The Carolina Panthers flew into New Orleans for their game with the Saints on a high after having gone two months without losing a game. They then spent the next 60 minutes of football crashing down to earth.
Drew Brees dissected an over-matched Carolina secondary on his way to a 313 yard, four touchdown masterpiece. The New Orleans defense overwhelmed the Panthers offensive line and came up with key stops whenever called upon. The Saints’ coaching staff put together a good game plan that took advantage of their team’s strengths and masked their weakness, while their counterparts on the opposing sideline could do nothing to stop the onslaught.
Save for special teams, the Panthers were bested in every phase of the game.
And in two weeks, when the Saints come to Charlotte for the rematch, none of that will matter. Sunday’s game was just one result in a season of many. Bad games happen. You get blown out. You move on. That’s how things go in the NFL: If you don’t play well, you get punished. The Panthers didn’t play well, and the Saints punished them. The important things isn’t the result; it’s how the Panthers players and coaches learn from their mistakes when these two teams meet for a second time (and maybe a third time about a month from now).
Let’s take a look at some of the adjustments the Panthers can make if they want to return the favor at Bank of America Stadium in a couple of weeks.
What went wrong defensively?
Let’s start on the defensive side of the ball, where the Panthers struggled all night. So far this season, the Panthers have stuck with a similar game plan for just about every game: Rush the passer with four with the occasional blitz thrown in, play soft in the secondary to keep everything in front of you and wait for the offense to make a mistake and derail their drive. That game plan has worked, as the Panthers have had no trouble shutting down opposing team’s running games and the passive coverage on the back-end has made things easier for a suspect group of defensive backs.
On Sunday night in New Orleans, head coach Ron Rivera and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott switched things up. Instead of playing their standard off-coverage, Rivera and McDermott tried to mimic Seattle’s scheme by pressing the Saints receivers at the line, which, in theory, would throw off the offense’s timing and force the quick-triggered Brees to hold on to the ball a little bit longer than usual. The strategy did not work. The Panthers’ corners looked uncomfortable trying to jam their men and usually whiffed, allowing the New Orleans pass catchers to get open immediately.
The game plan put a lot of pressure on the secondary, and the unit, as a whole, did not deliver. Things have not changed since the beginning of the year. This is a mediocre group, and the game plan should be built to hide it, not feature it.
It’s easy for me to say that in hindsight, though. The Panthers typical strategy might not have worked well either. Playing a bend-but-don’t-break style that thrives on offenses' mistakes work against most teams, but there are a handful of quarterbacks who can pitch a perfect game. Tom Brady, after a shaky start, was able to dink-and-dunk the Panthers’ defense to death last month, and New England was able to put up a very healthy 20 points on only seven possessions.
Drew Brees certainly has the ability to do the same, so it’s understandable why the Panthers defensive coaches strayed from their typical game plan.
Making matters worse, the Panthers struggled to get any pressure on Brees with their standard pass rush. When Carolina rushed four or less, Brees went 22 of 26 for 230 yards and 3 touchdowns. Unlike the Patriots before them, the Saints did not limit their passing game to quick passes to help out their linemen; instead, New Orleans still attacked down-field but used tight ends and running backs to chip Carolina’s defensive ends on their way out into routes.
How to fix it:
The Panthers need to get back to playing their game. Play soft in the secondary, keep everything in front of you and let your linebackers hunt for underneath throws. If you want to slow down Brees, use the coverage disguises that worked well against the Dolphins and Buccaneers. Force Brees, and his teammates, to be perfect, and to methodically work his way down the field instead of picking up big chunks like he did Sunday night. In Carolina, Brees won’t have the luxury of a quiet crowd, perfect weather conditions and an artificial surface, so that will be a much tougher task.
To combat the Saints chipping Carolina’s defensive ends, the Panthers should use more twists and stunts in order to put Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson in more favorable matchups against guards. Or send some more blitzes – when the Panthers blitzed on Sunday night, Brees’ quarterback rating dropped from 142 to 86.2.
What went wrong offensively?
Offensive coordinator Mike Shula did not stray away from his typical approach against the Saints. The Panthers offense tried to control the clock with power running and a short passing attack. Though that approach has been effective this year against lesser offenses, it puts way too much pressure on Cam Newton and the offense when the other team is capable of putting up points.
Take the New England game, for instance. The Panthers controlled the clock and limited the game to only six possessions, but Carolina had to score 24 points on only six possessions to escape with a win.
The Saints defense didn’t present a good match-up for Newton, so putting up a lot of points in a limited number of possessions was always going to be hard. So far this season, Newton has struggled with multi-front defenses that are adept at sending pressure, such as the Bills and Cardinals. Against Rob Ryan, the trend continued Sunday night.
While Newton avoided turning the ball over, he was harassed all night by the New Orleans pass rush and took a long time to diagnose coverages and work through his progressions, which made things harder on an already struggling offensive line.
Even with those problems, the Panthers still did a good job of moving the ball. If they were able to finish off drives early in the game, who knows what would have happened.
How to fix it:
While I recommended the defense get back to playing their game, I’m going to go the other way with offense. We’ve seen going no-huddle spark the Panthers offense in the last month or so – how about testing it out over the course of an entire game?
Not only would a faster-paced offense tire out a defense, it would also simplify things for Newton. As Nick Saban explains, the no-huddle basically takes things out of the defensive coordinator’s hands:
"All you're trying to do is get lined up [on defense]," Saban said. "You can't play specialty third-down stuff. You can't hardly scheme anything. The most important thing is to get the call so the guys can get lined up, and it's got to be a simple call. The offense kind of knows what you're doing."
Speed up the Saints' defense, and Ryan’s complex coverages and blitzes go right out the window. With versatile players like Mike Tolbert and Greg Olsen, the Panthers certainly have the horses to go fast while being able to change formations on the fly, as well.
On this play, the Panthers are in 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TEs, 2 WRs) and the Saints are in their base 3-4.
Let’s say Carolina runs a play and then goes no-huddle. They can split Olsen out wide in a shotgun formation, and New Orleans would still have to respect Tolbert as a runner even though he’s primarily used as a pass blocker in these types of formations.
What do they do? Do they guard against the pass and play two safeties deep? That would leave a soft box for Newton and Tolbert to take advantage of on a Read Option. Or Newton could go to a mismatch with Olsen one-on-one with a safety in the slot:
Maybe the Saints walk a safety down to guard Olsen, which puts an extra backer in the box to stop the run. But that leaves the New Orleans corners one-on-one on the outside with no safety help over the top:
All of a sudden, Newton is just reacting instead of thinking, and we know how good Newton is in those situations.The Panthers are going to have to move the ball through the air if they are going to beat the Saints; they're not going to be able to do that without making things easier on their young quarterback.
If the Panthers want to get a look at how well a fast-pace offense would neutralize a defensive scheme like Rob Ryan's, they could experiment against his brother's defense this week against the New York Jets.