Tag Archives: Carolina Panthers

Quarterbacks with Question Marks

On the previous Sunday evening, the Kansas City Chiefs had roughed up the Houston Texan’s defense for 450 yards.  They pushed them around on the ground to the tune of 127 yards (107 by super rookie Kareem Hunt) and another 323 through the air as oft-maligned quarterback Alex Smith completed 29 of 37 passes for 3 touchdowns and a passer rating of 130.2.  The 42-34 victory left them at 5-0 with a seemingly unsolvable offense.

As they took the field last Sunday afternoon, they were bludgeoning opponents on the ground, racking up 156.2 yards per game and an unheard of 5.7 yards per carry.  When they wanted to throw, Smith was producing a 125.8 passing rating (for the season) – a performance that included completing 76.6% of his passes with no interceptions.  For five games, the Kansas City offense had its way with the rest of the NFL, scoring 32.8 points per game.

And then they ran into a buzz saw.  For the first 30 minutes, the Pittsburgh Steelers dominated Kansas City the way that top 25 NCAA teams dominate Division II teams in their home-coming games.  As they walked into the locker room at halftime, the Steelers had controlled the ball for 21 minutes and 41 seconds, outgained KC 232 yards to 6 (no that is not a misprint) that included a 116 to minus-2 differential in rushing yards (that is not a misprint either).  They held a 16-1 edge in first downs.

While the Chiefs would play better in the second half, they ended the game with just 251 total yards and a 19-13 loss (gamebook).  The heretofore unstoppable Alex Smith finished with an 88.6 passer rating.

What happened?  The short answer is Le’Veon Bell, but the full answer is more complex than that.

After losing commitment to the run in their previous week’s loss, the Steelers wielded Bell and their offensive line like a cudgel.  Bell finished with 179 yards on 32 carries, and the Steelers team finished with 194 yards on 37 carries.  Although they didn’t score on all of them, Pittsburgh had three different first-half drives that all lasted at least 6:19 – two of them lasting 12 plays.  To their credit, the Kansas City defense never did completely implode.  But neither could they get themselves off the field.

Here is what always happens when one team’s offense pushes the other team’s defense around in the first half – and I’ve seen this hundreds of times.  This is, in fact, what had happened to Pittsburgh the previous week.

The only chance the pushed around team has is to have early success running the ball.  After the Steelers chewed up the first 6:19 of the game, Kansas City gained 4 yards on its first two runs.  Then, after the Steelers ran off another 6:25 of the clock, the Chiefs came out throwing and never got back to the running game.

I point out that there was no need to abandon the running game.  At the point that they gave up on the run, they were only trailing by six with three full quarters to go.  But NFL teams don’t seem to have the will to counter-punch with the running game unless they see early returns.  Even though the quarterback has been sitting cold on the sidelines for 12:44 of the first 15:05 of the game, all NFL coaches seem to feel the irresistible urge to get back into the game by throwing the football.

Kareem Hunt entered the game with 609 rushing yards on 97 carries through his first 5 NFL games.  He finished Sunday carrying the ball only 9 times the whole game, even though KC never trailed by more than 9 points.

How did the Steelers – who came into the game allowing 136.6 rushing yards a game and 5.1 yards a carry – muffle the powerful Kansas City running game?  They stopped the first three runs and let Kansas City turn off their own running game.

Alex Smith

With the decision made to go to the air, the fate of the Chiefs rested on the arm and head of Alex Smith.  In a game eerily similar to the playoff game they lost to Pittsburgh last year, Alex threw the ball pretty well.  Last January he was 20 of 34.  Last Sunday he was 19 of 34.  He lost 18-16 last January.  He lost 19-13 on Sunday.

Let me be clear about this.  It is unfair to pin this loss on Alex Smith.  Pittsburgh dominated this game on both sides of the line of scrimmage.  But, because the KC defense managed to hold the team in the game, Alex – as he did in the playoff game – had late chances to win the game.  In particular, there were two throws – two plays that were there to be made – that Smith just didn’t make.

There was 2:31 left on the game clock.  The Chiefs had second-and-10 on the Steeler 15.  Alex did get pressure.  Mike Hilton came free on a blitz.  But standing all alone in the left corner of the end zone was Demarcus Robinson.  Smith overthrew him.  That drive ended in the field goal that made it a 19-13 game.

Then, with 1:11 left, Smith and the Chiefs had the ball again, second-and-10 from the Steeler 40.  Again, it was Robinson breaking clean over the middle.  And, again, Smith’s throw was too high.

As Kansas City has surrounded Alex with more and more offensive playmakers, we are finally beginning to see the quarterback that Smith can be.  More than just a game-manger, Alex Smith is a craftsman with plus mobility.  He makes excellent decisions, he makes them quickly, and he delivers the ball with great accuracy.  Most of the time, anyway.  There is no mental or physical reason why Alex couldn’t lead his team to a championship.

Except that he hasn’t.

With Smith, it’s all about the playoffs now.  However great his regular season is, everyone will be waiting for him to play in January the way he plays in September and October.

(Footnote: Kansas City played last night and suffered a stunning 31-30 loss to Oakland.  Even so, Alex was back to the Alex Smith of the first five games.  He finished his evening 25 of 36 for 342 yards and 3 touchdowns.  His passer rating for the evening was a stellar 127.3 and he still hasn’t thrown an interception this season.  We’ll have more to say about this game later, I suspect.)

Cam Newton

Last Thursday, Cam Newton’s Carolina Panthers fell to Philadelphia, 28-23 (gamebook).  Again, pinning the loss on Newton would be unfair.  Like Kansas City, Carolina’s running game was also inhaled by Philadelphia’s dominating defensive front.  For the game, every Carolina ball-carrier not named Cam Newton was held to 9 yards on 14 carries – an almost mind-numbing stat.

Still, Newton’s final line was disappointing.  Throwing 52 times, Cam completed 28 for just 239 yards (Carolina had only one play of twenty yards in the game).  Newton offset his one touchdown pass with three interceptions – a 48.5 passer rating.  More than just the numbers, though, this game brought to the surface all the questions that I (and others) have about Newton.

Mechanics

Always a point of discussion with Newton is his inconsistent mechanics.  More than any quarterback I watch, Cam is content to throw flat footed.  There were probably ten Newton throws last Thursday thrown without Cam planting his feet and getting his body behind the throw.  When you see his tosses sail high or fall well short, usually you will see Cam throwing flat footed.

Superman in the Backfield?

Everyone knows that Cam has a thing for Superman.  Many of his self-congratulatory antics connect him with his boyhood idol.  But sometimes in the back field he acts like he thinks he really is Superman.  None of the other mobile quarterbacks will stay rooted in the pocket as it begins to close in on him.  They will spin out and move the pocket away from the pressure.  Even the less mobile quarterbacks will at lease retreat a few steps from the chaos directly in front of them.  Failing all else, they will cover up the ball and take the sack.

One of Newton’s curious quirks is that he will stand planted on his spot and try to throw the ball over the top of linemen that are almost standing on his toes.  There were at least a half-dozen throws that Newton made in that game where he tried to throw over a lineman that was standing in his kitchen.

His first interception came on such a throw.  About half-way through the second period, Eagle defensive lineman Fletcher Cox got under Panther guard Trai Turner and pushed him right back into Newton’s face.  Watching the replay, I actually think that Turner was stepping on Newton’s foot when Cam threw the ball.  Certainly, he was close enough that Cox could reach over Turner and still hit Newton’s arm as Cam made the pass – which fluttered duck-like until Eagle cornerback Rasul Douglas gathered it in.

It is almost as though Newton expects all those linemen to bounce off his chest like so many bullets.  But even that won’t put a crease in the brow of Cam’s offensive coordinator as deep as his other recurring quirk.

Not Going Through His Progressions

Much was made of the Panthers losing star middle linebacker Luke Kuechly to a possible concussion – and understandably so.  Kuechly is a force.

Less was made of the fact that Philadelphia also lost their starting middle linebacker.  Jordan Hicks had hurt his ankle at some point of the first half and didn’t play in the second half – and with his exit came a complete change in the Eagle defensive scheme.

Throughout the first half, the Eagles rushed with four, played tight man coverage and left Hicks to spy Newton.  With Hicks out of the mix, the Eagles became almost a 100% zone team in the second half – a defense they don’t run nearly as well.  Combined with the tiring of the pass rushers, Cam Newton had myriad opportunities to exploit holes in the Eagle zone.

Except that he never looked for those opportunities.  Perhaps rattled by the early game pressure, Newton spent most of the second half deciding – I think off his pre-snap read – where he was going to go with the ball.  One of the strangest habits he fell into was never looking to his right.  Of his 32 second half passes, 21 were thrown to the left – and on most of those he never even looked at what was going on to his right.  I will give you my two favorite examples:

There was 13:51 left in the third quarter.  The Panthers trailed 18-10, and had the ball first-and-10 at their own 35.  Newton executed a play-fake to Jonathan Stewart that completely fooled the entire left side of the Eagle defense.  Everyone over there came crashing into the Panther backfield, including safety Malcolm Jenkins (who would have made the tackle in the backfield) and cornerback Jalen Mills.

Lined up in the slot, Devin Funchess made a slight fake like he was going to block, and then popped clear in behind the Eagle defenders that raced heedlessly past him.  But Newton never looked.  He was already throwing the ball to Kelvin Benjamin on a short curl into a soft spot of the zone – a perfect throw, by the way, that Benjamin dropped.

But my favorite play occurred during Carolina’s first drive of the fourth quarter.

There is 13:30 left on the game clock, and the Eagles hold a 28-16 lead.  The Panthers are first-and-10 on their own 42.  After Benjamin and Russell Shepard switched sides, Cam had Shepard wide to his left, with tight-end Ed Dickson in the slot to that side.  His two most explosive receivers – Funchess and Benjamin – were now to his right.  Newton, of course, never looked to his right, as he dropped a nicely thrown 3-yard pass to Shepard who found a soft-spot underneath the zone coverage.

Even more compelling than the routes Benjamin and Funchess were running, was the defensive reaction to the play.  On the offensive left side, the Eagles were playing an “active” zone.  As Dickson ran his deep bow-out, the secondary closed on him.  As Shepard curled under the zone, it flowed to meet him.

On the offensive right side, the defense was, technically, playing zone.  But mostly they just stood and watched.  Cornerback Patrick Robinson, who had the short zone, jogged back about three steps and watched.  Mills had the deep zone, so he dutifully dropped to his required depth – but did little else.

Benjamin raced all alone to the right flat.  Robinson was – technically – within 15 yards of him, but didn’t even look at him, much less follow him.  A quick toss to the right flat would probably have been good for 12-15 yards.  Meanwhile, Funchess ran untouched and un-regarded right up the seam.  Mills watched him streak by without even a wave.  But Newton had already made up his mind, and settled for the 3-yard pass to Shepard.

For quite a while I puzzled over Cam’s compulsion for the left side, until it occurred to me that looking and throwing to the left is the easiest play for a right-handed quarterback to make.

Analyzing Newton

Here’s my take on Cam:

Newton is an enormously gifted football player.  Arguably he is the most gifted quarterback anywhere in football.  That can be a double-edged sword.  I don’t believe that Newton has ever struggled at any level of football – including the NFL where he was setting records in his very first game; and where two seasons ago he almost led this Carolina team to an undefeated season.  Since anything athletic has always come easily to Cam, it’s only natural that he wants football to keep coming easily.

Being a starting quarterback in the NFL is a great ride, and nobody enjoys the ride any more than Newton.  Whether he’s preening for the cameras after a first-down, or organizing team photos on the sideline while the game is still going on, or whether he’s directing teammates’ touchdown celebrations, the fun part of the NFL means an awful lot to Newton.  And – since his talents are such that he usually completes his passes even if he is standing flatfooted, or throwing with a lineman in his face, or even if he hasn’t scanned the field – it can be a little hard to impress upon him the importance of these techniques.  They become skills that less gifted quarterbacks have to develop to compete.

Newton will continue to enjoy significant success in the NFL, just on his athleticism alone.  But Cam won’t be a great quarterback until he embraces the discipline that greatness requires.

That Team from Carolina is Relevant Again

After losing a thrilling Super Bowl after the 2015 season, Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers stumbled out of the gate in 2016.  Hitting their bye week at 1-5, they recovered somewhat afterwards, but still ended the season 6-10.  The biggest tumble – statistically – came on the defensive end.  The 2015 team had finished sixth in both points and yards allowed.  They closed 2016 ranked #21 in yards and #26 in points allowed.  Their top ranked scoring offense also fell to #15.

The NFL, it seems, is more than just a week-to-week league.  It’s also a year-to-year league.

Shaking off the memory of last year as though it was a bad dream that never happened, the Carolina Panthers have re-emerged this season.  They sit at 4-1 heading into tonight’s intriguing matchup with the also 4-1 Philadelphia Eagles.  We’ve chatted about the Eagles a few times already this season.  Perhaps we should take a few minutes to get to know the 2017 Carolina Panthers.

The personnel is pretty much the same that took the field for Super Bowl 50.  It’s still Cam Newton at quarterback.  He is coming back from off-season shoulder surgery, and has been particularly sharp his last two times out.  Against the Patriots and Lions he completed 48 of 62 passes (77.4%) for 671 yards, 6 touchdowns and 1 interception.  That should be enough to keep the Eagles concerned.

Behind him is running back Jonathan Stewart (who has been playing through his own little injury – a badish ankle).  His top target in 2015 – tight end Greg Olsen – is still with Carolina, but not on the field these days – he is sidelined temporarily by a broken foot.  In his absence, the offense has gotten more balanced, as Newton has spread the ball around more evenly.

Cam has four receivers who have between 237 and 272 passing yards.  Of the four, only Devin Funchess figured prominently for the 2015 team (he caught 31 passes that year for 473 yards).  He already has 24 this year for 269 yards.  Leading the team in receiving yards so far this season is Kelvin Benjamin with 272 yards.  He was injured for all of 2015.  Behind him at 271 yards is venerable Ed Dickson, who began the year as Olsen’s backup.  His numbers jumped precipitously after his career afternoon in Detroit.

Until Sunday, Dickson’s career best had been only 79 yards – and he hadn’t done that since 2011.  He collected almost that many yards on one play Sunday.  With 6:14 left in the first quarter, Carolina faced a second-and-14 from their own 32.  Newton tossed the ball to Dickson between two defenders about seven yards beyond the line of scrimmage.  The supposed dump off pass turned into a 64-yard dash as several would-be tacklers failed to get the rumbling Dickson to the ground until he had brought the ball to the Detroit 4 yard line.

This was the centerpiece in a dynamic first half for both Newton and Dickson.  Although Carolina went into the locker room ahead just 17-10, Cam had lit up the Detroit defense to the tune of 15 for 17 for 237 yards.  Ed had caught 4 of those passes for 152 yards.  For a little context, in three full seasons in Carolina, Ed had never had more than 134 receiving yards in any of those seasons.

Both players had a bit more pedestrian second half.  Newton was a solid 11 for 16 for 118 yards, with just one of those passes going to Dickson for 23 yards.

Fourth Quarter Detroit

Once again, the fourth quarter belonged to Detroit.  Trailing 27-10 with just 8:58 left in the game, the Lions drove for 122 of the 133 total yards they would gain in the second half on their last two drives – both resulting in touchdowns.

Detroit had used two of its timeouts on defense during the Carolina possession in between the Lion touchdowns.  Holding the one last timeout, and with 3:32 still on the clock, Detroit elected to kickoff and try to hold the Panthers again.  It almost worked.  With 2:30 left in the game, Carolina faced a third-and-9 on its 24.  One more defensive play would give the ball back to Matthew Stafford with nearly two minutes left, needing just a field goal for a tie.  But one final completion from Newton to Benjamin down the left sideline for 17 yards sealed the deal (gamebook).

The Lions now sit at 3-2.  Both losses have been at home, but both have been razor-thin losses to two teams (Atlanta and Carolina) who are a combined 7-2 and look like they will be January heavyweights.  Next for them is a very dangerous New Orleans team.

Early Assessment

Both teams leave this contest with questions to answer.

Detroit has been excellent in almost all considerations, but a persistently non-existent running game threatens to derail their season.  In week two, they racked up 138 rushing yards against the Giants (in a 24-10 win).  In their other 4 games they have totaled 300 yards.  In the second half of Sunday’s game, their running line was 4 attempts for 5 yards.  That’s even more distressing when you realize that those rushes included one 12-yarder from Ameer Abdullah.  Detroit’s other 3 running plays in that half netted a loss of 7 yards.  This is an area that needs to be fixed if Detroit is ever going to compete with the big boys.

Carolina’s running game also ranks in the lower half of the league (they rank nineteenth, averaging 98.6 yards per game), but they haven’t typically struggled here.  In fact, they took the field Sunday having racked up 465 rushing yards through their first 4 games – a fine 116.3 per game.  They had gained 272 rushing yards in their previous two games.

But Detroit’s surprising run defense did an impressive number on them.  Carolina struggled to end the game with 28 yards on 28 rushes.  Even though Newton’s final three kneel-downs surrendered 6 yards, Carolina’s second half rushing totals of 13 yards on 17 carries is more than a little surprising.  In fact the two teams combined for only 18 rushing yards in 21 attempts – uncommonly low, even in this passing era.

More concerning for Carolina is the pass defense.  After a slow start, Stafford became the latest quarterback to enjoy a big afternoon at the Panther’s expense.  Stafford was 14 of 19 (73.7%) after intermission for 158 yards and the 2 closing touchdown passes – a 133.2 rating.  For the season, opposing QBs are completing 69.8% of their passes against the Panthers, tossing 7 touchdowns while Carolina has collected just 1 interception through its first 5 games.  The QB rating against them so far this season is an elevated 98.1.

In their defense, the last three quarterbacks they have lined up against are all pretty good – Stafford follows Drew Brees and Tom Brady.  But they need to come up with some answers.  They face another real good one tonight in Carson Wentz.

September Dandies

The beginning of every new season brings with it a few September dandies.  These are the teams that take the league by surprise.  Usually, they are teams that have been bad recently – Jacksonville, for example.  Sometimes, they are teams that have been pretty good, but are suddenly playing at an other-worldly level – like Kansas City.  It’s usually about this time of the season that these teams start coming back to earth.

Two of these dandies got a little splash of reality last Sunday.  Buffalo – off to a surprising 3-1 start – fell to Cincinnati.  The surprising Rams of Los Angeles (who had also been 3-1) had scored 142 points through their first four games.  But that gaudy offense came to a crashing halt Sunday at home to a still vulnerable Seattle team in a 16-10 loss (gamebook).

Saddled with an offensive line that has yet to come together, the Seahawks have exploited San Francisco and Indianapolis for 325 rushing yards in those two games, and only 221 yards combined rushing yards in the other three.  Against Los Angeles’ leaky run defense (which had surrendered 531 yards over their previous 3 games), Seattle managed just 62 yards on 25 carries.  Quarterback Russell Wilson has also been running for his life entirely too much.

On the defensive side of the ball, Sunday’s game was not dissimilar to most of the other games Seattle has played this year – significant yards given up, but few points. Seattle ranks just seventeenth in yardage allowed, but they are the fifth hardest team to put points on the board against so far this season.  On Sunday, the Rams had several opportunities to spin the scoreboard in what ended up as a frustrating loss.

Los Angeles turned the ball over 5 times, including an uncommon lost opportunity on their first drive.

Beginning on their own 38, the Rams marched smartly to the Seahawk 12 in just 6 plays – facing no third downs on the drive.  Then running back Todd Gurley broke around left end heading for the end zone, where safety Earl Thomas closed quickly on him.  Gurley was in the act of stretching the ball toward the end zone (and, in fact, the play was originally ruled a touchdown), but before it could get there, Thomas batted it lose.  On its way out of bounds, the loose ball struck the pylon and rolled through the end zone.  Ruled a touchback, the Rams couldn’t even get a field goal chance out of their impressive opening drive.

And so it went.  In addition to the turnovers, usually automatic kicker Greg Zuerlein shanked a 36-yard field goal to open the second half.  And, in a final indignity, with 8 seconds left and the Rams facing a fourth-and-10 from the Seahawk 20, quarterback Jared Goff found rookie third-round draft choice Cooper Kupp breaking clean over the middle in the end zone.  But Jared’s potential game-winning toss was agonizingly too high and wide and only grazed off of Kupp’s fingertips.  The Rams finished the game outgaining Seattle 375-241, but only had 10 points to show for it.

In what was, perhaps, the first high-stakes game of his career (first-place in the division was on the line), Goff finished 22 of 47 (46.8%) including just 14 of 32 in the second half (43.8%).  In many of those instances, Jared had receivers as open as you can expect to get against Seattle, but he couldn’t get the ball on target.

Whether this loss signals the beginning of the end for the Rams remains to be seen.  Los Angeles will get its chance to respond Sunday when they line up against Jacksonville in an early-season “Dandy” bowl.  When the schedule came out, not too many would have circled this Week Six game between Jacksonville (3-13 last season) and the Rams (4-12 last season) as a game of interest.  But so it is.

As I mentioned earlier, the NFL is a year-to-year league.