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Know Thine Eagles Enemy: Panthers Film Review

Unpacking the biggest test of the Wentz/Pederson era

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Carolina Panthers Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

We’re doing the weekly film preview a little differently, folks.

Typically, I like to go through three offensive plays, and three defensive plays—I usually grab some situational plays as well: red zone, blitz, third down, no huddle, what have you. The endeavor here is not to give you a comprehensive illustration of the opponent’s playbook. Neither of us have the time for that—I, to write; you, to read. Instead, I aim to show you guys some unique looks, distinct plays, and matchup tendencies that you can identify on the television every Sunday, and better understand what’s about to unfold on your screen.

But today, I want to go a different route—because I have a take, born of my film work. You’ve read/seen/heard a lot about this Carolina rushing attack. Cam Newton, the Panthers’ QB, represents the pinnacle of dual-threat QBs in today’s league; rookies RB Christian McCaffrey and WR Curtis Samuel both toe the line of hybrid offensive weapons; veteran RB Jonathan Stewart keeps chugging along.

The Panthers will give you a ton of backfield looks, with TEs lined up as halfbacks and fullbacks and wings, WRs motioning into the slot and through the back field, multiple RBs lined up at every spot possible, lineman pulling this way and that. It’s about as intense of window dressing as you’ll get in the NFL.

But it’s just that: window dressing. At the end of the day, the triple option and QB power and inverted veer have been around—these are recognizable concepts that defensive coordinators have been battling for years.

Sure, teams as multifarious as Carolina will bust the occasional big play with their misdirection and tomfoolery—it’s inevitable. But in order to run the triple option, you have to run basic outside zone; to run QB counter, you have to first work power plays with the RB. This running game is inventive, lively, and dangerous—but it’s also averaging 3.6 yards per carry. The bark is worse than the bite.

And I would argue that Philadelphia’s defense is readily equipped to handle such an attack as this. Carolina’s offense is scary, but this Eagle D is downright nasty, and I expect them to show out on Thursday night.*

*please, dear God, let Fletcher Cox play

Option Play

Let’s take a look at an option play—and immediately, we’ve already met a problem. This option play? It’s not actually an option.

By alignment and post-snap movement, this looks like triple option from the backfield. At the first mesh point, between QB Cam Newton and RB Christian McCaffrey (#22), Cam would read the EDGE defender to the right side of the line; should he decide to keep the football, he has the option to keep it himself, or also pitch it to RB/WR Curtis Samuel (#10). The pulling TE and RG add a wrinkly to this triple option, which usually operates out of a zone blocking scheme, but utilizes a power blocking scheme in this example.

But watching Cam’s eyes, it seems to me that this isn’t triple option at all—the ball is always going to McCaffrey, no matter what. The triple option action simple serves the purpose of freezing the backside contain. Those two defenders that close on Cam and Samuel as they belly out on the triple option action? Those are two fewer defenders for which the blockers must account. They’ve been eliminated, essentially, from affecting the actual play.

In short: misdirection, baby.

But I need to push a crucial point: these defenders were not wrong. They did exactly what they were supposed to do, given the action in front of them. Run defense comes down to trusting your keys—the visual cues given to you by the combination of offensive line and backfield action. In the event this is truly triple option, those two defenders must follow Cam and Samuel into space on the “playside,” less they give up a massive play.

Go watch that third linebacker--the one next to the two defenders who play the triple option. #53 NaVorro Bowman, one of the best linebackers in the league. He begins flowing with the backfield action, but then sniffs out the play, redirects, and closes in the hole—why? He trusted his keys. Pulling linemen add extra gaps to whatever side they pull—he has to flow with those pulling lineman, to prevent them from gaining a numerical advantage on the play side.

So he does, and as the 1-tech generates good upfield push (remember this) and disrupts the pull of RG #70, Bowman can flash in the hole and force McCaffrey to bounce the ball even further outside. Bowman scrapes and pursues, his teammates set the edge in run support, and it’s a loss of two.

Knowing what you know now, understanding this play takes on a whole new meaning.

Pre-snap motion rotates Philadelphia into a clearly single-high look (they were in Cover 3 the whole time). Malcolm Jenkins spills into the box as the eight defender. This sort of a look should show up a ton on Thursday, to help account for the Panthers’ run heavy attack. An important note: KC has 7 blockers.

All keys scream: play is going to the (defensive) right! It’s an inside zone look, so all of the lineman step one direction, and the QB opens that direction, at the snap. And you’ll notice that all of the Eagles linebackers flow with that key, as they should.

But Jenkins stays home on the backside, despite the TE (potential pass-catcher) in front of him committing pretty solid to his zone block; despite the CB to his side of the field accounting for the WR spread wide. Why? Because Alex Smith is a mobile enough quarterback that the boot-action off of inside zone is a very real threat.

8 in the box v. 7 blockers? The additional number helps a defense account for mobile quarterbacks. Just as in the CAR v. SF play above, the backside defender remains disciplined in his responsibility and defends the threat of the QB keeping the football.

The issue now? 7 blockers on 7 defenders. If every blocker can fight their defender, even to a stalemate, this play should pick up at least 5 yards. Someone on the defense has to win their one-on-one battle to make a play.

Fortunately, Philadelphia has the second-best run defense in the NFL, people. Timmy Jernigan (2-tech, playside) recognizes that the center is going to try to reach block him, so he fires directly into the OL’s chest and drives him 2 yards into the backfield. We call this resetting the line of scrimmage. It forces the RB to declare a direction of travel far earlier, and far further back, than the play designed.

Vinny Curry (DE, playside) does similarly well to generate a hard edge, while Mychal Kendricks (OLB, playside) maintains excellent leverage and shucks the climbing LG, ready to handle the RB, should he bounce to the outside. RB instead decides to cut upfield (thanks, Timmy J.) and Brandon Graham, Fletcher Cox, and even Jernigan himself are all there to make the play.

The short version: you can’t win every single one-on-one block against this line. Can’t be done.


So double team ‘em. If you can’t beat the best interior defensive line duo in the league, then double team them, yeah? Carolina loves a running scheme called Double, or Duo--affectionately referred to as “Power without a puller”, Double is appropriately named, due to the, uh, double teams.

Out of an unbalanced line (3 TEs to the strong side, one of whom is an OL), you generate 3 double teams here: between the two interior TEs; the LT and LG; and the C and RG. The RB will take the football and immediately press the line, reading the action of the linebackers. Whichever gaps they declare to take, the back will go elsewhere, as the double teams peel off and help seal those linebackers in their spots (watch TE #65).

Double, sneakily, is a crucial concept of Carolina’s rushing attack. In most of the blocking schemes you’ll see from Carolina, there’s a lot of lateral action—pin-pull sweeps, reach blocks, arc blocks, every sort of puller. But in Double, the goal is to come off the line hot and vertical.

That vertical climb can really take advantage of a defensive line that’s in their own heads, unsure if the line is going to move left or right or two different ways at the snap. When the attack comes from both sides, right at you, it can be very difficult to drop your anchor and hold your ground—and, of the three double teams, only one needs to go awry for a crease to appear for the RB.

Welp, that didn’t go too well for Los Angeles.

MLB Jordan Hicks (#58) reads and reacts to this play with insane quickness. The moment the gap widens in front of him, he closes. While he knows this basically precludes him from making the tackle, it also forces the double team on DT Timmy Jernigan (#93) to disengage far earlier than ideal.

The congestion created by Hicks’ close forces the RB to bounce to the next gap—but Jernigan one-on-one easily presents in that gap, and the RB has to bounce it out even further. DE Vinny Curry (#75) does decently well setting an edge an ensuring that neither of his blockers can climb to the second level. OLB Nigel Bradham (#53) and Co. fly up in run support, and it’s a 1-yard gain.

When you face Carolina’s rushing attack, go straight Belichick and do your job. Hicks’ play here will never show up on the stat sheet, but he is primarily responsible for the disruption of the backfield. Everyone else fulfills their role, and the threat is bottled up.

Penetration and Disruption

Speaking of disrupting the backfield, the Panthers’ offense has the classical Achilles heel of any complex, fine-tuned machine—throw in just a grain of sand, and the cogs come to a screeching halt. There’s nothing ugly about Carolina’s offense—nobody would mistake it for smashmouth football—and as a result, if you can disrupt the action of the offensive line from the jump, you throw a wrench into the entire operation.

Carolina really struggled to generate offense against Buffalo (28 rush attempts, 77 yards, 2.8 y/a), in large part due to the attacking, upfield nature of Buffalo’s defense.

The playmaker here again doesn’t make the tackle. Playside DE Shaq Lawson (#90) is matched up against TE Ed Dickson (#84)—an obvious mismatch for Buffalo. However, Dickson does very well to get initial leverage on Lawson and prevent him from pursuing the ball-carrier.

So what does Lawson do? He works through Dickson’s down block and gets upfield, into the path of the puller, C Tyler Larson (#69). As you watch playside linebacker and eventual tackler Preston Brown (#52), you can see Brown present in the initial gap, and as he scrapes over the top to follow Stewart, Larson—who would be responsible for Brown—gets held up by Lawson, and Brown is free to make the tackle.

This is clockwork for Philadelphia’s ends. Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry both boast of the first-step explosiveness to penetrate and disrupt, and I would argue neither are even Philadelphia’s best DE against the run (Chris Long).

Pre-snap motion with a big WR into the slot as an extra blocker—you’ll see that a ton with WRs Devin Funchess and Kelvin Benjamin of Carolina. Philadelphia appropriately loads the box with plus numbers (8 defenders, 7 blockers). Brandon Graham, the playside DE (#55) shoots underneath the blocking TE Jermaine Gresham (#84) and blows up the pull of LG Alex Boone (#71). Jordan Hicks, playside LB (#58) is free to fill the gap and make an easy tackle.

When Things Go Wrong

Honestly, I just wanted to highlight this play because it’s very impressive—it still serves a worthy point, nonetheless.

Vinny Curry, the playside DE here, decides being an idiot sounds fun, and when he’s greeted by a pulling OL, he shoots underneath the OL and fails to set an edge. Preferably, he attacks the puller with power and maintains outside leverage, able to make the tackle if the RB takes the outside path, as he does here.

So now we have a problem—a puller has been mishandled. Curry did not read his keys, he did not maintain gap discipline, and the RB has escaped into open space.

Never fear! Rodney McLeod is here!

The Eagles have two of the stoutest safeties against the run in the league. McLeod, instinctive and fast to close, comes from his single-high alignment (again, he’ll be there a lot on Thursday night) 15 yards off the line of scrimmage and makes contact with the RB at a 3 yard gain.

Remember Kareem Hunt’s touchdown against Philly? How Corey Graham, backup safety, was unable to make the tackle in space that would have prevented Hunt from reaching the end zone? The hope is that the returned-to-health McLeod can help prevent the 5 yard gains from becoming 50 yard gains.

When push comes to shove, there’s enough misdirection and madness in this offense that a few big plays will be ripped off. I can almost guarantee you there will be a few play-action passes for 30+ yards. That’s simply the danger of facing an offense like this, just as the danger of facing an offense like Philadelphia’s is deciding whether or not to bring pressure. Schwartz will play this Carolina offense fast and aggressive; he will win some, and he will lose a few too.

But the Philadelphia front seven, and especially the front four*, plainly outclass the Carolina offensive line. GIFs, arrows, X’s and O’s—all of that is well and good, but chalkboard diagrams must be executed by players, and Philadelphia’s players are better than Carolina’s, in this regard. I expect Carolina to struggle to generate a consistent running game all night long.

The Panthers will likely turn to attacking one-on-one match-ups through the air, which isn’t the strength of their offense at all. If Philadelphia’s young and injured secondary can hold up another week longer, the Eagles have an excellent chance to leave Carolina with a victory.

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