I had a funny feeling before the Panthers faced off against their division rivals the Saints last Sunday that the game would be a lot closer than most folks predicted.
In hindsight, I think last week was my first time noticing Carolina players actually talking about going 16-0 which left me worried about their focus. One player even wrote a piece for Peter King's site about what going undefeated would mean to him I do believe. I don't think players should be fearful of making history, but I also believe strongly in teams to taking one game at a time even after they have some early success. You start looking at the finish line, and that's usually when you get passed up in life. (I tweeted before the game about having a funny feeling, so there's proof I'm not just blowing smoke here).
I just wasn't sure that Cam Newton and the rest of that Panthers offense could keep up with Drew Brees if the game became a shootout.
The Panthers sputtered early with a Newton interception ending their second drive and a fumble by Carolina running back Jonathan Stewart ending their third. Meanwhile, the vaunted Panthers defense allowed Brees to go right down the field on their second drive for a touchdown. They almost gave up another three points on their next drive, but Saints kicker Kai Forbath missed a very makeable 38-yard field goal attempt.
That the Panthers, Newton in particular, were able to get their shit together in time to pull out a win was a truly impressive performance.
At the same time, sometimes when you watch film, it sort of puts these kinds of performances in perspective. Let me say up front, that in no way, shape or form am I trying to devalue the magnificent game that Cam Newton played on Sunday. In fact there were more than a few passes that he completed that were absolutely ridiculous. Not ridiculous for Cam, ridiculous for anybody.
When we talk about how bad the Saints defense is from week to week, it turns out we're really not going far enough. Why in THE hell would you keep on trying to go with press against Ted Ginn, Jr. when you know you ain't got nobody with that kinda speed on your defense?
The Saints were so bad that if Cam throws a few of his deep balls better and Ginn actually catches a couple of other deep balls, the Panthers probably would've had five more touchdowns.
On the plus side for Cam, he just about always threw the ball to the open man in the passing game, even when it wasn't his first read. It just helps to prove again that the jackasses who still try to claim he doesn't read defenses well are 100 percent full of shit at this point. Funny how those same folks tried their best to avoid admitting that the young, promising quarterback who did struggle reading defenses this year was actually Andr ... you know what, nevermind. We'll save that discussion for another day.
Explaining Cam's deep throws
I know this is going to sound like I'm copping pleas for Cam, so be it. I just happened to notice something while I was re-watching this game that hadn't really clicked to me before. Something that gives some context to Cam's misses on deep balls against the Saints and maybe all season.
With second-year standout wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin on IR after suffering a torn ACL in the offseason, Newton hasn't had another jump ball guy to throw to this year. So when Cam needs to take a shot deep or if he's in the red zone and needs a guy to go up and make a play for him, that guy doesn't really exist for the Panthers. The fact explains why Newton overthrew some guys on Sunday.
Even without a jump ball guy, Cam is good statistically when it comes to pushing the ball downfield. The thing was consistent about his deep misses on Sunday was that he always missed long. Always. Even on the deep balls that he did hit on (or someone dropped ... cough, Ted Ginn, cough), Cam always led the receiver up the field so they could catch it in stride and keep going. In hindsight, that's kind of how it has gone all year.
That's because the one thing the Panthers do have at wide receiver is speed. A whole lotta speed!
He could try to throw a back shoulder fade to Ginn or Philly Brown, but those guys are a more liable to let the defender pick off the ball than they are to actually come down with one of those passes. On the other hand, if Cam really slings it downfield and tries to hit them in stride, it gives his team the dual benefit of the pass maximizing the potential of those routes. Also, an overthrown deep ball is generally much less likely to be intercepted than one that is underthrown.
Some of y'all are probably really confused at this point because you started off reading this thinking I was going to be a Cam Newton hater, but now I probably sound more like a Cam Newton homer. Dah, well. I just call 'em like I see 'em and try to put things in proper context.
I'm going to take you through both the touchdown passes and the misses, pointing out how turrible the Saint's coverage is, while also calling out who is at fault on the missed opportunities, no matter who that was. Hopefully along the way I can give you more insight than the TV broadcast and subsequent commentary to date has provided about how Cam actually came to have such a big day.
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Let's start off with the first missed opportunity of the game on a deep throw from Carolina.
1-10-CAR 35 (3:14) (Shotgun) C.Newton pass incomplete deep left to T.Ginn
The Panthers lined up with Brown, Cotchery and Olsen all lined up to the right, and one wide receiver, the aforementioned speed demon Ginn, out wide to the left by himself. The Saints showed a single-high safety look. The corner on Ginn started up in press at the line and ended up playing cover 3.
Did I mention that Ginn is fast?
If you are going to press Ginn, I don't care who you are, you had better either jam him so well at the line that you knock him off his course or you better have some help over the top. Maybe even both.
Neither one of these things happened. Saints cornerback Brandon Browner -- who was terrible on Sunday, as well as most of the season -- wasn't able to touch Ginn as he took an outside release. The single-high safety stayed over the top of the two wide receivers on the other side of the field.
The results were pretty damned predictable.
red = possibly at fault
green = who the ball was thrown to
orange = distraction route
yellow = another route open for a TD on a play where the ball went elsewhere.
Ginn blew right past Browner and would've scored easily on a 65-yard reception except Newton overthrew him, which is not an easy thing to do. This same scenario could have played out the same way had the Panthers kept lining up and running the same routes and the Saints kept playing cover 3, the only difference being whether or not Cam was accurate with the throw and if old stone hands caught it.
It is rare to see any team keep going back to the well on deep balls with that kind of frequency. That's likely the only thing that saved the Saints' from getting 100 points dropped on their asses.
A couple of plays later on the same drive, the Panthers had another opportunity for a touchdown fall out of bounds and incomplete on another off-target pass from Newton. Not sure if he was just having trouble with his touch early, but Cam didn't really get cooking until the second half, which again helped to keep the game competitive all the way till the end.
1-10-50 (2:20) C.Newton pass incomplete deep right to G.Olsen
This time it was Olsen who was wide open up the sideline. With 2:20 left in the first quarter, Carolina motioned Ginn across the formation to end up in an I near set with Olsen at tight end to the right on first down from the 50-yard line. New Orleans once again went with the single-high safety look and played cover 3 with Dixon lined up across from Ginn.
You can see that Dixon, smartly, doesn't have nearly as much confidence in his speed as Browner because he lines up 7 yards off Ginn and bails on the snap. He gets caught looking in the backfield as Cam went through a play-action fake, so Ginn still ended up eating up all of his cushion.
This is important because with Ginn screaming past him on a skinny post. Dixon couldn't very well continue to look back at the quarterback and the short routes developing behind him.
At the same time, Olsen pushed up about eight yards and ran what appeared initially to be a 10-yard out route. The flat player to that side, linebacker Hau'oli Kikaha, actually did a good job of buzzing underneath Olsen so that the out route was defended pretty well.
Except it wasn't an out route.
What Olsen did run, along with Ginn, is a route combination I like to call a "cover 3 beater." I gave it that moniker last year when the Broncos used similar route combinations to mount a furious comeback against the Seahawks -- who as everyone knows plays a lot of cover 3 and man, like the Saints -- only to come up short at the end.
When the corner covers a post route, they technically should be able to turn the receiver over to the safety and drift back wide to look for any other threats deep to their side. That hardly ever happens, however.
What usually happens is the same thing that happened here. Dixon locked onto Ginn and stayed with him even though that took him more toward the middle third of the field. Unbeknownst to him, Olsen turned back up field as he neared the sideline instead of continuing the out route.
To be fair, there's a chance that Dixon tackles Olsen short of the goal line even if Newton makes a perfect pass and Olsen catches the ball cleanly. That tackle, if it happens, is going to happen somewhere inside of the red zone, so this is at least a 30-yard pass if completed. With Dixon having try to react to the throw after hauling ass to stay with Ginn on the skinny post, I wouldn't put money on him getting Olsen on the ground by himself though.
Cam didn't miss on every pass.
His first passing touchdown of the game, which went to Mike Tolbert, capped off that drive a few plays later on the very first play of the second quarter.
3-11-NO 12 (15:00) (Shotgun) C.Newton pass short left to M.Tolbert for 12 yards, TOUCHDOWN
Honestly, this was just shitty defense by the Saints. Again. Like, who blitzes and forgets to cover the running back? Who, Sway?
The Saints, that's who.
New Orleans was obviously in some form of man-to-man, the only question is was it cover 1 (safety help deep) or cover 0 (no safety help deep).
I don't know who fucked up for sure on this play, but I'm reasonably convinced either Kikaha was supposed to blitz-peel and run with the back if he went out, or Jairus Byrd was supposed to take him. But Byrd was the single-high safety to the other side of the field.
Somebody fucked up and the end result was Tolbert wide-ass open in the flat all by himself which gave us the opportunity to see a 5'9, 250-pound man high step into the end zone which is always fun.
Carolina opens up
For the next play, you have to fast forward to the second half. Yeah, that's right, Cam Newton threw four of his five touchdowns after halftime. The next play wasn't actually a touchdown, but it could have been.
3-8-NO 8 (11:44) (Shotgun) C.Newton pass incomplete short right to T.Ginn (B.Browner)
PENALTY on NO-B.Browner, Defensive Holding, 4 yards, enforced at NO 8 - No Play
This was another play on the Browner lowlight reel from Sunday. You may recall that Ginn ran a quick out route with 11:44 to go in the third quarter and Browner was rightly called for holding after he broke up that pass. What you may not have noticed, because shitty announcers are shitty, is that there was somebody else who was wiiiide open on that play: Jerricho Cotchery.
New Orleans once again showed a single-high safety look on that play; however, this time the safety, Byrd, decided to try to help out his buddy Browner on Ginn. Cotchery, who was in the slot to the opposite side on the right, only had to beat his man inside on a slant to get wide open for a touchdown.
Newton didn't go to him on this play, but keep the concept of the routes in the back of your mind as you continue reading.
3-13-NO 13 (10:26) (Shotgun) C.Newton pass short left to T.Ginn for 13 yards, TOUCHDOWN
On Newton's second touchdown pass, to Ginn in the end zone, I'm not entirely sure just what kind of coverage the Saints were trying to pull off. It was third-and-goal from the Saints' 13-yard line, so I guess the concept was supposed to be to line up everybody just short of the goal line or right at the goal line and then play the eligible receivers as they got into their routes downfield. I suppose this kind of alignment is supposed to encourage the opposing quarterback to throw the ball short.
Yeah, not so much.
Carolina came out in shotgun with trips to the right and Ginn by himself again to the left. This time, Ginn had a really short split. He was maybe 5 yards or less from the left tackle which seemed to cause some confusion.
Just before the ball is snapped you can see Saints cornerback/safety Kyle Wilson directing traffic to Ginn's side which is kinda weird because it appears that he is the one who screwed up on the play. Once the Panthers receivers got down the field, the Saints secondary kinda sorta looks like they are playing some form of cover 2. The Saints appeared to do okay to the trips side, but for some odd reason Wilson looks to the trips side to help on the other side of the field, rather than concentrating on Ginn who is basically the only deep threat to his side.
Browner happens to be the corner across from Ginn on this play, and while once again I'm not 100 percent positive, I kinda think he was wrongly accused of being the culprit here. If this is supposed to be some form of cover 2, then Browner was rightly distracted by Tolbert running a route in the flat. Hell, you would be too if you thought that big ass bowling ball might catch a pass and have 5 yards to get up a head of steam before you had to tackle him to keep him out of the end zone.
With Browner squatting and getting ready to break up a pass to Tolbert and Wilson stuck in no man's land looking to the other side of the field, Ginn is able to easily find a hole between the two. Newton put that pass right on him.
That was easy money and by now Cam was starting to cook with fish grease! (Translation: Newton got in a rhythm and started to throw the ball a lot better).
On Carolina's next possession, offensive coordinator Mike Shula actually came with some shenanigans to help them get in the end zone.
2-13-NO 13 (5:01) (Shotgun) C.Newton pass short left to D.Funchess for 13 yards, TOUCHDOWN
After matriculating the ball from their own 40-yard line down into the red zone, the Panthers had a first-and-goal from the New Orleans 8-yard line. Newton was stuffed on an attempted quarterback sneak for a loss of 5 yards on that play, bringing up second-and-goal to go from the 13-yard line.
Shula sent three tight ends into the game which normally would signal that the Panthers were going to run the ball. Instead of lining up in a heavy set, the Panthers had all three tight ends in a tight bunch to the right side of the formation, just outside the right tackle. They also had Funchess out wide to the left and running back Jonathan Stewart lined up just outside the left tackle and off the line of scrimmage so that nobody was in the backfield with Cam.
Even though this seems like a definite passing formation, teams still have to worry about Newton running a quarterback draw in the red zone. For that reason, most of the linebackers hesitate at first when the ball was snapped. Stewart running a route to the flat pulled the other one out of the throwing lane. That gave Funchess just enough time to beat Browner inside on a slant route and Newton threw a laser so that the underneath defenders couldn't break up the pass, allowing Funchess to get in the end zone.
Remember kids, he who hesitates is lost!
1-10-CAR 28 (1:03) (Shotgun) C.Newton pass incomplete deep left to T.Ginn
Right at the end of the third quarter the Panthers missed out on yet another opportunity for a touchdown pass. As you can see this is a carbon copy of the play from the first quarter where Cam overthrew Ginn, only this time Newton was on the money and old stone hands just flat out dropped it. I mean it was just potentially a 70-yard-plus touchdown, nbd.
Maybe it was Ginn's way of paying back Newton for overthrowing him earlier, who knows.
What sucked for Carolina is that was the first time they missed on a long touchdown and ended up not scoring on the drive.
But it wasn't the last missed opportunity on that drive.
3-10-CAR 28 (:52) (Shotgun) C.Newton pass incomplete deep middle to C.Brown
After Funchess dropped a 9-10 yard comeback on second down, the Panthers faced a third-and-10 from their own 28-yard line. With Carolina only leading by three at that point, 27-24, the Saints were evidently feeling some desperation so they sent an all-out blitz. And when I say all-out, I mean all-out because it appeared to be eight rushers coming after Newton.
Of course when you do that and you don't have a safety deep, that could cause a whole lot of trouble on the back end of your defense. Even with all those cats rushing, Newton still had a good amount of time to pass. Enough time for Brown to get open on a post from the slot against, you guessed it, Browner. There was also enough time for Ginn to get open on another fade route up the sideline on the same side.
Newton opted for what probably seemed like the easier pass, to Brown across the middle. Instead of gunning it to him, he tried to loft it and just barely overthrew him.
If he connects with Brown on that pass, baring something like him pulling a hamstring, he is going to score. Had he thrown a good ball to Ginn instead he is probably going to score on that play as well. In the span of three plays, the Panthers missed out on two (or three if you count Cam throwing to Brown rather than Ginn) separate 72-yard touchdown opportunities.
That's why if you're the Saints, sometimes it's better to be lucky than good (which since they suck so bad at this point they better go out and buy every damn lucky charm they can find).
I'm sure you probably get the point by now, but guess what, we are just now getting to the fourth quarter.
2-8-NO 45 (12:02) (Shotgun) C.Newton pass deep right to T.Ginn for 45 yards, TOUCHDOWN
Ok, so this was kinda funny.
Tired of getting their asses torched on the back end, the Saints started running some ...Tampa 2! (If you follow me on Twitter you know why this is funny). Or at least they tried.
Tampa 2 is probably not the coverage you want to go to when you have a bunch of guys hurt in the secondary. The problem is it takes a lot of discipline to play that coverage and to know where you are supposed to be. Even teams that run it a lot get caught slipping every now and then when one or two guys try to jump a short route and leave someone open behind them.
Then there are times when you have a guy like Wilson who is supposed to be one of the two deep safeties, decide "fuck getting deep, bruh, I'm just going to watch all these short routes in front of me." Even if you didn't see the game on Sunday you can probably guess how that turned out for New Orleans.
This was certainly a great pass thrown by Newton, and I don't want to take anything away from that. However, the middle linebacker is not supposed to be trying to carry Ginn on a deep crossing route, that touchdown is pretty much all on Wilson instead. Once Cam saw that Wilson wasn't getting deep, he knew all he had to do was throw it over his head and high enough so that Ginn could go get it and that was going to be all she wrote.
If you need to, go ahead and take a bathroom break because we still have two more plays to go.
So, for whatever reason the Saints decided to keep trying to run Tampa 2. I guess maybe they figured with all of their back up corners being hurt they couldn't keep playing man-to-man and cover 3. Had it been me, I might have tried because the Tampa 2 results were friggin' ugly.
3-5-CAR 43 (3:41) (Shotgun) C.Newton pass incomplete deep middle to T.Ginn
I guess it's worth mentioning at this point that with 3:41 left in the game at their own 43-yard line and facing a third-and-5, Carolina was actually four points behind the Saints on the scoreboard, 34-38. This was going to be a huge play, but instead of going with what they normally do and playing cover 3 or going with man-to-man, New Orleans tried their hand at running Tampa 2 again.
Ginn was once again lined up wide to the left with trips on the other side and initially it looked like he was going to run another fade route up the sideline. Browner didn't really try to force him inside like he should have in Tampa 2, but this play wasn't really on him.
The problem was that Byrd was the deep safety to that side. He realized pretty quickly that there was no way he was going to be able to keep up with Ginn down the field once he got up a full head of steam 10 yards off the line. Expecting Ginn to break his route off short, or at the least stay wide for some odd reason, Byrd got caught with his hand in the cookie jar when Ginn cut inside for a post route.
Byrd ended up grabbing him just enough as Ginn crossed him up to get a flag for holding on the play giving the Panthers an automatic first down and new life.
Let's not let Ginn off the hook here either. He had a great opportunity to make that catch, one that would have gone for a 57-yard touchdown, and yet it slipped off the edge of his fingertips.
Would that have given the Saints too much time to come back and score? Perhaps, but you can't worry about that in that situation. Especially when there is no way Ginn could have known when the flag was thrown whether it was blatant or not.
2-9-NO 15 (1:10) (Shotgun) C.Newton pass short right to J.Cotchery for 15 yards, TOUCHDOWN
And now we come to Cam Newton's last touchdown pass of the game. Notice anything familiar about the set up? It isn't the exact same play where Browner got the holding penalty in the end zone earlier, but the concept is still the same. Ginn runs a wide route to the left, Cotchery beats his man in the slot, and Byrd once again vacates the middle trying to help Browner out with Ginn.
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At the end of the day do we give Cam Newton most of the credit for those five touchdown passes, or was it that the Saints defense was so bad? I don't think the two are mutually exclusive.
No, Cam didn't hit on every open deep ball, but he hit on more than half of them against the Saints. He can't throw it and catch it, after all. He also should be credited with going through his progressions and finding those open guys.
That doesn't mean the Saints weren't also God awful on the back end. It's understandable with all of the injuries they've sustained both before and during that game. Bad defenses are bad, so I would be remiss in not pointing just how awful they were last week and much of this season. I give credit where it's due, always, and in this case both sides of the coin have earned their fair share.
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SB Nation presents: Cam Newton won't stop until a kid gets his TD ball