The Carolina Panthers' defense put on maybe its finest performance in the history of the team Sunday as the team cruised to its most lopsided win in franchise history.
The defense's first half performance was particularly impressive: 18 yards surrendered, 6 sacks and 0 points allowed. The Giants ran 26 first-half plays -- only three of which could be considered successful, using Football Outsiders' standards (40 percent of yardage needed to move the chains on First down; 60 percent on Second; and 100 percent on Third or Fourth). That's only an 11.5 percent Success Rate -- the NFL average is about 50 percent.
Even with a depleted secondary, the Panthers defense suffocated the Giants offense thanks to a stingy front seven. After the first drive, the Panthers coaches realized they could stop the running game without dropping a safety into the box, leaving more numbers to defend the pass.
Contrary to the repeated analysis of FOX commentator Brian Billick, the former Ravens head coach, Carolina did not give New York receivers much cushion. Instead, the Panthers played a lot of Cover 2 and man-to-man. Contrast that to last year, when the defense was in Cover 3, with a safety dropped into the box on almost every play that wasn't an obvious passing down.
Leading the front seven was Greg Hardy, who took home NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors. Hardy absolutely abused Will Beatty for three sacks. He showed his array of pass rushing moves on his sacks, with an outside speed rush, an inside power move and outside/inside swim move:
He also did a great job of setting the edge and blowing up the Giants running game. New York ran at his side three times in the first half. Those carries went for 2 yards, -2 yards and -4 yards. Hardy made eight tackles in all; three were sacks; the Giants gained only a yard on the other five combined.
Throw in the fact that Hardy played almost every snap in the first half, and you start to see just how valuable he is to this defense. Next to Luke Kuechly, Hardy is Carolina's best defender. Pay the man, Gettleman!
The Play Design on Tedd Ginn's 47-Yard TD
You have to tip your hat to Mike Shula for this design. The Panthers are in 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR), lined up in the Pistol -- a Read Option tip-off. And Ben Hartsock is on the field, which usually means run. Hartsock has played 85 snaps this season, and 67 percent of those have been runs, according to Pro Football Focus.
But instead of running the ball, Shula calls for a play-action pass, with Armanti Edwards running a dig route on the left and Ted Ginn on the right running a skinny post. Cam Newton fakes the Read Option, which draws the linebackers in, compromising the Giants Cover 3 defense and leaving the middle wide open for Edwards across the middle. Safety Antrel Rolle sees this and closes down Edwards, leaving the deep middle open for Ginn. Cornerback Aaron Ross doesn't have a chance to keep up with the speedster and Newton hits him for six:
I'm not the biggest fan of Shula's offense, but that was pretty.
Amini Silatolu's Run Blocking
Silatolu struggled in his rookie season, both in pass protection and run blocking. Pro Football Focus graded Silatolu as the 49th best run blocker in the league last season with a total grade of -2.3 -- the league leader, Evan Mathis, got a total grade of 31.8.
So far this season, Silatolu has graded as one of the better run-blocking guards, according to PFF. Against the Giants he was graded at 3.4, which ranked fifth amongst guards for the week. This is following a solid effort against the Bills.
The Read Option Tweaks
Shula's game plan on Sunday featured a lot of Read Option. The Panthers gained 40 yards on eight Read Option plays. Two of these runs came on Triple options, with Newton keeping the ball on the read then pitching it to DeAngelo Williams. The third big run came on an Inverted Veer, which is essentially a Read Option with a pulling guard leading the way for the quarterback if he keeps it -- which Newton did for 15 yards. With defenses committing more numbers in the box to stop the Read Option this year, these tweaks are necessary for these plays to succeed.
The Panthers Execution on the Read Option
The Panthers gained 39 yards on three Read Option plays, but only one yard on the other five. Save for one play, an Inverted Veer stuffed by Jason Pierre-Paul, those ill-fated plays came down to a lack of execution, by both blockers and runners.
On the third play in the video above (0:49), Greg Olsen whiffs on a block that frees a defender to tackle Williams for no gain. On the next play (1:08), Ryan Kalil does a great impression of a turnstile, as he lets the defensive tackle get into the backfield virtually untouched. On the play at 1:33, Mike Tolbert misses a big hole and slips trying to get back to it before being gobbled up. And on the last play (2:37), Newton makes a bad read and hands the ball off even though the end crashes down. If he had kept it, he had an easy path to the end zone. You can even see Newton's frustration after the play -- he know he made a mistake.
It doesn't matter how good a scheme is; if the players don't execute, it won't work.
Greg Olsen's Blocking
Olsen is one of the better receiving tight ends in the league, but his lack of blocking skills is a big detriment to the Panthers' offense and almost negates his play-making abilities. Because the Panthers lack targets for Newton outside of Steve Smith, the Panthers almost have to play Olsen on every down, but they struggle in the run game with him as the lone tight end.
Jeremy Shockey was a duel threat at the tight end position and one of the biggest reasons why the Panthers put up so many points in 2011. He was sorely missed in 2012, and he still is in 2013.
Here's a cut-up of Greg Olsen's blocking struggles against the G-Men, a blocking performance that PFF graded as the worst for starting tight ends last week:
Cam Newton's Pre-Snap Read
Newton has shown a lot of improvement as a passer over the last couple of years, but he still struggles reading the defense before the snap and changing his progressions accordingly.
Take this third down play on the Panthers' first scoring drive against the Giants. Shula calls for a Stick concept to Newton's left and a slant for Smith to backside of the play. If Newton sees zone, he goes to the Stick concept; if the Giants are in man, he should look to Smith on the slant. The Giants blitz with man coverage behind it but Newton throws to Olsen on his left short of the first down. On the right, Smith easily beats his man and is open for an easy touchdown.
Newton gets a second chance at this same play later in the game. The Panthers even motion Williams out of the backfield and the following defender should have told Newton the Giants are in man coverage.
Yet again, Newton throws the Stick; and, yet again, Smith is open on the slant with room to run. They might have been completions, but Newton missed some big opportunities on these two plays.