A few days ago I took a look at how Cam Newton excelled running both standard pass plays, and plays out of play action. What was so encouraging in relation to our QB is that he never used it as a crutch-- rather, it punctuated the offense, rather than dictated it.
The other side of the ball isn't so pretty, and the look that Football Outsiders took at team play-action defense really shows how stunningly abysmal the secondary was in 2011. What's interesting is the rate that teams ran PA against Carolina- a league leading 26% (NFL average was 19%). Clearly teams worked out quickly that a young defense, with raw defensive tackles, and lacking their defensive leader were ripe for the picking on well run PA passes. However, it's dramatic how much this really helped opposing teams.
On non play-action passes the Panthers allowed 7.2 yards per attempt, this was tied with New England for worst in the NFL. However, while the Patriots allowed just 1.3 yards more on PA passes, the Panthers allowed 9.2 yards per PA pass attempt. There were some teams who were close to Carolina, but nobody was close when you look at DVOA (defensive value over average) where teams played a full 51% better on play action... the league average was 13.3%.
More after the jump
That's the 'how', now lets look at the why. Essentially it comes down to pressuring the safeties, and asking them to make a play. It's easy to see where Charles Godfrey and Sherrod Martin could fall for a hand-off and leave the center of the field open, but the same can be said for the line-backing group missing Jon Beason and Thomas Davis. Without a veteran presence to identify the play of the field, and bark out assignments.
Thankfully 2012 bodes to be a very different story. With Jon Beason back on the field the Panthers have their leadership back, and Luke Kuechly's ability to identify and react to passing plays will help to diffuse this issue on play-action downs.
If you're looking for a silver lining then realizing that this was a serious defensive Achilles Heel. If the Panthers can right the ship on this one small issue then the defense immediately gets vastly better. We've moved past saying "The defense sucked" and moved into the realm where we look at why they were so terrible; this is one of those things, and I have every confidence the return of players who were on IR, coupled with new acquisitions will help ameliorate this issue.