The Patriots play the Panthers this Sunday for the first time since 2013, when Luke Keuchly got away with a pass interference as time expired, giving the Panthers a controversial Monday Night football victory. Usually it’s not relevant to use film from 2013 to study for a game in 2017, but amazingly, the Panthers still run the exact same defensive scheme, even after losing defensive coordinator Sean McDermott.
The Panthers play a Tampa 2 zone defense the vast majority of the time. As a defensive system, a Tampa 2 absolutely cannot work without 2 elite coverage linebackers. The 2013 Panthers had Keuchly and Thomas Davis fill those roles and they are still both on the team today, with a worthy insurance policy in Shaq Thompson if either were to go down to an injury.
It is my opinion that playing a Tampa 2 defense as the primary scheme is almost unplayable in the modern NFL, and even with the success of the Panthers defense the last few years, I maintain that opinion. Teams are just too rigid in their offensive schemes to adjust and exploit the glaring weaknesses in the zone. Also, not all teams have a great TE and a pass catching RB, but I’ll get to that in a moment.
For those unfamiliar with Tampa 2, it’s basically a Cover 3 disguised as a Cover 2. Both safeties and outside corners take a sideline and the middle linebacker roams in the middle as the third deep “safety”.
Here’s a play from last year where the Patriots disguise a Cover 2 and Jamie Collins comes up with an interception of Brock Osweiler as the 3rd “safety”. The Patriots played Cover 2 pretty much all game that night in order to shut down DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller from going deep, but they sprinkled in a few Tampa 2 looks to keep the offense off balance.
This shows Tampa 2 at its finest and also displays the amount of responsibility the Mike linebacker has on every play. There are maybe 15 linebackers in the NFL that could have made that play that Collins did here. That’s a lot of ground that he has to cover and he also had to navigate multiple assignments (read pass and not run so he takes a step back into coverage, picks up the TE until he passes him to Chris Long, navigate to the other seam to pick off the pass). Collins is 20 yards from the line of scrimmage when he makes that interception.
The win against this Tampa 2 look is always the same: get the running back against a linebacker or the tight end up the seam. If executed correctly, it’s basically unstoppable for the offense and it has the added benefit that if the defense tries to shut down or play robber coverage against one of these methods, the other method becomes that much more open. Over-committing to the seam leaves the RB in the flat with lots of open space to make the defenders miss, and aggressively defending the flat leaves the linebacker on an island vs TE seam routes.
I remember watching that MNF game versus Panthers game live back in 2013. And the thing I remember the most (besides the entertaining Aqib Talib vs Steve Smith matchup) was how much Tom Brady looked to Shane Vereen and Rob Gronkowski. The Patriots targeted a running back or tight end on 19/39 targets, and crucially, almost all of them were from a traditional alignment. This wasn’t Rob Gronkowski or Shane Vereen lining up outside and drawing LBs and safeties in coverage like we saw James White and Martellus Bennett do last year. Vereen ran routes out of the backfield and Gronk from an on the line tight end position.
Here is a crucial 4th down play in their final drive. Brady goes to one of the Tampa 2 killer routes, a seam route to Gronk to convert after throwing 3 consecutive incompletions to wide receivers.
There will be many instances on Sunday where Gronk’s size and speed will be too much for Keuchly to overcome even with perfect coverage. Asking him to cover tight ends 20 yards downfield on a consistent basis is too much to ask for even the best cover linebacker in the game.
The Patriots will also get some very good looks for James White. The Patriots targeted Shane Vereen a team high 11 times in that 2013 game, which is incredible usage considering that it was his first game back from the long-term IR after suffering ligament damage in his thumb in week 1. The Patriots were trying to get Vereen open on wheel routes all game long. If not for a hand injury and the fact that Vereen was playing with a hard cast still on his hand, he would have likely hauled in this crucial wheel route.
Again, this is fantastic coverage by Keuchly for a linebacker. But he simply isn’t athletic enough to win all of these matchups. Vereen and White torched uber athletic LBs Bobby Wagner and Deion Jones in New England’s last two Super Bowl wins against Dan Quinn’s hybrid Cover 3 defenses, and against a psuedo-Cover 3 like the Tampa 2, the same holes exist.
It seems kind of counterintuitive for the Patriots to attack the Panthers’ linebackers on defense, especially when considering it’s Thomas Davis and Luke Keuchly instead of their cornerback unit, of which they only have 1 quality player in James Bradberry. But against this specific scheme, with Gronk healthy, it’s the best place to attack. This Sunday against the Panthers (and against any other future Tampa 2 teams like the Bills) look for White and Gronk to feast on the defense.