Just six days after their humiliating 34-7 Monday night loss to the Seattle Seahawks, the New Orleans Saints will take the field again for a crucial NFC South matchup with the Carolina Panthers, and Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan will be looking to slow down Cam Newton and the Panther offense.
With both teams sporting 9-3 records, the Saints and Panthers are tied for the lead in the NFC South.
Sunday night’s contest in New Orleans is the first of two upcoming meetings between these squads, and it’s highly important that the Saints hold serve at home.
While the Panthers bring a lights-out defense to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, their offense also presents a number of challenges for the Saints. Carolina quarterback Cam Newton is on a roll as of late, and slowing him down will be one of the keys to a New Orleans victory.
The Saints are coming off a disastrous defensive performance in Seattle, where they yielded 429 yards and 27 points. (The Seahawks defense scored a touchdown on a Drew Brees fumble). Improvements are in order, as New Orleans now faces another capable offensive unit.
The greatest strength of the Carolina offense is its balance. The Panthers’ effective passing game is supplemented with a powerful ground game that presents a defense with multiple running threats.
Running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart team with fullback Mike Tolbert to form a physical, downhill rushing attack. Carolina also boasts a quality offensive line led by center Ryan Kalil and tackle Jordan Gross. The Panthers' successful offensive formula calls for them to establish the run first before taking to the air with deep shots down the field to a collection of fleet-footed receivers.
But what makes Carolina extremely difficult to defend is the added element of the read-option play, which Newton executes as well as any quarterback in the league.
As defensive coordinator, Ryan is charged with the task of corralling Newton, who, like Seahawks signal-caller Russell Wilson, can beat defenses with his legs as well as his arm. On the season, Newton has 2,616 passing yards, 447 rushing yards, and 25 total touchdowns.
From a schematic standpoint, Ryan is as unpredictable as they come. His defense is officially a 3-4, but he runs a wide range of defensive formations that include almost every combination imaginable. These include the 3-3 and the 2-4, both of which call for five defensive backs.
In the Saints’ Week 11 win over the San Francisco 49ers, Ryan employed a 3-5 defensive front with two outside linebackers (or a linebacker and a safety) on the line of scrimmage, thus creating a 5-3 look. This was installed to counter the read-option threat of 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, while at the same time serving as an effective means of slowing down running back Frank Gore.
This defense was by-and-large successful, and Ryan could very well use it again against the Panthers, who loosely resemble the 49ers in terms of personnel and offensive scheme.
Against the Panthers, the Saints are likely to see much more of the read-option than they did against the 49ers, especially after Russell Wilson had such tremendous success with it on Monday night. Wilson finished with 47 yards rushing, to go with 310 yards through the air. Stopping this play should be a top priority for New Orleans this Sunday.
Defending the read-option is primarily dependent on the defensive front filling all the gaps along the line of scrimmage. The outside linebacker (or defensive end, depending on which scheme is being used) doesn't have to charge wildly into the backfield and commit before the quarterback meshes with the running back. Instead, he can approach the mesh point with caution.
This is easier said than done, as football is a high-intensity game played at breakneck speed. When the outside linebacker surges recklessly into the backfield, however, he makes the quarterback’s job much easier. This is because the faster the defender commits one way or the other, the faster the quarterback is able to decide whether to hand the ball off or keep it and run.
Saints outside linebacker Junior Galette failed miserably at defending the read-option against Seattle.
Here, Galette fires out and charges deep into the backfield.
Galette’s hasty move allows Wilson to make a quick decision.
Wilson tucks and runs for an easy first down, outrunning inside linebacker David Hawthorne to the sideline.
Against Newton on Sunday, Galette and fellow outside linebacker Parys Haralson must be more disciplined.
Here, against Carolina, Patriots defensive end Rob Ninkovich shows how it’s done. Carolina has an extra man in the backfield, but the concept is the same.
Ninkovich doesn’t fly too far into the backfield, but quickly gets into position to make a play.
He patiently awaits Newton’s decision, and stops him for only a one-yard gain.
While a cautious approach is one way to defend the read-option, it's not the only way. Another tactic that Ryan can stress to his defense, no matter the scheme, is to be physical with Newton. When the quarterback meshes with the running back on a read-option play, the defenders don’t know who the ball-carrier is, and they’re allowed to treat both players as runners. The quarterback can therefore be defended like a runner until he makes his decision and he’s out of the play.
The Saints allowed Wilson to go largely untouched on the read-option, even when their linebackers charged into the backfield. They simply cannot afford to do this against Newton. If Galette and Haralson are going to fire out into the backfield, then they must hit Newton with regularity. This could discourage Panther offensive coordinator Mike Shula from putting his quarterback at such risk, and thus cut down on the number of read-option plays that are called.
The importance of playing gap-sound football is also highly important when defending option quarterbacks such as Newton. A failure to maintain gaps could result in big plays, even when the Panthers don’t run the read-option.
On this scoring play, Carolina sends wideout Brandon Lafell in motion, and he moves into the tailback position.
When the ball is snapped, Newton and the Panthers offensive line and backfield show a speed option look to the right, prompting San Francisco defensive end Justin Smith to crash down.
Instead of carrying out the play, the Panthers run a counter to the left side, pulling their right guard.
Smith has already taken himself out of the play, and the guard executes the kick-out block on the linebacker.
DeAngelo Williams takes the handoff and gallops through the gaping hole. He then races to the outside and turns upfield and into the end zone for the score. This play was the only touchdown scored in a 10-9 Panthers victory.
On Sunday night, the New Orleans defensive front must be wary of this counter play, and stay within their assigned gaps at all times, as the Panthers will likely run numerous option plays to set it up.
Slowing down the read-option is crucial, but it’s only part of the battle against Newton and Panthers, as the strong-armed signal-caller can sling the ball down the field as well as he can run it.
The Saints were horrendous defending the pass against Seattle, no matter what coverage they were in. Ryan demonstrated very little trust in his cornerbacks, other than the dependable Keenan Lewis.
The Saints used mostly safeties in downfield coverage, and the Seahawks wide receivers gave them fits on crossing routes.
Against the Carolina receiving corps, the same problems will occur again if Ryan doesn’t allow his faster corners to see more playing time against the likes of Steve Smith, Ted Ginn Jr., and Brandon Lafell, all of whom possess considerable speed.
Above all else, however, the Saints must pressure Newton when he drops back to pass. The Panthers experienced pass protection problems in the early portion of the season, as they gave up 13 combined sacks to the Bills and Cardinals.
Shula addressed this issue by spreading defenses out. The Panthers started motioning running backs into the slot to draw out opposing safeties and linebackers, who were giving Carolina problems with blitzes. Don't expect this to stop Ryan from rolling the dice at least a few times, however, as he'll look to send various blitzes off the edges.
Ryan is known for using a lot of pre-snap movement from his linebackers and safeties. This doesn’t allow the quarterback to settle into a comfort zone or grow accustomed to a particular defensive set. The Saints will likely use this tactic often against Newton on Sunday night.
Finally, the New Orleans defensive front must control the line of scrimmage, and snuff out the Panthers' downhill running game. Carolina relies on churning out yards with Williams, Stewart and Tolbert to sustain their impressive offensive balance.
There’s no special trick or scheme to stopping the Panthers rushing attack. The Saints defensive line must control the point of attack and whip the Panthers offensive line. If New Orleans has to bring up safety help to stop the run, the pass defense will be far more limited in what they can do.
For all the Saints’ woes in slowing down Wilson Monday night, they did a respectable job containing Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch, who was held to 45 yards on 16 carries. Defensive linemen Brodrick Bunkley, Akiem Hicks and Cameron Jordan must deliver again this Sunday.
After suffering an embarrassing defeat, the New Orleans Saints will attempt to jump back into the win column on Sunday night in a crucial home contest with Carolina. In order to secure victory, Rob Ryan’s defense must slow down Cam Newton and the Panthers offense, and a successful implementation of the tactics discussed above could prove essential to winning that battle.