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21 Oct 2015

Film Room: Carolina Comeback

by Cian Fahey

The Carolina Panthers have their statement win.

After dredging their way through the first five weeks of the regular season, the Panthers travelled into Seattle to face their toughest test of the year on Sunday. As one of the five remaining unbeaten teams, the Panthers have beaten opponents who now boast a combined record of 9-20. The Seahawks' 2-4 record isn't an impressive one, but the challenge of going into Seattle and beating a team of that caliber isn't fairly reflected in a small-sample W-L record. That was reflected by the bookmakers, who made the Seahawks a full touchdown favorite over the Panthers.

Cam Newton has played to an MVP level for most of this season. He has comfortably been one of the best quarterbacks in the league, while the offense around him has gone to great lengths to handicap his production. For most of this game, however, Newton didn't play like one of the best quarterbacks in the league. In previous seasons, Newton's accuracy has been a significant problem. His ball placement was too often erratic, forcing his receivers to unnecessarily adjust and negating their separation downfield. In this game, Newton's receivers weren't getting wide open, but it was still his inaccuracy that caused the offense to stall too often. He looked more like he has in previous years than he has to this point of the 2015 season.

If Newton is going to be an MVP candidate, it will help to have memorable moments . Even though he played poorly for most of this game, his fourth quarter will be memorable. Memorable for the right reasons.

Through three quarters, the bookmakers appeared to be on to something. The Panthers were down by a score of 20-14. Early in the fourth quarter, Jimmy Graham caught a huge pass downfield on a double-move that moved the Seahawks into scoring range. Marshawn Lynch followed that up with a big run to put the Seahawks into the redzone. It appeared that the Seahawks were setting themselves up for a touchdown that would have undoubtedly deflated the Panthers, but a timely sack gave Newton and the offense a glimmer of hope. The Seahawks were held to a field goal, so the Panthers knew that they could win the game with two scores.

The Panthers didn't get a first down on the following drive, but that was the last time that the Seahawks threatened to score. When Newton got the ball back on the following drive, he was the driving force behind their touchdown score. Newton opened the drive with a long strike to Devin Funchess, but the rookie receiver dropped the ball. That was the quarterback's only incompletion on the drive, as he completed five of six passes for 68 yards and had one rush for 4 yards. Newton's final throw of the drive was his most impressive.

By only rushing four defenders, the Seahawks put pressure on the Panthers offensive line to hold up and give Newton enough time to find a receiver in crowded coverage downfield. Newton zeroed in on tight end Greg Olsen and was forced to adjust his feet by the pressure coming through right tackle Mike Remmers. Remmers did a good enough job to push his assigned rusher past his quarterback. This pocket of space allowed Newton to make a precise throw into tight coverage. He showed off incredible arm strength and placement to keep the ball away from the underneath linebacker while putting it in a spot where Richard Sherman couldn't break on it.

Olsen made an impressive concentration catch before turning downfield. He was able to turn into space because of how aggressive Sherman had attacked the football. In that situation, it made sense for Sherman to be aggressive, Newton's throw was simply too precise. Olsen should have scored himself, but he was dragged down just short of the end zone.

Though Olsen didn't score, Jonathan Stewart was able to run the ball in from 1 yard out.

Another sack ended the Seahawks' following drive. That sack forced a punt that led to the Panthers taking over at their own 20-yard line, down by three points. With 02:20 left in the fourth quarter, the offense was set up for a game-tying field goal or game-winning touchdown. Like they did on the previous drive, the Panthers would rely on Newton to carry them towards the end zone.

Newton dropped back in the pocket while the Seahawks rushed only four defenders after him. The coverage dropped deep with three vertical releases before the left outside linebacker dropped onto the shallow crossing route. That linebacker's actions meant that the curl route to his side of the field was wide open for Newton. Newton could have thrown that pass, but instead dumped the ball off to Stewart who had released into space underneath. Newton made a good read as Stewart was uncovered, running into space with a route to the sideline to conserve the clock. The quarterback made this decision after stepping up in the pocket to negate pressure coming off both edges.

This play gained 8 yards, setting the offense up at their own 28-yard line and only bleeding seven seconds off the clock.

Because Stewart got out of bounds, the Panthers essentially had a free play before the two-minute warning. This allowed them to work the middle of the field without worrying about the clock. As they have often done this season, the Panthers used play-action with a seven-man protection to give Newton time in the pocket. Newton didn't need that time though, as his quick diagnosis of the coverage meant he could anticipate Ted Ginn coming open on a slant route. The play-action didn't hold K.J. Wright underneath, but Newton recognized that he could fit the ball into Ginn before the linebacker got across the field by getting rid of it so quickly.

Ginn didn't have an opportunity to create many yards after the catch, but the play still gained 18 yards to set the offense up at the Panthers 46-yard line.

To get the offense into Seahawks territory, Newton completed a pass to tight end Ed Dickson. The Seahawks sent a second-level blitz after Newton in the pocket with two linebackers joining the four-man rush. The pass protection accounted for every rusher, but the pocket was quickly collapsing in on Newton. Understanding the play call, Newton recognized the man coverage on the back end and anticipated Dickson coming open on his curl route over the middle of the field. He released the ball before Dickson came out of his break, allowing him to get rid of the ball before the pressure swallowed him, while still placing the ball perfectly so that it led Dickson away from the defender covering him.

Newton's quick process in the pocket and his mental acumen allowed him to negate the defense's rush and set the offense up with another first down.

After failing to get to Newton with a blitz, the Seahawks came back with a four-man rush. However, on this occasion they changed up how they chased the quarterback. The Seahawks used a stunt with Bruce Irvin and Demarcus Dobbs to get a free rusher in Newton's face. Left guard Andrew Norwell showed no awareness at all of the stunt, letting Irvin go right by him without being touched. Newton had a receiver open underneath, but no opportunity to get rid of the ball. The sack cost the Panthers 8 yards and set them up at the Seahawks 48-yard line.

Facing a second-and-18 near midfield with 01:20 left in the game, that sack set up a potential disaster situation for the Panthers. They couldn't afford another negative play or even an incompletion outside of field goal range. It was at this point that Newton looked to a receiver who had dropped multiple passes throughout the game. A receiver who had caused Newton's last incompletion at the start of the previous drive.

The Panthers didn't lose faith in Devin Funchess. At least, if they did, they didn't show by taking him off the field. That may say more about their other options than their faith in Funchess. Regardless, the receiver was able to atone for his earlier errors by making a reception in space on a post route. Funchess recognized the coverage and settled down in the perfect spot between the defenders on the second level. Newton created a throwing lane for him by manipulating the underneath defender with a quick pump fake. That linebacker, Kevin Pierre-Louis, didn't show an understanding of the situation. The Panthers needed more yards than the underneath route would have given them so he didn't need to be as aggressive with his initial reactions.

Funchess made an important play, but he didn't do enough to gain a first down.

With the Panthers in field goal range and down by three points, they weren't certain to go for it on fourth down. If they failed to convert the third down in front of them, they would have had to decide between attempting a 50-yard field goal or going for it. The 50-yard field goal was no certainty and even if they made it they would have been setting the Seahawks up with more than 45 seconds, only needing a field goal for a victory.

After getting an unlikely play from Funchess on the previous snap, Jerricho Cotchery made an unlikely contested catch for the key first down on third down. The Seahawks perfectly timed their blitz with two linebackers attacking both A-gaps. This left space behind them, but Olsen ran his slant route directly into the official over the middle of the field. Newton was forced to get rid of the ball quickly to Cotchery who was mirroring Olsen's slant route from the slot. The cornerback covering Cotchery overplayed the inside, slowing the receiver down in his route to a stop. Cotchery, a 33-year old, fought through the contact and secured an accurate pass from Newton for a first down.

It was an extremely impressive play from a receiver who is long past his prime. In his youth, this kind of play would have been typical for Cotchery. At this stage of his career, his ability to fight through the aggressive coverage was a pleasant surprise for the Panthers.

After spiking the ball to stop the clock, Newton threw the game-winning touchdown pass to Olsen down the seam. In truth, it was an easy play. The Seahawks blew their coverage, leaving Olsen wide open in the end zone. A quarterback with Newton's ability wasn't going to miss that throw from a clean pocket. It was a bad look for new Seahawks defensive coordinator Kris Richard. Earl Thomas was playing Cover-3, while the rest of the defense was playing a version of Cover-2 called "L.A." The call came in late or was changed late, so the coverage beat itself.

Communication has been a major issue for the Seahawks secondary all season. The Panthers benefited on this occasion, but the Cincinnati Bengals had benefited just one week before.

Beating the Seahawks in Seattle is still an impressive feat, but not as much as it once was. What really stood out from this game from the Panthers' perspective was Newton's ability to flip the switch when needed most. His confidence didn't disappear even though he struggled through the first three quarters of the game. Over the final two drives, excluding a spike, he completed 11 of 12 passes for 89 yards and a touchdown with 4 rushing yards. His one incompletion was that long drop by Funchess.

On the whole, this wasn't a good game for Newton, but it may provide greater comfort for the Panthers fanbase as they continue through the season playing against a greater standard of competition. Tighter games are inevitable, and the way your quarterback responds in those situations is hugely important.

Posted by: Cian Fahey on 21 Oct 2015

3 comments, Last at 21 Oct 2015, 11:46pm by alan frankel


by dmstorm22 :: Wed, 10/21/2015 - 1:21pm

Since about midway through the 2013 season, the Panthers became arguably my favorite team to watch. The defense is always fun, with the two LBs flying around, tons of blitzes from teh secondary, good cover play - but the offense is a weird joy. Watching Newton do basically what he did on that last drive, with minimal talent around him, and an offense that basically depends on him doing everything or the threat of him doing everything, is fascinating.

Last year was tough at times, but the Panthers somehow, despite far less overall talent because of cap mismanagement by the previous regime, are in that 2013 zone again.

by tuluse :: Wed, 10/21/2015 - 1:42pm

The Seahawks do not look comfortable in zone. In the 2nd and 6th gifs, it looks like linebackers are unsure about their responsibilities, have too little freedom, or have too little trust in their teammates.

The 2nd one the outside line backer needs to pass the receiver off then drive hard at the back, would have had a chance of getting him down in bounds, but he hesitates. Also, I'm not sure if that's purezone or a zone-man hybrid. Looks like the outside corners might be playing man.

In the 6th gif, you have 4 defenders not really covering anybody. Both the corner and the outside linebacker are seem caught in no mans land between covering receiver in the flat and the guy who caught the pass, while the middle linebacker is slow getting over to help. Seems like you'd want the corner and OLB to understand each other more and one takes each guy so your safety can concentrate on not getting beat and the MLB might have a different receiver in his zone.

I realize this is just two plays from the whole year (well also the botched coverage for the TD). Were the Seahawks running less zone with Quinn? Is it a schematic or play calling change or just worse coaching in getting players to understand their responsibilities (or giving them a lack of leeway in carrying it out)?

by alan frankel :: Wed, 10/21/2015 - 11:46pm