A week ago in San Francisco, Ron Rivera finally got his signature win, as his defense stifled the NFC champion 49ers in a 10-9 win. Monday night in Charlotte, it was Cam Newton’s turn.
The Panthers defense had carried the third-year quarterback to the win against the 49ers, but with Tom Brady coming to town, Newton and the offense would have to shoulder the load if Carolina had any chance of knocking off New England.
Unlike last week’s game against San Francisco, the tilt with the Patriots was harder to forecast. Bill Belichick’s game plans essentially change week-to-week on defense, and we had yet to see a fully-healthy Patriots offense thus far in the 2013 season. Those predicting a Patriots win foresaw a more high-scoring affair, with the Panthers’ backers seeing just the opposite. The style of game would dictate the result, whichever style might play out.
The recipe for Carolina success would be based on a ball-control offense. The more time Brady spent on the sideline, the better; but that game plan didn’t get off to a great start.
The Panthers received the ball first and promptly went three-and-out. Brandon Spikes blew up a DeAngelo Williams run on first down, and the Patriots’ man-to-man defense contained the Panthers receivers well enough to force a zero-yard "sack" by Rob Ninkovich and a batted ball by Aqib Tailb on the next play.
Although short, that opening drive provided us with a glimpse into the New England game plan. They would remain in man-to-man defense for most of the game, daring Panthers receivers to beat them. They would also stay in their base defense, so that Carolina never got any weak boxes to run against. If the Panthers trotted out a third receiver, the Pats would simply replace a safety with a corner instead of a linebacker on their nickel looks.
New England, now healthy at their skill positions, has only one real weakness on offense: pass protection. And with Carolina’s defensive strength being their pass rush, the Patriots’ game plan would have to limit the amount of time their offensive line spent blocking. To do that, Brady relied on three-step passing plays almost all night. On the Patriots’ opening drive only one of the six passes thrown by Brady traveled further than five yards down-field.
Defensively, the Panthers played a variety of schemes on the opening drive, but the game plan seemed to be to not let Brady beat them deep, forcing the Patriots to chain together long drive in order to put up points. Any mistake would derail a drive—the Pats would have to be perfect.
On the ninth play of New England’s opening drive, Brady made a mistake and Carolina capitalized.
It’s third-and-four on the Carolina 40-yard line. The Patriots are in 11 personnel (3 WRs, 1 RB, 1 TE) with trips left, running a stick concept to the left and a deep post to the right.
The Panthers are in their nickel package showing a double A-gap blitz. Brady sets the protection by identifying Thomas Davis as the 'Mike,' telling his offensive line to slide their protection to the right. Luke Kuechly counters with a call of his own.
At the snap, the Panthers drop eight into coverage with only Kawann Short, Kuechly and Greg Hardy rushing. Kuechly takes on the left guard Logan Mankins, left tackle Nate Solder is occupied by Star Loutulelei and Greg Hardy has a clear path to Brady for the sack. To the right, Brady’s protection call left three blockers on Short.
After a Patriots punt, Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula comes out attacking New England’s defense with man coverage beaters. Steve Smith gets one-on-one coverage outside, and Newton hits him with a perfect pass for 42 yards. After a couple of short runs, Newton hits Smith again on a Mesh concept for a first down. Then Cam recognizes a mismatch with Greg Olsen on safety Duron Harmon and hits his tight end on a corner route for 11 yards.
Two plays later, the Panthers were faced with a third down from nine yards out of the end zone. Shula called for a man coverage-beating pick play that was executed to perfection.
Olsen and Brandon LaFell work in tandem here to get LaFell wide open over the middle. LaFell does a great job of beating his man at the line of scrimmage and creating separation before running under the pick set by Olsen’s out-breaking route, which leaves Newton a wide open target to put the Panthers up 7-0.
On the Patriots’ first play on the ensuing drive, Brady took a shot down field. The ball was almost intercepted and Brady ended up taking a shot. New England had called two downfield passes so far in the game, and both ended up with Brady in the dirt.
So the Patriots went back to methodically moving the ball against the Panthers’ zone schemes, which are designed to give up the short throws and allow Kuechly and Davis to use their speed and athleticism to make tackles—the approach that has worked for this defense all season. The key to playing such a scheme is good tackling, and the Panthers struggled wrapping up ball carriers all game long, starting with this drive.
Hardy missed a tackle in the backfield, allowing Stevan Ridley to pick up six yards. A couple plays later, the Panthers had Ridley bottled up in the backfield before letting him escape for another 13 yards.
In all, Carolina missed 12 tackles Monday night, according to Pro Football Focus, after averaging only 7.3 per game coming into Monday's contest.
The Patriots were able to methodically move the ball down the field to the Carolina 12 yard-line, avoiding a drive crippling mistake. Then, Ridley made a drive-ending mistake as Short forced a fumble to give the Panthers the ball back.
Panthers’ head coach Ron Rivera was daring the Patriots offense to be perfect, and, half way through the second quarter, New England was failing to do so. And with only so many drives in the game with the Panthers playing keep away and draining the clock on offense, the empty drives would loom larger.
After the turnover, the Panthers took over in the shadow of their own endzone, looking to milk some time and extend their lead. Having been gashed playing man coverage the previous drive, New England started out in zone coverage. Olsen found a hole in the coverage for a nice gain before LaFell found himself open on a deep comeback for 17 yards.
Newton was getting into a rhythm, and was diagnosing coverages with ease, so the Patriots reverted back to man coverage when the Panthers faced a third-and-six after two short runs. The problem with playing man against mobile quarterbacks is the players in coverage turn their back on the pocket. So when the Patriots were able to cover the Carolina receivers, Newton could take off for a 24-yard gain and a first down:
While Newton was having a good game, the Panthers’ running game was struggling. Right guard Nate Chandler and tackle Byron Bell struggled at the point of attack and the Patriots’ struggling rush defense (they ranked 30th against the run coming into Monday) got enough penetration to thwart Carolina’s ball carriers. Without a running game to fall back on, the onus was on Cam to be perfect. After just missing Olsen on a seam route and what looked like a drop by Ted Ginn, the Panthers had to settle for a field goal. The Panthers had taken six minutes off of the clock and added three points to their lead.
The Patriots, on the other hand, had gotten their running game going, which allowed New England to do damage on play-action passes. Brady hit Kimbrel Tompkins for 23 yards after a play fake. Then Shane Vareen caught a short pass and made Thomas Davis and Mike Mitchell miss tackles before being pushed out of bounds after picking up 17 yards. But after a couple of solid runs by LeGarrette Blount, the Patriots made yet another mistake, as Mankins was called for unnecessary roughness. New England was able to get some of the yardage back, but eventually had to settle for a field goal with just over minute left before half time.
Brady’s half time stats told the story: Although he had completed 14 of his 17 throws, he had amassed only 123 yards—77 of which came after the catch thanks to poor tackling. The Panthers, meanwhile, had controlled the clock, limiting New England to only three first-half drives.
Coming out of the break, the Patriots went back to work, methodically matriculating the ball down the field. Their job was made easier after Charles Johnson went down after a leg whip left him clutching his right knee. New England had already had success running the ball, but, now, one of the key cogs in the Panthers’ pass defense was sidelined. And this time, the Patriots didn’t shoot themselves in the foot. Brady was perfect on the drive which ended with a nine-yard touchdown throw to Rob Gronkowski.
Now it was Cam Newton’s turn. Brady was heating up, the Panthers’ running game was non-existent and the pressure was on Newton to deliver a long scoring drive. Newton answered the call with a drive that showed off his limitless potential.
After playing man for most of the first half, the Patriots started mixing up their calls. The variety didn’t faze the Panthers’ young quarterback, though. Carolina started off with a packaged play:
Newton reads Ninkovinch on the outside coming on a blitz and pulls the ball before hitting LaFell for nine yards. The next play, he moves the pocket and finds LaFell again for a first down.
After a botched screen to Steve Smith and a short run by DeAngelo Williams, Newton pulled off an escape that won’t soon be forgotten in Charlotte. The Patriots play two safeties deep with man coverage underneath. As his protection breaks down, Newton’s physical gifts take over:
A few plays later, the Panthers found themselves on the New England 15, facing another third down. Shula calls for a Smash concept, with Olsen running a corner route and LaFell running an out. With no one lined up on Olsen in the slot, Newton knows he has him one-on-one with a safety—a match-up the tight end should win.
At the snap, Newton doesn’t tip his hand and stares straight down the field to diagnose the coverage. After confirming he has the match-up he wants, he hits Olsen with a perfect throw for a touchdown to give Carolina a 17-10 with two minutes left in the third.
Not to be outdone, Brady answered back with an impressive drive of his own. No matter what defense the Panthers called, Brady picked it apart. Trying to slow down the New England quarterback, Carolina started dropping two safeties deep, but that just opened up things for Brady underneath. And with only seven in the box, the Patriots running backs could feast. Making matters worse, the Panthers continued to miss tackles.
After a couple of successful runs by both Vareen and Ridley, the Panthers loaded the box with eight, leaving one safety deep in a Cover 3 defense. The Patriots came out in 12 personnel and motioned wide receiver Julian Edelman in-line as if he were blocking:
New England was showing run, and the Panthers defense was guarding against it—the perfect situation for a play action pass:
The Carolina linebackers are fooled by the fake leaving the middle open for Tompkins. Another missed tackle by safety Mike Mitchell allowed the Patriots receiver to get down to the two-yard line. A play later, Ridley punched it in to tie up the game at 17 with 12:37 left in the game.
The Panthers’ next drive ended in a three-and-out, and a short punt left the Patriots in Carolina territory looking for their first lead. Brady continued to flummox the Panthers pass defense, but New England curiously turned to their running once they hit the red zone. After Blount carried the ball for six- and three-yard gains, the Patriots faced a third-and-one. The Panthers did a good job of taking away Brady’s first two options – one in the flat and the second in the middle – with double teams, and with the pass rush closing in, he was forced to throw it away and settle for a field goal and a 20-17 lead.
Cam Newton, maybe the most polarizing player in the NFL over the last three years, had spent all off-season hearing questions about his leadership, about his record as a starter. Earlier this year, there were people calling for the Panthers to bench him. Now, in the biggest game of his career in front of a national audience, Newton had a game against the league’s most admired franchise on his shoulders – a game that he had single-handedly kept his team in all night. Fairly or not, this next drive would shape people’s opinions on Newton’s future as a franchise quarterback in this league.
The drive didn’t get off to a good start. The Panthers quickly faced a third-and-six. The Patriots, once again, elected to play man, and Newton, once again, scrambled for a first down:
New England went back to zone coverage for the next couple of plays, but Newton was able to remain patient and find receivers underneath.
In between a couple of short completions, Olsen drew a defensive holding flag on a key third down, and the Panthers had gotten into the red zone with just over minute left. After a false start and an incomplete pass, Carolina faced a second-and-15 from the New England 25 yard-line. The Patriots called for another man coverage but this time, they had a linebacker spy Newton in case he left the pocket. But that left only one safety deep and the outside corners on an island.
To his left, Newton had Ginn one-on-one with Kyle Arrington on the outside. Ginn’s speed is always a threat, and when he starts hard downfield, the corner has to respect it. Ginn stops on a dime, and Arrington goes flying downfield. Newton hits the open Ginn, who evades an Arrington tackle and speeds his way into the end zone:
The Panthers had the lead, and Newton had his signature moment. Don't let the slow pace of this game fool you: The Carolina defense may have only given up 20 points, but that came on only seven Patriots drives. That's 2.82 points per drive; the Falcons give up 2.7 points per drive, which is most in the league, according to Football Outsiders.
"It wasn't one of our better defensive efforts, but it most certainly was one of our best offensive efforts. You know, last week was a flip-flop," Ron Rivera said after the game. "Defensively, we played about as good as we've played, and [the defense] had to come through -- this week the offense came through. That's what good teams do; when one phase isn't playing as well, the other one steps up."
The defense's shaky performance put a lot of pressure on Newton and the offense, and in only six drives, the Panthers' offense put up 24 points, or 4 points per drive. In comparison, the Denver Broncos score 3.04 points a drive, according to Football Outsiders. The Panthers needed Newton to put on a Peyton Manning-level performance, and he had done his job.
As Tom Brady drove down the field with the clock winding down, it was unclear whether or not Newton would get his signature win. But after the refs picked up the flag on what appeared to be a pass interference by Kuechly that resulted in a Robert Lester interception, Cam Newton and the Panthers had proven to a national audience that they were for real.