After breaking down all of the many layers in the Carolina run game, it’s time to change gears and look at this Panthers defense. This is a scheme from head coach Ron Rivera and new defensive coordinator Eric Washington, who was promoted to the role this offseason. There has been some tinkering with it but it’s very similar to what we’ve seen from Carolina in the past.
This is a base 4-3 team that typically relies on its four-man rush. They don’t blitz often compared to most teams in the NFL, maybe a little more than last year’s squad but not by much. It’s primarily a zone coverage defense, and the linebackers are given a lot of responsibilities. Not only do the Panthers hang in base more than most teams, but they’ll also play in a "big nickel" package that consists of three defensive linemen, three linebackers, and five defensive backs. They trust their linebackers to rush the passer, play the run, and cover. Let’s look at the personnel, starting in the secondary.
At safety, Mike Adams and Eric Reid are listed as the starters. Adams plays primarily towards the line of scrimmage and over the tight end, but he can be found deep as well because they do present some two-high safety looks. Reid, signed on September 27, plays mostly on the back end but will rotate down into the box as well. He was a dime linebacker last year in San Francisco, so he has that experience near the line of scrimmage. The team will mix in rookie second-round pick Rashaan Gaulden as well as a single-high player. They likely view him as their free safety of the future.
I’ve been impressed by the starting corners on film. James Bradberry, a third-year corner out of Samford, has great size, is instinctive, and competitive. Rookie Donte Jackson is built differently. He’s lacking in size and has much better athleticism and long speed, but they play the game in a similar fashion.
ALL OF THE VIDEO CLIPS FEATURE AUDIO ANALYSIS FROM FRAN DUFFY
I expect Bradberry to match up one-on-one with Alshon Jeffery for a majority of this game, putting Jackson on Nelson Agholor if and when he’s outside. Even though they play mostly zone coverage, the Panthers still put Bradberry over opposing No. 1 receivers since many of their coverage concepts turn into man coverage at some point in the route anyway.
Luke Kuechly is still one of the best in the business at linebacker. The former first-round pick is tough, instinctive, and plays both the run and the pass well at an elite level. He’s an outstanding player and is probably the best overall player on this Panthers team. The Eagles have to make sure he is blocked up in the run game.
The team got back Thomas Davis last week from suspension, and the veteran returned in a big way. Davis was heavily involved, consistently around the football, and – most importantly – used as a cover guy against tight end Jordan Reed. That sets up for an interesting matchup between Davis and Zach Ertz on Sunday. That would put Adams on Dallas Goedert in space with the number of times the Eagles line up in multiple tight end sets.
On the defensive line, the standout is Kawann Short. A former third-round pick from Purdue, Short has a top-end first step, can threaten gaps right away, and make plays on the line of scrimmage. The Eagles have to account for him on every play.
The Panthers aren’t a high-volume pressure team, but they will bring the heat at times, particularly on third down. Their favorite blitz package is the Double A-Gap blitz. Carolina also likes to mix things up pressure-wise from its 3-3 big nickel package.
The Eagles have prepared for all of these looks this week in practice, and you can expect to see some of them in the game on Sunday. This should be a fun matchup on both sides of the ball!
Fran Duffy is the producer of the Emmy-nominated Eagles Game Plan show which can be seen every gameday during the season on NBC10 in Philadelphia. He is also the host of two Eagles-related podcasts, Eagle Eye in the Sky, which examines the team from an X's and O's angle each and every week as well as the Journey to the Draft podcast, which covers college football and the NFL Draft all year round. Fran also authors the Eagle Eye in the Sky column, which runs four times a week during the football season to serve as a recap for the previous game and to preview the upcoming matchup. 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.