Going into the game, a lot of people, myself included, figured that the Carolina Panthers would not beat the Denver Broncos. However, in the loss to the Broncos were able to exacerbate the Panthers' offensive weakness, while Peyton Manning was able to generate a sufficient amount of offense against the Defense. Sean McDermott's Defense was able to hold the high powered Broncos to a mere 20 points on Sunday, 13 if you discount the final TD scored in garbage time.
However, matters were not helped by a punt return TD, the product of Brad Nortman out kicking his coverage, or a Cam Newton pick-six, the product of a Von Miller pressure.
The Offensive Stats were highlighted by a startling trend, the Panthers Offense had 8 three and outs against the Broncos. The product of a stagnant running game, and withering pressure, the Offense could not string together a drive for the better part of two quarters.
-The Offense ran 67 plays on Sunday.
-Likely due to circumstance, Coach Chudzinski called 48 passes and 19 runs.
Considering that we were down by two scores for the entire second half, and given that we ran a two minute drill, and that 20 of the final 24 plays were pass plays out of 11 personnel, the run to pass ratio was not nearly as skewed as it appears.
-As a byproduct of the above information, the Offense ran 48 snaps out of 11 personnel (36 passes & 12 runs).
-OC Rob Chudzinski called 10 plays out of 12 personnel (6 passes & 4 runs).
-Tapering off in the second half, the Offense ran 9 snaps out of 21 personnel (6 passes & 3 runs).
After a strong showing in the first two series, the Broncos were able to effectively shut down the Panthers two back sets, finishing the final 4 snaps with 2 total yards.
-Straying from past tendencies, the Panthers passed the ball 14 times on first down, while only running it twice.
This was likely a concerted effort to rebuff past tendencies and catch the Broncos unawares.
-When running from under center, the Panthers averaged 1.75 yards per carry (8 rushes for 14 yards).
This includes a 14 yard rush by Jonathan Stewart in the first quarter. Ouch.
-The Defense was on the field for 61 plays.
-Likely a schematic choice, the Panthers played 55 snaps in zone coverage and 6 snaps in man coverage.
Safety in numbers is the old adage. In large part, the Panthers were able to keep Peyton Manning from beating them deep. The Panthers did diversify their coverages, utilizing a lot of Cover 3 and Cover 2 looks. However, by spreading the Panthers out, the Broncos forced one of the Safeties down into man coverage, leaving Josh Thomas or Josh Norman on an island.
-Not surprisingly, the Panthers spent 54 snaps in the 4-2-5 subset (Man: 3 & Zone: 51).
This was not by choice, as the Bronco's personnel dictated the scheme that the Panthers could utilize. Again, the Panthers did diversify their coverages, occasionally pressing up on Thomas, Decker, and Stokley, disrupting their timing, in addition to playing 10 yards off the ball in other scenarios.
-Without much room to operate, the Defense spent 4 snaps in the base 4-3 (Man: 2 & Zone: 2).
I believe this was by circumstance, not design.
-The Defense had two snaps in the 3-4 (Man: 1 & Zone: 1).
-The Defense played 1 snap in their dime package.
The Game plan:
Despite appearances, the Panthers Offense came into this game with the desire to vary their personnel groupings, altering between 11, 12, and 21 personnel equally. Additionally, the Coaching Staff wanted to take advantage of eager Bronco Pass Rushers, executing 4 screens in the first half.
When it became apparent that Denver was not respecting the Panthers passing game (or rather the offensive line), Coach Chudzinski called multiple deep shots, two 9 routes, and an 8 route in the first half; unfortunately, Cam Newton overthrew two of these throws, while a penalty nullified the third.
After scoring the TD, the Panthers offense completely shut down. The Panthers would follow the score with 4 straight three and outs. In fact over the next 10 series, the Panthers would achieve only 4 first downs in tangent to 8 total three and outs.
The Broncos Defense were able to achieve pressure on Cam Newton, containing him inside the pocket, beating our blockers to the edge, gaining good leverage and collapsing the pocket. Coach Chudzinski did continue to call screens, however, they are a constraint.
As stated by Chris Brown in his book "The Essential Smart Football":
Constraint plays [...] work on defenders who cheat. [...] Constraint plays make them get back to basics. Once they get back to playing honest football, you go back to the whiteboard and beat them with your bread and butter.
[...] But you can't lose sight of the structure of your offense. Just because the bubbles, the flares, the fakes, and the other gimmicks are your best offense [...] doesn't mean they will work against a defense that plays soundly. [...] You want to go to your core stuff, so you build your offense off of that, and each constraint forces the defense back in line, right where you want them.
Denver played stout and sound defense.
The offensive line was struggling with the Bronco's front four, and when the Broncos brought extra pressure, namely from outside overload blitzes (Seattle did this as well), it was devastating. However, when Cam did get more than three uncontested seconds in the pocket, he usually held onto the ball for too long; Cam needs to improve his decisiveness.
The running game struggled against the stout Denver front seven, as the Broncos were able to beat our linemen from the snap, filling up gaps, and getting into the backfield. Adjustments were attempted, as the Panthers did try to run the shot gun sweeps and tosses that had been so successful against Washington, however, our blockers were not able to hold the edge against the Bronco's DE's/OLB's (I'm looking at you Von Miller).
Chud did adjust as best he could; there was an increase in three step drops, max protects, and constraint plays. And on nearly every pass play, there is a short route or a checkdown waiting for Cam, if he so chooses to exercise it. Normally we'll see Lafell on a short curl, or Barnidge on a drag route, and Stewart/Tolbert/Williams almost always release on a checkdown.
Whether it be by design or happenstance, the Broncos operated almost entirely out of shotgun 11 and 10 personnel, forcing the Panthers to play almost exclusively in nickel defense. This played to the advantage of Denver as the Panthers have typically had their best defensive success in their base defense, specifically in run defense.
However the Panthers played solid, if not opportunistic, defense, diversifying coverages, sugaring coverage amongst the LB's, and keeping Norman and Thomas protected. Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson did an adequate job creating pressure, even sacking Manning once, forcing a fumble. The front four did a good job changing Manning's launch point and forcing him to move around in the pocket. Although, Manning being the surgeon that he is, was able to move around in the pocket and pick apart deteriorating coverages.
The Panthers secondary struggled the most when Denver split their TE's out wide, forcing the strong safety, normally Charles Godfrey, into man coverage. This took away high coverage from Demariyus Thomas, Eric Decker, and Brandon Stokley, and allowed the Broncos to take some deep shots, some of which connected, while others merely hit the grass.
As an aside, Peyton Manning is truly a paragon for QB's.
All in all, the Panthers played solid opportunistic defense, forcing multiple fumbles, and embodying 'bend don't break defense' against one of the top offenses in the NFL. A tip of the hat to Sean McDermott and the Panthers Defense.
Looking Forward to Next Week:
I expect we will see a return to the 3-4 and seven man fronts against Tampa Bay, in order to combat the Buccaneers running game. In addition, look for Cover 2 to defend both Mike Williams and Vincent Jackson.
On offense, I expect we will attack the Tampa secondary and LB Corps. Greg Olsen should be a factor. If our last meeting is any indicator, the Buccaneers protect the middle of the field quite well, so look for corner routes, and curls to attack the sideline. If the Bucs play tight coverage, expect more of the skinny posts and crossing routes that we have seen over the past few weeks.