The New England Patriots offense did not have its best day on Sunday against the Los Angeles Chargers, but it did enough to help the team secure a 27-24 victory. Looking ahead, however, the unit will need to get back to playing more successful football both in the passing and the running game.
This week’s opponent, after all, fields one of the best defenses in football. The Carolina Panthers are a top-10 defense across the board that is ranked seventh in scoring: opponents are averaging only 19.9 points per game against the unit.
No matter how you look at it, the Panthers defense coordinated by Phil Snow has been impressive and a big reason why the team is sitting at 4-4 despite a struggling offense. So, what do the Patriots have to do in order to find some success against it?
We asked Walker Clement from Pats Pulpit’s sister site Cat Scratch Reader, and his take was two-fold: win with power and slow down the pass rush.
“The bird’s eye view is that they should stick to a power running game and focus on delaying the pass rush,” he said. “Whether that is play action or quick release passes. Anything that keeps Haasan Reddick and Brian Burns from pinning their ears back will help. It would also help to have an offensive line experienced at communicating with each other. Ideally, that means a center that has started the whole season and is healthy as of this writing.”
With that said, let’s dig a big deeper into how New England’s offense might find success in Week 9.
Protect Mac Jones
Protecting the future and present of the franchise has to be New England’s priority every week, but it will be paramount against a Panthers defense that has had considerable success in the pass rushing department. While the team did have a three-game streak without any sacks it is still tied for fourth with 21.
As Walker told Pats Pulpit, the team’s defensive success is largely tied to its ability to get after the quarterback.
“Defensive coordinator Phil Snow has had incredible success with stunts and other pass rush games that stress an offensive line’s ability to work as a team,” he said.
“The Panthers have a lot of sacks this season, not withstanding a three-game streak with zero sacks. A surprising number of those sacks have come from free rushers with a direct path to the quarterback from the snap. It sounds simplistic, but the pattern for the Panthers defense this season has been that if they can’t keep a team behind the sticks early then that team will have no trouble, particularly later in games, staying ahead of them.”
The Panthers use various methods of applying pressure against opposing offenses. They are among the league-leaders in blitz rate (33.5%; 4th) and regularly run multiple fronts, stunts or overload pressures in order to get to the quarterback.
Take the following interception against the New Orleans Saints in Week 2 as an example:
The Panthers run an exchange up front, with safety Sean Chandler (#34) bringing pressure from the second level while inside linebacker Shaq Thompson (#7) dropped back into coverage. This move created confusion up front, with center Cesar Ruiz (#51) not reacting quickly enough to slow down the A-gap rush by Jeremy Chinn (#21).
The overload blitz to Winston’s front side forced him to move off his spot; he then had three options: throw the ball away, take a sack, or throw a low-percentage pass down the field. True to the form he oftentimes showed throughout his career, the former first-overall draft pick went with the third option.
As far as the Patriots are concerned, they will need to make sure that the pressure packages presented by Snow’s defense are handled well. That means that the offensive line needs to be on the same page — something that has happened recently — while offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels needs to find ways to...
Get the ball out quickly
Mac Jones has gotten rid of the football quickly all year long, with the Patriots doing a good job of protecting him from a schematic perspective. They will need to do the same on Sunday given that the Panthers defense has successfully tied its pass rush and coverage together in the past.
Take the following play from last week’s win over the Atlanta Falcons. Down 19-10 late in the fourth quarter, Atlanta had to make something happen and move the ball down the field quickly. This, in turn, allowed the Panthers’ pass rush to pin its ears back and go after quarterback Matt Ryan (#2):
Running a 2-4-5 defense, Carolina rushed its entire front line at the snap to put pressure on Ryan and the Falcons passing offense. While Atlanta did have all men accounted for in theory — the team used a six-man protection with running back Mike Davis (#28) staying home to pass-block — the Panthers were able to impact the quarterback and force him to speed up his process.
Not only was left tackle Jake Matthews (#70) beaten wide by 9-technique Brian Burns (#53), the interior was also unable to pick up second-level blitzer Jermaine Carter (#4): Davis moved into the wrong gap, with him and left guard Jalen Mayfield (#77) too slow to pick up the rush.
The pressure up front forced Ryan to let go of the football early. With the QB furthermore unable to step into the throw, however, ex-Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore (#9) undercut the route of tight end Kyle Pitts (#8) to record the game-sealing interception.
The combination of protection breakdown and Ryan not getting rid of the football earlier — it appears he had to move off his first read before making a split-second call on the downfield pass towards Pitts — led to disaster. Needless to say that the Patriots have to avoid putting themselves in similar situations.
Being productive on early downs and not playing from behind the sticks are obviously key ingredients, but so is getting the ball out of Mac Jones’ hands quickly. It appears the Falcons tried to do the same on the play above, but with nobody open Ryan had to hold onto it longer than he wanted to.
As noted above, Josh McDaniels has done a good job of calling plays meant to quickly distribute the football to the skill position players. It would not be a surprise to see more of the same on Sunday as well.
One McDaniels staple, however, should probably not be used as much: the screen pass.
With the Panthers’ defense one of the fastest in the entire league, the team is well-equipped to disrupt screen plays. In fact, the unit is the best in the league at limiting yardage on screens: according to Sport Info Solutions, Carolina is surrendering only 3.7 yards per screen pass attempts.
Use power to counter the Panthers’ speed
As was mentioned above, the power run game is one of the ways to put pressure on the Panthers defense. After all, Carolina is built on speed rather than power. In turn, the Patriots need to do exactly the opposite in order to challenge the unit.
Earlier during the season, teams have failed to do just that. The Panthers’ first three opponents — the New York Jets, New Orleans Saints and Houston Texans — gained a combined 135 on the ground. In Week 4, however, the Dallas Cowboys were able to find considerable success in the run game: Dallas finished with 246 rushing yards on 32 non-kneel down carries.
The Cowboys dominated by taking advantage of Carolina’s lighter looks: the Panthers continued using lighter personnel out of nickel and dime looks, which in turn opened the door for Ezekiel Elliott and company to slash the unit on the ground. How? By simply outmatching the defense at the point of attack.
The following 5-yard run by Elliott (#21) is an example of that:
Using two tight ends as well as an extra offensive lineman, the Cowboys successfully moved the defense off the ball. The key defenders here are 1-technique tackle DaQuan Jones (#90), who usually aligns over the A-gap on the weak side of the formation, as well as second-level safety Jeremy Chinn (#21).
Jones gets stood up at the snap, while the smaller Chinn is successfully taken out of the play as well by a combo block from wide receiver CeeDee Lamb (#88) and right guard Zack Martin (#70). Chinn is a strong run defender given his position, but his size — 6-foot-3, 220 pounds — puts him at a disadvantage as a box player versus the zone blocking used by the Cowboys on this play.
Would an extra linebacker made more of a difference? Hindsight is 20/20 in this regard, but what cannot be denied is that the focus on speed over size hurt the Panthers repeatedly versus Dallas. This play is just one of many that saw the Cowboys win in the trenches to create holes for Elliott and fellow running back Tony Pollard.
This blueprint was also followed by other teams since. After giving up only 45 yards per game over the first three weeks of the season, the Panthers surrendered 143.8 over the next five. Injuries played a role in this — off-the-ball linebacker Shaq Thompson missed three games, for example — but overpowering the Carolina defense became the mode of attack for teams regardless of who was on the field.
The Falcons used the same plan last week, with their running backs gaining 77 yards on 18 carries for a healthy 4.4-yard average. While not as successful as the Cowboys, they still had their moments on the ground while following the same principles:
This play here is almost an exact copy of the Elliot run above. Like Dallas, Atlanta uses a zone blocking scheme to get its linemen onto the second level and take out the smaller defenders over the top. The defensive linemen are again unable to win at the point of attack, with the runner showing good vision to hit the hole.
The Patriots have always been a team capable of exploiting potential mismatches, and using their big personnel against this comparatively light Panthers front should be expected. That means that fullback Jakob Johnson could see his fair share of snaps alongside tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith.
Play complementary football
Walker made another point about the Panthers defense: it is hard to see how much injury or opposition contributed to its successes and failures — e.g. giving up 36 points against the Cowboys and 34 against the Minnesota Vikings — throughout the season.
“The Panthers have played a bunch of bad offenses when healthy and some relatively good ones while heavily injured. Plus the mixed bag that is the Atlanta Falcons while healthy-ish,” he said.
“We know injuries at various times to Jaycee Horn, Shaq Thompson, Yetur Gross-Matos, Myles Hartsfield, Stephon Gilmore (thanks!), Juston Burris, and C.J. Henderson have hurt, but it is difficult to gauge how much of the Panthers struggles are due to absences and how much due to being overworked thanks to an inefficient offense.”
That last sentence is key, and something that needs to be pointed out by itself this week. Playing complementary football is something the Patriots stress each game, but it is even more important versus a squad like the Panthers’ whose strengths clearly lie in one area (defense) versus another (offense).
If the Patriots defense is able to force quick stops on a regular basis, a lopsided time of possession would eventually end up helping the offense by putting considerable pressure on Carolina’s D. If the pass rush starts to slow down as a result, for example, New England will have a much easier time to attack without having to worry about Mac Jones getting disrupted on a play-by-play basis.
The offense and defense working alongside one another is therefore immensely important this week.