The Carolina Panthers offense is an enigma. It’s not because of its schemes or play calls or personnel usage, but rather the fact that its arguably two most important players are both not guaranteed to be ready for the Week 9 matchup with the New England Patriots: quarterback Sam Darnold and running back Christian McCaffrey.
While Darnold is listed as questionable on Friday’s final injury report of the week due to concussion and shoulder issues — he left last week’s game against the Atlanta Falcons in the fourth quarter after taking a hard hit on an 8-yard run play, McCaffrey remains on injured reserve. The star running back did return to practice this week, but as of Saturday morning has not been activated to the 53-man roster yet. His status for Sunday’s game against the Patriots is unclear, as is Darnold’s.
Darnold had an up-and-down first season in Carolina even before exiting last week’s game, and the change of scenery — the New York Jets traded him to the Panthers this offseason — did not suddenly propel him into the upper echelon of quarterbacks. There is a drop-off from him to backup P.J. Walker, but the Patriots shouldn’t be worried about either of the two.
McCaffrey, on the other hand, is a legitimate weapon, the likes of which Carolina currently does not have on its active squad. Rookie Chuba Hubbard is a nice runner, but he lacks the elite elusiveness and burst of McCaffrey to have a similar impact in the passing game. Long story short: the Panthers offense is a more dangerous one with McCaffrey in the fold — in Carolina, running backs do still matter.
“He pulled a hamstring in Week 3 against the Houston Texans, but didn’t go on injured reserve for that same injury until Week 6,” Cat Scratch Reader’s Walker Clement told Pats Pulpit earlier this week. “That’s on account of the Panthers being historically bad at managing injuries (sorry, Stephon). If he does return, pay no heed to the team’s lofty prognostications of splitting carries between him, Chuba Hubbard, Royce Freeman, and Ameer Abdullah.
“They’ve played that tune before and have never not gone straight back to running McCaffrey into the ground. When I get in my cups I try to come to terms with the fact that we have maybe five games left, across a couple of seasons, of McCaffrey in a Panthers uniform. When I’m sober, I try to believe that this time will be different. But you, you don’t have to be that way. You can be a realist and have it be OK.”
Regardless of whether or not Darnold and McCaffrey are able to participate on Sunday, or at the very least have a noticeable impact, the Patriots defense should be favored heading into the contest. With that said, let’s take a look at how it should be able to slow the Panthers down both on the ground and in the passing game.
Keep the quarterback in the pocket
Neither Sam Darnold nor P.J. Walker are particularly impressive pocket passers, but that does not mean they can be taken lightly as the leading players within the Carolina offense. One aspect of their game in particular cannot be underestimated by New England’s defense this week: their ability to break the pocket and make plays with their feet — either on designed runs, scramble plays, or rollout pass plays.
“Both Sam Darnold and P.J. Walker have the ability to move the ball with their legs,” Cat Scratch Reader told Pats Pulpit. “Expect that to be a significant part of the game plan, even just as advice to pull the ball and run when nothing is open downfield in the passing game.
“Combined with their renewed commitment to the running game, and the Patriots defense is going to be best served by keeping their eyes in the backfield until either Walker or Darnold prove capable of burning them in the passing game. Odds are that isn’t too big of a threat.”
The Patriots are well-equipped to play the game in a way that would limit both quarterbacks in that regard. Setting a stout edge and being disciplined in the pass rush are two key ingredients in every Bill Belichick-designed defense, and New England has the players to pull it off on Sunday as well.
Outside linebackers Matthew Judon and Kyle Van Noy in particular will play a key role when it comes to shutting down the escape lanes around the edge, and forcing the quarterback — whether it is Darnold or Walker — to stay in the pocket and try his luck from there. As CSR’s Walker Clement pointed out, the chances of that happening in a successful manner are rather slim.
The Patriots are no strangers when it comes to playing Sam Darnold; when he was still with the Jets they went up against him on three different occasions. All three of those games were lost, with the former first-round draft pick completing only 53.2 percent of his passes for a combined 519 yards as well as 1 touchdown and 6 interceptions. He also was sacked 8 times and never seemed to find his footing against New England.
Whether or not the defense will get another chance to make him “see ghosts” this time around remains to be seen, but the plan should remain the same: make the Panthers’ quarterback, whether he is named Darnold or P.J. Walker, uncomfortable.
Be it by using different coverages, simulated or overload pressure, blitz packages, you name it. Darnold struggled against New England’s multi-look defense during his tenure with the Jets, and not much has changed since he left New York. And not just that: Carolina’s offensive line has also had its fair share of issues so far this season and has not convinced in terms of pass protection
Take the following third-down play from last week’s game against Atlanta as an example:
Before the snap, the Falcons defense — led by long-time Patriots coordinator Dean Pees — is showing pressure, with all six front-line defenders aligned at the line of scrimmage. With the exception of weak-side 9-technique Steven Means (#55) all of them are actually attacking the pocket. The group does not do anything exotic, but it stresses the communication and chemistry of Carolina’s O-line.
Instead of attacking the strong-side A-gap over which he initially aligned, Foyesade Oluokun (#54) ran a stunt behind fellow standup linebacker Deion Jones (#45). Ideally, the Panthers’ center and left guard — Matt Paradis (#61) and Michael Jordan (#73) — would switch their assignments in that case to pick up both rushers. However, that does not happen here: Paradis reacts too slowly, while Jordan is engaged with Jones for too long.
In turn, Oluokun is able to get into the backfield untouched through the B-gap to force an early throw. With Darnold unable to properly step into the pass attempt, he led running back Ameer Abdullah (#20) just a bit too far to make the play work.
On this particular play and with the blocking up front leaving him in a bad spot, Darnold deserves no blame. That said, he has not shown the ability to consistently handle creative pressure or coverage packages at this point in his career either. The belief is that P.J. Walker is also no real upgrade, meaning that exotic looks could be back on the menu this week.
Mix in some zone coverage looks
Carolina’s skill position group may not be quite as explosive as the Los Angeles Chargers’ but it still has some tremendous big-play potential even without Christian McCaffrey. That is true for the top three wide receivers in particular: D.J. Moore, Robby Anderson and Terrace Marshall Jr. have legit speed and are all capable of stressing defenses deep when repeatedly left on an island.
Last week, the Patriots addressed a similar issue by incorporating more zone coverage looks. While New England still played its fair share of Cover 1 man-to-man defense, the Chargers were faced with plenty of Cover 2 and Cover 3 looks. The goal of those is to create favorable leverage in the middle of the field, with the deep portions locked down against the big pass play.
The idea behind more zone coverage is that it would force the offense to play a more patient game and string plays together rather than go for the big home-run play. Los Angeles quarterback Justin Herbert could not do that consistently enough, and one would expect that Sam Darnold or P.J. Walker — two passers who are not on Herbert’s level — will not succeed either.
Set a wide edge versus outside zone
The Panthers’ running game, as noted above, is significantly more potent with Christian McCaffrey on the field. Regardless of his presence, however, the Patriots have to be ready for the Carolina rushing attack from a schematic perspective. One aspect of it stands out in particular: its ability to attack running outside zone.
What is outside zone, though? Essentially, it is a running scheme in which the offensive line focuses on moving into pre-defined spaces rather than taking on opposing defenders one-on-one or two-on-one. The linemen are often moving in unison towards the sidelines, while the ball carriers are asked to either bounce around them to the outside or either cut up the field or across the formation to the other side.
Here is an example of a well-executed zone run from last week’s win over the Falcons:
On this particular play, Carolina went to its big personnel: not only did the five offensive linemen serve as blockers, the team also used a pair of tight ends aligned on the line of scrimmage as well as fullback Giovanni Ricci (#45) as the lead blocker. After the snap, the line moved to its right-side spacing with rookie running back Chuba Hubbard (#30) receiving the hand-off and reading his blocks to follow up the field. The Panthers are creating some significant movement with players quickly getting to the second level to pave the way for a sizable gain.
Offensive coordinator Joe Brady still runs the empty formation and spread looks he used at LSU, but he also regularly turns to the big guns in Carolina. The play above is a good example of that, and New England has to be ready for zone runs out of formations like this one.
In the past, the team did that by going to a 6-1 front: New England used its two outside defenders to contain the edge run, while also being able to account for every gap up front to fill a potential cutback lane.
It would not be a surprise if a similar look is presented on Sunday, with zone coverage added in the backend to further help with run support. The goal is a simple one: force the ball carrier into the heart of the defense and big-bodied players such as defensive tackles Davon Godchaux, Lawrence Guy, Carl Davis and Christian Barmore, or off-the-ball linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Ja’Whaun Bentley.
While the base look might differ from that 6-1, the principles will remain the same. And if the Patriots can stat true to them, Carolina should have a hard time establishing its zone-based running game or designed quarterback runs. This, in turn, would put further pressure on the QB to make plays. As we have pointed out above, that matchup would favor New England.