Next Gen Stats notebook: Cracks in Panthers' pass D?

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Is there a fissure forming in the Carolina Panthers' pass defense?

Prior to Week 15, Defensive Player of the Year candidate Josh Norman had allowed the lowest yards per coverage snap of any NFL cornerback, holding the murderer's row of DeAndre Hopkins, Mike Evans, T.Y. Hilton, Dez Bryant and Julio Jones to a combined nine catches and 89 yards.

Lost in the slap-fighting of the Panthers-Giants shootout, Norman had trouble covering Odell Beckham, who left several plays on the field after winning in coverage.

Fastest ball-carrier speeds of season
Player
Speed (MPH)
Team
22.60
ATL
22.60
ARI
22.44
CAR
22.30
PIT
22.15
KC
22.13
SF
22.13
BUF
22.11
JAX
22.05
ARI
22.01
PIT

After exchanging barbs with the Falcons wide receivers leading up to the Week 16 showdown, Norman turned in his least effective outing of the season. Julio Jones hauled in seven of eight targets for 91 yards with Norman in coverage, per Next Gen Stats. The one incomplete pass was a drop.

Norman hadn't surrendered a passer rating over 90.0 to any wideout prior to mid-December. Over the past two weeks, those numbers have been 107.1 versus Beckham and 114.1 against Jones.

We know Norman is a high-level cornerback, who has played more than just Cover-2 and Cover-3 this season -- contrary to popular belief.

There's no shame in battling to a near draw against two of the top five receivers in the NFL. Fortunately for Norman, he won't face Beckham, Jones, Antonio Brown or DeAndre Hopkins in the NFC playoffs.

The bigger issue for Carolina's pass defense has been the loss of slot corner Bene' Benwikere. Can a past-prime Cortland Finnegan hold his own in the slot versus the likes of Larry Fitzgerald, Doug Baldwin and Randall Cobb?

We'll find out next month.

Here's what else we learned from Next Gen Stats in Week 16:

1. Whereas Julio Jones entered the NFL as a can't-miss prospect, Penn State wideout Allen Robinson was much scrutinized after clocking an official 4.60 40-yard dash at the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine. Speed hasn't been an issue since Robinson landed in Jacksonville, however. The breakout wide receiver leads the league with 28 plays over 20 yards and is tied for the most touchdowns (14).

Robinson reached 21.80 mph on his 90-yard touchdown versus the Saints, the highest speed of any ball carrier in Week 16. In fact, it was the eighth-fastest speed on a touchdown this season.

2. Six different Texans players have attempted passes this season. As poorly as Bill O'Brien botched his quarterback room in September and early October, he and offensive coordinator George Godsey deserve credit for their creative game plans to wring value out of T.J. Yates and Brandon Weeden over the past two months. With the season on the line, O'Brien and Godsey concocted a two-quarterback system starring Weeden and special teamer B.J. Daniels, acquired on Nov. 19 and Dec. 21, respectively.

Playing 80 percent of the snaps, Weeden became the first quarterback in franchise history with two passing scores and a rushing touchdown in the same game. Playing a read-option/wildcat role, Daniels threw the ball just twice versus the Titans on his 14 snaps taken. Written off as a lost cause by the Cowboys, Weeden won his first start in 1,113 days.

3. Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters has emerged as the heavy favorite for Defensive Rookie of the Year honors, notching his eighth interception in Week 16. Peters is now leading the NFL in interceptions, interception-return yards (280) and passes defensed (33). After his latest 46-yard return at a max speed of 19.00 mph, Peters owns a top-five speed on a defensive turnover in three of the past four weeks.

Although Peters struggled with consistency in the first half of the season, he has been tremendous in the second half, allowing a 41.4 completion rate, 25.7 passer rating and 0:5 TD-to-INT ratio, per Pro Football Focus.

4. The Cardinals don't play defense like other teams. Their defensive ends are actually defensive tackles. Their leading tackler is a hybrid "moneybacker" drafted as a 211-pound safety. Prior to Pro Bowl safety Tyrann Mathieu's season-ending ACL tear, they had played 54.6 percent of their defensive snaps in dime (six defensive backs) -- the most in the league.

How would that change with Mathieu out of the lineup? The Cardinals doubled down, playing dime in 68.8 percent of their snaps, allowing just 4.1 yards per Packers offensive play in their most dominant performance of the season.

5. Will the Bills enter the 2016 season with the NFL's deepest backfield? LeSean McCoy is a two-time All Pro. Rookie Karlos Williams is a prototypical power back averaging 5.7 yards per carry. Late-season find Mike Gillislee has proven to be an intriguing change-of-pace option, averaging an eye-popping 10.4 yards on 23 rushing attempts. Gillislee recorded a top-three speed on a rushing touchdown for the third straight week. He now boasts two of the three fastest rushing touchdowns in the past two weeks. It's Rex Ryan's defense that must be fixed to complement an explosive offense next season.

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