For the Carolina Panthers, the last two weeks have been about earning respect. The games against San Francisco and New England were proving grounds for one of the league’s up-and-coming teams. After those two nerve-racking, and almost cathartic, wins, a game against a struggling Miami Dolphins team was always going to be a far less enticing affair.
The Dolphins’ off-field struggles have bled over onto the playing field, as Jonathan Martin’s departure and Richie Incognito’s subsequent suspension have strained an already weak Miami offensive line. Add in an illness to center Mike Pouncey, and it looked like the Panthers defensive line would have a field day in South Beach.
But the Panthers weren’t exactly healthy in the trenches, either, going into Sunday’s game. Charles Johnson would miss the contest after suffering a knee sprain in Monday’s dramatic win. After a litany of injuries at the offense guard position, converted defensive tackle Nate Chandler would make his third-straight start at right guard. And Ben Hartsock, the best blocking tight end in the league according to Pro Football Focus and a key cog in the Panthers’ rushing attack, would miss his second straight game.
The tactical story lines were quite clear coming into the game: How would Carolina’s coaching staff adapt without Johnson in uniform? Would Miami’s line be able to protect quarterback Ryan Tannehill and give him time to throw down-field while also producing holes for running backs? And would Carolina be able to get its running game going against a stout Dolphins front-seven?
We got some of those answers on the very first play of the game. The Panthers defense, one of the very best in the league both in terms of talent and results, doesn’t try to deceive opposing offenses all too often. Carolina just lines up and plays. If there is only a single safety deep pre-snap, thenn that’s what you’ll get post-snap as well.
Without one of their bookend pass rushers, the Panthers couldn’t use that up-front approach. On the first play, Carolina lines up in a Cover 2 look before the snap. At the snap, Captain Munnerlyn blitzes from the slot, and the Panthers defense rotates into man coverage with one safety deep:
The play ended up being a run that was stuffed by an unblocked Colin Cole thanks to a mishap by Miami right guard John Terry. After a short pass to Brian Hartline, the Dolphins faced a third-and-five from their own 25.
The Panthers showed pressure with nine men on the line of scrimmage. Miami came out in 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WRs) with a bunch formation to the right. At the snap Carolina dropped into a Cover 3 defense. Linebacker Thomas Davis was able to get a hand on Tannehill’s pass, which ultimately ended up in the hands of Panthers corner Josh Thomas.
The Panthers’ first offensive play also gave some insight into Miami’s defensive gameplan. The Dolphins would play a combination of man defense and quarters coverage. Carolina receivers have struggled to get open against these types of coverages over the last couple of games, and with the Panthers’ inability to get a good ground game going over that time, defenses haven’t had to worry about their secondary turning their backs and disregarding the run.
In Jared Odrick and Randy Starks, the Dolphins have maybe the best pair of defensive tackles in the league. Given the Panthers injuries at the guard position, running up the middle on Miami was going to be difficult. If the Panthers were going to have success running, it would have to be by attacking the edges. On the Carolina’s first run, offensive coordinator Mike Shula called for a pull-and-pin, which is essentially an outside zone run with uncovered linemen pulling to the outside.
These plays would allow the Panthers to hide their weaknesses inside and take advantage of center Ryan Kalil’s mobility and their run-blocking strength at the tackle position. The first play resulted in an eight-yard gain.
The subsequent runs up the middle were not nearly as successful, and with the Panthers receivers unable to shake Miami’s man coverage, the Panthers had to settle for a field goal, which kicker Graham Gano drove into the back of his linemen. The short field had been wasted.
After a dropped pass and a run that barely made it back to the line of scrimmage, the Dolphins faced a quick third-and-ten. This would be the first time the Panthers’ line would get to pin its ears back and rush the passer, and, as expected, Tannehill ended up in the dirt for the 42nd time this year.
Ted Ginn was able to get the Panthers to midfield after a nice punt return, and a nicely timed screen pass to DeAngelo Williams put Carolina in field goal range. But the drive fizzled out after Miami’s defensive line started to impose its will. Odrick rag dolled Travelle Wharton and gobbled up Williams for a short gain before Olivier Vernon sacked Cam Newton after an onslaught of pass rushers forced him out of the pocket.
Carolina settled for a 52-yard field goal by Gano, and the Panthers led 3-0 midway through the first quarter.
On the Dolphins' ensuing possession, Hartline beat Melvin White for a 21-yard reception. A play later, the Panthers got a taste of Mike Wallace’s speed and big-play ability.
Miami was facing a second-and-seven from midfield and came out in an I-formation. The Panthers came out in their base 4-3 personnel but lined up in a 3-4 with safety Quintin Mikell creeping down in the box and Mike Mitchell deep.
The Dolphins' play is designed specifically for Wallace. Tannehill fakes the hand-off and rolls out to his right. Wallace slows his pace, trying to sell the run, before blazing past Munnerlyn for a 53-yard touchdown grab.
At first glance, it looks like a poor play call by defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, leaving Munnerlyn one-on-one with one of the fastest receivers in the league. But it was really a mistake by Mikell that left the Panthers’ diminutive corner in trouble, as coach Ron Rivera explains:
"We were in quarters to that side, so we should have had two guys deep over the top," Rivera said. "To get fooled the way we did, that was disappointing. We should know better. We will work on those things."
Mikell should have been deep to help on Wallace, but the veteran safety was fooled by the play action, and the Dolphins led 7-3 with 5:54 left in the first quarter.
The Panthers continued to struggle offensively. Inside runs were being stuffed thanks to a combination of stellar defensive line play by Miami and lackluster play by Carolina’s offensive line. In the passing game, Panthers receivers couldn’t get open in the little time provided by the Dolphins’ pass rush.
The only real success came on isolation routes for Steve Smith on the outside:
After the two teams exchanged three-and-outs, the Dolphins targeted Wallace deep on play action once again. This time, the Panthers’ play call did, in fact, leave Munnerlyn one-on-one with Wallace. The result was nearly identical:
Wallace was really the only threat to the Panthers defense, and, somehow, they had let him beat them deep twice. The one thing the Carolina defense couldn’t give up, it had given up twice – once because of a player’s mistake and another because of a bad play call.
After the Panthers defense stymied the drive and forced Miami to settle for a field goal, Carolina found itself trailing 10-3. The offense couldn’t move the ball, and the defense was playing solidly but suffering from mental mistakes.
After a series of lackluster drives by Carolina, the Dolphins were able to get into good field position and kick another field goal to extend their lead to 13-3. With the Panthers in desperate need of a big play, Newton tried to force one and, unsurprisingly, made a mistake. Newton’s recent success had been predicated on not forcing things and letting things come to him – but that’s easier to do when you're ahead on the scoreboard, as the Panthers have been in recent weeks.
The Panthers come out in 11 personnel in a three-by-one alignment. Miami counters with their nickel package. Brandon LaFell runs a seam route with the other receivers all running curl routes. Miami is in Cover 2, but cornerback Nolan Carroll will go deep and the strong safety Chris Clemons will guard one of the underneath zones.
This rotation gives Newton the illusion that the seam is wide open for LaFell, but Carroll is going to be there to undercut it and intercept the pass.
Newton’s decision to throw to LaFell wasn’t the problem, the decision on how to throw the ball was. Give credit to Miami, though, for fooling Newton.
Despite the great field position, Miami could not capitalize and had to settle for another field goal. The Dolphins led 16-3 with a minute left in the half.
It looked as if that score would hold up before the break, but the Dolphins coaching staff made a peculiar call that allowed the Panthers to get a field goal as the clock expired. With only eight seconds remaining, the Panthers had the ball at their own 43 yard-line with no timeouts. Miami must have expected a desperate heave toward the end zone, as they sent four defenders 40 yards down-field. Up front, the Dolphins blitzed six, leaving the Panthers with plenty of space to get into Gano’s range and comfortably get out of bounds.
The Miami coaching staff basically gifted the Panthers three points.
For the Panthers coaching staff, the necessary half-time adjustments were obvious: The defense needed to eliminate the mental mistakes and guard against the big plays. The offense had to get going and slow down the Dolphins’ pass rush.
On the opening drive of the second half, offensive coordinator Mike Shula looked to speed things up with the no huddle. A false start penalty and a Ginn drop on a deep ball looked as if they would derail the drive, but Newton finally broke contain and scrambled 14 yards for a first. After fitting a throw into a tight window over the middle, the Panthers started getting into a rhythm and moving faster in between plays.
By eschewing the huddle, Carolina was able to tire out the Dolphins’ front line and slow down the pass rush. It also prevented Miami from disguising its looks pre-snap, as defenses are in a hurry to just line up correctly. With the defense tired from chasing Newton around the field, Shula went to his running game to take advantage. The final six plays of the drive were runs, as the Panthers finally found the end zone and cut the lead to three at 16-13 with just over eight minutes left in the third quarter.
Defensively, the Panthers continued to get creative with pre-snap alignments and blitzes, but the key to Carolina’s defensive performance was tackling. After struggling to wrap up ball carriers Monday against the Patriots, the Panthers missed only 3 tackles against the Dolphins, according to Pro Football Focus. Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Captain Munnerlyn were all over the field, stopping Miami receivers in their tracks before they could get yards after the catch.
And with the Dolphins run game missing in action – Miami rushed for only 52 yards on 17 carries – the only threat to the Carolina defense was Mike Wallace. After his two big catches in the first half, the Panthers were able to have two safeties deep at all times during the second half.
On the Dolphins’ next drive, however, a mistake by Robert Lester allowed Wallace to get open deep once again. But this time, Tannehill missed the speedy wideout.
Carolina is in a Tampa 2, so Kuechly is responsible for the tight end going deep down the middle, while Lester is responsible for the outside receiver going deep. For some reason, Lester’s attention is on Clay in the middle of the field, and Wallace is left wide open. This is why coaches tell players to do their job and try not to do too much.
After surviving another scare, the defense continued to shut down the Miami offense, and the Dolphins defense returned the favor. The Panthers could not get back into the no huddle because the offense was having trouble moving the ball – you can’t go no huddle after incomplete passes.
The passing struggles were a combination of good man coverage and another sloppy day from Newton. Cam was having trouble putting the right amount of touch on his passes and his accuracy suffered as a result. The score remained 16-13 going into the final quarter.
With 11:14 left in the fourth, Tannehill started to get his offense moving. After some short completions to Wallace, the third-year quarterback took off on a 19-yard scramble for a first down. And after a four-yard run by Lamar Miller, Miami was closing in on field goal range with time running out.
Needing a defensive stand, McDermott dialed up a blitz for Davis – who was named NFC Defensive Player of the Month this week. The Dolphins protection is split, with the right guard, right tackle and tight end in man protection; the left side is in a slide protection, with the linemen picking up whoever comes into their zone.
The tight end, Dion Sims is responsible for Davis, who stunts and attacks the A-gap. This action picks Sims, and Davis has a clear lane to Tannehill for a sack.
The Dolphins had to attempt a 53-yard field goal, which Caleb Sturgis pushed wide left.
The Panthers could do nothing with the good field position, however. A holding call on Greg Olsen negated a Brandon LaFell 14-yard reception on third down and the Panthers had to punt after yet another three-and-out.
Miami took over at its own 24 with 5:36 left in the game. Carolina looked to have force the Dolphins into a three-and-out, but the referee inexplicably reversed an incomplete call on a clear drop by Charles Clay. But three plays later, the Panthers were able to force a Dolphins punt and give the ball back to their offense with a chance to win the game.
For a second consecutive week, the Panthers had the ball trailing by three late in the fourth quarter. But unlike last Monday, the Panthers offense had been disjointed all game long. Save for the opening drive of the second half, Carolina hadn’t been able to put a long drive together.
Three plays into this potential game-winning drive, nothing had changed. After a Newton scramble made up for a botched wide receiver screen pass, Carolina faced a fourth-and-ten from its own 20 yard-line.
Rivera kept his offense out on the field, and Shula went back to the only thing that had worked all afternoon: an isolation route to Steve Smith.
The Panthers come out in their favored 11 personnel with three receivers to Newton’s left and Smith isolated to his right. This alignment gives Smith room to work against man coverage. The Dolphins counter with Cover 1 Robber. Newton actually has two options on this play design based on the coverage: If the Dolphins had played zone, to his left, he had a deep dig route to LaFell with Olsen running a clear-out route down the seam.
With a safety "robbing" underneath and Smith running an in-breaking route, Newton has a tight window to make the throw. He makes it, and Smith does a great job of absorbing the contact and picking up yards after the catch.
After that play, it just seemed like the Panthers were going to win. Newton hit Olsen on an out route for nine yards before an incompletion to Smith set up a third-and-one. The Panthers went with a quarterback draw, and Newton picked up eight plus another 15 yards for a late hit.
From 30 yards out, the Panthers went to the same play that won them Monday’s game. LaFell runs a clear-out route from the slot and Ginn runs a curl route. Newton hits Ginn, but unlike Kyle Arrignton, Carroll makes the tackle and limits Ginn to eight yards.
The next play, Shula called for a toss to Mike Tolbert. Kalil led the way with a nice block at the second-level, and Tolbert ran over a defender trying to strip the ball. Another bruising Tolbert run put Carolina a yard away from pay dirt. A play-action fake to Jonathan Stewart left Greg Olsen wide open in the back of the end zone.
The Panthers led 20-16 with 46 seconds left and the Dolphins were out of timeouts. After narrowly surviving another scare on a deep ball to Wallace, Carolina had its seventh win a row and third consecutive fourth quarter comeback.
In what was an uneven performance by the offense and a gutsy performance littered with some mistakes by the defense, the Panthers moved to 8-3 and remained a game within first place in the NFC South.