Breaking down the data: Saints vs. Panthers

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Numbers and pictures from the Panthers victory over New Orleans

The history of the NFL proves that most games are won in the last two minutes of the first half or the second half.

-Vince Lombardi

A couple of weeks ago the NFL sent me a free NFL Films DVD with two movies. For whatever reason I put off watching the DVD until last Sunday on the drive to Charlotte for the de facto NFC South Championship game. I opted to watch the one hour and forty minute long film, "Two Minutes To Glory", detailing the some of the greatest late game comebacks and legends of the two-minute offense, quarterbacks who were/are cool and collected under pressure. Thoroughly entertaining, the movie opened with the aforementioned quote from Vince Lombardi.

How serendipitous, fortuitous, tremendous, and magnanimous, that the Panthers would beat New Orleans by dominating the final two minutes of both the first and second halves, outscoring the Saints 14-0. Additionally, the Panthers accumulated nearly 50% of their total yardage in the final two minutes of each half, 108 of 222-yards.

Carolina really struggled to move the ball on the New Orleans defense. Over 56 minutes, the Panthers ran about thirty plays for a paltry 114-yards. Blegh. A strength of the Panthers offense up until three weeks ago, Carolina could not convert a single third down, becoming the first team to win a game without converting a first down since the 2011 Panthers dismantled Tampa Bay 48-16 in a contest in which the Panthers didn't really face a meaningful third down until the game was far out of reach.

Fortunately for the Panthers, their defense, with an assist from the weather, were able to succeed where they could not two weeks ago, harassing Drew Brees to the tune of six sacks, in addition to numerous other pressures, also winning the turnover battle with two interceptions.

The Panthers ran the least amount of plays they have run in two seasons last week, finishing with only 40. New Orleans, on the other hand, ran 39 plays in the first half. In large part that was because of the seven three-and-outs that the Panthers recorded versus New Orleans. From 9:11 in the third quarter to 0:55 in the fourth quarter, Carolina didn't pick up a single first down. As one would expect, the Saints dominated the Panthers in time of possession, 38:48 to 21:12.

In contrast to the Week 14 matchup where the Panthers operated almost exclusively from 11 personnel, Carolina really only turned to the three wide receiver set in obvious passing situations and in the fourth quarter when facing deficit. Rather than spread out to combat the New Orleans blitzes, this past week the Panthers ran more plays from 12 personnel, oftentimes keeping in TE Ben Hartsock to pass protect, especially in the first half.

Personnel Runs Passes Total
11 3 17 20 (50%)
12 7 6 13 (33%)
21 2 1 3 (6%)
22 4 0 4 (8%)

Perhaps a matchup the Panthers did not like, 21 personnel saw very little usage, and was not even utilized in the second half.

Personnel 1st half 2nd half
11 pass 5 12
11 run 0 3
12 pass 5 1
12 run 4 3
21 pass 1 0
21 run 2 0
22 run 2 2

The Panthers read option plays have really fallen off, this week coming in at three runs for 7-yards. Despite the anemic totals produced this month, I think that we'll see a return of the read option next Sunday versus Atlanta, and in the playoffs.

Looking back at the Panthers nine failed third-down conversions, I found that the majority came not in third-down and long (3rd & 7+) but rather third-down and medium (3rd & 3-6). Carolina wasn't necessarily failing on first and second down, leaving them stranded in unfavorable down and distance scenarios, they just couldn't move the chains when it mattered. A lot of this has to do with New Orleans' defensive philosophy, which found them blitzing on nearly every third-down. As a result, three of the Saints four sacks came on third down. Why couldn't the Panthers pick up a conversion? A couple of times it was the pressure getting to Newton, or the New Orleans secondary forcing Cam into a checkdown. Others it was Newton simply making an inaccurate throw. Not mechanically flawed throws, or ill-advised throws, but inaccurate throws. Of course, there was also one drop on third down.

There were a lot of post-game comments questioning the lack of carries that Mike Tolbert received. I think Tolbert's carries were diminished in favor of his backfield mate, DeAngelo Williams. Williams has excellent footwork, which endow him elite change-of-direction skills. With the field soggy, I think the Panthers committed to Williams, believing that he could make the best of the conditions. The field saturated, I'm sure it would have been tough for defenders to gain a good foothold, which would give the advantage to Williams.

Tolbert's lack of carries can be attributed to the sheer amount of plays Carolina ran; 40. If the Panthers had run more plays I'm sure Tolbert would have received more carries.

Much like the Panthers, the Saints scoring drives came on the backs of a few explosive plays, such as the 46-yard Jimmy Graham reception and the 35-yard Mark Ingram run. The Saints also struggled on third down, but not to the degree Carolina did, converting just 5 of 18 third-downs.

Front 1st half 2nd half Total
4-3 9 25 34
4-2-5 28 10 38
3-3-5 2 1 3

It was really a tale of two halves for New Orleans, who in the first half sought to air it out with spread formations. In the second half, with the weather arriving, the Saints buckled down and switched to heavy personnel groups, notably 13 personnel, keeping an extra tackle in the game as a TE.

As we'll see below, the 3-3-5 got a brand new look last week, and was wildly successful.

Front & Coverage 1st half 2nd half Total
4-3 Man 0 1 1
4-3 Zone 4 8 9
4-2-5 Man 7 3 10
4-2-5 Zone 18 5 23
3-3-5 Man 1 1 2
3-3-5 Zone 1 0 1

Carolina did play a good bit of man in the first half, but shied away in the second, reserving man coverage sets for the red zone. As in the past few weeks, the Panthers did play a lot of man coverage in combo coverages as well.

It's a beautiful thing when schematic creativity and execution come together. Here's an example from both the offense and the defense.

Fwp1_medium

This play occurs on the Panthers first drive. Before the snap, QB Cam Newton is split wide, giving the illusion of a wildcat play.

Fwp2_medium

The Panthers haven't thrown the ball from the wildcat since the days of Legedu Naanee. In response, the Saints bring their safeties into the box, evacuating the deep middle of the field. Cam Newton returns under center.

Fwp3_medium

Newton's target is Steve Smith. Smith is running a deep post route. The veteran shades his route to the sideline, drawing the corner outside.

Fwp4_medium

With the CB drifting towards the sideline, Smith makes his break, beating the corner who's momentum is carrying him away.

Fwp5_medium

Newton makes a beautiful throw, dropping the ball right into Smith's hands for a 44-yard gain.

This play happens because the Saints safeties creep into the box anticipating run, leaving Smith on an island with the corner. The 13-year vet, Smith is nowhere near the 4.3 40-yard dash speed he possessed a decade ago, but he's still a weapon in the vertical passing game.

Mentioned above, the Panthers employed a new formation of the 3-3-5.

3351_medium

Thar she blows. In this example it's Greg Hardy at 0-tech over the nose, with two 3-techs, and the OLB's, in this case Thomas Davis and Mario Addison in two-point stances with Kuechly the ILB. Of note on this play, Quintin Mikell has appeared in the box.

3352_medium

At the snap Davis drops back in coverage, the other linemen rush. Hardy swings left, creating a large hole in the A-gap where Mikell blitzes. TE Ben Watson is too busy watching Kuechly to notice immediately.

3353_medium

Watson recognizes the blitz too late and is unable to slow Mikell down. Reading Brees' eyes, Kuechly is already moving on the pass, before the quarterback even knows where he's going with the ball. Incredible.

3354_medium

Mikell flushes Brees out of the pocket where he dumps the ball off to his checkdown, Pierre Thomas. Kuechly arrives simultaneously and tackles Thomas for a 5-yard loss.

That wasn't even the most successful play Carolina ran out of the 3-3-5. Drew Brees' first interception of the game came against the 3-3-5, when Brees either missed the dropping Thomas Davis, or thought he could fit the pass over the LB, resulting in Davis' incredible interception.

On a less than stellar front, I think rookie DT Star Lotulelei has hit the 'rookie wall'. Over the past few weeks there have been a couple of occasions where Lotulelei has been single-blocked out of his gap.

Star1_medium

Here Star is the 1-tech.

Star2_medium

Star doesn't get a great first step, and the center is able to achieve optimal hand positioning.

Star3_medium

Lotulelei is driven way out of his gap, leaving a huge hole for the runner. Luckily, Mark Ingram is oblivious, and, as Marshall Faulk would say, 'runs into darkness', for a two-yard gain.

It's not that Star is playing poorly; he is still the best DT on the roster --he's just no longer playing at the elite level he was earlier in the season.

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