On Thursday, I took a very extensive look at the Carolina Panthers' offense, in particular its run game. Here, I want to look at the defensive side of the football and give you a taste of what the Eagles could expect to see on Sunday night.
Coming from the Jim Johnson school of thinking, Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott (and head coach Ron Rivera) present offenses with some different pressure looks from time to time. There were a number of different zone pressures and safety rotations that helped to create some of their big plays this season, and it has showed up every week. First, let's start with this past week against Seattle, where the threat of A-gap pressure lured the Seahawks' offensive line into the exact look that McDermott wanted.
Before the snap, Luke Kuechly is lined up in the A gap, and his presence causes the offensive line to account for him. Seattle slides the protection to the right, with the center blocking Kuechly. From a numbers standpoint, this makes sense, right? The center takes Kuechly, the left guard takes the 3-technique to his left. The left tackle takes the wide defensive end to the left, and the running back could be responsible for the linebacker if he comes.
But Kuechly doesn't blitz. He buzzes to the offense's left, where an extra defender is blitzing from the secondary. The left guard, responsible for the defensive tackle in the pre-snap protection call, is unable to recognize the extra pressure, so you now have three Carolina rushers on two Seattle blockers. Linebacker Thomas Davis breaks through for the sack of Russell Wilson in the red zone for a big play by the defense.
Here's a play from a few weeks ago against New Orleans where, again, the offense is threatening to score, this time from just outside the red zone on the 23-yard line.
From a pre-snap perspective, this looks like a two-high coverage with two safeties deep. The quarterback sees potential pressure coming from the right, where a nickel corner is up near the line of scrimmage. Is that where the pressure comes from?
The answer is no. Instead of coming from the right, the pressure actually comes from the left, where the safety to that side of the field comes. There's a heavy rotation from the other side to account for it. This is a zone pressure by Carolina, and the hope is to confuse the quarterback and get a sack or force a misguided throw.
Luke McCown throws it up and Josh Norman capitalizes with a fantastic interception in the end zone. When the Eagles are in striking distance of the end zone, don't be surprised to see the Panthers bring pressure in certain situations.
Norman has been really impressive this season, and is clearly having the best year of his career. He's long. He's athletic. His instincts this year have been on point, and it's helped him create a number of big plays this year.
On this shot against Jacksonville, watch how early Norman breaks on the out route from the Jaguars. He pounces on the pass and takes it back for his first of two touchdowns on the season. That's what you a call a "tape study play." He trusted his eyes, recounted what he saw from hours of film work on the Jaguars' offense and it resulted in a huge play for the Carolina defense.
Luke Kuechly's presence in the lineup is a gigantic boost to this front seven. Probably the best linebacker in the league, Kuechly is instinctive, athletic, physical and one of the top tacklers in the game. He was very active on Sunday against the Seahawks in his return from a concussion, as he "ole'd" this offensive lineman from Seattle and makes the tackle for loss in the backfield.
Chip Kelly called Thomas Davis one of the most athletic linebackers in the NFL this week, but how about his toughness? We know Sam Bradford used Davis' rehab from three straight torn ACLs as inspiration during his own comeback last offseason. But in the game against Seattle this week, Davis dislocated his finger and popped it back into place mid-play before wrangling down the back for a tackle on a screen.
Davis is a savvy veteran. His instincts, athleticism and toughness make him an outstanding option next to Kuechly in this front seven for Carolina.
Up front, the Panthers have a lot of talent inside at defensive tackle, led by former first-round pick Star Lotulelei and his draft classmate, Kawann "KK" Short, who was named the NFC Defensive Player of the Week after the come-from-behind win over Seattle.
In that first shot, look at how strong Lotulelei is. He forces his way through a double team to bring Marshawn Lynch down after a short gain. In the second clip against Tampa Bay, Short makes an incredibly athletic play against the back, playing down the line of scrimmage and staying balanced and in control to finish the tackle. This Carolina front seven is one of the best that the Eagles will face this season.
Fran Duffy is the producer of "Eagles Game Plan" which can be seen on Saturdays during the season. Be sure to also check out the "Eagle Eye In The Sky" podcast 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.