(Written By Austin Stallings)
This past weekend, NBC’s Sunday Night Football made one of it’s few-and-far-between stops in Charlotte – and brought with it an atmosphere that Panthers fans hadn’t seen in years. Crowds gathered in uptown’s Romare Bearden park and nearby tailgate hotspots to partake in game-day festivities as early as 8 hours before kickoff. Driving through Uptown was no easy feat on Sunday, but sitting in gridlocked traffic has never been more enjoyable: amongst a city-wide party, cheerfully awaiting it’s guest of honor, the 2-0 Carolina Panthers.
Unfortunately, that pre-game atmosphere didn’t stay for any after-parties, and the electrifying hype that fueled the Queen City all week failed to make it to the 4th quarter Sunday night.
No — the game didn’t go Carolina’s way for most of the evening; Offensive coordinator Todd Haley came to town with a perfect gameplan to quiet the Panther pass-rush, and [the legendary] Dick Lebeau schemed up a defensive front that hit Newton so much he couldn’t keep his pads on straight.
Years ago, I had a wise football coach tell our team – following an embarrassing home loss one week before the State Playoffs – that we would not be revisiting the film from that game. We were much better than the effort that took place on the field that night, and instead of dwelling on the loss in the film room — the tape would be trashed. Unconventional as it may have been, he was right. We quickly turned our attention to the next team and decisively won the playoff game the following week.
That could not be further from what this Carolina Panthers team has to do to improve from this loss.
This team will watch every painful frame of this tape, over and over again, as well they should. Not only to improve upon themselves, but because there are 11 teams lined up to play the Panthers this season who are salivating at the sight of this film reel. Both Offensively and Defensively, the Steelers put together a successful blueprint that – along with plenty of self-inflicted miscues – attacked this Carolina team in the right ways.
Obviously, it’s easy to point to 2 distinct Special Teams blunders that changed the course of this game. After all, both led to immediate Pittsburgh touchdowns. But amidst your [totally justified] distaste and ill will, be sure to credit what is one of the most successful coaching staffs in this league’s recent history. The Steelers were able to methodically maintain drives on Carolina’s vaunted defense, and consistently get to Cam Newton with a 3-man pass rush.
Upon further review of the film (because trust me, you don’t want to watch it), here is what the Pittsburgh coaching staff did with their extended week of preparation, and what the Panthers need to correct moving forward:
Offense: Screen & Run Game Will Slow Down Any Pass-Rush
If you’re a Panthers fan, you should know by now how the Carolina defense has come to earn it’s notoriety. A big, talented front seven that prides itself on sacking quarterbacks, (The unit led the league with 60.0 in 2013). It’s secondary, which for the past 2 seasons has been assembled with young undrafted talent and veteran free agents, really does not have to be elite or name-brand when playing behind such a gifted group. In the first two weeks of 2014 that formula has held up. The front seven kept quarterbacks Josh McCown and Matthew Stafford under duress, and as their number of drop-backs increased, the pressure got to them and they turned the ball over.
Enter Todd Haley, who became the offensive coordinator for the Steelers in 2012, and has since tweaked their philosophy to help protect franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Since he has been in Pittsburgh, Haley has significantly reduced the amount of full drop-backs Roethlisberger takes, and upped his number of screens and short passes (10 yards or less) to 66.2 percent.
That being said, there may not be a single player in the NFL better fit for Haley’s screen-oriented offense than Antonio Brown. In last week’s preview, I highlighted him as a matchup problem and said he might be the best player in the league after the catch — He is.
Why the preface on Haley, Brown, and the screen-game? The Steelers employed their new philosophy to perfection on Sunday night, and in-turn were able to neutralize Carolina’s elite pass-rush that it relies on. Typically when the Panthers get an offense in passing down situations – they sub in specialists (Kony Ealy and Mario Addison), assume sprinter stances, and hope they can get to the quarterback. But Haley refused to take many chances in those situations. Instead of 7-step drops and long routes, he continued to opt for low-risk quick passes and screens. Because of this, Roethlisberger often only held the ball for a second or two at a time, and was only sacked once.
While the Panthers were able to contain the many screen passes early on, Brown’s elusiveness began to wear on the defense and the gains got longer. This forced players like Luke Keuchly and Thomas Davis to provide more help to the sidelines, allowing a much-improved Le’Veon Bell more room to work up the middle. Bell responded with great patience and vision, waiting for blocks to develop and hitting holes with authority. After shedding 20 pounds this past offseason, Bell looks like a completely different player: Much more explosive with moves he was physically unable to make in the past.
Pittsburgh’s executions of screens, draws, and off-tackle runs proved that they were well-prepared for this defense. They removed Carolina’s strongest asset from the game by giving it’s pass-rush few shots at the quarterback. They countered the aggressive nature of the defense by making it pay when it over-pursued. And they forced a talented linebacking core to try to play both run-gap responsibility and sideline help. Minus a few costly mistakes and 4th quarter fatigue, the Panthers defense played well – despite getting put in far too many compromising positions.
Pittsburgh’s air-tight gameplan was mostly to thank for their offensive success, and was a testament to their experienced coaching staff and their extended week of preparation.
Defense: Hit Newton Early and Often
While watching this film, I wrote down one particular phrase a disturbing number of times:
“3-man rush gets to Cam.”
I wrote that so many times that if I were using an Apple device it would have auto-corrected any unrelated sentences to such. I wrote that enough times to make it a top search suggestion on Google.
Not that this is news to anyone, but the legendary Dick Lebeau has been the mastermind behind the Pittsburgh defense for many years now. (If that was news to you, let me know where to send you one of many coffee-table-books on NFL history.)
One of the best to ever do it, Lebeau-coached defenses are historically complex, hard-hitting units that have earned him 6 AFC Championships and 2 Super Bowl rings over the years. Against the Panthers, he dialed up schemes that were able to contain the runner in Newton and expose an offensive line that was heavily-criticized entering the season.
One of the packages in his gameplan was an enigmatic “amoeba” defense, in which all defenders in the box are standing upright instead of the traditional three-point stance. (This package is utilized by several other teams, and goes by various names.)
The defensive front moves around before the ball is snapped, and can rush any combination of 3 to 6 players while dropping the remainder back into coverage. This is difficult for a quarterback, who has to quickly determine who will blitz and who will drop. It’s also very difficult for the offensive line and running backs, who must adjust the pass protection accordingly to not allow any free rushers. When executed correctly, the amoeba defense can leave parts of the protection with no one to block while greatly outnumbering a weak spot.
More often than not, Lebeau opted to rush some combination of 3 against the Panthers, while utilizing a quarterback spy and dropping the rest into man coverage. A “spy” is commonly used against mobile quarterbacks, and is usually a linebacker who neither rushes nor drops. Instead he assumes a zone-type stance (eyes on qb), making sure to stop him if he tucks and runs. The drawback to rushing 3 men is, well, you’re not typically going to get to the quarterback very often.
The Steelers did.
Both by scheme and by skill, the Pittsburgh front seven got entirely too many open shots on the still-injured Newton. I saw Cam take almost as much criticism for his play as he did for his post-game attire. But the truth is: When he wasn’t getting sacked, he was still getting hit; When he wasn’t getting hit, he wasn’t able to step into throws because the pocket had collapsed.
He missed a handful of throws under the pressure, but he also connected on some tough ones (including an endzone shot on which Benjamin miss-timed his jump.) Working in such an inconsistent pocket – the Panthers are fortunate he was able to avoid further injuries, albeit he appeared to be in pain most of the night.
Often after these types of games, you can point to a player or two who allowed so many sacks and pressures – but this falls on the entire group: offensive linemen, running backs, and tight ends.
Both tackles Chandler and Bell got beat pretty frequently – around the edge and flat out bull-rushes. Greg Olsen, Mike Tolbert, and Jonathan Stewart all missed a number of blocks in pass protection – which is something you don’t hear very often. Even perennial Pro-Bowler and offensive anchor Ryan Kalil blew protection assignments that led to free hits on Newton. Understanding that this style of defense can be extremely difficult to protect against, and the Steelers executed their gameplan well — This group has to come together and improve from this, especially heading into a particularly tough 8-game stretch without Tolbert and Stewart.
Part of why the Steelers had so much success rushing the quarterback Sunday night, was being able to play a pressed man coverage for most of the game. Knowing that the Panthers were without Jericho Cotchery, playing with a still-healing Jason Avant, and mostly leaning on a rookie for productivity – Pittsburgh gladly walked up their defensive backs, daring the receiving core to beat them. For much of the night it worked, as the pass-rush was able to hit or pressure Newton before any of his receivers could really get open. There were a few bright spots however:
- Kelvin Benjamin continued to shed the rookie stigma, proving he can win one-on-one matchups in the NFL.
- Greg Olsen played Mr. Reliable once again. After beating cornerback Cortez Allen on an out-route, he then turned up field and sped to the pylon for a 37-yard touchdown early in the 4th quarter. The play provided a much-needed spark and cut the deficit to 10. Olsen continues to make his Pro Bowl case as a primary weapon for this team.
- Undrafted rookie Philly Brown proved that he can be an asset to the offense, using his quickness to get open for 7 receptions and 66 yards. *You already know about his special teams mishap, but making one mistake while trying to make a play will not land him in my dog house yet. Besides, who else do you propose the team field punts with? Moving on.
The Panthers continued in their Sunday Night struggles, and missed opportunities to remain undefeated and keep sole possession of the NFC South lead. But there is much to be learned from a loss like this, and the team must seize the opportunity to improve from it. This Sunday they will travel to Baltimore to take on their second of four AFC North teams this season. The Ravens, also 2-1, are fresh off two division wins and have a certain wideout who undoubtedly circled this week the moment the schedules were released. Stay tuned for my Week 4 preview and injury updates throughout the week.