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Carolina Panthers' serious struggles; A.J. Green or Julio Jones?

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Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his weekly notebook. The topics of this edition include:

» Better receiver from the Class of 2011: A.J. Green or Julio Jones?

» An explanation for Jimmy Graham's renaissance.

» Keys to playing good defense in today's pass-happy NFL.

But first, a look at the stunning struggles of a perceived powerhouse ...

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I wouldn't fault Ron Rivera or Dave Gettleman for popping a couple aspirin over the weekend in an attempt to get rid of the Super Bowl hangover plaguing the Carolina Panthers.

After waltzing to Super Bowl 50 on a magic carpet ride that saw them rampage through the regular season with a 15-1 record, the defending NFC champions are already fighting for their playoff lives after stumbling out of the gate to a 1-3 start. Under the current playoff format, which dates back to 1990, the Panthers are the eighth Super Bowl participant to start the season 1-3 or worse the following season -- and only the 1996 Dallas Cowboys rebounded to make the playoffs. To make matters worse, only eight teams since 1990 (6.3 percent) have made the playoffs after a 1-4 start.

Now, I'm sure Rivera wishes that he could open up the medical cabinet and find the remedy for the Panthers' ailments, but the truth lies in the tape -- and the All-22 Coaches Film doesn't paint a pretty picture. To be frank, Carolina looks nothing like the rock-solid squad that obliterated opponents with a high-octane, smashmouth offense and a suffocating defense that thrived on takeaways and splash plays.

This year, the offense has been stuck in neutral, as Cam Newton struggles to regain his MVP form. The sixth-year pro is completing just 57.9 percent of his throws with a 6:5 touchdown-to-interception ratio and an 80.2 passer rating. Those numbers are pretty jarring, considering the stats that he produced a season ago (59.8 percent completion rate, 35:10 TD-to-INT ratio, 99.4 passer rating) while directing an offense that led the league in scoring at 31.2 points per game. Although Newton is pacing the team in rushing yards -- which actually isn't a good thing -- the big-bodied playmaker is having a tough time finding his mojo. And now he's out for Sunday's game against the Bucs, having suffered a concussion in the loss to Atlanta.

Looking at the All-22 Coaches Film, I believe Newton is out of sorts due to the immense pressure that he's facing within the pocket. He has been sacked 13 times (the second-highest number behind Andrew Luck's 15) and absorbed 27 quarterback hits (tied for fourth). As if the pounding wasn't enough, Newton has struggled against blitz tactics, as evidenced by his 50 percent completion rate and 30.2 passer rating against pressure over the past two games.

I'll admit that I might be a prisoner of the moment, suggesting that Newton is struggling based on a small sample size, but some of his problems go back to the 2015 season. Over his last nine games (including the playoffs), he has 11 giveaways (seven INTs and four fumbles) -- and those turnovers have been a critical factor in the Panthers' 4-5 record during that span.

While it's easy to pin some of Newton's woes on the offensive line, the biggest factor contributing to the MVP's decline has been the lack of punch in the Panthers' running game. Remember, this is a team that rode a streak of 35 straight games with at least 100 rushing yards -- a streak that just ended in Atlanta. Teams were so fearful of the Panthers' dynamic running game with Jonathan Stewart as the feature back that they routinely committed eight and nine defenders to the box. These loaded boxes left Panthers receivers with single coverage on the outside.

"The only way to stop a team that uses RPOs [run-pass options] and zone-read concepts is to play more man-to-man," said an AFC defensive coordinator familiar with the Panthers' offense. "You have to dare them to beat you with the passing game and their weapons on the outside."

Last season, most of Carolina's opponents were forced to use those tactics to defend the Panthers with Stewart in the fold. The 29-year-old back remains a dangerous downhill runner with an explosive combination of strength and power -- when he's healthy, that is. Stewart has been sidelined by a hamstring injury he suffered early in the Week 2 game. With No. 28 in the lineup, the Panthers' power-read offense is nearly impossible to defend, with a pair of big bodies (Newton and Stewart) probing the middle on an assortment of option plays that expose undisciplined defenders at the point of attack. Think about it this way: Since 2015, the Panthers are 14-1 and average 145.2 rush yards per game with Stewart in the lineup -- compared with the team's 2-3 record and 118.2 average without him.

That's significant production from the running game when the RB1 is on the field. More importantly, it's the kind of production that forces defensive coordinators to make stopping Carolina's running game the top priority. That kind of focus and emphasis on neutralizing the run isn't happening with Fozzy Whittaker and Cameron Artis-Payne anchoring the ground attack. Not to blast the Panthers' young runners, but they simply don't command the same kind of respect as Stewart -- and it shows in how teams are defending the offense in the bell-cow back's absence. For instance, in Week 3, the Vikings played some "2-Man" (two deep safeties with man coverage underneath) against the Panthers in critical situations. This allowed Minnesota to take away the deep balls to Corey Brown and Ted Ginn Jr., while also enabling the defenders to undercut the intermediate routes of Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess. The Broncos and Falcons succeeded with similar combination-man-coverage tactics. The Panthers' general lack of a running game has forced Newton to throw into loaded coverages and tighter windows, which has played a role in his increased number of giveaways.

But let's not pin all of Carolina's woes on the MVP or the offense -- the defense is just as responsible for the team's slow start.

That's right: I'm calling out Rivera's baby for its poor performance thus far. This Panthers defense is surrendering 10 more points (29.5 points per game, compared with19.3 in 2015) and averaging fewer takeaways (1.8, compared with 2.4) and sacks (2.3, compared with 2.8) than last year's unit.

The surge in points allowed is obviously significant -- at the end of the day, it is the only statistic that truly matters -- but I'm really concerned about the lack of takeaways and pressure. This is a team that is built on the premise of dominating at the point of attack and disrupting the timing of the passing game with a ferocious pass rush, yet we aren't seeing the front line imposing its will on opponents. Sure, Kawann Short, Star Lotulelei and rookie Vernon Butler create a strong push up the middle, but the Panthers aren't getting any contributions from their edge rushers, Kony Ealy and Charles Johnson. Neither defensive end has a single sack. While I don't believe either guy is elite, the Panthers need one of them to step up and fill the DPR role (designated pass rusher) on the defense. Ealy was expected to handle those duties after flashing in Super Bowl 50 (three sacks and an INT), but he just hasn't been a force off the edge. The team desperately needs him to emerge as a double-digit-sacks guy to get the defense back on track. Remember, this is a team that hasn't had a dominant edge rusher since Greg Hardy posted 15 sacks in 2013. The lack of an established DPR is one of the reasons why the young secondary has been exposed.

Julio Jones' 300-yard game put the spotlight on the team's decision to let Josh Norman walk during the offseason, but it is too late to cry over spilled milk. The Panthers didn't view the cantankerous cover man as a true shutdown corner and figured their reliance on a zone-based scheme would make it easier to plug young corners into the lineup. Now, I know the recent struggles suggest otherwise, but I actually believe the Panthers' woes were due to a faulty game plan (Carolina played more single-high-safety coverage with the corners locked in man-to-man against Atlanta) that exposed their corners' lack of experience and unrefined technique. That doesn't absolve the young corners -- particularly Bene Benwikere, who was swiftly (and to be honest, surprisingly) cut on Friday -- from their disappointing play, but this is a team where the pass rush is supposed to alleviate the pressure on the back end. If quarterbacks are allowed to hold the ball for extended periods of time, the coverage eventually will crack.

Overall, the Panthers have to get back to their identity as a well-rounded football team built on physicality, toughness and fundamentally sound ball. Carolina's lost its way a bit after being celebrated as one of the best football teams in the league, but the Panthers still have enough time to turn it around. If they can get back to their blue-collar ways on both sides of the ball, they can get back to even by midseason and position themselves to make a run down the stretch.

ASK THE LEAGUE: Would you take A.J. Green or Julio Jones?

It's kind of ironic that Julio Jones (12 catches for 300 yards and a touchdown) and A.J. Green (10 catches for 173 yards and a touchdown) both enjoyed banner days in Week 4. Their careers have been joined at the hip since they burst on the scene as five-star recruits in 2008. The duo battled for top billing in the recruiting rankings, in the SEC and then in the 2011 NFL Draft. Since entering the league as top-10 picks, they've both emerged as perennial Pro Bowlers, the kind of prototypical WR1s that every team covets in a pass-happy league. Considering their synonymous careers and how they both continue to dominate the game from the perimeter, I thought I would reach out to some league folks and see which big-bodied playmaker they'd rather have. Here's the question I asked, followed by their responses:

If you needed a WR1 to build your offense around, which one would you want: Julio Jones or A.J. Green?

AFC pro personnel director: "Can I have both of them? Both are big, fast and have good ball skills. They are versatile and capable of aligning in the slot to create mismatches. In addition, they both are excellent at the line of scrimmage and can defeat press coverage with ease. Julio has better strength and Green is more fluid. Both can win the 50-50 balls and both have the ability to turn a 6-yard slant into a touchdown. I think Green has been more durable, so I will go with him."

NFC scout: "Green. He is a looser athlete with a better all-around game."

NFC senior personnel executive: "Jones. He is bigger and more physical. Plus, Green is a bit of a disappearing act at times. I've seen too many defensive backs take the ball from him in critical moments."

Former AFC general manager: "Green. Easy answer. Durability equals availability. Jones is always battling through some kind of injury. He's like a Lamborghini -- he costs more and is more powerful, but he needs that high-end maintenance."

AFC senior personnel executive: "Green. I like his hands and route-running skills. Jones is more explosive, but Green is the more polished player."

MY TAKE

This is one of the toughest personnel debates I've encountered. Both are ideal WR1s with the size, speed and athleticism to absolutely dominate the game. Each guy is capable of lining up at "X" (split end), "Z" (flanker) or "E" (slot receiver) in any scheme or system. In addition, Jones and Green are capable of thriving on catch-and-run plays that allow them to make the magic happen when they get the ball on the move underneath coverage. Not to mention, each is a legitimate big-play threat and red-zone weapon as the focal point of his offense.

From a statistical standpoint, the career numbers are remarkably close:

Green (80 games): 447 receptions for 6,639 yards (14.9 ypc) and 47 touchdowns.

Jones (69 games): 436 receptions for 6,689 yards (15.3 ypc) and 37 touchdowns.

The Bengals star has the edge in big plays (Green has 34 receptions of 40-plus yards, compared with Jones' 27), while the Falcons playmaker boasts a higher yards-per-game average (96.9 to 83.0).

Thus, the debate really comes down to style preference.

While I have the utmost respect for Green and his ballerina-like game, there is something about Jones' explosiveness and physicality that would make him my preferred WR1. I just believe that he is better suited to play in a scheme that places an emphasis on "RAC" (run after catch) on short passes inside the numbers. Green certainly could do the same, but Jones' superior size and speed seemingly would make him a better fit in my preferred offense.

NEXT-GEN STATS: How did the Seahawks unlock Jimmy Graham?

After watching Jimmy Graham post back-to-back 100-yard games for the Seattle Seahawks, I couldn't help but wonder why it took so long for offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell to figure out a way to get the three-time Pro Bowl tight end more involved in an offense that desperately needed a big-bodied option on the perimeter.

That's not a slight to Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse or Tyler Lockett and their contributions to the Seahawks' offense, but Graham is arguably one of the most potent pass-catching tight ends in NFL history, as evidenced by his ridiculous production from 2011 to 2014, when he averaged 89 catches for 1,099 yards and 12 touchdowns per season. Most importantly, he can dominate the game as a "move" tight end (versatile Y-receiver) and create mismatches on the perimeter with his gigantic physical dimensions (6-foot-7, 265 pounds) and athleticism. As a former college basketball player, Graham is a box-out specialist with exceptional athleticism and leaping ability. He tracks down 50-50 balls like they're rebounds, exhibiting outstanding strength, body control and balance pinning defenders to his hip while extending with one or two hands. Graham's unique ability to track and adjust to slightly off-target balls makes him a dynamic weapon in the red zone and an effective "chain mover" between the 20s.

Considering how Graham dominated the NFL in New Orleans, I thought the Seahawks were wise to make the deal when they had a chance to exchange a first-round pick and Max Unger for the big-bodied pass catcher in March 2015 -- especially with running back Marshawn Lynch nearing the end of his career and the Seahawks expected to transition into a pass-first offense built around franchise quarterback Russell Wilson. Despite the diminutive quarterback's propensity for delivering explosive plays while on the run, the team needed a big target to anchor the passing game and command double-teams, to create opportunities for the rest of the playmakers on the perimeter.

That's why I couldn't understand the Seahawks' failure to get the prized addition untracked before his season-ending torn patellar tendon in the middle of the 2015 campaign. Graham finished the season with just 48 receptions for 605 yards (12.6 yards per catch) and two scores in 11 games. That's a far cry from the sensational numbers (386 receptions for 4,752 and 51 touchdowns in 78 games) he posted as the focal point of the Saints' passing game. Although the yards-per-catch mark from 2015 (12.6) was nearly identical to that over his Saints career (12.3), I was surprised by the Seahawks' under-utilization of a proven impact player.

Looking at the numbers from the first two games of the 2016 season, Graham appeared to be confined to a role as a complementary player in the passing game. Against the Miami Dolphins in Week 1 and the Los Angeles Rams in Week 2, he mustered a total of 53 receiving yards on four receptions. Considering the team was adjusting to life without Lynch, the lack of production was mystifying to me, based on how he could alter the way defenses attacked the Seahawks. Since Week 3, though, the Seahawks have made a more concerted effort to get Graham involved in the offense, and the Next-Gen Stats suggest the team tweaked its personnel groupings to generate better matchups for the TE1.

During the first two weeks of the season, the Seahawks only aligned in "12" personnel (1 RB, 2 TEs and 2 WRs) on seven total snaps with Graham on the field. The team leaned heavily on its "11" personnel package (1 RB, 1 TE and 3 WRs) during those weeks, particularly in Week 2 against the Rams, when the Seahawks used the grouping on 44 of his 50 total plays. The emphasis on the three-wide package could be partly attributed to Wilson's success in spread formations down the stretch in 2015, or maybe the desire to get the ultra-talented Lockett on the field as a WR3.

Regardless, the increased use of "11" personnel pitted Graham and his crew against nickel and dime defenses (five or six defensive backs) instead of base personnel. With so many hybrid safeties and extra cornerbacks on the field, Graham's speed advantage was neutralized, and he was unable to stretch the field as a vertical threat down the seams or boundary. This virtually eliminated his big-play potential and made him a non-factor in the passing game for the Seahawks.

Following a loss to the Rams in Week 2, coach Pete Carroll and the offensive staff must've gotten together and determined that the best way to get the big-bodied playmaker more looks was to force the defense to play "big-boy football" against the "12" and "13" personnel (1 RB, 3 TE and 1 WR) sets. By putting more tight ends on the field, the Seahawks force defensive coordinators to keep their "bigs" (defensive linemen and linebackers) out there, which creates a sizable advantage for Graham in the passing game.

Since Week 3, the Seahawks have used "12" or "13" personnel on 57.3 percent of Graham's total plays (47 of 82). Considering the various run-heavy formations that can be created out of this package, defensive play callers must stay in base personnel or run the risk of being hammered by an offense that doesn't mind playing in a phone booth.

Looking at the All-22 Coaches Film, I noticed that the Seahawks used a wide variety of formations from their "12" package with Luke Willson (TE2) aligning as a fullback, H-back or tight end in the set. The constant reshuffling poses a problem for the defense, but the threat of the offense aligning in jumbo formations prevents the defense from shuttling defensive backs on the field. With Graham's combination of athleticism and agility overwhelming linebacker types, the Seahawks have started to reap the rewards from their marquee acquisition.

Wilson also has benefitted from the team spicing up the game plan with more heavy sets featuring Graham as a centerpiece. In the past two games, the quarterback has connected on 69.1 percent of his passes, averaged 276 passing yards and posted a 4:0 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Most importantly, he has compiled a 125.7 passer rating and helped an offense that only scored one touchdown during the first two weeks of the season find pay dirt seven times and average 32.0 points in the past two games.

The reintroduction of the long ball also has factored into Graham's rebirth. He has been used on more vertical routes in recent weeks, with tremendous success. While watching the tape, I noticed that he has run more seam routes and post-corners from an attached alignment (next to the offensive tackle) or in the slot in Weeks 3 and 4. Those downfield routes against overmatched linebackers have netted big gains for the Seahawks' offense, as evidenced by the air-yards-per-reception marks in each of those games (15.7 in Week 3 and 13.5 in Week 4). With Graham snagging 11 of 16 targets for 196 yards and a touchdown from tight (attached) or slot alignments over the past two games, the Seahawks' evolving personnel tactics and renewed long-ball emphasis have helped Graham finally emerge as an impact player in the passing game.

THE REBUTTAL: Roman Harper on the Saints' defensive struggles.

New Orleans Saints safety Roman Harper has been a part of championship-caliber defenses throughout his NFL career. The 11th-year pro was a key member of a ballhawking Saints defense that captured the Lombardi Trophy in Super Bowl XLIV, and he helped the Panthers' D spark a run to Super Bowl 50. The veteran returned to New Orleans this offseason to help rebuild a defense that's recently fallen on hard times, and I thought I would check in with him to discuss the challenges of playing good defense in today's pass-happy NFL. Here are his thoughts:

What does it take to really play good defense in this league?

Roman Harper: "Playing fast. Everybody being on the same page. Being one '11' [a unit that plays together]. Understanding what we're trying to get done on each play call. When you do that, you play fast. You play reckless. You attack people and make them defend themselves. You do that, and you're going to be successful."

What's more important to playing good defense: pressure or coverage?

RH: "They have to work hand in hand. I think pressure definitely helps the coverage. It makes it easier. But coverage also helps the pass rush. When the quarterback is forced to go to his second and third option, it gives the rush more time to get to home. That's a coverage sack. It has to work hand in hand. No part is bigger than the other. All 11 [guys] have to be focused and working together to make it work. That's how you become successful."

What are some of the things that you've taken from your recent experience at Carolina to help the Saints' defense get back on track?

RH: "A lot of the zone concepts that we were doing in Carolina. As a veteran, you try to help the young guys understand the differences between playing zone and man. I'm also trying to help them understand the big picture of what we are trying to get accomplished on each play ... Trying to help the guys understand how offenses will attack you."

What's the biggest difference between the Saints' Super Bowl-winning defense you were part of and the unit that you're leading now?

RH: "Experience. A little bit of attitude and swagger. But I think that comes with executing and doing things right all of the time. We have to understand who we are as a team, as individual players and as a defense. We had a lot of guys who were veteran guys [on the Super Bowl team]. This is a much younger group. ... At the end of the day, I think it comes with having success. The attitude, swagger and confidence of being the baddest dudes on the field come from winning. ... We have to know that our play is coming, and we just need to keep hammering at them until we break through. Winning builds that confidence. We can get things done when we stick together and do the right things on each and every play. When you do that, good things begin to happen."

MY TAKE

There's nothing like having a veteran on the squad to act as a player-coach on the field. It is apparent that Harper fills that role for the Saints, as he uses his experiences to shape and mold a young secondary that does have talent. He is not only accurate about the importance of everyone doing their jobs, but his belief that success breeds confidence is one that is shared in every NFL locker room.

This Saints' defense has struggled for years, ranking 31st or worse in all but one season since 2012, and the team needs to take little steps toward greatness each week. The Saints have to learn how to keep the ball in front of the defense to eliminate big plays. In addition, they must do a better job of flying to the ball and gang-tackling to reduce some of the explosive plays teams have generated on running plays. Coordinator Dennis Allen has harped on the details since taking over as the defensive leader near the end of 2015, but it always helps to have a handful of veterans to convey the same message. Harper has the pedigree and experience to fill that role. The results haven't come right away, but the 33-year-old certainly is doing all that he can to pull the wagon in the right direction.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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