For the Carolina Panthers, Sunday’s game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers may have felt like a chore. After three exhilarating games -- two against contenders and the last an unexpected nail-biter -- and with the NFC south-leading New Orleans Saints on the horizon, you couldn’t fault the team for not being motivated for a home game against a 3-8 team.
This was the perfect trap for a young team like the Panthers. The Bucs’ record may have been unimposing coming into Sunday, but Tampa Bay has been playing like one of the better teams in the league since Carolina beat them in October. It’s hard to get hyped for them, but beating Greg Schiano’s team was going to require a good performance.
Offensively, the Panthers were in for a challenge. Carolina was without tight end Ben Hartsock and guard Chris Scott for a third consecutive game. Going up against a stout Tampa run defense undermanned was going to be a tall order. But the Panthers offense could not be one-dimensional considering the amount of talent the Bucs have in their secondary.
On the first drive of the game, the concerns were not alleviated. Tampa’s defensive game plan was clear: Stop the run and don’t let Cam Newton get out of the pocket. The Bucs were going to load the box in obvious rushing downs and send a containing blitz when Newton had to drop back and pass.
The Bucs had tweaked their game plan from the first meeting between these teams. After playing zone for the majority of third downs (which Newton picked apart all night), Tampa Bay played man coverage behind a blitz on the game’s first third down. Carolina offensive coordinator Mike Shula obviously expected some type of zone defense and called for a flood concept to the right. Newton quickly diagnosed the man coverage and made the right throw, but Bucs corner Leonard Johnson made a great play to deflect the pass and forced a three-and-out.
The Panthers defense was without its best pass rusher, Charles Johnson, for a second straight week, and would have to find a way to get pressure on Mike Glennon, who had been killing teams with down-field throws over the last month or so. Over that same time, Tampa had been enjoying success in the running game with running back Bobby Rainey, which opened up those deep throws. Carolina’s game plan to make up for Johnson's absence, which head coach Ron Rivera divulged after the game, was to disguise coverages in order to slow down Glennon’s thought process and give Carolina’s pass rushers a little more time to get home.
Glennon, like most NFL quarterbacks, can pick apart a defense if he has a clean pocket. According to Pro Football Focus, the rookie sports a 110.4 quarterback rating on drop backs with no pressure; that number drops to 59.4 on pressured throws. Pressuring Glennon would be key.
On the Bucs first drive, Carolina’s secondary did a good job of disguising its intentions and the front seven did a good job of bottling up Rainey for short gains. But a couple of mental mistakes allowed Tampa to drive down the field.
The following play does a good job of illustrating the defensive game plan and the little mistakes that allowed Tampa Bay to get into field goal range. Tampa faced a second-and-9 from their own 33 and came out in 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TEs, 2 WRs). The Panthers countered with their base 4-3. Safety Mike Mitchell crept down into the box, and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn backed off his man, giving a Cover 3 look before the snap.
At the snap, the Panthers dropped into a Cover 2 look, as Munnerlyn went deep and Mitchell went out to cover the flat.
Mitchell hesitated for a second after the snap, which allowed Tampa receiver Tiquan Underwood to outflank him and get open for a 16-yard gain.
The next play, Panthers defensive tackle Colin Cole was bullied off his spot by Bucs center Jeremy Zuttah to open up a hole for Rainey to pick up 11 yards. Then a play action fake fooled the Panthers linebackers, who vacated the middle and allowed Underwood to get open for 23 yards.
After the mistakes, Carolina’s defense tightened up and the Bucs settled for a field goal and a 3-0 lead early in the first quarter.
The Panthers next drive got off to nice start when Greg Olsen got free underneath for 13 yards, but a negative run on the ensuing first down put the Panthers into a throwing situation. Once again, the Bucs sent a blitz and played man coverage – and once again, Cam Newton should off why he’s such a dangerous player.
It’s hard to assert blame here without knowing the defensive call, but either Gerald McCoy went too wide on his pass rush or Adrian Clayborn ignored his gap responsibility and went too far inside. Either way, the seas parted for Newton and he took care of the rest.
Give credit to Steve Smith for blocking downfield to allow Newton to pick up an extra chunk of yardage. A few plays later, Smith made another contribution that won’t show up in the box score. The Panthers face a second-and-11 from the Tampa 16. They come out in 12 personnel and run a Dagger concept, which consists of a clear out route and deep dig over the middle. Tampa counters with a Cover 2.
In the October contest between these teams, Smith burned the Bucs on this concept for a key third down conversion. This probably wasn’t lost on Tampa bay’s coaching staff and they probably prepared their defense to guard against it.
Bucs safety Dashon Goldston is looking for Smith on the dig, which allows Brandon LaFell to get open behind him for the game’s first touchdown.
After a Tampa three-and-out, Carolina’s offense went back to work but quickly found themselves facing third-and-ten from their own 28 yard-line. Newton makes the right read but his footwork is off. And his throw sails high. LaFell probably should have caught it, but the high throw slips through his hands and Keith Tandy picks it off, giving the Bucs great field position.
Tampa Bay tried to get its running game going, but the Panthers defensive line overpowered the Bucs offensive line and Rainey could find no room to run. After a holding penalty on wide receiver Vincent Jackson, the Bucs had to settle for a long field goal to make the score 7-6 late in the first quarter.
The Panthers were also finding it difficult to get any yardage on the ground against Tampa’s eight-man fronts. McCoy was a force inside against the run, requiring a double team at all times, and the Bucs linebackers and defensive backs were flying to the football.
Last week in Miami, the Panthers defense was victimized by deep throws to Mike Wallace. In Vincent Jackson, Tampa Bay has a comparable threat, and they looked to take advantage of him against a much-maligned secondary.
The Bus are expecting a Cover 2 call from the Panthers and send three deep, but Carolina is in Quarters coverage. As Glennon drops back, safety Quintin Mikell (who made a similar mistake on Wallace's touchdown last week) has his eyes in the backfield and the hesitation let’s Jackson get behind him, leaving Drayton Florence one-on-one with one of NFL’s biggest deep threats. Jackson hauls it in for 60 yards and puts the Bucs in range to take the lead.
A couple plays later, though, pressure from Dwan Edwards and Thomas Davis forced Glennon out of the pocket. As he went to unload the ball, it slipped out of his hand and Edwards recovered the fumble and maintained the Panthers slim lead.
Newton started to get in a rhythm as Shula sped things up with the no huddle on the ensuing possession, but Jonathan Stewart continued to struggle. As things get condensed near the end zone, the Panthers need some semblance of a running game in order to finish off drives. The only success the Panthers had running was with Tolbert in the backfield.
So far this season, the Panthers have used Tolbert as a blocker in passing situations because he is the team’s best back in pass protection. When he’s in the backfield alone, teams can usually disregard the run and focus on defending the pass. Unlike Stewart, Tolbert had the pleasure of facing weak defensive boxes and two high safeties, and the big man took advantage throughout the game.
After a couple of Stewart runs were stuffed by Tampa, Carolina had to settle for a field goal and a 10-6 lead.
Two minutes later, the Panthers got another opportunity to add to their lead after a Greg Hardy sack forced a Bucs three-and-out.
The Panthers took over at midfield facing a defense that had been swarming to the ball all afternoon. So Shula looked to take advantage of Tampa’s aggressiveness with some misdirection plays – first a play action fake and tunnel screen to Ginn that went for 11 yards; then a fake roll-out pass and screen to Greg Olsen that picked up 30 yards and put the Panthers at the Tampa Bay 8 yard-line.
Three short runs later, Riverboat Ron gambled again on a fourth-and-goal from a yard out. It paid off, as Newton dove over the Bucs line for a touchdown that gave Carolina a 17-6 lead going into the half.
After the half time break, Tampa Bay got to midfield after a couple of nice runs by Rainey. But on the next play, Star Lotulelei bulldozed his way over right tackle Demar Dotson and pressured Glennon into an ill-advised deep throw that was picked off by Mitchell.
The Panthers took over on their own 22 yard-line looking to put the game out of reach. Newton hit Tolbert on a check down for 12 yards before Olsen got open underneath against man coverage and picked up 36 yards to put Carolina on the Tampa Bay 36 yard-line.
In the Panthers last two games, they have gone to the same route concept in a similar field position: LaFell runs a fly route from the slot and Ginn runs a hook route on the outside. Against the Patriots, it resulted in the game-winning score; against the Dolphins, it picked a nice gain on the Panthers game-winning drive.
On Sunday, the Panthers looked to take advantage of any scouting the Bucs may have done on this design. Instead of running the hook, Ginn ran a hook and go.
Ginn’s 36-yard touchdown had put the game away at 24-6 early in the third quarter. After playing three straight games that came down to the final drive, the Panthers could rest easy and cruise to a win. The Carolina defense continued to shut down the run and harass Glennon – 55 percent of Glennon’s drop backs were pressured, the highest percentage across the league in Week 13. When Glennon did get his passes off, the Panthers pounced, as the defense missed only one tackle throughout the game, according to Pro Football Focus.
Carolina had avoided the dreaded trap game. They had won 27-6 and moved to 9-3 to set up a battle for first place against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday night.