Sometimes, there isn’t a dramatic change in scheme. Sometimes, a team just starts to play better. Responsibilities are better understood and put into practice. Players don’t hesitate because their rules become second nature and they play faster as a result. This is exactly what has happened with the Panthers defense during their recent 4-game winning streak.
The Panthers predominantly play zone coverage. They might show some double A-gap blitz pressures and then bail or rush, and they might disguise their coverages occasionally, but for the most part, offenses know what they’re getting when they play Carolina.
Too often, we’ve seen defenses around the NFL play zone coverage against itself, meaning defenders drop precisely to where they have been instructed to go during practice and meetings instead of reacting to receivers in their area. In effect, they cover no one when they do this. The best zone-coverage teams in the league get to an area, but then read routes and react to them accordingly. Carolina has performed this task extremely well in recent weeks. This is a departure from what they were doing earlier in the season, when passing games were picking them apart weekly.
Josh Norman and rookie Bené Benwikere have solidified the cornerback positions for the Panthers late in the season. Against the Falcons last Sunday, both did a great job of reading and reacting to route combinations. Linebackers Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly were aware of Atlanta’s underneath routes and did a great job of passing off receivers. They are two of the quickest and most aggressive linebackers in the NFL, and this enabled them to break on receivers and either defend the pass or hit the receiver right as he tried to catch the ball.
The pass rush has complemented Carolina’s coverage. The Panthers have 14 sacks in their last 4 games (3.5 per game) compared to just 26 over their first 12 (2.17 per game). Their defensive line has generated more consistent pressure on an every-down basis. They kicked the absolute snot out of the Falcons’ offensive line last Sunday, collapsing the pocket regularly and pushing Atlanta’s tackles back into Matt Ryan’s lap on what seemed like every play. Their level of execution has meant that Carolina’s defenders in coverage don’t have to cover for as long, which makes their jobs much easier.
The Cardinals bring a downfield passing game to town this Saturday in the Wild Card round of the playoffs. They also bring an inexperienced quarterback in Ryan Lindley and an offensive line that struggles in pass protection. This is a good matchup for a Panthers defense that has been doing a great job of reading both the quarterback and route concepts and generating pass-rush pressure. The Panthers are executing at a high level on the defensive side of the ball right now. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see them take their 7-8-1 record to the Divisional round.