Hog Heaven Opponent Scouting: the Carolina Panthers

The Panthers? Who are these guys?

Offensively, I am confident that this is a team that has a poor offensive line, particularly on the right side.  Left tackle Jordan Gross and Center Ryan Kalil are stalwarts, but the other three players are poor pass protectors and don’t get much push in the running game.  The unit was a liability in the tape cut ups I studied against the Atlanta Falcons.

Their quarterback, rookie Cam Newton, is not a liability.  Newton shows remarkable poise and patience in the pocket.  The rare level of patience shown by Newton is effective for helping him interpret complex coverages, and for allowing the most valuable player on the Panthers’ offense, veteran WR Steve Smith, to break down those coverages.  The Falcons got caught multiple times playing man to man coverage, and Newton hurt them with his legs.  The Redskins want to be very careful this week to ensure that they play strong zone coverage and let their pass rushers do their thing.  Newton’s legs are not an asset if the defense keeps seven sets of eyes on the quarterback.  He is not Mike Vick, and he will not outrun your pursuit angle to the sideline.

Newton was intercepted three times by the Falcons, but each of the INTs was a case of Newton doing the right thing and then being remarkably unlucky.  On the first pick, Newton held the ball to the last second and threw a dart to a wide open Steve Smith in the end zone, who had beaten Brent Grimes. Unfortunately for Newton, the safety had a man coverage assignment underneath, and got a hand up to deflect the pass, which was then intercepted by Grimes.  If there’s one thing that we’ve learned from the early going, it’s that you won’t be able to confuse Newton, who sees the field pretty well.  But you can pressure him into bad decisions, and you can force him to make difficult throws into tight windows, and have some success against him.

Despite paying the big bucks to DeAngelo Williams and Jonathon Stewart, the Panthers running game is purely complementary at this point.  Because this is the modern NFL, that’s perfectly okay.  It’s just an inefficient allocation of their resources.  Williams and Stewart are both still excellent players: Stewart’s versatility is very rare how he’s a bigger back who runs routes as well as he runs behind blockers. He’s also very good on the screen pass.  The Panthers don’t have a way to ground out consistent yards behind this offensive line, so they need to base everything they do off Newton, and the rook has been up to task thus far.

You can’t say the same of the Panthers defense.  The linebacker level has been ravaged by injury.  SLB James Anderson a LDE Charles Johnson are excellent players and would start on any 4-3 defense in the league, and you need to account for them on every play.  But through six weeks, there is not a worse defense in the NFL than that of the injury-laden Carolina Panthers.  The Panthers defensive front struck me as far too easy to block.  Falcons QB Matt Ryan made multiple run checks that led to big plays because two or three Panthers defenders were blocked out of the play one on one.  The Panthers, as you would expect from a injury stricken team, don’t play assignment football very well, and head coach Ron Rivera does not have the right players in the back seven to run his pressure-oriented scheme.  This leads to another issue: the Panthers are really predictable on defense.

Complicating things, the Panthers have struggled at the safety level as well, complicating what kind of coverages they can call.  If you can’t play cover four varients because your safeties read the play wrong more than they do right, then you’re stuck in conservative cover two looks, or blitzing and playing man coverage behind it.  

Either way, the excuses for the Redskins offense run out this week.  If John Beck doesn’t enjoy a career game against the Panthers, there is little sense in continuing to play him against better defenses.  It’s time to start thinking about next year.