Going into the season, the Carolina Panthers were considered one of the better teams in the NFC. Last year, the Panthers won the NFC South division title over teams such as New Orleans and Atlanta. At 3-5-1, though, things haven't gone according to plan, but this is a team with a dynamic athlete at the quarterback position, an intimidating, young receiver on the outside and one of the more talented front sevens in all of football. Before we get to the defense, let's start with that wideout, Kelvin Benjamin.
The team's first-round pick out of Florida State, Benjamin is a load to handle on the outside. At 6-foot-5, 240 pounds, he has rare size for the position. Benjamin's 40 time at the Combine this spring may say otherwise, but he can get down the field. In fact, he is the Panthers' biggest vertical threat in the passing game.
Benjamin's ability to track the football downfield is apparent on this touchdown catch against Pittsburgh - as he looks the ball in over his shoulder for a 35-yard score. They love having him run these go routes against corners. Quarterback Cam Newton has shown that he will allow Benjamin to go and get the football and use his size to box out defenders and come down with it.
Another route that Benjamin runs often is the deep post. This play here was against the Seattle Seahawks. Keep in mind that cornerback Richard Sherman almost never plays to this side of the field, but in this game they had him shadow Benjamin. The rookie makes this catch over him and his Legion Of Boom-mate Earl Thomas downfield. The Seahawks showed a tremendous amount of respect for the rookie receiver and he was still able to make the play against the two All-Pros.
The third route that I saw a lot from Benjamin on tape was the deep dig. The Panthers love to pair Benjamin with the No. 2 receiver running a go or a post route. Why? The vertical route on the inside helps take the top off the defense, expanding the coverage and creating a hole down the seam for Newton to deliver the ball to Benjamin. This "dagger" concept is a killer for the Panthers and they use it often to get the ball to their big rookie wideout.
Now, Benjamin is not without his flaws. He still has a ways to go as a route runner and he has a good amount of drops on tape, particularly on plays that many deem as "easy." Benjamin has shown week after week after week that he is one of the best contested-catch machines in the NFL right now. He will go up and win those jump ball situations and outmuscle defenders for the football. In fact, I remember sitting down with former NFL general manager Phil Savage (now the executive director of the Reese's Senior Bowl) to talk about what evaluators look for at the wide receiver position. He explained that consistent hands are surely important, but it isn't a deal breaker. There have been so many great playmakers over the years who have had their share of drops, but made up for it by making great plays down the field. Benjamin is one of those guys.
I can keep going ... but I think you get the idea. Benjamin is a monster at going up and getting the football. He is a player the Eagles' secondary will have to account for on Monday night.
Offensively, the Panthers love to deploy their receiving threats in a variety of formations to create different matchup scenarios to take advantage of. One formation in particular is the 3X1 set. Here there are three receivers to the wide side of the field, with one to the short side (or boundary). That boundary receiver is tight end Greg Olsen.
I've talked about this type of formation with Greg Cosell in the past, but the issue you face out of this set is two-fold. First, you have to decide who is going to cover Olsen, an athletic tight end who can win one-on-one matchups against linebackers, safeties or even cornerbacks. Secondly, you then have to decide how to deal with the three-receiver side, particularly in a scenario where a player like Benjamin lines up as the No. 3 receiver, closest to the formation. Chances are, he will be matched up on a linebacker, a win for the offense. Let's see how the Steelers decide to play this.
The Steelers deploy a cornerback to cover Olsen, with a linebacker covering Benjamin in space down the middle of the field. These are two matchups Cam Newton has to love. He decides to go to Olsen, who beats the cornerback to the outside, catching the ball in stride from Newton and sprinting to the end zone for the touchdown. The 3X1 set is one the Eagles' defense will have to prepare for.
Olsen is one of Newton's favorite targets and for good reason. The former first-round pick is one of the most athletic tight ends in the NFL. The Panthers find different ways to get him in open space. One of the ways that they accomplish that is by using misdirection and they use it in a variety of ways.
The Panthers call a double-screen pass, with the back leaking out to the left before Olsen runs behind a group of linemen to the right. The screen-action to the left helps take some attention away from the tight end screen to the right and Olsen picks up 20 yards and a first down.
On this play, the Panthers set up a rollout off play-action to the right and sneak Olsen out the backdoor to the left. The linebacker fails to see Olsen and recover in time and the tight end goes 19 yards for a first down. The Panthers love this play.
Here it is again against Seattle, this time a 16-yard gain against Kam Chancellor. Olsen is the Panthers' leading receiver in terms of catches and he will be a factor on Monday night.
One final concept I wanted to touch on that I saw more than a couple of times while watching the Carolina offense is the "Smash Divide" concept.
To the bottom of the screen, you see the "All-American pass play" the smash concept. Every team in football runs this. You have a curl route from the No. 1 receiver and a corner from the No. 2 receiver to provide a high-low read on the outside for the quarterback. What makes this a "Smash Divide" is the post route from the No. 3 receiver, helping stretch the deep defenders horizontally to create a more clearly defined throw for the quarterback.
Without diving too deep into the intricacies of the concept, mainly because teams run it differently in terms of what the progression is for the quarterback, you can see the stress points that this route combination can cause. You have a vertical stretch with the curl/corner and a deep horizontal stretch by the corner/post. This concept is good against pretty much any coverage for that reason.
Against man coverage, Newton makes a great throw on a good read. He hits the corner route in stride for a 26-yard gain and a first down. Most teams automatically go to the corner route in this concept vs. man coverage because you should have the room to the sideline to fit the ball in. This is a great throw from Newton.
There is no denying that Newton is one of the most physically gifted athletes at the quarterback position in the game today. For that reason, the Panthers utilize a good amount of read option elements in their run game and have a number of designed runs for Newton as well.
On this play against Detroit, the Panthers run a sweep read-option call where the defensive end crashes toward the running back. Newton keeps the ball, makes a defender miss and runs 13 yards for a first down. It isn't just the run game where he can beat you with his feet, however, as he can make defenses pay when he drops back to pass as well.
On this run against New Orleans, the Saints lose contain on Newton and he takes off for 14 yards and a first down. The Eagles' defense will have to be wary of the way Newton can take off at any time, and will have to keep him contained on Monday night.
As a passer, Newton is an incredible arm talent and can make throws few others can make on the planet. In 2014, however, he has been very up and down with things like timing, rhythm, anticipation, accuracy, pocket poise and decision making. There have been contributing factors, for sure. He was hobbled by a lingering ankle injury in the early part of the season. His offensive line has suffered a bevy of injuries, though they are hoping to get some reinforcements back in the lineup after playing without three starters in Week 9 against New Orleans.
In terms of rhythm, timing and anticipation, you can see here on this throw to Benjamin against New Orleans the issues at hand. Newton double clutches before pulling the trigger, the ball comes out late and the safety is able to break on the ball and disrupt the pass for an incompletion. If that ball comes out on time, it's a completion for a first down.
The next issue is accuracy - and again we've seen some plays even in this piece where Newton can deliver dimes to the farthest point on the field with pinpoint precision. He just needs to be more consistent. On this play against the Saints, you see a throw down in the red zone on a crossing route, again to Benjamin, that is thrown to his back shoulder. The rookie has to adjust, but it bounces off his hands and falls incomplete. Benjamin caught some heat for this drop and could he have made the catch? Sure. But this throw could've been in a better location, especially down in the red zone.
There is plenty of space for Newton to put this ball, but his feet are rushed in the pocket, his mechanics are off and the ball goes to the back shoulder where Benjamin has to adjust and the defender is in a better position to break up the pass.
Pocket poise is a pretty broad umbrella term that can be described in a number of different ways, but on this play against Chicago you see an example of it. It's third down. The Panthers have a flat-7 combination to the right with a corner route and a flat route. They also have a crossing route from Jason Avant out of the slot. With the flat-7 taken away, the next progression presumably is Avant. But when the first read was taken away, Newton's first instinct was to break the pocket and run, as he steps up to leave before catching a glimpse of Avant at the last second and attempting a throw for the first down that falls incomplete. If he stayed in the pocket, went through his progressions and delivered the ball on time, Avant would have had an easy first down at the sticks and the Panthers would've moved the chains.
Finally, with decision making, you see here in what was a very close game at home against Seattle. The Panthers hold a three-point lead in the third quarter. It's third-and-7. Carolina is in field goal range. The only thing Cam can't do is take a sack or, worse, turn the ball over. The Seahawks blitz Newton, who actually has Jonathan Stewart open as a hot read in case of the blitz, but he breaks the pocket, rolls left and attempts to flick the ball to Olsen as he is falling down which results in a key interception with a long return for the Seahawks.
Again, Newton is one of the most physically talented passers in the NFL in terms of his tools and what he brings to the table from an athletic and natural ability standpoint. At any point, he can go off and take over a game and while he does need to be more consistent in certain areas of the quarterback position, the Eagles absolutely have to prepare for the very best that the former No. 1 overall pick has to offer.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Panthers have had their moments, but have largely been inconsistent, ranking in the bottom third of the league in several key categories including points allowed (25th), yards allowed (24th), rushing yards allowed (26th), third-down percentage (31st) and red zone scoring percentage (27th). They have some very talented players in the front seven. Luke Kuechly is certainly one of the best linebackers in the NFL. The former first-round pick out of Boston College is a tackling machine and is as reliable as they come. Star Lotulelei, another former first-round selection, is a very athletic big man who is in his second year as a starter. Charles Johnson leads the team in sacks and is a productive edge rusher. They have a heavy rotation on the defensive line with those two, Wes Horton, Kony Ealy, Mario Addison,
Kawann Short, Dwan Edwards and Colin Cole. Thomas Davis is another veteran linebacker who is productive and physical as ever.
Schematically, this is a zone coverage team that will sprinkle in man looks but plays a lot of quarters and Cover-2. They aren't a heavy blitz team, but they will bring pressure at times and they love to utilize a variety of lines stunts to get after opposing quarterbacks as well. They play a ton of nickel and actually have a couple of different nickel packages, with a "small" nickel (with cornerback James Dockery) and a "big" nickel (with safety Colin Jones).
Here's a look at a clip of their quarters coverage against the Saints down in the red zone. Vetean cornerback Antoine Cason does a great job reading the route, breaking on the ball and disrupting the pass up into the air where Edwards is able to pick it off. This was a great job by Edwards retracing back to the action and coming up with the big interception in the red zone to get the ball back to the offense. Davis also puts a huge hit on tight end Jimmy Graham in coverage. This team will fly around and they will hit you defensively.
The Panthers use a stunt that the Texans utilize to help create pressure on the quarterback. It's the T/E and E/T stunts, or as some like to call them "me" or "you" stunts. Here, the Panthers run a double "me" stunt, with both defensive tackles looping inside the penetrating defensive ends. This time, you can see on the right side of the offensive line that the stunt works to perfection, as Edwards comes up to split the sack with Addison, who was actually the penetrator from that side.
Again, with this stunt you have a penetrator and a looper. The stunt above is a "you" stunt (the defensive tackle calls the stunt, meaning that he will penetrate and the end will loop). This is designed for the defensive end to come free. What often happens with stunts like this though, is the offensive line will try to pass players off to one another and there is a mixup. Above you can see the issue Chicago has, as three pass protectors actually go to block the looper, leaving the penetrator (Short) to come free and sack quarterback Jay Cutler and force a fumble. The Eagles will have to be prepared for the T/E and E/T line stunts of the Panthers up front.
Over the last couple of weeks, I've noticed the Panthers begin to use a "big nickel" package more often on tape with Jones lining up in the slot. A bigger safety at 6-feet, 205 pounds, Jones almost plays like a linebacker, giving the Panthers some versatility from a coverage standpoint with his athleticism without losing too much in the run defense.
On this play, you see a nickel blitz from the Panthers, where they send Jones after quarterback Drew Brees. The Panthers did a lot of nickel blitzing a year ago with former slot corner Captain Munnerlyn, who now a Minnesota Viking, and I would expect to see this once or twice from Jones on Monday night.
I mentioned Jones' abilities in the run game and the versatility he brings, and you can see that on this perimeter run to his side, as he sheds a block and makes the tackle on running back Mark Ingram for a 3-yard gain.
Fran Duffy is the producer of "Eagles Game Plan" which can be seen on 6abc Saturdays at 7:30 PM. Be sure to also check out the "Eagle Eye In The Sky" podcast each week online and on the Philadelphia Eagles podcast channel on iTunes. Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the head video coordinator for the Temple University Football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team's games, practices and opponents.