Carolina hasn't had a great start to battling the Super Bowl loser hangover. The Panthers opened the season with a loss to Denver, and notched just one win over its next five games. A date with the Arizona Cardinals didn't look any easier for Carolina. But a shift in approach on offense changed the outcome for the first time since Week 2.
Instead of trying to hit the home run deep, the Panthers focused on carving up the Cardinals' pressure-focused defense by connecting on short passes. Carolina varied offensive formations, running out of the shotgun and pistol with decent success, and turning to the play action out of offset I formations to complete quick throws on a few occasions. Many of those quick passes went to Ted Ginn Jr., who utilized his toe-dragging ability along the sideline on multiple occasions.
The juxtaposition against Kelvin Benjamin's route chart is surprising, especially considering how Ginn has long been known for his speed. Carolina opted to trust the bigger receiver deep against smaller defensive backs, while using Ginn's speed in the short game. Just six of Cam Newton's 27 pass attempts were targeted for a receiver 15 yards or deeper, per Next Gen Stats. Newton was the fourth-quickest to throw in Week 8 at 2.32 seconds per pass. The change kept Arizona on its toes, cutting off the pass rush and blitzes at the knees by getting the ball out before the rush arrived, and spreading out the defense to create holes for Jonathan Stewart to run.
Stewart finished with 95 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries, a fairly pedestrian stat line by traditional running standards, but he wasn't the only threat on the ground. The Panthers turned to designed runs for Newton, using quarterback draws and read options to get the quarterback going. Newton broke a few for first downs and to move Carolina closer to the goal line, utilizing his size to power ahead for extra yards, and speed to get to the edge on Arizona's defense. This designed draw extended an early drive that ended in a touchdown for the Panthers.
The Panthers also benefited from a defensive scheme that used various looks to confused Arizona's defensive line. This stunt combination of the interior linemen and linebacker Luke Kuechly allowed Kuechly to rush almost free, battling a one-handed block by the left guard and a feeble attempt at a block by David Johnson before getting to Carson Palmer.
Despite going Nickel (four linemen, two linebackers, five defensive backs) on 92.2 percent of downs, Carolina continued to mix it up defensively throughout the game, walking a variety of defenders up to the line to give Palmer an array of looks. The Panthers brought six rushers (a defensive back blitz off one edge, and a delayed blitz off the opposite edge by linebacker Shaq Thompson) to get Darryl Worley into the backfield in 2.8 seconds, below the typical three seconds quarterbacks have to pass, and sack Palmer deep in Cardinals' territory. It left Palmer without the comfort of a pocket, as evidenced by a sack on the next play in which Carolina beat Arizona's protection with a simple four-man rush, ending in a sack for Kawann Short in 3.1 seconds just outside the end zone.
The approach worked throughout the game, especially when the Cardinals were caught in slow-developing plays. On second-and-1 from Carolina's 46 midway through the third, the Cardinals pulled the right guard and tackle to the left on a counter play action fake, leaving the right side wide open to the rush. Playing in his first game of the season, defensive back Leonard Johnson, lined up on the line before the play, got a free rush directly to Palmer, who was just completing the run fake and was immediately taken down. With no back to chip the blitzer, it was game over for the Cardinals in a blinding 2.2 seconds on a short down and distance situation.
This style of pressure kept Arizona uncomfortable and left Palmer skittish at times in the pocket, forcing the ball out with chest and shovel passes -- one that resulted in a fumble returned for a touchdown by Thomas Davis -- and causing Palmer to lose the ball on two occasions. It threw a wrench in Arizona's offensive flow and limited their ability to counter to Carolina's methodical, efficient offense. It also gave Carolina an early cushion they protected for much of the game.
While the Panthers found success in the running game with the aforementioned formation variation, Stewart scored his touchdowns in short-yardage situations by bringing in the beef. Stewart twice found paydirt in heavy formations from two yards or less out, using effective blocking from pulling right guard Trai Turner and fullback Mike Tolbert on the first touchdown.
The second score wasn't quite as easy. Stewart needed all 240 pounds to force through the wash as Turner had to adjust his pull route, squeezing the hole on Tolbert, who tried to leap through into a block but jammed up the lane. No worries for Stewart, though, who broke multiple tackles with his stocky, powerful wrecking ball style of running into the end zone.
Carolina needed its defense for all four quarters. As Arizona mounted a late comeback attempt, the Cardinals found themselves in Panthers' territory when, on first down, Palmer forced a short, low pass out while under duress. In a play reminiscent of Super Bowl 50, Kony Ealy got a hand up to tip the pass to himself, which he caught for an interception that iced the game for Carolina.
The strategy was multilayered and encouraging for the Panthers moving forward: bring pressure to the opposing quarterback with intricate, confusing looks and blitzes, force turnovers, build a lead and then ride it out. Stewart's 25 carries showed a focus to keep the ball on the ground and maintain the advantage on the scoreboard, while the quick-passing attack moved the chains in increments and kept the ball in the hands of the Panthers. Star Lotulelei's three sacks led a unit that finished with eight and brought pressure from all angles. Carolina edged Arizona in the turnover column 2-1 and the time of possession battle 30:48 to 29:12, and thanks to the early scores, staved off the Cardinals for the Panthers' first win in over a month.
Other notes of interest from Week 8 in Next Gen Stats:
- Denver really trusts its defensive backs. The Broncos stacked the box with eight or more defenders against Chargers running back Melvin Gordon on 13 of Gordon's carries, during which the tailback rushed for 73 yards (5.6 yards per carry) to lead all rushers in the category. Gordon was also tied for third in running back efficiency, traveling 3.7 yards per every yard gained.
- Nick Foles found a familiar friend in Tyreek Hill while serving in relief duty against the Colts. The two connected on four of Hill's five receptions, including a 34-yard completion for a touchdown. Hill reached the highest maximum speed as a ball-carrying receiver in Week 8 at 21.91 mph, though it didn't happen on his touchdown.
Foles, meanwhile, had a perfect passer rating against the blitz, posting a 158.3 mark in the face of five rushes of five-plus rushers. The backup also finished second in the league in average air distance per completion with an average of 23 yards. Rookie Dak Prescott led all passers in the category with an average of 24.4 yards.
- In a back-and-forth affair, Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers shuffled outside of the pocket on 23.7 percent of his passes, completing 44.4 percent of such attempts.
- Drew Brees went after the right side of the field and cornerback Richard Sherman, completing 11 of 12 attempts to that side for 129 yards and a passer rating of 111.5. Sherman allowed five receptions on six targets for 62 yards and a passer rating of 109.7. Not exactly a shutdown day for Sherman and the Seahawks, who fell 25-20.