.e., our defense vs. their offense. Specifically, our secondary and LB coverage against their wideouts, TEs, and screen plays. So, our offense has got to help out the defense by minimizing the amount of time they have to spend on the field chasing down Green Bay's receivers. And, we've got to be disciplined enough on offense to not only try and score (to keep pace), but to eat up clock in doing so. Slow play it, if you need to. Don't worry about running out of bounds. Get tackled INbounds as often as possible (unless you're in the 2-minute drill, obviously).
Running Game - This goes hand in hand with winning the time of possession battle. Ground and pound to wear down their defense. Take advantage of the blitzing LBs by running some draw plays on obvious passing downs. Yes, I can hear the groans now. "No more draw plays on 3rd and long!" Trust me. Against the Packers, this could become a viable strategy under the right circumstances. Execution would be key. But if you're successful on converting some 3rd downs with the draw play in the early going, it slows down the LB blitzing as they have to read and react from that point on. Fundamentally, though, Deangelo Williams and especially Jonathan Stewart need to move the chains and keep the clock running. Our O-line had better be up to the task. It'll be hard to move BJ Raji out of the middle or slip by him. And those 3-4 LBs control the edges pretty aggressively in Dom Capers' scheme. So, we may need to run some sweeps and pull an O-lineman to lead block...especially knowing we don't have Otah as our road grader on the right side of the line. Also, in this category, I'd say the WR end-around play could pay dividends as well. Don't be afraid to let Steve Smith or Armanti Edwards help you in this regard. Those guys have the quickness to at least get you 4 or 5 yards on such a play. And, staying in 2nd and short or 3rd and short situations will be vital.
Play-Action Pass - Building off the running game, Cam should be able to play fake a handoff to the RB and target a quick hitch to one of his TEs...or, hopefully, buy time for Smitty to get open downfield. This will be particularly important if the Panthers have had success running the ball and Green Bay starts cheating its LBs and safeties up in run support and run blitzes. You need fast receivers to pull this off, though...either by quickly getting into the seam where a LB has vacated the zone by rushing the passer and the safety or CB hasn't rolled far enough yet to contain him. Personally, I'd like to see Steve Smith, Armanti Edwards, and Kealoha Pilares (if he's active) on the field, not necessarily in combination at the same time, but at least one of them in the slot as often as possible. Greg Olsen could shine here, too, with play variations along the same lines in two-TE sets to further sell the run. You do this at optimum times in the game and it could lead to some important conversions...and, again, keep the chains moving while eating up the clock.
O-Line Blocking - The O-line is going to have a LONG day. And they need to be up to the task. Whether run-blocking or blocking in pass-protection, they need to be PHYSICAL. I mean, when we come off that field, everyone's jersey should be dirty. And everyone had better have some bruises. They need to wear Green Bay OUT. If you couple this kind of aggressive hitting...and yes, I mean hitting from the offense rather than waiting for the defense to hit us...along with winning the time of possession and wearing them down in the running game, it'll pay dividends in the 4th quarter. If we can reach that point with the score close enough for us to have a chance at winning the game, that's all we need. The O-line needs to make it their responsibility...and their mission...to absolutely OWN the line of scrimmage. And they need to hustle on every play. A Superbowl champion is supposed to be the best. So we need to play our best against them. If we do that, and even if we don't win, we'll have earned Green Bay's respect, the respect of the fans, and ultimately, the respect of the entire league.
Roll Out Pass - I'm not sure how much they've put these kind of plays in the playbook yet. I remember one from the preseason game against the Giants where Cam found his TE pretty easily on a roll-out. But I also know the coaching staff has kept things kind of simple for Cam so far just to make sure they don't overwhelm him. Even so, I think a roll-out pass to move him away from the pressure of Green Bay's blitzing schemes could be really important for him. And, whether that opens up part of the field or just gives him a better option for turning it upfield with his feet, either one could be a very useful playcall. The TEs will need to work the middle of the field, with Steve downfield to occupy the safeties. Everyone...and I mean everyone...should be prepared to block if Cam takes off. To me, that means replacing Legedu Naanee with Brandon LaFell for this game...or at least when you're planning on running this type of play.
Cam's Feet - And that brings to a major secret weapon we haven't unleashed yet--Cam's running ability. I know the coaching staff has encouraged him to stay in the pocket. It's certainly important that he spend time developing his skills as a pocket passer. This might not be the game for that, however. More importantly, if Cam can add to the running game by using his own innate talents in that area, it gives the Green Bay defense another major concern. Again, they'll have to read and react. The LBs will be even more hardpressed to stick with the TEs if Cam is using his feet to get past the line of scrimmage and enter the second level of the defense. This is what Michael Vick used with so much success early in his career when he struggled to be a complete passer. Now, Vick has a lot more speed and agility than Cam. But Cam has more power (and better passing ability at this stage of his development). We don't need scintillating 50-yard runs where he fakes out a bazillion would-be tacklers on his way to the endzone (though it would be nice). We just need him to average 5 or more yards per carry in those situations. Again, as long as it keeps the chains moving and the defense off-balance, we've got a chance to be successful...both in controlling the clock and keeping their offense off the field. It also wears down the defense. The longer they're on the field, the harder it'll be for them to keep us from scoring. Even if we have to settle for FGs, that may just be enough to keep us in the hunt with a chance to steal the game at the end. Obviously, that'll also depend on how well the defense manages to keep the Packers from scoring...but I'll get into that later.
Turnovers - In fact, I'll get into it now. Quite frankly, our defense is going to have to take some risks. I don't mean blitzing Rodgers all day long. That would likely be suicidal. He handles pressure as well as anyone. Instead, I mean our cover guys are going to have to take some chances. Jump some passing lanes. Pick off a ball and try to take it to the house. Basically, anything the defense can do to help our team score (or give the offense better starting field position) is a major bonus. On top of that, every takeaway further limits Green Bay's opportunities to score. It keeps Rodgers off the field. And, ultimately, it aids our offense's ability to keep managing the clock. Simultaneously, we HAVE to protect the ball. We can't cough it up. Cam needs to be as accurate as possible with his passes. Don't get rattled by the blitz. Every running back needs to make sure they secure the ball. Every WR and TE needs to make sure they catch the ball. If it hits their hands, they need to make it theirs. We can't afford to have a tipped pass turn into an INT and destroy one of our offensive series. Lastly, I'll make one other point of emphasis here. The Panthers need to work on stripping the ball on defense and special teams coverage. The more turnovers they can cause the better.
Penalties - We simply HAVE to avoid them. We can't allow mental mistakes to put our offense (or defense) at a disadvantage. It'll be harder for the defense to avoid them, because as I said earlier, they need to be super-aggressive. And, that could lead to encroachment or pass interference in some cases. They just need to be smart about it. Offensively, we can't afford holding calls or false starts. This Packer defense will be too stout to shoot ourselves in the foot by going backwards. However, there's one way in which penalties could play to our favor. If we can induce them from the Packers with a hard cadence at the line, thereby getting some of those overeager, blitz-happy guys to jump offsides, that's free yardage to help us sustain drives. If I were the Carolina coaching staff, I'd spend some time working on that in practice and getting everyone used to Cam's signal-calling at the line and the timing of the snap count. Just a couple of these in crucial situations could prove important to the overall game plan.
Special Teams - Okay, given what happened last week, I think it's a no-brainer that everyone here will be trying extra hard to make sure they don't let Randall Cobb have an easy punt return. On kickoffs, we also need to make sure Olindo Mare knocks it completely out of the endzone. In other words, don't even give them a chance to bring it out. Starting field position at the 20-yard line should be a constant for this game. On the flip side, I think we should risk bringing it out more. That's because we need to be willing to take some more risks if we're going to stand a chance of winning this game. And, an opportunity to score a TD against their kickoff coverage teams might be more possible than scoring all that often against their defense. Even if they stop us short of the 20-yard line, who cares? Yes, it gives us a longer field. But, again, if we're using a strategy of holding onto the ball as long as we can, that plays to our advantage, because it means we might get to run 2-3 more plays as long as we can keep the chains moving regardless. So, the risk is worth it...especially in the early going. If we should happen to take a lead...then maybe we revisit this strategy and accept the touchback so we can focus on winning the field position battle to protect that lead. But, for now, I think runbacks are our friend...even on punt returns. Every bit of yardage those guys gain sets our offense up for some easier scores. And, any points they manage to put on the scoreboard eases the pressure on our offense and defense, while applying more of it to theirs. What we can't have is penalties on special teams. They've got to work extra hard on making blocks that don't draw a flag. Our returners will be working too hard to have a great run called back for holding or an illegal block in the back.
Trick Plays - Alright, when you're talking about risks, none may be more important than the trick play. I'm not just talking about the Wildcat formation here. I mean flea flickers to continue selling the run formations and then hitting the Packers when they think they've got it figured out. I also mean a reverse play to make the LBs keep running sideline to sideline and so we can take advantage if they overrun the containment. The timing for these kinds of plays will be crucial, but we've got the personnel (speedy WRs in Smith and Pilares...QB-capable WR in Armanti) to carry them out. But, even if you trot out just one of them and it proves successful, it prevents the Packer defense from overcommiting on anything. They'll have to slow down their rush (thereby buying Cam more time on other plays) so they can read first and then react. Also, if any of these plays succeed, you get the fans and the whole Panthers team that much more fired up. In fact, I'd even go so far as to say we might want to execute a fake punt somewhere during the game if we've got a short yardage situation to pick up the 1st down. If we use a trick play in that situation and it helps extend a drive, I'm all for it.
Halftime Adjustments - Okay, lastly, this will be as important as anything else. To stand a chance at winning the game, the coaching staff will need to be able to quickly assess how the original game plan is working. If the strategy is keeping it close, keep going. In fact, look for those moments in the 3rd and 4th quarter where we can take advantage of another big risk/reward situation and keep Green Bay on their heels. If the plan isn't working and we're already way behind, identify where our guys aren't getting the job done and give them additional information, coaching, help, or whatever to not only shore up that weakness in the 2nd half, but take advantage of it by luring Green Bay into a gotcha situation where we run the same thing, but trick them with misdirection. Regardless, the coaching staff will really need to be on their toes. To win this game, they'll have to be just as much a part of it as the players executing the plays on the field.
In the end, if we can do all that. And, if the home crowd really gets into it and helps the Panthers by becoming a 12th man. And if...and if...and if...we might just string together enough of those "if's" to steal this game. The homefield advantage doesn't hurt. But it's probably not going to be a huge factor unless the fans make it one. I believe what I've outlined above has the elements of a winning game plan. I suspect the coaches have already included many of the more basic components to it (i.e., establish the running game, take pressure off Cam, punch up the defense and special teams). But, it'll be interesting to see how much further they're willing to go in being "aggressive" vs. the "conservative" approach we saw with Fox for so long. It'll be easier to play aggressive at home than on the road. And this is the game to do it. Ultimately, to win this game, I actually think we need to mix in more of the "aggressive" style. But, there's still value in calling what we once thought of as "conservative" plays in the past (like a draw play), because this go-around, it might just be the more "aggressive" play if Green Bay isn't expecting it.
But that's just my two cents. Let's hear yours...