Did the First Preseason Game Tell the Tale of the Panthers Defense?

It’s fashionable for analysts to downplay a team’s preseason debut. They’re mostly right, teams are still early in the process. Their skepticism would be particularly true for Carolina’s first preseason game had it been against a mere random opponent. This matchup wasn’t entirely random and may offer more insight than normal.  
Early last season, Carolina suffered a demoralizing last second defeat in Buffalo. The early loss stung particularly hard, not only because it occurred in the final seconds, but because it revealed the underlying weaknesses that eventually ended in an early playoff exit: a suspect secondary, weak offensive line, and less than potent offense. 

Ron Rivera used a dominant front seven to mask deficiencies in the secondary and negate offensive weakness, producing an 8 game win streak, a division title, and Coach of the Year. Despite these successes, it was the same weaknesses displayed early against Buffalo that undermined Carolina’s final success. In some ways, it was always a matter of personnel.

Although far from perfect, the circumstances surrounding the 2013 loss may be the closest thing Rivera has to a control group to measure last year’s team, early out of camp, to this year’s team that is beginning the process.  

C3’s Erin Ford alluded to this connection when he wrote on Byron Bell’s redemption opportunity in facing Mario Williams who racked up 4.5 sacks in last year’s meeting. Although Bell had strong performance, it wasn’t offensive line play that was most revealing or easily comparative to last year’s control group.  Surprisingly, it was the defensive side of the ball where the parallels were most striking--all which can be seen in the first 10 defensive plays. 

Buffalo's 79 yard drive, ended by a 4th and inches goal line stand, could tell the tale of Carolina’s defense, much like the 2013 loss told the tale of last year’s Panthers team.

Play 1

1-10-BUF 20 (15:00) 28-C.Spiller left tackle to BUF 34 for 14 yards (21-T.DeCoud; 59-L.Kuechly).

4-3 Defense Corner Blitz--TD showed blitz

Panthers generally play tough against the run, but when a team does rush the ball well, it’s generally a gasher. The Bills caught the Panthers during a strongside corner blitz, allowing CJ Spiller to kick  it outside for a 14 yard run. Frank Alexander, in for Big Money, nearly ran down the play from behind. Thomas DeCoud showed nice tackling form on the stop without giving up any additional “truck” yardage.

Observations: During a recent C3 podcast, Falcons writer Scott Karasik, lamented over DeCoud’s tackling inability.  DeCoud made a couple of good tackles early, but fans should hope that DeCoud isn’t charged with this task too often.  

Play 2

1-10-BUF 34 (15:00) 28-C.Spiller right guard to BUF 36 for 2 yards (91-C.Cole; 98-S.Lotulelei).

3-4 Combination Coverage

3-4 with Hardy playing WILL-backer blitzing from up on the line and well outside of the LT. Weak-side blitz; weakside CB apparently in press or press-bail, strongside CB in off-coverage. Again, the interior DL collapsed down on where the hole was supposed to be; Spiller cut back but Star swallowed him for a 2-yard gain.

Observations: Panthers run-stop should be improved with the continued development of Star and Short.  Look for teams to try and work the flats.

Play 3:

2-8-BUF 36 (15:00) 3-E.Manuel pass short right to 14-S.Watkins to 50 for 14 yards (38-R.Lester).

Base 4-3 Tampa-2 Defense (Cover 2 )

LBs bit on a play-action fake to Spiller, leaving Watkins able to work the zone. Antoine Cason would have had good position on the play had it been man-coverage, but stopped halfway through Watkins’ route because of the defensive call. Robert Lester at safety made a nice 21st-century rules low tackle on the play.

Observations: Lack of secondary talent forces Carolina to run a lot of zone coverage, which is susceptible to these types of gains.  C3 caught up with BBR’s Bill Voth at training camp where he described Carolina’s secondary, aside from Benwikere, as band-aids.  Well Sammy Watkins peeled the band-aid here.  Let’s hope Cason can answer the call before a more experienced quarterback-receiver tandem rips it off.

Play 4:

1-10- (15:00) 3-E.Manuel pass short left to 28-C.Spiller pushed ob at CAR 47 for 3 yards (23-M.White).

Cover 3, zone-blitz

Hardy faked a pass rush and dropped into zone on the weakside while Thomas Davis blitzed from the strong side. Offensive play call was a weakside swing pass to Spiller. Cason whiffed on the a tackle. Melvin White forced Spiller of bounds.

Observations: Buffalo responded well to this play, but Carolina responded better.  Play demonstrates Carolina’s relentless pressure on the quarterback.  Had Cason made this tackle, the play would have illustrated Carolina’s defensive capabilities. Instead a blown tackle, led to well….still a strong defensive play.  If this is what Carolina can do when they miss tackles, offensive opponents are now getting antsy thinking of what Carolina can do when they do make those plays. 

Play 5:

2-7-CAR 47 (15:00) 3-E.Manuel pass short left to 14-S.Watkins to CAR 43 for 4 yards (23-M.White).

Cover 3

Another zone-blitz with Robert Lester playing SS, showing blitz VERY early, creeping up to the line on the strong side. Melvin White was barely starting to get moving toward his post-snap zone when the quick-slant to Watkins was thrown and completed. White read the play quickly, broke off his assignment, and made a textbook tackle for a small gain.

Observations: Melvin White continues to show up. Rivera has praised Cason throughout camp, but been a little more measured when discussing White.  As an UDFA, this guy has done nothing but show up and impress.  Last season, Carolina asked White to do the near impossible.  Wet behind the ears, he was required to defend the biggest, fastest wide receivers.  If White can be tasked with the #2 corner responsibilities, as he is on paper, this guy should outperform expectations.  Hopefully Cason lives up to Rivera’s praise, allowing White to prove himself on a more reasonable stage. 

Play 6

3-3-CAR 43 (15:00) (Shotgun) 3-E.Manuel pass deep right to 15-C.Hogan to CAR 11 for 32 yards (21-T.DeCoud).

Man Coverage:

Panthers show all-out blitz pre-snap with 10 defenders at the line and a single deep safety. DL in a strong-side shift. Offensive play call was a rub-route to Hogan in the slot with Charles Godfrey in man-coverage. Godfrey got caught up in traffic as the outside WR went inside while the slot WR went outside (the “rub” route), allowing Chris “7-11” Hogan a wide-open look down the right sideline in an “out-and-up” pattern. BTW Hogan got the nickname “7-11” from Reggie Bush when both were with the Miami Dolphins and the subject of “Hard Knocks” that season because, in Bush’s words, Hogan was “open 24 hrs a day, 7 days a week.” Thomas DeCoud, the lone deep man, clotheslined him on the right sideline for the tackle.

Observations: The routes created a natural pick that exposed the secondary’s individual ability. Once the pick occurred, Hogan separated easily from the cornerbacks and boogied up the sideline.  If anything this play, not only exposed Carolina’s ineffectiveness at man coverage, but it also highlights the forced necessity of playing zone coverage.  There are ways to work the zone, and this will continue to hurt Carolina as opposing offenses dink and dunk their way down the field.  

Play 7

1-10-CAR 11 (15:00) (Shotgun) 22-F.Jackson right guard to CAR 7 for 4 yards (59-L.Kuechly).


Free Safety Robert Lester lined up like a WILL backer, but was blocked completely out of the play by an O-lineman. Buffalo in the shotgun, handed off to Jackson on a “slice” run-right, who cut back to the middle. Kuechly came off a block by Buffalo’s center to make the stop.

Observations: Run away from Luke, not towards him!

Play 8

2-6-CAR 7 (15:00) (Shotgun) 22-F.Jackson up the middle to CAR 2 for 5 yards (38-R.Lester).


With Lester playing SS, DeCoud the FS, rotating his coverage to the weakside even more at the snap as two Buffalo WRs were wide left leaving Sammy Watkins alone on the strong side with Cason in tight man-coverage in an apparently failed attempt at press-bail coverage since he didn’t get much of a push on Watkins’ route on this running play. Clearly, the defense was expecting a pass here. NOTE: Kawann Short was in this package, double-teamed as the nose tackle, and moved aside by the O-line and he didn’t hold up at the point of attack as a result.

Observations: This play wasn’t easy to watch. Carolina gets tough as the field shortens, but we're worried this shows that the secondary’s struggles affect the defensive line and linebacker core because these units are required to do so much. 

Play 9

3-1-CAR 2 (15:00) (Shotgun) 22-F.Jackson up the middle to CAR 2 for no gain (76-G.Hardy; 38-R.Lester).

Nickel defense, 4-2-5, man-coverage

Buffalo in 11 package tried to ram it up the gut. No movement of defensive front by Bills’ O-line while Hardy sidestepped the lunging LT and came across the middle to make a diving grab on Jackson’s legs to get him hung up until help arrived. Hardy made the key play here.

Observations: Carolina will be even stronger in the middle this year. With Star and Short entering their second season, in addition to Cole and Edwards, the Panthers are tough in the middle.  If Carolina can stack the box, watch out!  You better hope you can shed a tackle and head to the pylon. 

Play 10

4-1-CAR 2 (15:00) 22-F.Jackson left guard to CAR 2 for no gain (93-C.Blackburn). #60 Kraig Urbik reports as eligible 

Goal-line D, straight-up

Buffalo lined up in 23 package (2 RBs, 3 TEs, 0 WRs) with the LEFT side being the strong side as it had a TE and the other TE as an H-back on the left. Very heavy run-look with the possibility of a play-fake/rollout to a crossing TE still in play. D-Line got some surge but mostly in the wrong spots initially as the play indeed was a run-left behind that strong LEFT side. After Jackson got the ball and committed himself, the FB blocked a penetrating Chase Blackburn rather poorly at the two yard line, and four Carolina defenders converged on Jackson either blocking his path or helping in the tackle. Blackburn had read the play early and came charging at the line, followed closely by Charles Godfrey, likely throwing off the timing of the FB’s block which in turn helped the Carolina D-line disrupt and penetrate, not allowing Jackson much of a chance at all to get the first down at the 1-yard line...let alone get into the endzone. This swarming defense is exactly what defensive coaches want to see in goal-line defenses. Short, Lotulelei, and Hardy were the others in the immediate swarm. It was truly a gang-tackle.

Observations: As the field shortens, the Panthers can line up and punch you in the mouth. Simply put, the Panthers defense improves as teams enter the red zone and approach the goal line. 

So what tale does this tell?  First and foremost, Carolina’s front seven is boss, perhaps more so than last year. The Panthers can and will beat offenses at the line of scrimmage, allowing the linebackers some serious flexibility.  As long as the players make the right reads and McDermott schemes properly, the defense will continue to be the driving engine of this team.  If there is a defect, however, it is the secondary--just as it was last season. Carolina will have to run a lot of zone coverages and continue to rely on a pass rush, that without a lot of blitzing, continuously gets after the quarterback. Without this push, the secondary will have to cover….and that’s something they can’t do for very long. Additionally, as the Panthers continue to be handcuffed primarily to zone coverages, teams will be able to find holes and work the zone.  Like the game winning drive by Buffalo in 2013 and in the opening drive of this game, teams can move the ball on this defense when the quarterback has time. Sprinkle in a few effective running plays, and Carolina becomes a little more timid. This ultimately puts more pressure on a secondary to handle their guys on their own. But unlike last year’s finish in Buffalo, this Panther defense gets stingier and stingier the closer they are backed up to the goal line.  With this underlying weakness in the secondary, look for the Panthers defense to continue to bend, but not break. 

By C3 Crew