Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
15 Dec 2005
by Michael David Smith
The Carolina Panthers entered Sunday's game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with the second best defense in the NFL according to DVOA. And yet Tampa Bay put together an efficient offensive attack against Carolina and won a 20-10 upset that wasn't as close as the score would indicate.
We've already examined Tampa Bay's offense in this space, but what was it about the Carolina defense that allowed Chris Simms to complete 20 of 27 passes and Cadillac Williams to run for 112 yards? An examination of Carolina's defense on every play shows that it focused so much on preventing big plays that the Bucs consistently took what the defense gave them, marching down the field with four long scoring drives despite never gaining more than 17 yards on one play.
Carolina cornerback Ken Lucas epitomized the Panthers' strategy of stopping big plays at all costs. Lucas is capable of shutting down opposing receivers -- he turned in a great game against New England in Week 2. But on Sunday Tampa Bay gave him fits. It started on Tampa Bay's second play, a second-and-9 from the Bucs 34. Lucas was in man coverage on Joey Galloway, but he lined up so far off the line that he was practically begging Chris Simms to take a three-step drop and throw Galloway a short pass. That's exactly what Simms did, hitting Galloway for a gain of seven.
On the next play, third-and-2, Lucas tried press coverage on Galloway, and although the pass was incomplete, the press coverage didn't work, either. Galloway ran past Lucas, just missing a long completion when Simms overthrew him. That play showed that Galloway's burst of speed is too much for Lucas, and that was just about it for Lucas playing press coverage on the day. On the next series, Tampa Bay faced third-and-10, and Lucas again had Galloway in man coverage, although the word "coverage" doesn't really apply to what Lucas did. Lucas lined up far off Galloway, then backpedaled, and backpedaled, and backpedaled, until Galloway was open 17 yards downfield and Lucas was still giving him a five-yard cushion. Carolina only rushed three on the play, which meant Simms had plenty of time to pass and easily hit Galloway for the first down and Tampa Bay's longest play of the day.
Later on the same drive, on a third-and-7, Lucas lined up as if he were going to press Galloway, then backpedaled just before the snap. Ike Hilliard motioned from the far right to the far left of the formation, and Lucas hesitated at the snap, seeming unclear on whether Galloway or Hilliard was his man. Lucas' hesitation gave Galloway enough space for Simms to find him for 11 yards.
At this point, 10 minutes into the game, Simms had thrown to Galloway four times, and on all four Galloway beat Lucas in man coverage. There was the one overthrow, and three completions for 35 yards, including two conversions on third-and-long. After that, Carolina realized Lucas couldn't take Galloway one-on-one, adjusted the defense, and shut Galloway down by using cornerback Chris Gamble with help from linebacker Chris Draft on short routes and safety Mike Minter on deep routes. For the rest of the game, Simms threw to Galloway four times and completed only one pass for four yards.
Lucas then shifted to covering Hilliard or tight end Alex Smith, and his problems continued. Even when Lucas made a tackle shy of a first down, like a seven-yard completion to Hilliard on third-and-10, he gave up huge cushions. Lucas backed off about 10 yards, allowing Hilliard to get open, although he showed nice closing speed and sure tackling in keeping Hilliard from getting the first down. On a second-and-8 in the second quarter, Smith pretended to run block as Simms faked a handoff. Smith then ran a route, finding himself wide open for a gain of seven as Lucas again was far off the line of scrimmage. Again, Lucas made the tackle, but not until Tampa Bay had picked up a nice gain.
Carolina occasionally used Lucas to blitz, but Tampa Bay was ready for it. When Lucas blitzed Simms on a third-and-6, Simms threw to Hilliard right at the sticks, exactly where Lucas had originally lined up. On that play Marlon McCree, covering Hilliard, inexplicably lined up nine yards off the line of scrimmage -- he looked like he either didn't know Lucas was blitzing or didn't know Tampa Bay needed only six yards for a first down.
Lucas and McCree weren't the only members of the secondary who gave up too much ground in coverage. On a third-and-3, cornerback Dante Wesley seemed to think Hilliard was going to run a crossing route and lined up on his inside, patiently waiting for Hilliard to run toward him. When Hilliard instead ran a sideline route, he easily picked up four yards. Why wasn't Wesley more aggressive in coverage when Tampa Bay needed only four yards?
Carolina's linebackers also seemed much more concerned about deep passes than short passes, so Gruden started sending Smith on deep routes to clear room in the middle of the field. When Smith went long as a decoy, middle linebacker Dan Morgan followed him. Michael Clayton caught a 12-yard pass on third-and-8 when Gamble was supposed to cover him, but, again, Gamble lined up 10 yards off the line of scrimmage, and the combination of that and Morgan clearing the middle of the field to cover Smith gave Clayton plenty of room.
All three of Carolina's linebackers -- Morgan, Will Witherspoon and Brandon Short -- had rough games. Cadillac Williams scored his first touchdown despite facing an eight-man Carolina front. Witherspoon came in unblocked on the play and got to Williams behind the line of scrimmage, but he flailed at him and failed to make the tackle. After getting by Witherspoon, Williams easily ran right up the gut for a 12-yard touchdown. Williams ran effectively against eight in the box all day. On a first-and-10 in the second quarter, Williams took a handoff and ran nine yards against eight in the box when Morgan misread the play and took a step in the wrong direction, allowing Williams to run right where Morgan should have been.
Even when Carolina linebackers made tackles, they tended to show why tackles are an overrated statistic. On consecutive plays Witherspoon tackled Michael Pittman after a seven-yard gain on first-and-10 and then tackled Williams after a four-yard gain on second-and-3. Short had tackles on runs of nine, 15, and 12 yards.
On a positive note, the most surprising thing about Carolina's defense was that, despite the absence of tackle Kris Jenkins, the inside of the defensive line looked very good. On a second-and-one, Jordan Carstens got great penetration through the middle of Tampa Bay's line, forcing Williams to step to the outside, right into the arms of Julius Peppers. Peppers has an ankle injury and is not 100 percent, so he wasn't his usual self, but he still turned in a respectable performance. On a third-and-7 he employed his speed rush, running right past Kenyatta Walker and forcing Simms to step up in the pocket, where tackle Kendall Morehead sacked him. That was Carolina's only sack of the day, though, and for the most part the Tampa Bay line kept the Carolina rush away from Simms.
The weak link on the defensive line was Al Wallace, a backup starting at right defensive end in place of the injured Mike Rucker. Wallace is a good athlete who has had a couple of very good games this year, but on Sunday Tampa Bay ran at him repeatedly, with great success. Maybe Wallace doesn't have the conditioning necessary to play every down. By the their second possession of the third quarter, the Bucs had a 10-0 lead, and Gruden decided that it's probably even easier to run against a passive defense than it is to pass. From that point forward Gruden called 18 runs for Williams, three for Alstott and one for Pittman, while calling only six passes. Most of those runs went to Wallace's side of the field, and Tampa Bay didn't bother to double him. Even when they knew the run was coming, the Panthers usually couldn't stop it.
The play-it-safe strategy that Carolina coach John Fox employs for his defense has its benefits. For one, it's a big part of the reason that, as mentioned in this week's Power Rankings, Carolina is the second-best team in the league at stopping long runs. And Fox probably developed this game plan remembering that the first time his Panthers met the Bucs, a 50-yard Galloway touchdown catch was just about all the offense Tampa Bay could muster. But trying to stop big plays is an odd strategy against a team that relies on short passes as much as Tampa Bay does, and there's no doubt that in this game, Gruden out-schemed Fox.
Carolina slipped into second place with the loss to Tampa Bay, but the Panthers are still, most likely, a playoff team. The defensive philosophy that Tampa Bay exposed on Sunday will certainly be noticed by other coaches, which means lots of short passes to running backs, tight ends, and slot receivers are likely to be in the game plan for whoever gets Carolina in the first round.
Of the teams the Panthers could play in the first round, one that might give them trouble is Minnesota. Brad Johnson throws lots of short, high-percentage passes, with tight end Jermaine Wiggins and running back Mewelde Moore as two of his top targets. The Vikings are still a long shot to make the playoffs, and Carolina fans should be cheering against them.
Each week, Michael David Smith looks at one specific player or one aspect of a team on every single play of the previous game. Standard caveat applies: Yes, one game is not necessarily an indicator of performance over the entire season. If you have a player or a unit you would like tracked in Every Play Counts, suggest it by emailing mike-at-footballoutsiders.com.
26 comments, Last at 26 Dec 2005, 2:10pm by Charles