Jun 12, 2012; Charlotte, NC, USA Carolina Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski walks to the field prior to the start of minicamp at the team

Anatomy of a Panthers' Loss: Snatched from the Jaws of Victory - Again

After having given up an early touchdown, the Carolina Panthers dominated in every phase of the game in Chicago. It even had an ending reminiscent of their Super Bowl loss to New England some 8 years ago. Remember Janet Jackson’s “Wardrobe Malfunction?” Yes, the Panthers were in the Wardrobe Malfunction Super Bowl. Easy way to remember it.

You better, because from my chair here it’ll be a cold day in HELL before they’ll be returning to one at this rate.

(PRESSWWIRE has no relevant photo; imagine a muscular, evil-looking guy wearing a diaper, having red skin and horns, looking all worried with ice hanging off his eyebrows and horns while his teeth chatter)

Yes, that Super Bowl. Remember…when doofus/game goat kicker John Kasay kicked the kickoff out of bounds to give the ball to the Patriots at the 40. I guess he felt sorry for poor Tom Brady.

Oct 7, 2012; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers punter Brad Nortman (8) punts the ball during the first quarter against the Seattle Seahawks at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-US PRESSWIRE

Rookie punter Brad Nortmann would have been a high school freshman (or thereabouts) when that happened, and took a silent oath to someday do the same thing, apparently, because he boomed a 6-yard punt to set up the Bears on the Panther 38 yard line around the 7-minute mark.

Mr. Wonderful Punter Draft Pick averaged a whopping 22 yards on 3 punts with an LONG punt of merely 36 yards. I was scratching my head when they actually drafted a punter and I’m still scratching my head over it. I’m pretty sure Marty Hurney is banging his head against a wall over it right about now, if he hasn’t already.

Following that, Cam threw a critical pick-6 when Steve Smith slipped on the grass on a timing pattern, leaving defender Tim Jennings the only wide-open target in the area. He grabbed it and took it 25 yards to paydirt.

This is one of those horribly maddening losses because you really can’t “pin” it on ONE guy. Once more, the entire team was fairly flat – especially in the running game. The Panthers have a good offensive line that should be able to line up and punch people in the mouth to run the ball. Rob Chudzinski tried doing just that, while DITCHING THE STUPID READ-OPTION, but with limited and random success. Most of the runs I saw yesterday gained 3 or fewer yards with many being stopped for either a negligible gain or a loss.

Newton barely completed half his passes, going 20-for-39 in windy conditions that Cutler was more accurate in – largely due to him throwing slants and shorter patterns. Neither of Cam’s interceptions were his fault as the other one was the result of being hit late in his delivery, offering up a soft pass to the sideline that TE Greg Olson sat back and waited on instead of trying to get to it. The intercepting defender (Tim Jennings had them both) simply out-hustled Olson.

Little of this should be comforting because it STILL shows that the Carolina Panthers, and specifically their offense, simply is not giving total effort on every play as a team. Usually, when nobody can point to a single thing or area that needs to be fixed, or if the issues seem nebulous but palpable, it’s often an issue with coaching.

Oct 28, 2012; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Bears cornerback Tim Jennings (26) makes an interception in front of Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen (88) during the second quarter at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Rob Grabowski-US PRESSWIRE

There’s no reason seasoned pros like Greg Olson should be doing anything but hustling 100% until the whistle blows. Same thing for the rest of the team.

The defense wasn’t perfect either, although they put forth one heck of an effort for 58 minutes. Cutler and Brandon Marshall played pitch and catch for 10 yards at a time on their game-winning drive, picking on rookie corner Josh Norman. The Panthers were in a semi-“prevent” type of defense, leaving underneath routes unmolested.

That was another baffling thing, since the pass rush had been harassing Cutler all day long. The Bears’ offense changed to “max-protect” – keeping the TE and RB in to block – while sending only Marshall or Marshall and Earl Bennett into the pattern. One would think it would be a simple thing to defend against a single receiver but the Panthers’ defense made it look difficult. The pass rush vanished on the final drive and Marshall was open pretty much every time.

The defense shouldn’t allow this to happen.

Do I have the answers? Of course not. One must wonder why Marshall wasn’t double-covered at least on that last series…or why there wasn’t some sort of play calling that might’ve allowed Norman to try to jump the route, knowing if he missed he has help over the top or behind him with the safeties. I’m not certain, but I think the Bears called the exact same pattern – a simple slant to Marshall – FIVE CONSECUTIVE PLAYS and completing four of them. If not, they sure looked the same.

Perhaps we could’ve mixed up some different coverages with the same defensive look, calling a “short zone” pass defense for the linebackers with the safeties over the top and the corners covering man-to-man or the edges of that zone. Then calling for a double-team on Marshall in man coverage on the next play, mixing in different blitzes. I was thinking some blitzes in the “A” gap – either side of the center – would keep Cutler rattled and in his face since the rush was getting through before and the Bears’ o-line woes are well-documented.

So, yes, the defense played well but must shoulder some blame for the loss. Newton was simply off on a few passes, but that happens and he actually played well otherwise. Steve Smith should have caught the pass at the goal line where he actually had his entire hand on, but couldn’t haul it in. 9 out of 10 times, Smith makes that catch. But it was not to be.

The offensive line again played shakily as they were unable to open holes for their talented backfield trio to get through, and again had trouble on short-yardage situations. They did cut down on the false starts and such, but didn’t really improve their overall performance.

To his credit, as I said Rob Chudzinski finally dropped the go-nowhere “read-option,” a play designed to take advantage of superior speed and spread the field to get a crease for the quarterback, depending on whether or not the defensive end on the side the play is run to slides wide to cover the pitch to the running back or crashes down inside to cut off the QB keeper up the middle.

The reason it doesn’t work in the NFL is that defenders are too fast. I have seen multiple times where the end sneaks juuust close enough to Cam while anticipating the pitch, then chases down the play on the outside after the pitch is made. While this sort of play might be able to beat a 350-pound Haloti Ngata, it’s not going to work against many of the speed-rushing defensive ends that go anywhere from 255-280 pounds. At the college level, ends are lucky to run a 4.8 or better. In the NFL, you’re slow if you DON’T run under a 4.7 from that position.

The difference seems small, but think of it like this: 2/10ths of a second in the 40 is roughly the difference between a Jonathan Stewart and a Chris Johnson. The math just doesn’t work unless you really fool someone running the read-option, and once you’re known to run it, it becomes ineffective…much like the Wildcat became.

Running out of the shotgun is harder than a “normal” formation as well. If Cam’s standing there with an RB to his left while getting the snap, he’s either throwing it, running it himself, or handing off for a run to the RIGHT side of the line…unless they run a risky naked counter-type play which takes a couple of extra beats to develop while the RB takes 2 steps to effect a 90-degree change of direction immediately after receiving the handoff.

Running out of the shotgun is more predictable as a result because the pre-snap reads are so simple for the defense. They can simply slant their attack towards the direction of the run and string the play out while LBs and even safeties attack from the inside out, forcing the runner wider and wider, allowing more and more time for the NFL’s faster defenders to cover the ground to get to him.

So, they at LEAST fixed that other than a few plays I saw where they still tried it and of course failed to gain much yardage.

One thing I learned watching Cam in college at Auburn during their national championship run a few years ago is that the saying is true: “You cannot ‘date’ the spread offense; you have to ‘marry’ it.”

Chud would do well to learn that axiom and completely ditch the concept. It takes some very precise work and coaching to successfully run a spread offense passing attack in the NFL. Tom Brady is one of very few that do it well, but who is his coach? Ah, that’s right. Rivera, you’re no BB. Drop it.

I think what we’re currently seeing is a sea-change in philosophy on the offensive side of the ball, and the team will necessarily go through some growing pains…even if it is “growing” into a more conventional NFL-style of attack. Cam needs to take most of his snaps from under center instead of the shotgun in order to get the running game going, by all outward appearances. He can most certainly DO that with practice reps to get used to the idea of doing such all the time. It’ll take repetitions to make the mechanics of it second-nature and for Cam to not trip on the guard’s foot/ankle as they back-step for leverage. Yes, there are nuances to even the simplest things in the NFL like taking snaps from the center.

Overall, I think what we saw was partly the potential of this offense beginning to peep out in the passing game – at times – while the o-line adjusts to a different run-blocking scheme. That stuff takes time too, and MOST teams get that squared away in training camp. Since the Panthers are changing horses in midstream, they’re going through some of this in mid-season, and mistakes and missed assignments will be made.

Chicago’s defense isn’t the best team to perfect a new style against, though, but should give good feedback to the coaches and players in film study this week as they make adjustments with a road trip to Washington on the docket for this Sunday. At least the Redskins’ defense isn’t as strong as that of the Bears, so the combination of reps and a (somewhat) lesser opponent defensively would seem to indicate more success running next week.

They still have to play the game to find out, though. If Carolina struggles again with the run next week, we might as well go ahead and write Ron Rivera off and start looking to the future. And someone, PLEASE…PLEASE teach Cam how to protect the football when he’s running with it!

Follow me on Twitter @Ken_Dye

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