Breaking down the Carolina Panthers defense

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

This week, the red hot Carolina Panthers face their toughest test of the season, a road game against the streaking 49ers. Danny Kelly puts the Panthers defense under the microscope to understand how one of the league's most surprising units has become the backbone of a Super Bowl hopeful.

The Carolina Panthers are riding a four-game win streak and have quietly become one of the best teams in the NFL. This week, they'll face off against a red-hot 49ers team, themselves winners of their last five.

It's a strength-on-strength bout between two physical, punch-you-in-the-mouth run teams with young, electric and mobile quarterbacks and elite front sevens on defense. The Niners, for their part, aren't really surprising anyone with their dominance, but the Panthers' recent run hasn't really had much attention.

The Panthers' defense, in particular, has been one of the league's best by any measure. Carolina, on the year, is giving up 13.2 points per game, second only in the NFL to the Kansas City Chiefs. They are one of three teams to have held opponents to an average of less than 300 yards per game thus far this season (299.9). They are ninth in the NFL in opponent yards per play (5.0), have forced 12 fumbles (10th in NFL), have 23 sacks, (T-13th in the NFL) and have 12 interceptions (T-third in NFL). Carolina holds opposing teams to an average of 79.1 yards rushing per game (second in NFL) and 3.7 yards per rush (T-sixth in NFL), and have only given up two rushing touchdowns on the year (T-second).

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According to Football Outsiders' DVOA metric, the Panthers have the third-ranked defense in the NFL, behind only Arizona and Seattle.

How have they done this? I turned on the tape to find out, and frankly what I saw wasn't really what I expected. To illustrate some observations about Carolina's style and scheme, I've put together some examples from their Week 9 win over the Falcons -- a divisional game between two opponents that know each other well.

This is not meant to be an all-encompassing breakdown of what makes Carolina's defense tick or the intricate nuances therein -- that's a much broader subject and deserves much more time and research. Instead, it's a big picture, broad strokes look at the strategy and philosophy that head coach Ron Rivera and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott are applying over the last few weeks. My guess is, this is the type of thing we'll see this weekend in San Francisco.

For the Panthers, it all starts up front.

Stop the run with your front seven

Carolina has a deep defensive line rotation. In any given scenario you'll see DEs Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy bookend Dwan Edwards and Star Lotulelei, with Kawann Short, Frank Alexander, and Colin Cole mixed in frequently. Behind them, instinctive and athletic linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis clean up what's able to sneak past the line.

Kuechly was Carolina's top pick in 2012; Lotulelei and Short were the Panthers' top two picks in this year's draft. That heavy investment on the defensive side of the ball has not gone to waste.

It starts with the defensive line. Because Carolina rarely blitzes, they must be very stout, active, strong at the point of attack, and athletic enough to handle double teams.

The example below from last week's matchup with the Falcons shows you how much this team trusts their front seven to get the job done in run defense. At the snap, Kawann Short fires out of his stance and gets an angle on the left guard to put himself into the running lane. Around him, everyone plays a role, maintains gap integrity, and waits patiently for the run to develop:

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This is actually a rare occasion where the Panthers blitz with a corner, and veteran Captain Munnerlynn holds Steven Jackson on the edge and doesn't allow him a cutback lane. The patience and discipline that each player exhibits on this play makes for a good example of how the Panthers have managed such a solid run defense. No one getting out of their gaps, going off script, or trying to do too much.

Get pressure with your front four

According to ProFootballFocus' tracking for this past Sunday's game, the Panthers only blitzed Matt Ryan four times out of 29 passing attempts. The week prior, against the Bucs, they only sent five or more guys at Mike Glennon 13 times out of 55 plays. Perhaps 'rare' is an exaggeration, but I think it's safe to say that heavy and exotic blitzing is not a staple of the Panthers' game plan as of late. Instead, they rely on their excellent players along the defensive line to create pressure, squeeze the pocket, and hopefully force the quarterback to make a bad decision with where he's going with the football, all while playing seven men in the intermediate and deep zones to blanket receiving options.

The example below came in the fourth quarter as the Panthers were holding on to a one-score lead; Atlanta faced a third-and-9 situation and Carolina responded with their basic four-man rush, this time stunting Charles Johnson from the left edge underneath his compatriot, DT Dwan Edwards.

The Falcons actually have a six-to-five advantage in protection (seven-to-five if you count Jaquizz Rodgers' light chip on the right end) -- and Johnson is still able to get home. This really screws up things for the offense:

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This type of thing is so, so difficult for Matt Ryan to deal with. When you have six or seven in to protect against a four-man rush, that means you're sending three receiving options out against seven defenders in man- or zone-coverage. Above, the pressure comes so quickly in Ryan's face that he doesn't even have a chance to hit his checkdown on the outside.

Put your best players in position to make plays

Luke Kuechly has emerged as one of the best inside linebackers in the game and he's only getting better. He's extremely instinctual, athletic, and well rounded -- and he showed up early on in Sunday's game with a first-quarter interception of Matt Ryan.

With the Falcons' offense depleted after losing Julio Jones and Roddy White to injuries, Tony Gonzalez became Ryan's obvious go-to receiving option. The Panthers knew this, and they rotated their linebackers and safeties onto Gonzalez in man-to-man coverage throughout the day, with mixed results.

Below, you can see Kuechly run downfield with Gonzalez and turn to find the ball at the perfect time -- Gonzalez's little hesitation wheel route looking thing doesn't work in this case and it results in a turnover:

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All together an impressive play, but I should note here that Kuechly was burned for a Ryan-to-Gonzalez touchdown on a very similar play later in the half. The second-year linebacker is, of course, still a young player, and deep middle pass coverage is not exactly what he was known for coming out. I'd say he's probably better facing the action and running downhill -- but that's not to say that he won't develop into a great coverage linebacker in the mold of Brian Urlacher. You can see the functional skills necessary to do so above.

Speaking of facing the action, the play above illustrates the style that the Panthers seem to be playing over the past couple of weeks, and it involves some deep defenders looking in toward the quarterback and breaking forward on the ball -- this as opposed to running in tight trailing coverage or single high-type looks.

"Bend but don't break"

This four-man rush philosophy is often known as the "bend but don't break" defense. The idea is to keep everything in front of you if you're a deep defender -- don't give up big, back-breaking game-changing plays over the top, instead allowing shorter, more manageable gains before tightening up in the red zone.

Below, this concept is apparent. Carolina rushes only four, with Atlanta leaving seven in to protect! Eight if you count Rodgers, who leaks out to the sideline after looking like he'll chip on the end. As you can see, Carolina has seven defenders in pass coverage on only two deep receiving options. Atlanta's third option, from the backfield, is only able to pick up maybe a yard before being hit by heads up defenders:

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The ability to rush four and still get some pressure on the quarterback is a luxury, because it allows you to leave more defenders in pass coverage and it gives you a numbers advantage most of the time.

You end up forcing the opposing quarterback to choose safer options underneath a good amount of the time. Below, same sort of thing. Panthers drop seven, rush four, and manage to cover the receivers well and get into passing lanes to discourage Ryan's throw. Atlanta is forced to check down and take what the defense is giving them -- and that's exactly what the defense wants:

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Matt Ryan managed some really high-level throws into tight windows in this game against excellent Carolina coverage. He also made a few mistakes as the game went on, and perhaps it was because of a few too many forced check downs on Carolina's part. Did Ryan start pressing and feel the need to attack downfield even into well-covered spots? I can't say, but it did seem that way on a few occasions.

Frustrate opposing quarterback, goad them into tough throws

Here's an example below:

Trailing 17-10 in the third quarter, Ryan attempts a deep pass up the right side of the field against Carolina's four-deep, three-under defense. As you can see, with Carolina's forward-looking deep cover-2 look, that's a very tough throw.

The Tony Gonzalez route (right hand side of the offense at tight end) doesn't draw the intended attention from the playside safety, Quinton Mikell, and he flips his hips in time to put himself in a position to make the play. Mikell tips the ball and linebacker Thomas Davis (look at how deep he's playing!) makes an athletic play to catch the tipped pass:

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Overall, an ill-advised pass into what turns out to be triple coverage, and the Panthers capitalize on it.

Use a well-timed blitz here and there to make a game-altering-play

Now, I've talked about Carolina's conservative nature, but that doesn't mean they never blitz. Instead, they seem to rely on a few well-timed pressure schemes to force the opposing quarterback to make a very quick decision. These plays seem to be actually designed to create turnovers -- and by nature are a little risky.

Example below: The Panthers had just gone up 24-10 with a Cam Newton touchdown run with nine minutes remaining, and if Atlanta was going to get themselves back into this game, they'd need to do it in a hurry -- i.e., through the air. Knowing he was likely to get a pass, DC Sean McDermott dialed up a six-man blitz. The pressure forces Matt Ryan to get the ball out quickly, and cornerback Drayton Florence is banking on this.

He jumps the quick pass to the outside and takes 38 yards for a touchdown:

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The Panthers were able to beat a division foe this past week with some quality defensive play, and as I said above, have now won four in a row. They face their toughest challenge so far this week in San Francisco. It should be interesting to see those two teams' styles matched up against each other. Will Carolina's four-man rush work against the Niners' stout offensive line? Will the front seven be able to stop San Francisco's run game? Will they be able to force a recently very disciplined Colin Kaepernick into tough throws downfield? It's the game to watch this week, in my opinion.

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