Not the near-flawless victory we witnessed against Minnesota or New York, the Panthers were put to the crucible against a physical St. Louis team.
The run game stymied, Carolina relied on Cam Newton to be efficient in the passing game, leading a couple of scoring drives. Newton was historically efficient, having an adjusted accuracy of 94% and a yards per attempt of 12. St. Louis blitzed early and often, but for the most part, Newton displayed superb pocket presence, counteracting the Rams pressure.
The Rams were able to move the ball on Carolina, primarily through the air, as Sam Bradford was in the midst of having a fantastic day before he was struck with injury. And aside from one long run, the product of missed tackles, the Panthers front seven was able to suppress the St. Louis running game.
Ahead two scores for much of the second half, Carolina turned to the ground game to kill the clock, finishing with 31 run plays to 22 pass plays. Even still, the Panthers were fairly balanced in the primary personnel groups, largely turning to the heavy personnel groups (i.e. 22 personnel, all of whom's snaps came in the fourth quarter) to grind the clock.
There was a return to 31 personnel, as Carolina ran one triple option play from the inverted bone gaining 12-yards, as well as 25-yards on the single pass play, a throwback to 2012's rendition of the formation.
On the whole, the read option plays had a very good day, totaling eight rushes for 50-yards, the lone blemish coming on a DeAngelo Williams muffed pitch, which fortunately was recovered for no loss on the play.
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Defensively, we saw a return to three man fronts, as Coach McDermott trotted out the Panthers one-gap 3-4 and 3-3-5, primarily in the red zone. This week Carolina blitzed a lot more often than in weeks past, although Sam Bradford did a very solid solid job of finding auxiliary reads and favorable match-ups against pressure. Kellen Clemens, not so much. What the blitz, when successful, did achieve was keeping Bradford from mutilating the secondary with the deep ball.
The past two weeks, since he returned from his concussion, the Panthers have often isolated CB Josh Thomas in single man-coverage, like you would see teams with elite cover corners do, playing Cover 3 to one side of the field, but leaving Thomas on an island with a receiver to the opposite side. Against the Vikings this didn't really come to hurt Carolina, but as you can imagine, they were forced to drop it in the first half versus St. Louis. I really couldn't (can't) see the rationale, or strategy, in this move; it was perplexing.
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Pretty obvious, the Rams, not unlike Minnesota, completely abandoned the run game in the second half, only calling four run plays in the final two quarters. Not coincidentally, the Panthers only needed use of seven man fronts for just three plays. Teams remain confident in their own blockers: St. Louis did most of their running from heavy personnel groups, prompting the Panthers to respond with seven and eight man boxes. Arizona, the team who had the most success running on Carolina, ran primarily from spread formations and 11 personnel groups. Hopefully the opposition continues to ignore this trend.
Versus the pass:
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The Panthers did trust their DB's with a solid amount of man coverage; however they weren't exactly vindicated in their trust. It wasn't until the fourth quarter, when St. Louis was in desperation, that the zone coverage numbers for the nickel package skyrocketed.
In case you haven't been reminded today, rookie DT Star Lotulelei is extremely special.
Lotulelei, elucidated by the star (I couldn't resist) is acting as the 1-tech nose tackle in the Panthers nickel package. Here St. Louis is going to run an outside zone running play.
Star is endowed with unnatural quickness and snap anticipation. The rookie is out of his stance before any other player has really even moved. The ball is still in the center's hands.
This play is over before Bradford even turns around. Star has the leverage and positioning on the Rams guard.
Tracking the RB, Star tackles the runner for a two-yard loss.
Not only does Lotulelei possess an amazing first step, but he's also incredibly quick with his hands.
Late in the third quarter, Star is lined up as a 3-tech in the Panthers 3-4 set.
Another outside zone play, at the snap Star beats the LG to the draw, winning optimal hand placement, allowing him to drive the blocker into the backfield.
Once in the backfield, Star executes a very prompt swim move to disengage from the blocker, before continuing on to finish off the ball carrier.
Lotulelei literally leaves the LG blocking air, gaining another two-yard tackle for loss.
Numbers or no numbers, Star Lotulelei is the most talented rookie player in this class.
All offseason long, one of the major talking points around the league, and a focus of concern for coaching staffs, was how to stop, or at least slow down the read option. One of the more rudimentary suggestions: hit the quarterback. And not just when he's the ballcarrier; hit the quarterback on every single read option play. While the NFL has definitely taken strides in the past decade to protect quarterbacks, that direction hasn't caught up with the read option. There's nothing in the rule book that says you can't lay out the quarterback on a run play. Seedy to be sure, who's to say that's not the ultimate answer. Hit the quarterback.
One of the more contentious points in the game was sparked when DE Robert Quinn plastered Cam Newton during a hand off.
Most often a signal of the impending read option, the Panthers simply run a lead power play to DeAngelo Williams, with Travelle Wharton pulling and Mike Tolbert the lead blocker. Robert Quinn, circled, unconcerned with the run play, locks on to Newton.
Gross doesn't have the angle to stop him; Quinn levels Newton from his blind side, shaking the QB up, and causing him to spend a minute or so on the sidelines. Per Cam's post-game press conference, he merely had the wind knocked out of him. But had the injury been more severe, the Panthers staff might have been forced to seriously evaluate how they use Newton's legs.
There was nothing illegal nor irregular with Quinn's hit. It was Quinn's mission to hit Newton on the read option plays.
Both times Newton is similarly roughed up. The one difference being, Cam could see these hits coming, whereas the play in which he was injured, he had his back turned to Quinn.
For defenses, this plan of action seems risky; mentioned above, and evident in the last two pictures, St. Louis was unable to slow down the read option. You're left hoping that the opposing quarterback is injured, or too battered to continue running.
From a league standpoint, I don't think we'll see any change in the letter of the law until something catastrophic happens, or a more media-prominent player is taken down. Although, sooner or later, the NFL will have to rule on this practice.