Welcome to another installment of Crunching The Numbers, a weekly, stats-based game preview I do for Bleeding Green Nation. For more about the stats I use (and why I use them) to make my “armchair coach” observations, check out an archive of previous posts in this series here.
Week 6 In Hindsight
We’ll get to the Panthers in a minute, but first let’s take a quick look back at their comfortable win over the New York
Saquon Barkleys Giants last Thursday with what I said in last week’s post:
- I thought Doug drew up a better gameplan against the Giants, but the passing game still could have been just a touch faster. Carson had himself a great game, but he also got hit a lot. Again. He will inevitably get hurt again if the coaches don’t scheme a way to protect him. (In fairness, some of this is on Carson since he likes to hold onto the ball, but the coaching staff really could incorporate some more quick passes into the offense.)
- Defensively, I’m still wary of the pass defense. The Giants had guys running open and the secondary was bailed out on more than one occasion by Eli’s badness. That being said, it was nice to finally see Rasul Douglas out on the field, although I’m not sure that I like him at safety long-term. He didn’t have any flashy interceptions this time, but he was around the ball a lot, which is what I’ve come to expect of him. Also, it’s impossible to tell whether or not they had “one guy accounting for Barkley at all times,” because I think Saquon is just too good to be thwarted like that.
No extra topics this week, so we can get right to the Panthers game. Bold-faced statistics indicate that team has the advantage, while numbers in parenthesis are the league rank.
Game Preview: Carolina Panthers
The first thing you might notice is that, time of possession aside, these are two very similar teams (across these metrics, anyway). They are separated in YPA by 0.1 yard per pass, SACK% by 0.13 percentage points, and Y/PT by 1 whole point. Obviously, as with all stats, these numbers don’t tell the whole story, but there’s still a lot to be gleaned here. Let’s dig in.
The Panthers’ pass rush gets home about the same rate as the Eagles. I haven’t been able to watch Carolina much this season, but I would imagine that the rush has been just as frustrating for them as it has been for us, whether that’s because the pressure doesn’t arrive before the ball comes out or if it’s just simply inconsistent. In any case, pressure is there, and because of that I’d like to see the Eagles attack the perimeter to avoid passing into the teeth of Luke Kuechly. We haven’t seen a lot of designed bootlegs this season, so that might be a good way to keep things fresh and catch the Panthers (cat?) napping. If Sproles is indeed back, working the screen game can help neutralize the rush and control the clock since boundary plays tend to slow the game down. And this goes without saying, but Doug’s offense is just so much more efficient when they pound the rock, so it would be nice to see that trend from the Giants’ game continue.
Carolina has had the same scoring woes as the Eagles, needing 15 yards for every point scored (Kansas City leads this metric, by the way, at a 11.7 yard clip). Schwartz showed a lot more two-deep safety looks against the Giants, and I hope that continues. The best way to mask a slow secondary is to prevent the score - even if you can’t prevent the long pass - and tighten up in the red zone where speed has a lesser impact. This is the formula the Eagles used against the Giants, and it worked: New York averaged almost a full yard per play more, but scored 21 fewer points. The Panthers can move the ball, but can’t always score, so I think this strategy will achieve the same dividends this week.
While the Eagles and Panthers have almost identical YPA, a key difference is that Carolina has played the whole season with the strong-armed Newton, while the Eagles spent two weeks trotting out a Nick Foles who was all tapped out of BDE. Translation: Cam Newton has struggled to push the ball downfield this season. I’d start off with a coverage-focused gameplan and rely on the front four to generate pressure. They really shouldn’t blitz unless it’s necessary, and I’d almost exclusively blitz from the edge to prevent a Newton scramble. In that vein, playing solid contain will be critical for this game. If Newton is able to move the ball with his legs, or if the running backs are able to get in a groove, it will open up a lot more easy throws for Cam and make defending him more complicated.
There’s been a lot of talk about how “the Eagles are back” and that “the slump is over” with the big win over the Giants. That game was fun to watch, but I’m still a bit skeptical. The Giants are a bad team that left plays on the field. And while the Eagles improved in a lot of areas, like red zone offense and turnovers, at least one touchdown came on a dangerous throw that might be picked by a better team, and they certainly tried their hardest to give the Giants the ball with that fumble and got lucky.
I’m not trying to be a “Debbie Downer” here. I liked what I saw from the Eagles on Thursday - I just want to see more of that. A great piece of advice I received once was, “Don’t practice something until you do it right, practice it until you can’t do it wrong.” This is what we need to start expecting from the Eagles this season, and it’s what I’ll be looking for against the Panthers on Sunday. The matchup against Carolina may not be the “litmus test” it was last season, but it will be a better gauge of this team than the Giants. If they can repeat the kind of performance we saw on Thursday (and even improve a little), they will have more convincingly become that team everyone wishes they played in September.