The Carolina Panthers' Trojan Horse

Carolina Panthers ER Morgan Fox
Carolina Panthers ER Morgan Fox
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

Allow me to take you back to Ancient Greece. The Greeks and the Trojans were in a heated war, with seemingly no end in sight. The Greeks issued a commission to build a giant, hollow wooden horse to wheel into the impenetrable walls of Troy. The Trojans accepted this horse as what seemed to be a gift from the Greeks. However, the Greeks hid soldiers inside the horse to get into Troy, and what resulted was the sack of Troy and an overwhelming victory for Greece.

Fast-forward to this previous Sunday, where the New Orleans Saints were riding high off of a massive 38-3 drubbing of the Green Bay Packers. Everything seemed to go their way in that game, especially along the offensive line. The Saints manhandled the Packers' defensive front, rushing for 4.4 yards per carry and having an early-down (first and second downs) rushing EPA of -0.03, according to, a website made by The Athletic's Ben Baldwin. This success rushing on early downs set up Saints quarterback Jameis Winston for a lot of success on passing, specifically on late downs (third and fourth downs). Faced with an average of 6.3 yards to go on their third-down attempts (including a third-and-2 that got called back for a holding call), the Saints had a 1.23 EPA, and Winston used play-action to shred the Packers defense.

On the flip side, the Panthers were coming off of a solid victory over the New York Jets where they took advantage of a completely overmatched Jets offensive line. They held the Jets to a -0.20 EPA on early-down rushes, and on late-down passes the Jets had a -0.05 EPA, with the Panthers notching six sacks on the day. However, as I said before, they were playing the Jets. Their real litmus test would come in the form of Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk of the Saints, who would be missing center Erik McCoy and eight assistant coaches due to COVID-19. The Panthers were looking to break the impenetrable walls of New Orleans in Charlotte on Sunday, but many predicted a Saints victory.

Boy did the Saints get Trojan Horsed.

The Panthers trounced the Saints 26-7 largely behind a defensive performance that negated a lot of the Saints' best strengths. The Saints are one of the best teams in the NFL at running outside zone, and for Winston, they build their play-action game off of the split zone flow, such as on this incompletion against Green Bay. You can see the backside end crash hard on the run and leave Winston with time to roll out and throw it to an open receiver.

The Saints split zone PA pass working against the Packers

On Sunday, the Panthers negated the Saints run game to a massive degree. The play of interior defenders Derrick Brown and Morgan Fox stood out, as well as Shaq Thompson in the middle. Any outside zone or split zone run was negated by their ability to get upfield without losing gap integrity. Thompson was flying around the field Sunday, playing with a quicker trigger downhill. On this split zone play, Fox (91) makes a great play, but you can see backside end Haason Reddick (43) hesitate against the run. That's because he's playing the quarterback on the boot.

The Panthers defending split zone

Reddick often played the quarterback instead of slow-playing the run, resulting in a couple of big sacks. Panthers defensive coordinator Phil Snow made a great adjustment before the game to negate that part of the Saints offense.

Haason Reddick gets a sack off of split zone play-action

Snow also would add neat wrinkles into the defense in obvious passing situations. He would walk a linebacker (such as Thompson or Jermaine Carter Jr.) or safety Jeremy Chinn up to the line of scrimmage. The Panthers are sixth in the NFL in blitz rate and first in pressure rate according to Pro Football Reference, and I think it's because of these designed pressures that confuse the offensive line. When you have a pass-rusher (and my Defensive Player of the Year pick) Brian Burns on the edge along with Reddick, any time spent second-guessing is going to lead to a mistake because of their speed, and the Saints made a lot of mistakes on obvious passing downs. This looks like the Saints were sliding to the right to match numbers, but the Panthers send heat the other say, leading to Burns getting a free shot on Winston.

The Panthers get a sack off of a designed pressure bluff

Overall, the Panthers defense dominated the Saints to the tune of a -0.54 EPA on early-down runs and an EPA of -0.85 on late-down passes. Due to the Panthers dominance on early downs, the Saints faced an average distance of 9.0 yards to go on third down, and ultimately scored just seven points on the entire game. The Panthers' Trojan Horse stunned the Saints with a guerrilla attack from speed off the edges and a feisty attitude, headed by rookie defensive back Jaycee Horn.

Where The Game Swung

Qtr Time Down To
1 12:07 1 10 NO20 +7.3% Darnold-to-Zylstra 20-yard TD pass
2 11:58 3 1 NO1 -6.6% McCaffrey stuff for loss on third-and-goal from 1
2 2:00 3 2 NO2 +7.3% Darnold-to-Moore 2-yard TD pass
1 7:03 3 2 NO43 -5.3% Darnold throws incomplete to Arnold on third-and-short
3 1:42 1 10 CAR25 -5.1% Darnold intercepted by Roach

This was a defensive rockfight of a game without a lot of turnovers or explosive plays. Mathematically, the Saints actually made more big plays than the Panthers did with a trio of defensive stops while the outcome was still in some doubt. Carolina earned a decisive win by dominating the small plays—64.1% of the plays in this game went the Panthers' way as measured by win probability.

By The VOA

Team Off Def ST Total
NO -88.7% -5.0% 9.0% -74.7%
CAR 2.6% -85.0% -17.0% 70.6%

A real burn-the-tape kind of performance from the Saints, who dipped from first to 12th in overall VOA. But congrats to the Panthers, who are now first in DVOA for the first time ever! Their defensive VOA is a large part of that support, but the offense being in the top half of the league is a welcome sight.

Can the Trojan Horse Continue its Success?

The Panthers' defense has played phenomenally in the first two weeks of the season. Granted, they played the New York Jets and a Saints team missing many offensive coaches, but the overall speed of the defense at all three levels is much improved. Now the biggest question is: can they continue this?

I think the defense will be tested by formidable offenses in the month of October, with tilts against the Cowboys and Vikings on the schedule. The Cowboys will test the Panthers' ability to defend multiple formidable receivers, while the Vikings' top-end talent at running back and receiver will put a stress on the second and third levels of the defense. Snow will have his work cut out for him, especially against quarterbacks who can diagnose pressure like Dak Prescott, but it's always a good sign when a team can get pressure without blitzing five or more defenders. If the Panthers can continue that, then they could be in for a fantastic season defensively.

However, I'm a little wary of this defense because they haven't truly been tested at the quarterback position yet. Zach Wilson was making his first NFL start, and despite a great performance in Week 1, Winston can't be counted on to consistently play well. We should get a better evaluation pf the Carolina defense when they play more formidable quarterbacks.

If the Panthers story ends like the Trojan Horse, then the Greek—I mean Panthers defense should be alright.


5 comments, Last at 22 Sep 2021, 11:13am

1 Why the Trojan Horse analogy?

I don't get it. In what way was the Panthers' performance against the Saints like the Trojan Horse other than that it led to a resounding victory? I get wanting a fun intro to the article, but if you're going to carry it all the way through and keep referring to the "Panthers' Trojan Horse," there should be some way in which the Trojan Horse is an apt analogy for something the Panthers are doing on the field.

3 Exactly what I was going to…

Exactly what I was going to say. Is he trying to say that the Panthers looked like a gift (i.e. easy win) to the Saints? But the only support for that is that the Saints were favored: I mean, the Panthers were coming off a win. And that wouldn't really work for the analogy either. The Trojan Horse implies they had a trick up their sleeves that would give them an unexpected advantage. Which is...their defense? Huh?