Coming off of a bye week last week, the Los Angales Rams will have the home field advantage as they face the Carolina Panthers. The Panthers have gotten off to a shockingly rough 2-5 start this season, but their convincing win over the Arizona Cardinals last week was a sign that they can still be a dangerous team. The Rams have had plenty of time to prepare for this game.
Rams Offense vs Panthers Defense
Carolina’s defense is not what it was a year ago. The loss of cornerback Josh Norman hurt them more than they had anticipated and has left them with one of the worst secondaries in the NFL. Three of Carolina’s top four cornerbacks are rookies, none of which were first round picks. The only reliable secondary player that Carolina has is Kurt Coleman, but even he is more of an asset in the run game than as a coverage player.
The Panthers front seven is still a force, though. Linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis are dominant forces, and defensive tackles Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei combine to make one of the best interior duos in the league. The talent in Carolina’s front seven allows them to stop the run and generate pressure, but the secondary is often too incompetent to reap the benefits of the front seven.
- Carolina almost exclusively runs Cover 4. They’ll throw in some Cover 3 looks on occasion, but for the most part, they run what they run and you just have to beat them.
- Carolina’s front four doesn’t have outstanding edge presences, but they still generate tons of pressure, mostly from Short and Lotulelei. The Panthers have 20 sacks in seven games this season.
- There is nice depth behind Short/Lotulelei. The Rams will have a tough time running the ball up the middle, regardless of whether or not the Panthers starters are in.
Kawann Short is a Problem
Kawann Short is one of the best 3-techs (between the guard and the tackle) in the NFL. He’s explosive, he’s powerful and he’s relentless. As both a pass rusher and a run defender, Short has a wrecking ball-like presence. He can ruin plays immediately and leave the offense scrambling to salvage something from the wreckage. The Rams won’t have an answer for him.
Short won this play as soon as he punched the opposing lineman. The pop in Short’s hands are absurd. After firing into the left guard here, Short continued to work his way to Drew Brees. The left guard tried to recover and get in front of Short, but Short just blew him up again and nearly brought down Brees. Against a pocket savant like Brees, this was not a sack, but this is absolutely a sack against Case Keenum.
Whether it be on passing plays like the one above or on outside zone plays in the run game, Short can totally derail plays in a heartbeat. To make matters worse for the Rams, Short’s counterpart, Star Lotulelei, is quite the beast himself. Lotulelei doesn’t have quite the same agility that Short does, but Lotulelei is a mauler who poses as a major obstacle in the run game.
High-Low the Linebackers in the Passing Game
The Panthers have outstanding linebackers, no doubt. Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis are two of the best in the league, and even Shaq Thompson, who mostly plays in base formations, is a good piece. The problem for them this year, though, is that their jobs in coverage are tougher than they were last season. In 2015, Josh Norman allowed the Panthers to not worry much about one side of the field and gave the linebackers a better peace of mind. Without Norman, the Panthers linebacker corps is being pushed to the limit and the brutal task of covering more ground has lead to some open passing lanes.
With this route combination, the Saints offense forced the Panthers to choose to blanket either the deep routes or the shallow crosser underneath. Fearing Brees’s big throw ability, the Panthers linebackers backed up and did their best to close the windows down the field. Brees still nearly threaded the pass anyway, but the Panthers did a good job of making it a tough throw.
The problem with the way the Panthers covered this play is that Brees had an underneath option with nobody around him. The tight end crossing over the short area of the field was essentially uncovered. Had Brees thrown the ball to the shallow receiver, it’s far from a guarantee that the receiver would have made a special play with the ball, but it could have been an easy chunk of yards for the Saints.
Carolina’s linebackers did the opposite on this play. Instead of treading backwards to cover the deep ball, the linebackers bit on the short route, likely because that short route was being ran by future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald. With the linebackers choked up, Carson Palmer had a wide open passing lane to the middle of the field, leading to a Cardinals touchdown.
The Rams have to attack the linebackers with high-low concepts like this. The Panthers linebackers are very good, but the task they have been handed is tough for anyone to handle, even a pair of bonafide studs like Kuechly and Davis.
Rams Defense vs Panthers Offense
Similar to the Panthers defense, Carolina’s offense plays a brand of football that reeks of “this is what we are gonna do, you can’t stop us.” The Panthers are going to run the ball down the middle, they are going to throw down the field and Cam Newton is going to be a game changing play maker.
Newton isn’t like any of us. We are all mere mortals, while Newton is something from another planet. A cyborg, an alien, a lizard man; I don’t know exactly what Newton is, but he’s not one of us. Humans don’t do this:
- The Panthers have a good interior offensive line, but their tackles are rough. Robert Quinn has a chance to tee off.
- Offensive coordinator Mike Shula asks Newton to throw the intermediate and deep areas of the field a lot, probably more so than almost any other quarterback in the league. It’s a feast-or-famine philosophy, but the Rams don’t have the personnel to starve the Panthers.
- Tight end Greg Olsen is the 18th most targeted player in the league (64 targets), despite Carolina having only played seven games so far. Newton is going to look to him a lot.
The Panthers want to make defenses feel the running game. They mix in some stretch plays and tosses, but Carolina’s rushing attack is centered around being more physical than the defense. Often times, they have their way. Carolina ranks seventh in rushing DVOA this season and don’t show signs of slowing down.
This is power running at its best. There’s nothing too fancy or covert about what Carolina does here; they’re just stronger and meaner than the defense is.
Right tackle Trai Turner (#70) has turned into one of the best mauling guards in the league. He had his fair share of struggles as a rookie, but in the two years since then, Turner has been lights out, especially as a power run blocker. On this play, Turner abuses the 1-tech (between the center and the guard) and clears him well out of the way of the play.
Behind Turner comes the cavalry. Left guard Andrew Norwell (#68) and tight end Ed Dickson (#84) pull from the back side of the play to clear the way for running back Jonathan Stewart. Norwell extends his pull wide and executes a “kick out” block on the outside linebacker that right tackle Daryl Williams (#60) runs past (by design).
With Norwell kicking out the edge player, Williams and Dickson fly forward with full heads of steam and pave a running lane for Stewart. All of the blocks were so well executed that Stewart was barely touched until he was 20 yards down the field. Carolina was simply better than their opponent on this play.
Over the past half decade or so, packaged plays—or run-pass options (RPOs)—have become an integral part of many offenses across the league. In most cases, those offenses have highly athletic quarterbacks, like Cam Newton or Tyrod Taylor, but the Bengals had plenty of success with packaged plays last year with Andy Dalton.
A packaged play groups together multiple plays into one and allows the quarterback to read the field to determine whether to run the ball or to throw. When running packaged plays, the offense chooses one defender to key on and that defender’s actions decide whether the offense will run or pass. Newton has had a lot of experience running these kinds of plays and has become a master at executing them. Between the threat of Newton’s athleticism, Carolina’s power running game and Newton’s expert knowledge of when to run or pass in these situations, the Panthers’ packaged plays can be deadly.
(Excuse my horrid artistic ability)
On this play, the Panthers packaged an inside hand-off to Stewart with a quick throw to the flats to tight end Greg Olsen. Newton has to read the defender responsible for Olsen and determine if that defender is buying into the run play or defending the quick pass. The ‘read’ defender is circled in red.
At the apex of the hand-off, Newton sees that the read defender has scurried up to the line of scrimmage to defend the run. With the ‘read’ defender selling out for the run play, the Panthers have a 2-vs-1 situation on the boundary.
Newton pulls the ball from Stewart’s belly and fires a throw to Olsen. Once Olsen catches and turns up field, there is about ten yards between Olsen and the closest defender up the field. All Newton had to do was count the defenders and win the numbers game, and he did. Easy yards for Carolina.
Football games are often won in the trenches. The battle between offensive linemen and defensive linemen can be the tipping point for any game. The Rams have an excellent defensive line, even more so if Michael Brockers is back and fully healthy this week. That being said, the Panthers have a top tier interior offensive line, making it tough to give the Rams a clear advantage up front.
On the flip side, the Panthers defensive line is far superior to the Rams offensive line. Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei lead a monstrous front four that is supported by an all-star linebacker duo of Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly. Even with as bad as the Panthers secondary is, the Rams offense is going to have a hard time consistently moving the ball against the Panthers.
The Panthers’ record is misleading. Two of their losses have come against some of the best teams in the league (Denver, Atlanta) and another loss was surrendered to Tampa Bay when Cam Newton could not play. They aren’t the team that they were last year, but they’ve suffered some misfortune that has left them looking worse than they are.
With a top five quarterback, a strong running game and a nasty front seven, the Panthers have more than enough pieces to beat the Rams this week.