Five different teams from last year's DVOA top eight rank in the bottom half of the league through four weeks of 2014. What can we learn from other teams with similar starts in the past?
26 Nov 2012
by Andy Benoit
Since Todd Bowles took over as defensive coordinator, the Eagles have morphed into more of a Cover-3 base defense. In obvious passing situations, they’ll go back to the quarters coverage looks that Juan Castillo preferred. But for the most part, they’re a single-high team.
Cover-3 is a smart approach for Philadelphia. It has solo man-to-man principles outside for corners Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, as well as a mix of matchup-zone concepts inside that take some of the pressure off slot corner Brandon Boykin and safeties Nate Allen and Kurt Coleman. A better-fitting defensive scheme does not necessarily mean a better defense, though. In a lot of respects, the Eagles can still only be as good as their pass-rush.
A Cover-3 can at least buttress a pass-rush with more blitzes, as it allows for a safety to drop in the box. Eight-man boxes are a tactic defenses have used regularly against the Panthers this season. An extra body near the line of scrimmage is almost mandatory for defending Cam Newton and the zone-option run game. Because the Panthers’ entire ground attack is predicated on zone-option gimmicks, their play-action game is limited. Last season, the Panthers killed teams with play-action, especially out of the shotgun, but opponents were not as familiar with Newton’s zone reads. Plus, the Panthers were often facing three linebackers when aligning in their dual-tight end spread sets.
Those dual tight end sets mostly vanished after the departure of Jeremy Shockey. Though better as a receiver than most fullbacks, newcomer Mike Tolbert hasn’t given Carolina the formation flexibility they enjoyed last season. New No. 3 wide receiver Louis Murphy simply hasn’t been good enough for the Panthers to consistently beat nickel defenses out of three-receiver sets. This isn’t to blame Murphy; Newton’s decline in accuracy and anticipation as a passer have been the main reason why Carolina's passing offense has tapered off. It’s impossible to say why, exactly, Newton has struggled in his sophomore season. What’s clear is that the slow-developing routes that define Carolina’s passing attack, coupled with the absence of traditional power runs and drop-back passes, put a lot of pressure on the young quarterback.
Whether it’s Michael Vick or Nick Foles under center, all evidence suggests the Eagles on Monday night will make life hard on their quarterback. They’ll call too few runs and too many downfield passes that require the type of protection a slew of backup linemen simply can’t provide. There’s no other way to look at it; the Eagles offense has been poorly coached this season.
Some have said the same thing about the Panthers defense. Recall a few weeks ago that even some of Carolina's players were critical of Ron Rivera and coordinator Sean McDermott’s decision to stay in a safe quarters coverage look while Jay Cutler carved them up with completion after completion on Chicago’s game-winning field goal drive.
That dreadful late-game stumble aside, the Panthers have been an improving defense over the past month. Yes, corners Captain Munnerlyn and especially Josh Norman still have a tendency to give a little too much cushion in their Cover-3 techniques on the outside. Rotating free safeties Haruki Nakamura and Sherrod Martin haven’t gotten beat over the top quite as much, but the Panthers’ coverage still tends to soften in the middle of the field. However, a lot of the secondary’s woes have been successfully obscured by an improved front seven.
With help from versatile rookie Frank Alexander and the energy of defensive ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson, the Panthers have discovered a respectable four-man pass rush predicated on power. A more significant factor in the turnaround has been the play of rookie middle linebacker Luke Kuechly. The first-rounder’s startling all-around speed stands out more each week as his recognition skills and instincts build. In Kuechly and Thomas Davis, the Panthers have a pair of dynamic nickel linebackers who are capable of playing the run in thin, spread defensive sets.
The Panthers do not have an upper-echelon defense (this article has looked mostly at the bright side of things), but unlike their opponent this Monday night, they’re laying a foundation and moving in a positive trajectory.
6 comments, Last at 27 Nov 2012, 12:32pm by Ryan D.