The Carolina Panthers defense ranks 2nd in the NFL with just 40 points allowed this season; the New England Patriots allowed 42 points in the first game alone. That doesn’t mean that the Panthers defense is invincible, though. The New Orleans Saints racked up 34 points against the Panthers this past week and there were some good takeaways that the Patriots offense can borrow.
“New Orleans is just flat out better on offense than San Francisco and Buffalo,” CatScratchReader’s Bradley Smith writes, comparing the Panthers first two opponents to their latest, “and they have Drew Brees at quarterback and Sean Payton calling plays. They were able to take advantage of the holes in Carolina's zone defense and were also able to run the ball effectively, something that the 49ers and Bills weren't able to do.”
So what exactly did the Saints do differently? It doesn’t hurt that New Orleans’ offense is infinitely more talented than either the 49ers or the Bills with Drew Brees at the helm and there’s a lot of pre-snap adjustments from the quarterback position that allowed the Saints to move their way down the field.
One important adjustment by the Saints was how they motioned their running backs to the receiver position to generate favorable match-ups and to force the Panthers to declare their defensive coverage.
The Saints flex running back Alvin Kamara to the outside and instead of having the linebacker trail Kamara to the sideline, the Panthers simply push the cornerback outside, leaving Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas with linebacker Thomas Davis in coverage.
Kamara runs a simple clearing route, giving Thomas the sideline and outside leverage on Davis for an easy throw and catch. I guarantee that Josh McDaniels is drawing up a play for Brandin Cooks or Chris Hogan or Rob Gronkowski where James White is clearing out the cornerback.
An alternative option for the Patriots would be to motion a receiver from one side of the formation to the other, leaving the running back in the backfield. This could accomplish a similar defensive shift and if Hogan and Cooks are the two receivers, instead of White and Cooks, then the defense really has to defend both and can’t assume either is a decoy.
Kamara again flexes out of the backfield, putting Davis in coverage of Thomas in the slot. Thomas probably could have run another out route for more yards, but the principle stands and the opportunity remains for the Patriots to get their slot receiver with a linebacker in coverage.
I think the Patriots should try and use Danny Amendola or Chris Hogan in the slot because they’ve been the receivers best able to generate separation, and then Brandin Cooks and Rob Gronkowski should be the outside receiver. Cooks demands a cornerback in coverage, which could force the hand of the Panthers defense, while flexing Gronkowski outside could remove the Panthers best defender- linebacker Luke Kuechly- from the middle of the field.
“If Gronk is on the field then Kuechly will likely be covering him,” Smith writes. “The Panthers haven't really changed their strategy that much since the last time the Panthers and Patriots played.”
And if Kuechly is on the sideline covering Gronkowski, then perhaps a player like running back James White could have an opportunity to take advantage of some draw plays up the middle, while also serving as additional blocking help against the Panthers pass rush.
“Our front seven has been good at generating pressure, but they didn't do as well against Brees because he's able to get the ball out quickly,” Smith writes. “Tom Brady is the same way, so the Panthers pass rush will definitely need to step up this week to avoid being torn apart by Brady and co.”
I should note that the Panthers made a second half adjustment to play more man coverage so the running backs were covered by linebackers instead of cornerbacks, which is why I support keeping White behind Brady. With White in the backfield, as opposed to flexed out wide like the Saints did, then the remaining Panthers linebackers also have to respect the play action, which should open up opportunities for Cooks on the outside or create open space in the middle of the field for the slot receiver if they can’t get outside leverage.
The Panthers have a great defensive front, but the Saints really showed how motions can affect both their run and pass defenses. Tom Brady and Josh McDaniels are more than capable of following the same blueprint.