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15 Dec 2005

Every Play Counts: Carolina's Defense

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.

Posted by: Michael David Smith on 15 Dec 2005

26 comments, Last at 26 Dec 2005, 2:10pm by Charles


by JonL (not verified) :: Thu, 12/15/2005 - 1:55pm

Great article. Great.

Has Ken Lucas had these problems before, or were his problems more a result of being told to play off the receiver?

This is somewhat tangential (as most of my observations are), but it might be useful to look at/come up with a defensive statistic for not just passes broken down for different types of receiver, but for areas of the field as well (left sideline, over the middle, etc.) My gut says that teams do a better job of defending sideline passes because of the boundary, but different teams might play it differently.

by TomC (not verified) :: Thu, 12/15/2005 - 2:09pm

Great article indeed. Possibly my favorite EPC this season.

Being a Bears fan, I'm particularly surprised that Carolina's D-line didn't have more success rushing the passer. In the TB/CHI game, the Bears DE's found themselves manned up with a tight end three or four different times, each one resulting in a major negative play for TB. It was never clear to me whether that was awful scheming or blown assignments, but either way
I have to assume that Gruden fixed this for the CAR game. MDS, did you notice any passing plays where TB TE's tried to man block Peppers or Wallace?

by James, London (not verified) :: Thu, 12/15/2005 - 2:14pm

Another really good EPC. It's also a little suprising, because last time I saw the Panthers, (against the Falcons), the LB's, Minter, McCree and Thomas Davis were excellent. To be fair, the Falcons don't present the same problems in the passing game as the Bucs, so maybe the Falcons play to the Panthers Strengths. Any thoughts?

by Michael David Smith :: Thu, 12/15/2005 - 2:15pm

Actually, yes, I was surprised to see that on one play Alex Smith blocked Julius Peppers one-on-one and did a very good job against him. In fairness, I know Peppers hasn't been 100 percent this year, but still, to see a perpetual Pro Bowl defensive end getting blocked like that by a rookie tight end was quite surprising.

Regarding Ken Lucas, when I've watched him in the past I thought he was a pretty good player, but he was just lousy against Tampa Bay. You can't always tell from the TV camera angles what the cornerback's responsibility is, but on nearly every play where I could tell what Lucas's job was, he didn't do his job well.

by TomC (not verified) :: Thu, 12/15/2005 - 2:24pm

Wow, that is surprising. Thanks for the knowledge.

by ABW (not verified) :: Thu, 12/15/2005 - 2:29pm

Wow, this is not encouraging for this Pats fan. If TB can execute like they did aginst Carolina, that does not bode well for this Saturday. At least I think that Belichick will have the sense to not try and single-cover Galloway, but if Tampa can run against Carolina's 8-man front all day long, I don't know how the Pats are going to stop Cadillac.

by Sara (not verified) :: Thu, 12/15/2005 - 2:56pm

#4 - Maybe you couldn't tell from TV, but I was at the game, and it was appalling how much cushion Lucas was giving the TB receivers. I don't know if it's bad luck or bad coaching, but Carolina's secondary has always seemed to struggle with this. One cornerback from several years ago (can't remember if it was Eric Davis or Doug Evans) said he liked to play several yards off the receiver to "lure" the QB into passing to him. Yeah. How's that workin' for ya?

By the way, I think it's Daunte Wesley, not David.

by JonL (not verified) :: Thu, 12/15/2005 - 3:03pm

RE: #7

I wonder, though, if that was the gameplan. MDS notes that Gamble was playing 10 yards off as well, and indicates that John Fox's strategy was to prevent long plays. The Panthers are generally pretty good against receivers (3rd and 5th against 1s and 2s, respectively), so I wonder if this was just an idea that backfired.

by Sara (not verified) :: Thu, 12/15/2005 - 3:11pm

#8 - sounds like it, this time at least. What bothers me is that Carolina's secondary started getting burned on TB's opening drive and kept getting burned all day. I know Fox wants to stick with the game plan, but when it's obviously failing like it was Sunday, you need to do more than move Lucas to another receiver.

by NF (not verified) :: Thu, 12/15/2005 - 3:47pm

I think the plan on defense was to stop them from making big plays so the defensive line and linebacker support would have more opportunity to blow up the running game and go after Chris Simms. What went wrong is that they didn't get great pressure on Chris Simms, didn't stop the run, and the easy short plays allowed the Bucs offense to stay on the field for a long time, tire out the defense, and limit the opportunities for the Carolina offense.

by Charles (not verified) :: Thu, 12/15/2005 - 4:19pm

Great read! As a Panthers fan, it's interesting to look at performance versus hype. Continually this year there have been references to the 2003 Super Bowl defense which was ranked 8th in the league. But this team seems softer in the middle to bigger backs with speed, and less able to get both pass rush and run defense together at the same time. The 2003 team, with Kris Jenkins at DT, didn't have that problem as much, but still gave up 30+ to a like-minded dink&dunk Pats team in the SB. This is all-Fox, all-scheme guys - he just doesn't have the horses he had in 2003 - note Dan Morgan has missed a lot of time, plus starters Jenkins, Mark Fields and Colin Branch played a total of 8 defensive snaps all year between them. Morgan, Fields and Jenkins are all Pro-bowlers. Fox is getting what he can out a defense that truly is more banged up than either the Pats or the Eagles.

by Richard (not verified) :: Thu, 12/15/2005 - 4:56pm

Great write-up.

by Jeremy (not verified) :: Thu, 12/15/2005 - 5:11pm


I'm a Panthers fan too and there's no way the team's been more banged up than the Patriots. Morgan missed two games in which the opponents were both held under 10 points. McCree has filled in for Branch and given everything that could have been expected. Fields was known to be out before the season and the team is certainly equipped to handle that. The loss of Jenkins and now Rucker for one game have hurt, but Carstens has done well filling in for Jenkins and one key injury isn't that much anyway.

Re: Other stuff

The Pantehrs could not have expected Simms to play as well as he did, at least in the first half. The loss of Rucker really hurt the pass rush, but on the most important play of the first half, it was the coaches who messed up and called for a 3 man rush. The Panthers made adjustments after that and they defended the pass pretty well in the second half. Of gretter concern was their inability to stop the running game, but they've done that well all season, so this hopefully doesn't indicate a bigger problem than over adjusting to the first half.

by Charles (not verified) :: Thu, 12/15/2005 - 5:42pm

Thanks Jeremy for dumping it all on the coaches, and their "expectations". It's just a typical "fan's" comment - can't quite accept that the team is not as good as someone else. What are you telling me: that Carstens is as good as Jenkins, that Short is as good as Fields, that Draft is as good as Morgan (who has missed large parts of three games in addition to the two starts you mention)? Get real - read the article from someone who is unbiased - the players didn't execute. The common excuse has been that Tampa Bay made a high 3rd down % because they made good yardage on downs 1 and 2 - unfortunately the avergae 3rd down was 8 yards. The hype just doesn't match the execution. This is a good team - but maybe not even good enough to make it to the playoffs - heck, they've got to show they can beat New Orleans first (last 2 games have been losses).

by Jeremy (not verified) :: Thu, 12/15/2005 - 6:00pm

Re: 14

My response to your comments was much more about the whole season than the Tampa game. The defensive players, especially Lucas, were bad in the Tampa game. Still I don't think the corner's decide to play 15 feet off on their own. And I did read the article. MDS blames both the players and the strategy for the bad game. I refuse to believe the game was well coached. I love the job Fox has done with the team, but that was his worst effort that I can remember.

by Greg (not verified) :: Thu, 12/15/2005 - 10:08pm

Re: 1

Lucas had the same problems at Seattle. He may be considred a good corner but he consistenly gave up 3rd down conversions, especially 3rd and long. Not sorry to see him go.

by morganja (not verified) :: Fri, 12/16/2005 - 1:51am

Lucas has had monster games this year. No one can cover someone when they are that far off the receiver. The main problem the Panthers have is that they stubbornly stick to a failing game plan long after a change is called for. I think part of the problem might be that Henning is simply too old. It wasn't the defense that lost that game. The offense totally sucked, both in execution and in effort. Their heads weren't in the game, except for Smith, and they consistently left the defense in terrible field position. Even a half ass effort by the offense would have resulted in a win. As it is I think Henning is just too old to motivate his players and too old to change his gameplan mid-game. It's been the same old story. Perhaps they need to retain him in an advisory role and get someone who the offense believes in to be the Offensive coordinator.

by Willsy (not verified) :: Fri, 12/16/2005 - 2:55am

Another great article. Very revealing. It looks a lot like a situation where the team and the game plan did not sync on the day.
I am sympathetic to the situation that you have spent all week woking out a plan and then not knowing what to do when it does not work. Knowing when to go Plan B is hard. How often do we critisize teams for giving up the run too early?
Anyway a great article and no trolls! Also team well done on the posts - lot of interesting food for thought comments.

by Jeremy (not verified) :: Fri, 12/16/2005 - 3:10am

Re: 17

If I were the coaches, I'd be installing Nick Goings at tailback to try and get out of the offensive funk that the team has been in for 3 of the last 4 games. Foster still has a sheen from his college days, but he clearly can't run between the tackles or against a defense that isn't Atlanta. Goings wouldn't put up the best numbers, but he's a much better bet to get tough yards that the team can't pick up on the ground. He's also a much better pass blocker than Foster.

by Hector, Paris (not verified) :: Fri, 12/16/2005 - 5:20am

Isn't Gruden a "West Coast" coach ? Why would you allow him to play his philosophy of short passes and runs ?
What's happening there with Cadillac ? He is running as at the beginning of the season. Is it safe to load him so much ? I fear he will be hurt / tired again when the post-season comes...

by owl jolson (not verified) :: Fri, 12/16/2005 - 6:00am

RE: 17

I think the panthers defense was very responsible for the loss. What difference does it make how far you play off a receiver when you cant make tackles. Williams yards after contact in this game were huge. I also thought Tampa played a little conservitive. At the end of the second quarter they seemed to pull up a bit as time was running down and took the easy three instead of trying to force seven. I'm not saying the panthers offense looked good either but they were facing a much healthier (2nd ranked in the league)Tampa defence in this game. Which by the way played a very physical game.
Re: 13

If Carolina did'nt expect Simms to play as well as he did then yes I agree with you blame it on the coaching. But I beleive coach Fox reveiwed plenty of film on Simms. I think you may have been suprised by his play but not the players and coaches.

by weaponx (not verified) :: Sat, 12/17/2005 - 11:47am

Tampa's D kept them in good field position.
The Tampa scoring drives were of 58,49 (the 2 td drives),42 and 44 yards. Those are long scoring drives?

Field position is underrated

btw, Carolina played Min earlier in the year with *shockhorror* Brad Johnson at QB for 3/4ths of the game. Bring em on, I'm sure lots of folks want to watch more of Smoot Vs Smith.

by Michael David Smith :: Sat, 12/17/2005 - 2:36pm

"Those are long scoring drives?"

Yes. Tampa Bay averages 25 yards a drive. All four scoring drives were significantly longer than the team's average drive.

by posy (not verified) :: Fri, 12/23/2005 - 12:24pm

this site never has anythig good to say about the Panthers. It's crap.

by Tom Kelso (not verified) :: Fri, 12/23/2005 - 2:17pm

That's not true, poser, er, posy:

I myself have said numerous times that the Panthers have long supplanted the Raiders, Ravens and Steelers in the criminal index. Charlotte must be the toughest place to play in the league -- ESPN even used the uniform colors for Playmakers.

by Charles (not verified) :: Mon, 12/26/2005 - 2:10pm

Face it guys - and I am a Panthers fan - this team is overrated. Dallas, after getting smoked by the Redskins, comes into town and kicks their butts all over the field. This is the second team - Tampa Bay being the other - that has manhandled Carolina's defense with the run at a home game that would have solidified Carolina's playoff position. Part of the problem is that the offense can't stay on the field - their O-line has played weak and cannot sustain a run game if their own. But the defense is missing the man in the middle who makes all the difference - Kris Jenkins. Everything else feeds off of him. I said it on 12/15 - "bigger backs with speed" - mostly going North-South cause this team fits. With Jenkins and Bunckner in '03, noone ran up the gut. Now, when a team starts to pound and hurt them with the run, the front four can't concentrate on getting to the quarterback and they don't rush as well. Then they have to start blitzing. Their coverage is made softer to make up for the added bodies in commitment to the blitz. Ultimately, they just can't get off the field on 3rd down. Look at the teams they "held to under 300 yards" on their streak. It reads like a who's-who of bad teams with worse quarterbacks: Detroit (Joey H), Jets (some rookie & 4 picks), Saints (some rookie & 4 picks), Tampa (before Simms started to get it), Minnesota (in Brad J's first game), Chicago (Orton's folly), and Arizona (the last of the McCown's). You have to be kidding me - this is nothing to write home about, but everyone acted like this was the same team that went to the Super Bowl in '03. The bottom line is they're missing 3 of the front 7 that got them there - Jenkins, Mark Fields, and essentially a one-armed Dan Morgan. Tack on the fact that Brentson Buckner is 2 years older, and the defense is playing more because the run game stinks. It doesn't add up to a true contending team. Like I said on 12/15 as well, they've haven't even made the payoffs yet. And if they can't run on Atlanta and control the clock, they won't. Say it ain't so....