There’s something funky going on in Carolina.
After a 15–1 season and a trip to the Super Bowl, the Panthers now find themselves sitting in an ugly 1–3 hole after a beat down in Atlanta.
They’ve faced struggles on both sides of the ball and look a far cry from the complete team we saw at this stage a year ago.
Troubles with the offensive line
Through four weeks, Cam Newton has been hit more than any quarterback in football. They’ve certainly played some high-caliber competition in the Broncos and Vikings, but they’ve also played two of the worst pass-rushes in the league, the 49ers and Falcons.
Last year, the Panthers entered the season with what looked like the worst pair of starting tackles in the league, Mike Remmers and Michael Oher. Both ended up playing much better than expected, with the line as a whole finishing 21st in adjusted-sack rate and doing enough to allow Newton to make plays down the field.
In order to protect their tackles in the passing game, the Panthers’ called a high volume of “max protection” looks, keeping a tight end and running back in to block. That allowed them to double-team top edge-rushers and give Newton more time to make vertical throws.
This year, they’ve used less “max protect” looks in order to attack the defense with all of their playmakers — Kelvin Benjamin, Tedd Ginn, Devin Funchess, and Greg Olsen. The downside is that Oher and Remmers consistently have been left on an island where they have lost 1-on-1 battles.
They’ve also had to deal with teams bringing more heat and overwhelming their line.
In Week 3, they were manhandled and confused by Minnesota’s front, with Newton sacked eight times and hit another seven.
The Vikings’ use as many pre-snap, double-A-gap looks as any team in the league — two linebackers stood up on either side of the center. Against the Panthers, they used the look as much as ever. Their goal: To generate as many 1-on-1 matchups on the outside as possible, even when the Panthers used maximum protection, by creating confusion.
Here, the Vikings’ show a double-A-gap look pre-snap, with just three down linemen and Harrison Smith rotated into the box, overloading the formation on the defenses left side.
Carolina keeps Fozzy Whittaker in to block, with Greg Olsen checking and then releasing to the flat. If Smith blitzes of the edge, Olsen stays to block; if he doesn’t, Olsen releases as an outlet — chipping the edge-rusher on his way.
The Vikings stunt inside and get isolated matchups on the edge — Everson Griffin vs. Michael Oher and Danielle Hunter vs. Mike Remmers, complete mismatches.
Griffin drives Oher back into Newton’s lap. The inside stunt collapses the pocket and takes away any room for Newton to climb and avoid the pressure. He is dropped by two defenders for a huge loss.
Later in the game, the Vikings’ again show a 7-man pressure pre-snap: A double-A-gap look with Smith overloading the right side.
They bring six rushers, dropping Brian Robinson into coverage and blitzing Smith off the edge. The Panthers keep six blockers in, with Olsen chipping the edge rusher and the back staying in to protect.
Either Newton misdiagnosis the pressure — not resetting the protection — or the back (Whittaker) blows the protection. Whittaker slides to protect against a double-A-gap blitz from Robinson, leaving Smith wide-open to fly off the edge and hit Newton from his blindside.
The line faired just as poorly vs. a poor Falcons’ pass rush in Week 4, surrendering a sack, 6 hits and 5 hurries.
With Oher missing the game because of a concussion, Remmers was flipped to left tackle and backup Daryl Williams was brought in to play the right side.
Remmers was worked all day, conceding a sack, 2 hits and 3 hurries individually. He also surrendered three drive-stalling penalties, and he had 36-year-old Dwight Freeney embarrass him with a fake spin move.
Changes need to be made; whether it’s personnel changes or Newton getting the ball out quicker through design. Without them, Newton may not survive the season.
Cam Newton’s accuracy struggles
Solving their line issues will be key to kick-starting a passing game that is lacking rhythm and is stuck at 20th in passing DVOA a year after finishing ninth in the league.
But it’s not all on the line. Through the first four games, Newton hasn’t played up to his MVP standards. He has looked sloppy and has been wildly inaccurate when pressured.
Newton’s mechanics are far from prototypical; he regularly throws off his back foot and from awkward body positions even when he isn’t under pressure. This year is no different. However, throws that looked effortless a year ago are now consistently sailing over the heads of receivers.
Newton simply hasn’t played well enough, even with others around him struggling. Calling more quick-release throws early in games should allow him to get into a better rhythm, as well as protect his health.
All the swagger and confidence in the Panthers’ secondary walked out of the door when the team rescinded Josh Norman’s franchise tag.
General manager David Gettleman took a gamble, opting to keep the team’s front seven together instead of re-signing Norman. He bet that with a dominant front creating pressure, they could cover up for Norman’s loss.
So far, it’s been a mess.
The secondary was abused by Matt Ryan and Julio Jones on Sunday, with Ryan throwing for more than 500 yards and Jones picking up only the fifth 300-yard receiving game in NFL history.
Carolina’s base defense is a cover-3 look, mixing in press-and-trail pattern-match coverages, with more basic zone coverages. The defense requires secondary players to play with great eye discipline and communication.
Running a high volume of zone coverages makes them more susceptible to play-action passes. Unlike man coverage, where the corner’s eyes are on a receiver’s hips, the Panthers’ corners are reading the quarterback’s eyes and the receiver’s release.
Entering Week 4, the Falcons had run the highest percentage of play-action plays in the league. They continued that trend against the Panthers and shredded a secondary that often looked lost and confused, playing with awful eye discipline and falling for misdirection plays.
On this touchdown pass to Austin Hooper, the Panthers lose the tight end coming across the formation as they follow the bootleg action of Ryan.
It’s compounded by the threat of Jones, whose performance was as dominant as any we’ll ever see. Every Panther defender was terrified to let Jones burn them deep again. They all flowed to his side of the field and left Hooper all alone to walk into the end zone.
Solving the secondary problems isn’t easy. It’s mostly a case of lacking talent and falling victim to the salary cap. It’s a unit that is inexperienced and lacks talent. Rookie cornerbacks James Bradberry and Daryl Worley have seen significant playing time without getting much safety help.
The hope is that as the season continues, one or more of the rookies grows more comfortable within the system. And that previous starters – who lost their job in 2015 but are now starting again – Bene Benwikere and Tre Boston, play at a much higher level.
Can’t create enough pressure
The secondary cannot be blamed for all the struggles. In fact, it only can be as good as the front seven allows it to be.
As mentioned, Gettleman let Norman walk (a top-3 zone corner) in order to keep the Panthers’ loaded front together.
In order for the investment to be worth it, they can’t just be good, they need to be dominant, creating pressure by just rushing four and allowing the linebackers to help the secondary in coverage.
It’s a formula that worked a year ago, as the Panthers finished second in pass defense DVOA and second in team pressure percentage.
Last year, the front four wreaked havoc on the league, forcing quarterbacks to make poor decisions under pressure, while the Panthers flooded the field with seven defenders reading the quarterback. It resulted in a defense that led the league with 39 takeaways, including 24 interceptions.
Like most interception numbers, they came mostly because of the play of the Carolina front, rather than great plays by the secondary. And the same blueprint was intended to make no-name corners into household stars this year.
So far this year, the team has failed to deliver dominance, sitting 11th in team pressure percentage. Without creating natural pressure – rushing just four – the Panthers have been forced into blitzing extra defenders. That takes away their ability to flood the middle of the field, and forces their inexperienced cornerbacks to play more single coverage. Last year, they were able to blitz on just 25.3 percent of defensive snaps, per ProFootballFocus. Now, they’re up to 37.7 percent, including blitzing 47.6 percent of the time vs. Atlanta.
The recipe against the Falcons was a disaster; Ryan’s field vision is too good and Jones is unstoppable for anyone 1-on-1.
On the first play from scrimmage, the Panthers’ opened with a single-high-safety look, leaving Bradberry in press-man coverage on Jones. The Panthers’ pressure didn’t affect Ryan and Bradberry couldn’t compete with Jones, who burned Bradberry for an easy 22-yard pickup.
Panthers edge rushers Kony Ealy and Charles Johnson haven’t been good enough early in the campaign. Ealy has failed to pick up from his exceptional Super Bowl performance, failing to register a single pressure this season, per FootballOutsiders. And Johnson has failed to record a single sack.
Part of that is a tribute to opponents’ game plans. Teams are actively getting the ball out quickly, cautious of the Panthers’ interior rushers.
“They’ve gotten the ball out so fast,” linebacker Thomas Davis told Joseph Person of the Charlotte Observer after the loss to Minnesota, “So it’s important for us to realize what teams are trying to do to us. We’ve got to connect better to the receivers and give those guys a chance to get there.”
They didn’t worry about waiting against Atlanta, sending more pressure and ultimately paying the price.
This team is built to succeed when they generate pressure with just four. Without finding a way to do that they’ll be in trouble.
Like many teams, the Panthers have early season flaws.
But there’s no need to panic yet. They have one of the best coaching staffs in the game and have talent all over the field.
Most importantly, they have a generational star playing the most important position in the sport. If Newton can get back anywhere close to his 2015 form, he will help paper over some of the team’s immediate cracks.