Carolina has not often struggled to defend the run this season, nor, 15-game body of work considered, largely struggled to defend the pass.
But where the Panthers sometimes find themselves getting crushed is giving up explosive plays, usually in the passing game, that can flip the field and give their opponents momentum.
Against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last week, the Panthers secondary allowed Jameis Winston to pass for 367 yards and gave up six explosive plays ranging from 28 yards to 70. Second-year corner James Bradberry was called for pass interference twice on a fourth-quarter Buccaneers drive, and veteran safety Kurt Coleman was easily beat on a jump ball touchdown by Mike Evans. The secondary also struggled to tackle, and if not for Winston fumbling three times, the outcome Sunday may have looked very different for Carolina.
“We didn’t tackle well, we have to eliminate the (yards after catch),” said defensive coordinator Steve Wilks this week. “They’re going to catch some, but we have to make sure we are there to make the tackle and try to limit the damage, and that was really the result.”
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These are issues the Panthers absolutely cannot afford to have against a dynamic, explosive Falcons offense featuring quarterback Matt Ryan, receivers Julio Jones (who has 1,364 receiving yards this year and averages 16.4 yards per catch) and Mohamed Sanu and running back tandem Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.
“This offense is explosive. We know it is. Quarterback’s as good a player as there is in this league right now, especially in what they do,” said head coach Ron Rivera this week. “We’ve just got to make sure we’re where we’re supposed to (be in our) run-gap responsibilities and when it comes to throwing the ball, we keep them in front of us.”
While Jones dropped a crucial, wide-open end-zone catch in the teams’ first crack at each other this season, a 20-17 Panthers victory, Carolina isn’t counting on a second lucky break this time.
“We felt (we) were fortunate last time when there were a couple of plays that got behind us, one was an overthrow and the other was a drop,” said Rivera. “More so than anything else, you want to keep it in front of you.”
Gap accountability in the run is a huge part of keeping dynamic players in front of a defense, as is eliminating cutback lanes for players like Freeman and Coleman by “swarming” to the ball and clogging space.
But in the air, said Wilks, it’s less about neutralizing stars like Jones completely and more about containing them – and limiting their ability to extend plays after the catch. Not getting caught looking after Ryan’s pump-fake or play-action, and not allowing receivers to get free releases from the line will be crucial, too.
“I think it’s really hard to stop him at all,” he said bluntly. “You really have to try to do a great job of trying to contain him. The biggest thing is just trying to mix up our coverages, our looks and really trying to be physical and disrupt timing, that’s the most important thing.”