Breaking down the data: Seattle vs. Carolina

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Conservative? Aggressive? Pants, or no pants?

A hard-fought defeat against a presumed Super Bowl contender was not exactly the outcome Carolina, nor its fans were looking for last Sunday. While stronger on both sides of the ball, and much more effective against a tougher opponent, the Panthers were handed the same opening weekend fate found last season versus Tampa Bay.

The Panthers front seven was perhaps even better than expected, neutralizing Seattle's running attack, and holding Marshawn Lynch to a meager 2.5 yards per carry --1.8 if you subtract a garbage time 14 yard scamper. In a similar vein, the offensive line held up better than expected against a formidable Seahawks defense. And still, Carolina could not come away with a victory, only managing to score seven points.

The Data: Offense

Personnel grouping Runs Passes Total
11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE) 7 12 19 (39%)
12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TE) 6 9 15 (31%)
21 personnel (2 RB, 1 TE) 7 4 11 (22%)
22 personnel (2 RB, 2 TE) 2 1 3 (6%)
23 personnel (2 RB, 3 TE) 1 0 1 (2%)
Total: 49 plays

Broken down between the first and second halves:

Personnel Run Pass
1st half 11 5 7
2nd half 2 5
1st half 12 3 6
2nd half 3 3
1st half 21 3 3
2nd half 4 1
1st half 22 1 0
2nd half 1 1
1st half 23 0 0
2nd half 0 1

I would have liked to see more spread formations and 11 personnel looks, in an attempt to stretch the Seattle coverages, and force the Seahawks to use more pass rushing personnel; substituting Richie Brockel and Ben Hartsock as blockers for a Ted Ginn or Armanti Edwards creating larger passing lanes.

Anyhow, Coach Shula called a fairly balanced game, with the run pass ratio at 23:26 (A 47-53 split). Like many other teams around the league, the Panthers ran several packaged plays. Used sparingly, Shula called six read option plays for a total of 26 yards (4.33 YPC).

Defense

Front Man coverage Zone coverage Total
4-3 1 10 11 (19%)
3-4 3 4 7 (12%)
4-2-5 8 30 38 (66%)
2-4-5/1-4-6 0 2 2 (3%)
Total: 58 plays

*Discounting three kneel downs.

Broken down between the two halves:

Front Man coverage Zone coverage
1st half 4-3 1 2
2nd half 0 8
1st half 3-4 1 2
2nd half 2 2
1st half 4-2-5 3 20
2nd half 5 10
1st half 2-4-5/1-4-6 0 0
2nd half 0 2

Carolina ran a solid amount of combination coverages in which one outside CB would be playing press man coverage, while his counterpart would be in some sort of zone; I marked these plays as man coverage. The Panthers played with a fairly high frequency of man coverage in the second half; notably on Jermanine Kearse's 43-yard score which proved to be the game-winning touchdown. The man-zone coverage ratio was 12-46 (roughly a 20-80 split).

We did see a return of the Panthers 3-4 one gap front, as well as some unusual sub packages, the 2-4-5 and 1-4-6, both of which were utilized for one play. Rookie DT Kawann Short saw a lot of playing time in the sub packages, both as a 3-tech in the 3-4, and two-gapping in the two aforementioned subsets. Predictably the Seahawks spread Carolina out into nickel sets, however the Panthers were able to play very strong run defense, substituting LB Jon Beason out for DB's Josh Norman or DJ Moore. Newly acquired S Quintin Mikell could often be seen creeping into the box.

Rivera was asked, "Offensively you only had 3 passes more than 10 yards down the field [...], is that too conservative?" And his reply was, "yes it is but in the inverse we had a few that was dropped that would have been longer, so there are some things that need to be looked at on both sides in terms of getting the ball vertical." (sic)

-MrBernz's transcription of Ron Rivera's press conference

I didn't think Mike Shula's game plan was very conservative.

The Seahawks play a lot of Cover 3 Sky and Cloud, as well as Cover 1 man (essentially man coverage across the board with one deep safety). Per Chris Brown, Cover 3 may be attacked via:

Weaknesses: [...]

2. four defenders underneath to cover six zones - large curl and horizontal seams

How to attack:

1. Stretch vertically and horizontally [...]

3. Quick passes away from rotation

5. Get the TE involved

With Cover 1 man:

Weaknesses:

1. Poor run support [...]

6. "bunch" and "snug" type sets

How to attack: [...]

2. create mismatch with TE running option ("read") routes

3. stay shallow with routes, catch the ball short and run long

Versus the Seattle coverages the Panthers did almost precisely this. The common outcry amongst fans and commentators has been that Carolina's offense was too conservative; not calling enough, or any, shots down the field. I feel that sentiment is misplaced.

The Panthers ran the four verticals concept ("4 verts") at least three times under my count, with this example occurring in the first quarter.

Wk14v1_medium

Wk14v2_medium

Against the blitz, the Panthers pass protection crumbles, and Newton doesn't have time to look downfield. Even if he did, Seattle covers the concept very well with pattern-matching coverage.

Wk14v3_medium

Newton leaves the pocket, scrambling for an 8-yard gain.

Against man-coverage on this play, Carolina looks to free TE Greg Olsen up with a wheel route towards the sideline, having WR Brandon Lafell set a 'pick' for him with his route.

Wk1scrape1_medium

Wkscrape2_medium

It works; the defender is slow to react to Olsen's route, which leaves the tight end wide open.

Wk1scrape3_medium

Newton sees this, and hits Olsen with a pass down the sideline, which he drops.

Shula also called three verticals a couple of times ("3 verts").

Wk13v1_medium

From 21 personnel, the Panthers split Greg Olsen out wide.

Wk13v2_medium

A common theme, look at all of the open area between the secondary, and the line of scrimmage. Seattle blitzes again, and the pocket disintegrates around Newton. Seattle is operating Cover 3 Sky here, and, looking at the arrow, Newton may have been able to target Ted Ginn, but again, he doesn't have the time to set up an accurate throw, and is forced to checkdown to DeAngelo Williams with a shovel pass; the running back picks up 7-yards.

Here's another example, where Carolina appears to run '3 verts'.

Wk123v1_medium

Wk123v2_medium

The Seahawks again show concern against the deep ball, dropping very deeply, and in the process leaving Olsen uncovered. With nothing opening up downfield, Newton finds his tight end, who picks up 8-yards.

Rather than forcing something downfield, Newton put the ball in the hands of one of his top targets, giving him the opportunity to make a play.

Seattle's deep coverage mentality also permeated into its run defense.

Wk1_ro_medium

From this pistol alignment, in the fourth quarter, the Panthers run the triple option. In a normal defense against the option, Seattle assigns a defender to each runner; the DE/OLB crashes down on the dive man (Brockel), while the OLB is responsible for the quarterback (Newton), and the safety creeps up to cover the pitch man (Williams). But for fear of leaving WR Steve Smith in single coverage, without a safety overtop, the Seahawks keep their safety deep.

Wk1ro_medium

The free safety even begins backpedaling at the snap, and is in no position to provide run support.

Were there opportunities for big plays downfield? A few, yes.

In this fourth quarter play, there are a couple of open receivers deep, but Newton takes too long to make a decision, and is forced to scramble to evade the pass rush.

Wk1timing_medium

Both Ginn and Smith have found holes in the Seattle zone; CB Richard Sherman gives Olsen a generous 8-yard cushion. Similarly, RB Mike Tolbert has his own separation. Newton holds on to the ball for a few extra seconds, and is then, again, forced out of the pocket, scrambling for a 10-yard gain.

This late third quarter play has a less than stellar ending.

Wk14vd1_medium

OC Shula calls '4 verts' again.

Wk14vd2_medium

In stretching the Seattle's Cover 3 horizontally and vertically, an open seam appears for WR Brandon Lafell. Newton finds him.

Wk14vd3_medium

The ball sails just out of Lafell's grasp. And to make matters worse, G Chris Scott is called on a holding penalty, backing the offense up 10-yards.

The potential was certainly there for Newton to eclipse 200-yards passing, especially when taken into account these last two plays, as well as Greg Olsen's drop(s). In general, it's hard to put up superstar passing statistics when your offense runs less than 50 plays.

I don't think the offensive game plan was perfect. As I mentioned above, I would have liked to see more spread formations, and 11 personnel.

Coach Shula called vertical passing plays; to crucify the guy, and declare the season a wash, because you would have liked to see two or three more '4-verts' last Sunday is silly. Seattle, like all of the other teams on the Panthers' schedule, is aware of Carolina's prowess in the deep passing game, and took measures to neutralize it, using pattern-matching coverage, and zone blitzes.

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