Breaking down the data: Panthers vs. Saints

Wesley Hitt

Numbers and pictures from the Panthers victory... no, it was definitely a loss, against the Saints

The win-streak had to end some time. We all knew it. The Panthers were fated to lose a game, and it just so happened to come against rival New Orleans on national television. Good teams lose. Great teams lose. Poor teams lose. We've come to far in the season for one game to sway how you feel about the team. Carolina is an imperfect team, but then again, it's rare to find a complete team in the NFL. To quote Jack Black's character in the movie Tropic Thunder, "Yeah man, everybody got issues."

Carolina flat out lost the game. Though that's not to belittle New Orleans' accomplishment; they played fantastically. Converse to the last few months, the Panthers lost the battle in the trenches, specifically in pass protection and pass rushing. Whereas New Orleans was able to harry Cam Newton and alter the pocket, Drew Brees was relatively unmolested. That being said, the Carolina back seven and wide receiver corps did little to help matters.

The Numbers

I liked what Mike Shula did on offense, personnel wise. Under Rob Ryan New Orleans blitzes more often than most teams. For example, in the first half the Saints blitzed on five of seven third down pass plays. With a less than stellar offensive line, it is critical for QB Cam Newton and his offensive linemen to be able to identify blitzes pre-snap. Therefore, OC Shula spread out the offense, operating almost exclusively from 11 personnel. With the offense spread wide, the defense must respond in kind. From a spread alignment it is much more apparent which defenders are planning on rushing the passer. Lining up wide is not a catch-all blitz beater, but it would give the Panthers a puncher's chance.

Personnel Runs Passes Total
11 11 36 47 (77%)
12 2 3 5 (8%)
21 4 0 4 (7%)
22 1 0 1 (2%)
13 2 0 2 (3%)
01 0 2 2 (3%)

That is about as lopsided as you'll probably ever see it. Carolina practically ran the ball more from 11 personnel than they called plays from any other grouping. In the first half it was certainly more of a strategic move; however, after the Saints extended their lead to 24-6 in the third quarter, the offense abandoned the running game.

Even though Newton was sacked five times, I'd call the spread strategy fairly successful. The Panthers weren't caught off guard by the Saints blitzes. All of the New Orleans sacks came from personnel error.

Personnel 1st half 2nd half
11 pass 17 19
11 run 7 4
12 pass 0 3
12 run 2 0
21 pass 0 0
21 run 3 1
22 pass 0 0
22 run 1 0
13 pass 0 0
13 run 1 1
01 pass 0 2
01 run 0 0

The read option plays had another poor day, totaling just 15-yards on five carries. Last year the Panthers offense shredded New Orleans on read option plays, but, in light of the score, they didn't seem intent on pushing that metaphorical envelope last Sunday.

Aside from a three drive stretch in the first half, resulting in 21 unanswered points for New Orleans, the Panthers defense more or less held their own against the Saints offense. Of course those three drives cannot be overlooked. Common knowledge, it begins and ends up front for Carolina's defense. With the four-man pass rush not producing, DC Sean McDermott had to rely on the blitz to pick up any reliable pressure on Drew Brees, a risky prospect considering the standing of the secondary.

Front 1st half 2nd half Total
4-3 9 12 21
4-2-5 18 13 31
3-4 1 0 1
3-3-5 1 1 2

Taking a look at the pass coverages:

Front & Coverage 1st half 2nd half Total
4-3 Man 2 3 5
4-3 Zone 2 5 7
4-2-5 Man 4 6 10
4-2-5 Zone 12 5 17
3-4 Man 0 0 0
3-4 Zone 1 0 1
3-3-5 Man 0 1 1
3-3-5 Zone 1 0 1

It definitely wasn't your usual showing from the Carolina secondary. We saw a lot more combination coverages; half man two-high coverage, half cover 3, etc. Much more than against New England and Tom Brady. The defensive coaching staff did not want Brees to have a clean coverage to read. In addition, the Panthers played a lot more man coverage, and press man coverage, than they normally do, trying to disrupt the timing of the receivers routes to generally poor results.

I think to some degree the amount of variation in the coverages may have psyched out the Panthers back seven. For the first time all year I saw noticeable coverage breakdowns and miscommunications. Maybe it was just poor communication.


This first example occurs on the Saints second drive, third-down and nine, late in the first quarter. Pre-snap the Panthers secondary has done a fine job hiding their intended coverage. From this alignment the secondary could drop into Cover 2, 3, 4, etc.


As Brees completes his drop, there's confusion. Both safeties stay high, and move to the middle of the field, to the point where both DB's are within five yards of each other. It's possible that, with both outside CB's in zone, that this is a blown quarters coverage, but that appears unlikely. It seems as though both Mitchell and Mikell both believe they have responsibility for the deep middle of the field. I think this should be Cover 3.


One of the safeties should be dropped into an intermediate zone to one side of the field. I'm pretty sure it would be to the bottom of the screenshot. Captain Munnerlyn initially carries the zone on Marques Colston, but as his depth increases, he hangs back, as if he thought he'd have help over the top. Anyhow, Brees completes the pass to Colston for a gain of 21-yards, opening the proverbial floodgates.

Later on in the drive the Saints have reached the red zone.


On this play Carolina plays a combo coverage, utilizing man coverage with safety help overtop to the right, and some sort of zone to the left.


The top left third of the field isn't even covered. Someone totally blew their assignment. The CB either has a brain fart, or he thinks he's in a shallow zone for Cover 2. Meanwhile the Safety, who was overtop the CB pre-snap, immediately abandons that position for the middle third of the field. Luckily Brees was unaware of this malfunction. I suppose that's how coverage breakdowns typically work; either they turn out catastrophically, or the QB has no idea that it even happened.

This third breakdown occurs in the third quarter, also in the red zone.


New Orleans has 21 personnel on the field, and the Panthers counter with the 4-3, Kuechly and Klein the two ILB's. It's not unusual that the LB's are so close together; hindsight is 20/20 though.


As Brees completes the three step drop both Kuechly and Klein peel out to cover the releasing back, which leaves the shallow middle of the field bereft of Panthers.


Marques Colston happens to stroll right through the unoccupied zone. Brees delivers him the ball in stride.


Colston is stopped inches away from the end zone.

For whatever reason there was a good deal of confusion in the Panthers secondary last Sunday. Carolina has been very good at avoiding coverage breakdowns this season. The good news is, these errors are certainly correctable within the week. I'd expect communication to be a focal point in practice this week.

The CB's also struggled in man coverage.


On this third-down and five Melvin White is matched up against fellow rookie Kenny Stills in press man coverage.


Ignoring Chris Collinsworth's artwork, White completely whiffs on his jam. Stills merely sidesteps him, and executes a swim move.


As a result, Stills generates substantial separation one second into his route. Brees takes note.


Stills is able to make the diving grab, extending the Saints drive, with White nowhere near in position to make a play.

Transitioning to the offensive side of the ball, Brandon Lafell has been a horrible blocker on wide screens.


Ted Ginn motions to this side of the field and takes a forward step at the snap, feigning a vertical route, before moving to catch the screen. The CB doesn't bite. It is Lafell's responsibility to block the CB.


Lafell is slow about his movements, and takes a horrible initial angle at his target.


Because of his poor angle and lack urgency, Lafell is unable to protect Ginn from the CB.


Somehow not an illegal contact penalty, the CB swipes at Ginn's head, prevents him from making the catch.

Just to show what could have been...


At the time Ginn would have been making the catch, Steve Smith has walled off one defender, and there are three linemen moving to the flat. It would have been between Ginn and the safeties for the end zone.

This next play occurs in the second quarter.


Running a packaged play, New Orleans gives Newton a read to throw the screen to Smith. This go around Lafell hardly moves at all, with his hands at his sides, allowing the CB to make the first move; an awful decision.


The CB accepts Lafell's invitation, and runs past the WR, who can only serve to shove/hold the CB.


Smith should have come back for the ball, but it probably wouldn't have changed the outcome of the play, a loss of three-yards.

This has been a chronic issue for Lafell, who is one of the best blocking WR's in the league, and should have the definite advantage, in knowing where the play is going. There are big plays to be made in these WR screens, the issue being execution.

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