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NFL: Carolina Panthers at Kansas City Chiefs

Conquering Carolina: What the Bucs need to beat the Panthers in Week 10

After an absolute meltdown against the Saints in Week Nine, can the Buccaneers turn it around and get back to their winning ways?

Carolina Panthers quarterback Teddy Bridgewater (5) scores a touchdown against the Kansas City Chiefs
| Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Appallingly disgusting are about the only words I can use to describe the junior varsity performance that the Bucs put together on Sunday Night Football. For goodness’s sake, I’ve seen roadkill put up more of a fight.

The Bucs were outmatched in almost every aspect of the game, put constantly into poor position through mental errors and coaching aberrations. Not only that, but they came out lifeless and devoid of passion for the second week in a row.

This team needs to take this week to do some soul-searching to really find out how good they want to be. They have all of the talent, so what is it that is holding them back?

Well, in Week Nine, it sure looked like coaching. Byron Leftwich in my personal opinion has been a poor play-caller through the entire season, but the Bucs have found ways to get through it, primarily with their defense.

On the defensive side, Todd Bowles had a rough outing, calling sit back and watch zones while Drew Brees (and Taysom Hill) marched up and down the field with absolutely no difficulty. A team that has feasted on aggressiveness suddenly stopped being aggressive and they got exposed.

The national media was discussing the Bucs being the best defense in the NFL before going into that game. Based on that performance, I wouldn’t put them in the top 10 and they don’t deserve to go back until they show that they can shake what we saw last week.

The question every week seems to be, which team will take the field for Tampa Bay? The passionate and fiery team that beat the Packers? Or the team that lifelessly hung on to beat the Giants and got absolutely demolished by the Saints?

For Bucs fans everywhere, we can only hope that the team that comes out this week ends up being the one who beat the Packers, or this game might get ugly.

The Carolina Panthers are supposedly in rebuilding mode under first year head coach Matt Rhule. However, it sure looks like they’re not too far away from being built.

After narrowly losing to the Chiefs of all teams in Week Nine and almost beating the Saints in Week Seven, this team has showed time and time again that they are well coached and ready to fight.

So what’ll it take to take the season sweep on the Panthers in this Week 10 matchup? Let’s take a look.

Offense

Keep it on the ground until they stop it

The offense had sort of a hot and cold showing against the Panthers all the way back in Week Two, however, since then the Buccaneers have put together a few incredibly strong offensive performances (with the exception of last week of course).

Despite the rather lopsided victory, the Buccaneers only put up 339 yards of offense to the Panther’s 427. In the passing game, Brady was a pretty average 25/35 for 217 yards with one touchdown and an interception. Yet they didn’t really need to get the ball through the air as Leonard Fournette was lighting it up on the ground.

The Panthers may look like a decent run-stopping team based on the fact that they’re the 13th best rush defense in yards per game, however, they are 8th worst in yards per carry, allowing 4.6 yards per tote.

The reason that they don’t allow a ton of yards on the ground every week, is because they don’t see a lot of rushing attempts against them. To be fair, they have played against some pass-first offenses like Kansas City and Chicago, who both only rushed a combined 36 times against them.

When we look at Football Outsiders’ DVOA statistics, we can see that the Panthers’ defense is ranked 24th against the run with a -0.5%. I know I explain DVOA all the time, but for those that don’t know, this means that when the Panthers are faced with a run, they will force their opponent to perform 0.5% worse than the average team in a similar situation. To learn more about DVOA, check it out here.

While it may seem like this is a positive thing seeing as they force the offense to perform worse in that area, it’s really not. This is because the running game just isn’t all that valuable when looking at statistical production. To put this into perspective, only four teams find themselves over 0% in offensive efficiency on the ground.

Despite the running game not being all too important to analytics, it can still help teams win games, especially when the defense isn’t good at stopping it.

If the Bucs get Ronald Jones II and Leonard Fournette going once again, they won’t have to keep this whole game on the shoulders of Tom Brady.

Take advantage of soft coverage

The Panthers might be below average against the run, but according again to Football Outsiders’ DVOA statistic, they are also below average against the pass, allowing their opponent to perform 14.3% better than the average team in similar situations.

While they do have some issues on the back-end, which was especially evident against the Chiefs, a lot of their problems come underneath with their linebacker play as well.

The Panthers primarily run Cover 3, but are prone to throwing some Cover 4 in there as well. Their linebackers are often tasked with carrying receivers to a point where the deep coverage will pick them up as well as coming up and tackling anything underneath.

This is standard in any Cover 3 or 4, however, the Panthers linebackers don’t often get deep enough and it allows a lot between them and the deep coverage. Here’s an example:

The Panthers look to be in Cover 4 here and the Chiefs draw up an excellent play to beat it. Kansas City sends two receivers on go routes to clear out the deep coverage while they bring Travis Kelce on an intermediate crossing route right in the cleared out space.

The play action component holds the linebackers tight to the line of scrimmage so the gap between the under and over coverage is even wider, but, Shaq Thompson (#54) had time to get deep and instead stayed tight to the line to cover the running-back.

Another nice aspect of this play design is that the running-back has a route off of the play action, which allows Patrick Mahomes to have a target if the underneath coverage is tight on Kelce. The Panthers can’t cover both and as we see, they chose to cover underneath.

Another thing you’ll notice here is that the corners are lined up about eight yards off of their receivers, which is something the Panthers do often when in Cover 3 or 4 and it can lead to some easy pickings like the Bucs had in Week Two.

Here’s a look at what I’m talking about:

There’s a reason that Mike Evans had one of his best games of the season against the Panthers and it’s because they left their corners eight yards off of him on almost every snap.

On this particular play, Brady doesn’t hesitate and it leads to an easy first down. He sees it before the play starts and makes Mike his go-to target because of it. This happened about four or five times in their first matchup, and if they keep covering like that, the Bucs should keep throwing it.

On a few of these quick throws, the Bucs clearly had a run called and Brady just checked with Mike before the snap and threw it to him for five-ten yards a pop.

While this won’t be there every single play, it just shows that their coverage is pretty soft and they allow a lot to happen underneath. Whether opponents run crosses, curls, digs, or slants, teams just seem to pick up yards on the Panthers underneath.

Instead of trying to connect on huge plays down the field, like the Bucs have liked to do more often than they should, they should take what’s there and pick up an offensive rhythm. This Bucs offense has looked like they’ve had no directions at times, and the Panthers are giving them a prime opportunity to find one.

Let’s see how it all plays out.

Defense

Get back to what was working

Equally as horrendous as the offense last Sunday was Tampa Bay’s defense. The coverage was all over the place, the pass rush was non-existent with the exception of one or two plays, and the soft zone was baffling.

Two weeks in a row now, Bowles has dialed up soft coverages that allow easy completions underneath, especially on third and short. Arians revealed on Sunday that they were attempting to keep everything in front of them and rush with four.

The unfortunate part about that? They don’t get home with four, especially when Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaq Barrett drop back. However, all of this is in the past now and everyone has to look ahead to Week 10.

The reason that I spent so much time discussing the game plan against the Saints is primarily because they ran similar looks against the Panthers in Week Two and I am afraid that they’re going to do it again.

Teddy Bridgewater is a pretty solid quarterback and one that has been highly accurate as of late. So far through nine games, Bridgewater has completed 71.9% of his passes for 2,416 yards, 11 touchdowns, and six interceptions.

One thing that makes him so accurate, is not just the good decision making, but also the fact that he’s not asked to air it out deep downfield. According to NFL NextGenStats, Bridgewater has the fifth lowest intended air yards average in the NFL with 6.7 intended air yards per throw.

You know who else has a very low intended air yards average? Drew Brees. Actually, he comes last in the NFL with 5.8 intended air yards per throw. So this begs the question, if soft Cover 3 didn’t work last week, will it work this week? Probably not.

While every system differs in its approach to get the ball moving, it’s still pretty evident that Bridgewater isn’t going to air it out over and over again. Because of that, I really don’t want to see a lot of that soft coverage that we’ve been seeing recently, and even in Week Two which we can see here:

Here we can see the Bucs in what looks to be Cover 3 on third and short. What baffles me about calls like this is that the corners are lined up WELL past the line to gain for a first down. Any quick route will pick up the yards, sort of like the play in the offensive section with Mike Evans.

While the coverage just gets blown here (at least what it looks like to me), the Bucs never really had a good chance of stopping Christian McCaffrey from picking up this first down. In Cover 3, Sean Murphy-Bunting has to carry his receiver, but at the same time, he has to sit down since he has the curl/flat zone which is indicated by the little bubble.

Even if he sits on this, I would take McCaffrey picking up this first down 99 times out of 100 since he only needs two or three yards and no one is lined up near him. Even with him probably out, Mike Davis is more than capable of doing this.

You remember what beat the Packers? It sure wasn’t this. This is what got them down 10-0 to start the game. This is also how the Bears picked them apart, as well as the Saints and Giants.

At the end of the Panthers game in Week Two, I saw something that really bothered me. With six minutes left in the game down 10 points, the Panthers marched all the way down the field with ease, until they were eventually held to three points from the goal line.

On each play, the Bucs sat back in coverage and watched Bridgewater pick them apart. It was appalling to see that such an aggressive team would just send three rushers and drop eight in coverage like we see here:

So I know I got pretty extra with the bubbles and everything, but I just wanted to show you just what kind of coverage they decided to draw up with the game on the line.

Based on Devin White’s drop, it looks like the Bucs call up a Tampa 2 coverage. To fill in that underneath gap, Todd Bowles decided he wanted Vita Vea dropping instead of rushing the passer, you know, about the only guy who applied interior pressure when he was on the field.

The two green bubbles show the primary downfield weaknesses for this coverage scheme and the Panthers exploit it easily. The plays that followed weren’t any better as the Bucs subsequently dropped into deep coverages and the Panthers picked up first down after first down.

If it wasn’t for Vita Vea applying pressure to Bridgewater on third and goal, the result of this game may have been much different and it’s the fault of soft coverage.

I’m aware that I’m not an NFL defensive coordinator, and for good reason. However, I know that sitting back in soft zones against short throw quarterbacks doesn’t work very well and this was just confirmed against the Saints.

If the Bucs want to continue winning, they have to get back to the aggressive style that got them where they are in the first place. They shouldn’t have tried to fix what wasn’t broken.

Conclusion

With the Buccaneers headed to Carolina this weekend, we can only hope that they get back to their winning ways. I know the last two weeks have been incredibly disappointing and worrisome, but I don’t think this skid lasts forever.

To beat Carolina, they just have to keep moving the sticks on offense, especially since the Panthers will be dropping guys back into coverage to stop this deep passing attack while hoping that Brian Burns can get there.

Throwing it underneath is something the Bucs should be able to do, and now that they have Antonio Brown, they really have someone that can hurt you after the catch.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Bucs just need to stop overthinking things and do what they did when they were successful. Bringing five or six guys is risky, but it’s worked and it’s worked well.

Dropping eight into coverage and having no pass rush is the perfect recipe to get picked apart (again) and we can only hope that they don’t come out like that this week.

What do you think it’ll take to beat the Panthers? Am I being too harsh on the scheme or do you also think it’s a problem? Let us know in the comments below!

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