It looks like the Super Bowl hangover has claimed another victim. It might be just a tad hasty to declare the now-1-5 Carolina Panthers dead following their 41-38 loss at New Orleans. After all, just a year ago we saw this very team win 14 straight games, while another—the Chiefs—make the playoffs after starting 1-5.
But there’s no question: The 2016 Panthers are on life support. Consider this the early draft of their toxicology report. Here’s what has gone wrong with the defending NFC champions, itemized in order of significance.
1. The secondary. The Panthers knew at the front of the year that they’d have to rely on younger DBs after parting ways with Josh Norman, Charles Tillman and Roman Harper. They’d drafted James Bradberry in the second round, Daryl Worley in the third and Zack Sanchez in the fifth. What they didn’t know is that they’d have to rely on those rookies all at once, and that those rookies would have to overcome instability at the position next door to them, safety.
Bradberry has shown promise but has missed most of the past three weeks. In his stead, Bene Benwikere, once a promising young corner himself, was awful playing outside and got released shortly after Julio Jones humiliated him in Week 4. Benwikere was only playing outside because the Panthers had grown comfortable with Robert McClain in the slot. But McClain was injured this past week, and so it was Worley and Sanchez holding down the fort at New Orleans. Neither is ready. Sanchez, in particular, got caught playing improper technique in basic coverages a number of times on Sunday. He remained on the field because the Panthers were so thin at defensive back. (In fact, they actually played base 4-3 much of the game, including when the Saints went with three wide receivers. In other words, Carolina’s coaches were more comfortable with linebacker Shaq Thompson in coverage than with some of their backup defensive backs. The Saints exploited this by spreading out and throwing.)
It’s easy to say now say that the Panthers should have kept Norman. But the logic behind letting Norman walk was sound. Being almost purely a zone-based defense, Norman’s value to Carolina had a ceiling far lower than nearly $1 million a game in salary. In some ways, he could only be as good as the safeties behind him and the linebackers in front of him. That’s true with the rookie corners, too, and so far, those helpers—particularly the safeties—haven’t played well. Tre Boston has shuffled in and out of the lineup. The most recent experiment had him playing more free safety Sunday, not strong safety where his best asset, blitzing, is of use. This moved the secondary’s only 2015 holdover (and only reliable piece) Kurt Coleman from centerfield to the box. The Saints torched this group for 465 yards. On the season, the Panthers are allowing 282 yards per game through the air (which ranks 25th). After their 500-plus yards surrendered to the Falcons earlier this year, they’re now the only team in the Super Bowl era to allow over 450 passing yards twice in one season.
2. The defensive line. The other reason the Panthers allowed Norman to leave is that their zone-based defense is predicated on pressuring the quarterback. If the four-man rush can make the QB throw off of schedule, a callow, even mediocre secondary can succeed. This season Carolina’s pass rush has not been forcing off-schedule throws. It made almost no noise again on Sunday despite facing a Saints line that’s athletically limited on the right side (aging guard Jahri Evans and heavier footed tackle Zach Strief) and reshuffled on the left (Andrus Peat and Tony Hills at tackle, backup Senio Kelemete at guard).
Defensive end Kony Ealy hasn’t made a big play since what we thought was his coming out party in Super Bowl 50. Charles Johnson has continued his quiet, steady decline. Inside, first-round rookie Vernon Butler has not even started to blossom (injuries have been a factor). Ahead of him, incumbents Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei have not been bad, but they’ve been nothing close to the dynamic playmakers they were a year ago. The Panthers have always been proficient at generating pressure through selective blitz packages. But the operative word here is selective. This defense is not built to blitz regularly.
3. The offensive line. Heading into Super Bowl 50, Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and his crew noticed something: Cam Newton, scary as he is running, really doesn’t scramble as much as you’d guess. His damage on the ground comes more through designed runs. And so the Broncos decided they would do what no other defense had done other than the Falcons in Week 16: consistently blitz Newton. It’s no coincidence that the Super Bowl and that Falcons game were Carolina’s only loses last season. Now, the Panthers are seeing more blitzes than ever. (The Saints were very aggressive with this on Sunday.)
It’s not so much about what the blitzes do to Newton as what they do to those around him. The Panthers have one of the most vertical aerial attacks in football. Their routes naturally take longer to unfold. Blitzes can complicate that. To allow those routes time to unfold, the Panthers often keep an extra tight end or running back (or both) in to pass protect. But those extra bodies become one-on-one blockers when a defensive pass rush adds blitzing bodies to its side of the equation. That also forces Carolina’s offensive linemen to now block one-on-one. Tackles Michael Oher and Mike Remmers aren’t cut out for that. And just like how both were exposed in the Super Bowl (albeit by Hall of Fame edge rushers in Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware), both have been exposed this season. The problem has only intensified in recent weeks with Oher out (concussion), Remmers filling Oher’s place on the left side and backup Daryl Williams filling Remmers’ place on the right.
4. The Kelvin Benjamin Factor. Benjamin’s inconsistencies continued on Sunday. He finished with eight catches for 86 yards but also failed on a handful of tough but catchable balls in the first half. At times, his route running has been imprecise. But Benjamin is not solely responsible for this toxicology report’s fourth item. It’s more about what his usage means to the offense. The Panthers last season had either two running backs or two tight ends on the field for a majority of their snaps. With Benjamin back, their predominant personnel package has become three wide receivers. Some of this is because, playing from behind the way one-win teams tend to do, the Panthers have had to throw more. But there has also been a subtle shift in Carolina’s offensive approach. When the Panthers went with two backs or two tight ends, the flexibility of Greg Olsen made it tough for a defense to choose its own personnel groupings. Do you play base 4-3 or 3-4 and risk getting thrown on? Or do you go nickel and risk getting run on? With three receivers, the choice is easy: You play nickel. And, to bring it full circle, nickel is where most of a defense’s blitz packages are stored.
5. The superstars. Cam Newton, Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis are not without culpability. Newton has regressed to his pre-2015 ways, battling erratic mechanics that impact his accuracy. His decision-making has also been less prompt and, at times, even questionable. And then there was the concussion at Atlanta that sidelined him for the end of that game and the Week 5 loss against Tampa Bay. That came on one of the sloppiest plays you’ll ever see. Newton chose to be cute and cool crossing the goal-line and paid a price when Deion Jones did what 100 out of 100 defensive players would do in that scenario: try to make the stop. Newton’s foolishness cost him and his team.
As for the linebackers, they’re still extraordinary, but there have been small, uncharacteristic cracks in their discipline this season. Kuechly Co. too often struggled with gap discipline against Tampa Bay. The week before that, Davis got overly aggressive and gave up two plays on Atlanta’s 98-yard touchdown drive, blowing a man coverage assignment on an overly eager green-dog blitz (fullback Patrick DiMarco’s 18-yard catch) and incorrectly guessing bootleg play-action a few snaps later (Devonta Freeman’s 19-yard run).
Items 2, 4 and 5 on this report can be corrected. Essentially, they all pertain to talented players just performing better. But items 1 and 3—the secondary and offensive line—are issues that must be worked around. That’ll be harder and harder to do as the film continues to reveal more ways to exploit them.
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