You don’t need to be a football expert to understand half of the story from Carolina’s playoff victory over Arizona: Cardinals quarterback Ryan Lindley was bad. It didn’t help that he was playing against a red-hot defense, which has done a phenomenal job of late as we wrote last week. The other half of the story from this game involves Panthers quarterback, Cam Newton. The final score was a bit misleading, because Cam did not play well in his first career playoff victory. He must be better this week for Carolina to have a chance.
Newton’s two worst plays, an interception and a sack, actually weren’t on him. On the interception, Jerricho Cotchery peeled off his route. It looked like he thought the ball was already thrown elsewhere. The sack-fumble in the 4th quarter was also not on Newton. The Panthers had the numbers to pick up the blitz. Both players in the backfield, running back Jonathan Stewart and tight end Ed Dickson, went inside. Someone clearly made a mistake. But aside from these two plays, the rest of Cam’s mistakes were his own.
Newton has never been a very precise passer, but his erratic play on Wild Card Saturday would have gotten his team beat against better competition. He almost threw a pick-6 in the first quarter. This was on a shotgun catch-rock-and-throw slant pass. Newton took way too long to deliver the ball, and this allowed Antonio Cromartie to step in front of the route. Luckily it was just an incompletion.
In the 2nd quarter, the Panthers dialed up a post-wheel route combination, one of the many pass plays they called specifically to beat cover-3. As you can see below, the Panthers got just the look they wanted.
The Cardinals, who predominantly play single high, played cover-3. Tight End Greg Olsen ran a post route, designed to eat up the deep third defender to that side, which he did.
Tight End Ed Dickson ran a wheel to the area vacated by the deep third defender.
This route combination broke down the coverage beautifully. The Panthers had a big play.
Newton overthrew Dickson, though, and the pass was incomplete.
On a similar play in the 3rd quarter, again designed to beat cover-3, the Panthers had another potential big play. This time, it was a post-corner route combination. As you can see, the Panthers got the cover-3 look they wanted again.
The post on the outside would end up taking the deep third defender to that side with him, opening up a void for the corner route.
Cam had another big play.
Cam missed the throw again. It doesn’t get any more open in the NFL than these two plays. Newton missed several other potential big plays on Saturday. Most of them were bad throws.
We can’t say that Newton was terrible against Arizona. He did scramble for some drive-extending plays. He also made a great throw on a skinny post at the end of the first half. Here, he stayed in, faced the blitz, and delivered the ball with great anticipation. The throws he missed, though, were designed for big plays against cover-3, the same type of coverage that the Seahawks predominantly play. Newton will need to hit these on Saturday.
Threat of the Legs:
Again, we won’t say that Cam Newton was terrible because his legs were heavily involved in the outcome of this game. This is an element that he brings to the table that most other quarterbacks don’t. In particular, the Cardinals had trouble with the threat of Newton’s legs. Five of the Panthers’ nine runs of 10 yards or more came when there was a read-option element to the play. This happened twice on sweeps, twice on zone runs, and once on a power. The read-option gave the Panthers the advantage of leaving defenders unblocked, as they were eaten up by Cam Newton on the read-option action. Jonathan Stewart (123 yards, TD) was able to take advantage. Two of the other 10-plus yard runs were Cam Newton scrambles. So Cam played a significant role in 7 of Carolina’s 9 biggest runs. His legs were ultimately a much bigger factor in this game than his arm.
The Cardinals elected to play with a lot of 4-3 personnel in this game to match up to the Panthers’ base personnel and combat their rushing attack. The Cardinals normally use more dime personnel, which gets more speed on the field. The team speed on defense has played such a role in Arizona’s success all season, especially when defensive coordinator Todd Bowles dials up intricate blitzes.
The reality of the situation for the Cardinals, though, is that their best players on this side of the ball are in the defensive backfield. Utilizing so much base personnel to match up with the Panthers resulted in more snaps where the Cardinals’ base front-7, which isn’t really all that magnificent, was on the field. Regardless, even when Arizona did blitz, Carolina’s offensive line did a tremendous job. They were ready for stunts, twists, and any other games they saw up front.
The Cardinals’ complete inability to move the ball allowed Carolina to get away with some sloppy play on offense. The same type of performance likely will not get the Panthers out of Seattle with a win. Cam Newton will need to hit the big plays when he has the opportunity to do so. He’ll have to play much better to knock off the defending champs.