Zach Wilson’s NFL career starts with a tough first test: The Carolina Panthers defense
“It was strange; the defense we played was a different alignment than most teams you’re going to see in the league. A lot of dime personnel, a lot of 3-3-5-kind of sets of weird fronts and just really making it hard on your run game.”
Those were the words of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, one of Zach Wilson’s role models. Appearing on The Pat McAfee Show, that’s how Rogers chose to describe the Carolina Panthers’ defense after he found himself sacked five times in a tough Week 15 outing last December.
Despite winning the game, Rodgers arguably had the most subpar performance of his MVP season, completing 20 of 29 passes for 143 yards and a touchdown.
The reasons for the performance are well described in one of Rodgers’ postgame quotes: “The Panthers defense is confusing; they rotate a lot and do things that are not normal in the NFL.”
Despite playing the majority of their snaps in a Jets familiar scheme (Cover 3), per Matt Bowen, below, Carolina’s defense is far from vanilla and won’t be anywhere similar to what Wilson has seen in practice.
Cover 3 — highest % of coverage snaps
— Matt Bowen (@MattBowen41) November 12, 2020
Showing five deep pre-snap, for example, is something that’s seldom seen anywhere in the NFL, besides Carolina (so is having 3-3-5 as base personnel).
It’s safe to say, then, that Wilson’s first real test will be, at least, a complex one. While it’s hard to predict the degree of difficulty the Panthers defense is going to present Wilson and company, 2020’s tape is critical to understanding the core principles of Carolina’s defensive coordinator Phil Snow, who enters his second year in the role.
After watching the entire game vs. the Packers, I separated my breakdown into two areas:
- The initial drive of the game, when the Packers countered the Panthers’ aggressiveness and exotic pre-snap looks with quick screens and hard-nosed rushing.
- After that, I broke down the five times Rodgers was sacked and how the Panthers’ defense managed to do it.
The point is pretty simple and obvious here: The Jets must avoid obvious passing situations as much as they can on Sunday.
The blueprint for the win: Packers first drive
First play: Showing five deep to Aaron Rodgers and confusing the QB
On the first play of the game, the Packers went with their empty set. Empty usually means a quick game – especially on early downs – and that was Rodgers’ intention on the play.
The Panthers went with a 3-3-5 look (three linemen, three linebackers and five defensive backs), while also showing a seldomly-seen five-deep look. The look confused Rodgers, who couldn’t find his first and second reads open.
Note the nice wrinkle by Snow: defensive end Brian Burns, No. 53, is standing up in order to show pass rush pre-snap only to drop into coverage. This is a good way to force a young quarterback to think he needs to throw quickly only to have every short zone area covered.
The first piece of advice for Mike LaFleur is to go with heavier personnel on early downs and run the football.
The aftermath: Screens and running the ball, a way to counter the aggressiveness
The rest of the Packers’ first drive gives the Jets the path to follow in order to win the game: run the football at Carolina’s lighter defensive backs and fronts, and give Wilson quick answers with RPOs.
After going empty on first down, the Packers’ offense opted for a more conservative approach: RPO running back flare and a smart inside zone check by Rodgers.
The first one beat a double-mug look (two linebackers in the A-gap) and the second one was a good demonstration of how to beat teams that want to be aggressive with lighter personnel (run at them).
The third one is a fantastic sign for the Jets if the Panthers are unwilling to adjust. When a team keeps trotting out a 3-3-5 look with only three-down linemen when the offense is in the gun, despite lining up in 12 or 21 personnel, the answer is simple: run the football.
A simple zone run to the right against three-down defensive linemen does wonders for a team’s offensive line, especially when running wide zone.
The uncovered linemen can quickly get into the second level and block the linebackers, giving the running back clear cutback lanes in the second level.
In the red zone, the Packers kept following the blueprint: clear the box and run the football. This was a solid six-yard gain on first down.
After that, Matt LaFleur showed a clear run look only to go play-action and have two guys wide open for the touchdown. Robert Tonyan was stopped short at the one, but it was clear that the Panthers were on their heels.
On the very next play, Tonyan scored: motion, play-action, quick flat, touchdown.
That’s the blueprint.
What to avoid: obvious passing situations
The Panthers’ defense is tough when the offense is in obvious passing situations. To keep Wilson’s life easier, the Jets must do everything in their power to avoid that. As seen above, running the ball and attacking the edges is a very good way to gain solid yards on first and second down, staying away from third-and-five-plus-yard situations.
But, obviously, this is pure theory.
When game time comes, obvious passing situations become unavoidable; and that’s when the Jets will need to be careful.
The Panthers sacked Rodgers five times total. Three of them came on third down and two of them in a two-minute drill-type situation (obvious passing plays).
These five plays will be broken down below.
Sack No. 1: Confusing pre-snap look in the 2-minute drill
This play exemplifies one of the advantages of playing with five defensive backs all the time: versatility and increased athleticism. Jeremy Chinn’s ability to match Davante Adams on the out from the opposing hash is just as impressive as this pre-snap look.
Sack No. 2: Allowing the front four to hunt
This sack is less about confusing Rodgers and more about the defensive line doing a solid job at collapsing the pocket. And that’s another con of allowing obvious passing situations to unfold against this defense: their four-man rush, with Brian Burns down on the line, is really good.
Rodgers is waiting on a longer developing route concept and gets sacked by an attacking pass rush.
Sack No. 3: rotation post-snap, as Derrick Brown cleans up for the sack
Third down is no bueno vs. this defense.
This is an exotic pre-snap look by the Panthers, with an eight-man box and the safety showing blitz. The ball is snapped and the Panthers immediately rotate to Cover 3.
The moment Rodgers tries to hitch step to progress through his reads, he’s pressured by Burns and ultimately ends up in Derrick Brown’s lap.
Sack No. 4: Aggressive man-to-man coverage generates the sack
Going with a pure progression concept on third and 5 against this defense is a recipe for failure. Rodgers, here, has another mesh concept going, with Adams and Aaron Jones running underneath shallows.
The Panthers are in Cover 1 robber, which means one safety can crash down and “cut” the crossers. That happens, and the moment Rodgers tries to progress back to Jones, he’s sacked.
It’s an aggressive front four. When on third down, rares will be the resp where the quarterback will be able to get to his hitch step clean.
Sack No. 5: Pure aggression and impressive rotation
The last sack is all about what this defense is willing to do with the game on the line. With the score 24-16 and the Panthers needing a stop, Snow shows an all-out zero-blitz look with a 3-3-5 personnel. Rodgers runs play-action and gets sacked.
This play represents another huge advantage of 3-3-5: the ability to rotate post-snap is huge because the five defensive backs can basically go anywhere to the field thanks to their speed. Look at how late Chinn rotates back to free safety on this play.
At the end of the day, the Panthers are playing Cover 3 after showing eight men near the line of scrimmage pre-snap. Everybody is quickly in their spots and Rodgers had nowhere to go with the ball – even if there was no pressure.
How to beat the Panthers in obvious passing situations
Obviously, there’s no secret formula, and I know a lot less about NFL offenses than Rodgers and Matt LaFleur do, but when facing a zone-heavy rotation defense, Hi-Lo concepts have to be the go-to. Pre-snap motion, of course, is equally important in order for Wilson – a rookie quarterback, as one shouldn’t forget that – has an idea of what the defense is planning to do coverage-wise.
Hi-Lo concepts are an easy way to put zone defenders in conflict. No matter who’s in the zone or how the defender got there (i.e., it does not matter If the defense is rotating like crazy as the panthers do), the goal is to make the defender chose between the shallow and the intermediate route (or the intermediate and deep route, if the offense is Hi-Lowing the safety, for example).
If the defender is disciplined and doesn’t bite in the shorter route, the offense is more than happy to hit the check-down and keep it moving.
The levels concept, as seen below, is a very famous Hi-Lo concept which attacks the linebacker with leveled routes. The defender needs to pick one route to cover, so the other will be open if executed on time.
If the Jets can limit Wilson’s reads to easy Hi-Lows on critical-to-convert third downs, the chances of back-breaking turnovers decrease. Furthermore, Wilson’s job becomes a lot easier.
Remove the need to interpret the big picture of a Panthers defense that loves to rotate and give quarterbacks binary reads. If the defender drops down, Wilson should throw high. If he stays flat, the rookie should take the low.
This, for one, is just one part of the game plan – an answer to the confusing and aggressive third-down looks the Panthers often feature.
Green Bay unveiled a winning strategy on its first drive vs. Carolina last December: run the ball, throw quick screens to the edge while allowing the quarterback a binary RPO read, utilize pre-snap motion to give the quarterback a pre-snap indication of man coverage on critical third downs, etc.
When facing the inevitable tough spot of an obvious passing situation, though, it’s up to Mike LaFleur to make Zach Wilson’s life easier. Limiting his post-snap work is one of many ways to go.