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Monday, September 22, 2014

QB, OC Change Foolish

I get what's going on in the community today. That loss was an
embarassment, and I feel that one hard today too.

The first reaction of many?

Someone has to pay!

Then, you choose your favorite punching bag related to that success, and
hammer away.

This week, it's either Mike Shula or Cam Newton.

Newton's an easier one - as the QB he takes a lot of heat anyway. With
Newton, it's that temporary ideal of pushing the kid to the bench to
heal. Derek Anderson is painted as a savior, possibly short term.
While I'm not against Cam resting, and certainly both games he's had
scares with both his ankle and his rib, I'm pessimistic as to whether
Cam could truly heal with a week, two weeks worth of rest. I think this
is just Cam this year - a little nicked, hoping it doesn't get worse.

Anderson's a fine backup option, and if called, should answer well.
He's underrated. But, this is Cam's team. Cam might not be able to go
full read-option, and it might not be smart to do so this year; that,
plus the lack of a traditional running game, makes all this hard. But
as a pocket passer, I'm seeing an efficient QB who's still carrying a
lot on his back, and it's not too big for him. At that point, the
problem seems to be that the OL is playing poorly and too many attempts
make that worse. While there should be more short options for Newton,
the truth is if you put him behind, he's going to want it in chunks, not
bits. Anderson is the same guy there.

I hate to belittle the opinion, I just don't think that the movie trope
of "change the QB and everything gets better". Cam Newton isn't the
villain of this flick. His one turnover, related to the OL, isn't the
problem. His almost 70% completion percentage isn't the problem.

Then there's Shula. I don't think, facing the 30th ranked rush defense,
anyone saw this one going the way it did. Yes, there was a general lack
of establishing the run, and they came out in the third and did an OK
job of that before every back got hurt (!) in the third quarter. Even
without the read option, there are still packaged plays, there's still a
need to get plays that will get the ball out quicker at times. There's
still that need to get some running going to give Cam at least the
playaction stuff.

I'm not saying that Shula did a great job this week. This team's style
of play was an ill fit for the circumstances it put itself in. But,
it's a sound philosophy that, with proper OL play, still works. Now
that they know how little the OL is able to produce, they have to be
prepared to get the ball out fast. I'm all in favor of continuing the
18 yard, seemingly unstoppable stuff to Olsen and Benjamin (seemingly,
when there's time to throw). But it's time to get some stuff going
shorter, too. It couldn't have hurt to have had the short yard
receivers in (Cotchery, Avant) and healthy. But this team is too deep
to throw excuses at it.

It's time for them to respond. It's time to seek help if required (more
input from John Ramsdell, Ricky Proehl). But I don't see cutting an OC
as any sort of realistic option, and I don't think benching Newton is
deserved or helpful. It's time to focus on the OL and make some hard
choices - see what puts the best 5 out there. If that means Fernando
Velasco and Garry Williams on the right side, maybe so. I don't know.
You lose a lot of run blocking there, but at this point, you can't lose
but so much there now. The OL is, to me, "the problem". You put all
your coaches on that concern as long as you can.

And while I dug Philly Brown as a receiver, who adds some explosion, I
don't know. When possible, they need more experience back on the field.
Jason Avant was clearly limited, and Kelvin Benjamin does still have
some young mistakes. Having at least one experienced WR out there most
of the time couldn't have hurt. Part of game design is fitting your
team's strengths - an offense that includes Olsen, Benjamin, and Brown
is a trio that suggests downfield passing. And that's fine, but someone
has to handle the underneath. You have to keep the chains moving.

Carolina's behind the 8-ball. Still over .500, great. But it's hard to
believe that this particular set of circumstances are great for repeat
success. Trust me, I have more questions than answers, but right now I
don't see the pitchfork and torches mob with realistic answers either.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Aftermath - v/s Steelers

Man, I can't stand the Steelers.  Stupid "Steeler way".  Stupid bank workers down here (and I'm a yankee myself).  Stupid, arrogant QB (last seen as the restaurant owner in Better Off Dead). Stupid away home game full of Steeler fans, smugly getting rewarded with Carolina crapping the bed.

Obviously was wrong about the outcome here.  Guess the Steelers, riding the positive emotion after a very negative loss against Baltimore, earned this one.    Carolina certainly didn't - terrible OL, passive defense against what has to be the latest cutting back in the league.  Getting outsmarted by Todd Haley.  Despicable.

Philly Brown was, at least, looking like he was earning more time, until he drove the final blow.  The rest will be tough to watch.

Few real positives here.  Is Brown in the running for regular WR time?  maybe, maybe not, though dropping a punt there doesn't endear him.

So, after hearing for a week how Carolina's for real, they get caught in a trap game.  Hopefully something good does end up coming out of it, but at best they'll have to forget about this one (along with all those press clippings about how great they are).

Saturday, September 20, 2014

V/S Pittsburgh - SNF!

I know preseason doesn’t really matter, but Carolina pushing Pittsburgh around four weeks ago gives Carolina a little advantage – and since it wasn’t a meaningful game for either team, there’s probably no residual angst over just such a thing. 

All the 10-0 game really showed was that Carolina’s deeper than painfully average Pittsburgh*, and that maybe they have a bit more pride, emotion, whatever.   But it still showed, somewhat, how both of these teams are created, and why Carolina should have the upper hand.   I’m not often confident of a convincing win, but I feel that coming here. 

*Painfully average as in, two straight 8-8 finishes and a 1-1 this year, in a franchise that hasn’t had back to back non-winning seasons since Kordell Stewart.   That 1-1 comes barely beating out the Browns in a shootout followed by a sound stomping by the Ravens on Thursday night.

You hear of things like The Steeler Way.  The Steeler way ceases to exist, and was overblown way back when.   This Steeler team is fat with big contracts for average players, it’s hard to know where their future is headed; Ben Roethlisberger is now 32 and Troy Polamalu 33.  It’s seemingly a now-or-never team that has already achieved, I don’t know how interested they are in loading up for a run (with limited resources), and yet they aren’t building much.   Does The Steeler Way often make you think Mike Mitchell is worth $5 million to a team that tries to manufacture pass rush in one of the more outdated ways possible?

Let’s dig right in, starting as Carolina has the ball. 

Offensively, it feels like health is a bigger concern than the somewhat toothless Dick LeBeau defense.   The Carolina offense features essentially every skill player of importance as questionable or probable – I assume everyone plays, but who knows?

A two-gap 3-4 remains a modestly interesting challenge on its own, but it takes good personnel just like anything else you can run – and I’m not that convinced of that personnel.   A solid enough defense last year was top 15 in scoring and yards, but sagged against the run (21st in yards) last year and has hit hard times this year (30th!) through two games.  They’re a solid 7th in passing, sure, but 13th in net yards.   For splash plays, they haven’t forced a single turnover and only scored three sacks (Jason Worlids, Cam Heyward, Jarvis Jones) in a lot of rush opportunities (mostly Cleveland).

Mike Tomlin rode someone else’s staff and philosophy to a Super Bowl.  I don’t want to belittle Tomlin, but it’s hard to say that his philosophies are even at play on this team.  He’s cover-2, LeBeau clearly not.   What does Tomlin stand for?   It may not matter – both LeBeau and Tomlin’s approaches are out of style.

Nonetheless- a 3-4 for the uninitiated is a 3 down lineman, 4 LB defense in which the OLBs are essentially rush ends that carry out LB responsibilities; but, for all real purposes they have to play run contain and often rush.  The vogue (Wade Phillips style) 3-4 is one-gap – penetrate, attack – but LeBeau’s, like Dom Capers’, is a react defense.  The DL takes on blockers with the intent of sliding toward the action.   Maybe the ideal will become a thought of stopping the read action type play, but I doubt it, it would happen by now.  Most of the league doesn’t read the OL before attacking, or maybe a nose tackle will (the modern NT comes from the two-gap 3-4, but long since have dropped mutual inclusivity).   The intent of letting the OL into you is that you can control them, slide to the action, all while letting LBs run free.  When not done right, you instead just let the OL get the drop on you. 

That unit – Heyward (son of the former Falcon back, if I recall), NT Steve MClendon, and former UNC guy Thomas.  Brett Keisel  is the extra guy, the wise but declining rotation guy.    Behind it?  First round pick Ryan Shazier and Steeler lifer Lawrence Timmons are a solid ILB duo;  Worlids had an OK 8 sacks last year to lead the team, while Jones steps into starting for the first time consistently after the departure of Lamarr Woodley.  Heyward added 5 sacks inside.

Of course, one issue with any 3-4 can be the nickel, which for most teams is 60% of the game.  It takes them out of their element; now you have two OLBs trying to be ends, two two-gap DTs trying to be one-gap.  You’re going away from your own philosophy, to a point; at least the Phillips 3-4s have all attacking players, but in the LeBeau case, no.  Capers got famous around that last Super Bowl in Green Bay with a  2-4-5 nickel, essentially saying they’re dropping a NT for the nickel the way a 4-3 would drop the SLB (your mileage may vary).  Either way, stylistically, four rushers is a standard and a four man line is, for most, nickel, so this style defense stands a significant disadvantage for many plays.   

It stands to reason that, so far, the two-TE offense hasn’t been in play much, but it could be here, just from a standpoint of having a traditional TE plus Greg Olsen, but then splitting Olsen.  It creates the mismatch where the Steelers are reading two tights, which is base, and then they have 3-4 personnel in against spread.   You end up with either an ILB or S on Olsen on the outside, or alternately, an ILB or S on a WR.   Against the average Tampa 2 WLB, maybe a team could survive that, but the 3-4 just isn’t as versatile.    So, I’d suggest that a bit (or flexing Tolbert out as FB at times) for scheme.   Running will be easier in nickel, with less beef on the field.

And running, of course,  is something Carolina loves.   Power running (i.e., pull a guard, lead with a FB) will be easier versus this read/react nonsense, compared to pulling a guard in front of a top-level DT as happened the last two weeks.  That ideal had Gerald McCoy and Ndamukong Suh shooting gaps and wrecking Carolina’s plays before they could go – something you won’t see here. 

Zone works, too.   The two gap defense works from the concept of having strength head-up, and I don’t see a ton of that here.  Counters work, misdirection works.  If you can get one DL suckered into going the wrong way, you’ve got a big hole.    Carolina’s struggled to run the ball in those two weeks, and in preseason – has them 30th in rushing adjusted, with 31% stuffed (again, because of the penetration and missed assignments).  Obviously, it doesn't matter much where Pittsburgh is if the OL can't execute.

What I wouldn't expect as much - zone read.  Carolina's done a little pistol but not a lot, and Cam Newton hasn't really had much designed run yet.  More than that, the idea of what the zone read can do - reading a playside DE or DT to see which player he'll go after - is hard when that defender isn't pursuing.  Then it's just an automatic give.  You can't really 'read' the contain defender since a two-gap DE is inside him. 

This version of the 3-4 does zone blitz a good deal, of course.  I don't know how valuable it is to have two-gap DL into zone, but more power to you.   In a league where most of the defenses have 9-10 starters that are athletic, the two-gap 3-4 was the one that popularized the zone blitz ideal but is least prepared to enact it.   It does go without saying, the blitz end of that does require good work on pass block assignments, and if successful, requires a bit of extra help inside - potentially a pistolbone type max protect look.   Carolina's struggled a bit with pressure inside, and I anticipate that's where you'll see your extra rusher.

Pittsburgh spent big to get Mitchell, a SS by most standards by build, who played FS for Carolina last year and played closer to the line.  Polamalu's a degrading star who's also been a SS.   Certainly, the Steelers use enough cover 4 and flip cover 3 (three deep where one CB plays man technique as with cover 3 or 1, and the other corner plays short zone, the FS and SS take up the other two spots) that Mitchell not being Earl Thomas can be overcome.  Short story, they have two SS on the field and while both are/were quick, it's not a big advantage.  

Cover 4 isn't that hard to exploit when you're able to pass short with WRs - obviously, corners are retreating, but not necessarily with help if you can look a safety off, and that leaves a 3 deep short zone.  The Coryell O's short drags are in full effect.  Downside?  It's harder to spread against, it's harder to hit that 18 yard bang-8/skinny post, it's harder to work the's harder to work past 15 yards in general.  This could be a high attempt, low impact passing game if the Panthers can't test the Steelers deep or they can't run. 

Ike Taylor took a paycut to stay; he's still decent, and he's got height, but it's going to be hard out there against Kelvin Benjamin nonetheless.   Taylor had a QB rating of 110.4 against him last season.  Younger Cortez Allen, also 6'1, is a bit better, but less consistent - some great games last year, some awful.  Nickel William Gay is a fine slot player, and a do-it-all defender who can play the run well or blitz. 

For Carolina, certainly the concern is the health of the receivers.  If Brenton Bersin plays, he probably goes to the X, and Benjamin moves around.   That's a guess on my part - based on them both playing the split end and Benji having college slot experience.  Cotchery and, when playing, Avant, are move players who play a flanker role, motioning more often and being the piece that's most easily lined up wherever; both are slot players or flankers in their history.   Certainly, if needed, the use of Philly Brown suggests a lot of deep ball stuff; whether decoy or not is hard to say.   Brown does offer pure speed, and Carolina might use it if needed.  An early big play could help blow things open. 

Defensively, Carolina faces the arm of Roethlisberger and OC Todd Haley.  Haley's uncorked methodology leaves inconsistencies in their O that make Bruce Arians seem sane; Arians has been quite successful without the Steelers, and the Steelers much less so without him.  Who knows if that says what I believe it does.   Haley seems like the sort of guy who stays unhinged - his constant outbursts, his missing the team flight last week.  I read he and his wife sued McDonalds regarding a rat in their salad - while even getting the salad at McDonalds seems like a bad idea in the first place. 

Haley's O is a downfield one, and certainly can be successful with a deep arm and good WRs.  Without new Panther Cotchery, the deep part seems to have improved; the third down and redzone parts declined.   It runs through Antonio Brown, the smallish, shifty type WR that gave Antoine Cason trouble compared to the bigger WRs he's seen (in, essentially, Golden Tate, though even then, Tate was 5 for 55 yards).   Brown had 1500 yards las tyear, 8 scores in his breakout while Mike Wallace left.  Brown already has 200 yards and a score.  He's also their end-around guy - with two rushes already, as does other starter Markus Wheaton.   The younger Wheaton also lacks size, and while he's pretty productive so far this year, he started one game last year and had 6 receptions.   

Third guy is Lance Moore, so - yeah.  Three deep ball guys.  Rook Justin Brown is the size guy, 6'3, 209.   Otherwise, they can't post up on you, they can't battle hard.  With the newfound worries on holding calls, you hit them, you release them at four yards and you just stay with them.

During playaction, expect a lot of the deeper stuff - post/slant, slant and go, fade - along with a Cardinals staple, the deep cross  - in a perfect world, the Steelers want to jam the ball down your throat for time of possession, and throw deep on playaction. 

But, then, disjointedly, the non-playaction stuff is a whole other animal.   It's short stuff, almost totally forgetting the speed at WR and the arm and escapability of their massive QB.  Put simply, Roethlisberger is more accurate in the portion of the field where his guys have room to work, and it's not short field.   He's not built for the dumpoff.   This defense will cream the short game of the Steelers, and they can't throw deep every down. 

The run game should be easy.  The Steelers have thrown tons of resources into their OL just to be okay at blocking - and Carolina's got a lot of strength and depth along the front seven.  Leveon Bell and LaGarrette Blount do have talent, and the Steelers have good success behind power (pulling/leading) plays, but it's not enough.  Their run game has some promise, but the Steelers have had to win a shootout to be successful, and then got beaten senseless by a team that could control their run game properly. 

For that reason, I see the Steelers as a flaccid version of the Panthers.  I rarely feel this confident in a win, but here I am, pretty confident.   Carolina's stronger, deeper, more able, at home in primetime.   This should be a win. 

Darrin Reaves is In

Camp RB and practice squadder Darrin Reaves is a Panther, at least this week.   He was moved up for Greg Hardy's position, now that Hardy is exempt.

Reaves had a score early in preseason, and was part of what moved Kenjon Barner out.  Fozzy Whittaker, another piece of that puzzle, is doubtful this week and probably sits inactive.  I don't know if Reaves will be around long on the active, however.

Deangelo Williams likely does play this week.

At WR, Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant will be gametime decisions - if I had to guess based on the tone of the year, at least one will sit.  Brenton Bersin may get a jersey again; Philly Brown will definitely see a little more time.   Joe Webb, in a somewhat worst case scenario, might play WR.

Otherwise, I think everyone is OK. But it's a skill position concern, undoubtedly.

Former Baylor RB Lache Seastrunk was brought to the practice squad this week, though that was to cover Tavarres King's position.  Seastrunk is a shifty back who has tons of skill, but he runs a bit high.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

State of The DL

So, Greg Hardy's out in definitely. Given that it's related to his
court date, which is months away if it's not held over, we might've seen
the last of Hardy (unless there ends up being some loophole regarding
having not actually played in more than one game in the season, but
he'll be getting paid so I imagine it's a season accrued nonetheless).

I have more questions than answers about that, but in the meantime
there's football. So here's what we know:

*You still have some of the best DTs in the league.
Kawann Short has come alive, and Star Lotulelei is a dominant run
player. Dwan Edwards is looking alive, whereas last year an early
injury robbed him of his quickness (and his starting spot). Colin Cole
is getting off blocks a little quicker. So, from that standpoint you
have an interior strength that can pull its weight. With Edwards and
Short in the rotation, it's less critical to play an end

*Charles Johnson is still a top end.
While he hasn't finished with any sacks, he remains the team lead with 6
QB hurries and 3 hits, per A mid-preseason injury
hopefully doesn't nag him over time, but him playing a total of 90% of
the snaps available in the first two games suggests Johnson will be OK.

*Mario Addison had a breakout game in Hardy's absence
Greg's the most physically gifted end. There's no doubt of that. But
Addison eased the blow with 2.5 sacks against Detroit.
Addison, who re-signed for three more years in the preseason, has good
outside speed. Last year, with Johnson hurt, Addison had 2 sacks and 7
tackles in three games (it appears he didn't play much in two other
games without Johnson active). In those games, he'd held up his load of
roughly 30 snaps and had been productive (in the non-productive games,
he played an average of 20 snaps, though I don't see in what role).

*You still have Frank Alexander coming back.
Alexander wasn't worth the trade (that could've been Keenan Allen -
ugh), but he's grown this year and Ron Rivera singled him out as being a
lot more consistent this year. Alexander has size to be a run-downs
player but the athleticism to bend the outside. He packed in 2.5 sacks
early in his rookie year but hit the wall hard in '12 and only has one
sack since (in the '13 finale, so a long drought). His drafting came
along with Hardy's breakout, where the pairing of he and Johnson started
to come alive, but Alexander's lack of playing time was also in not
doing enough of the little things. Hopefully that's over, per Rivera's
suggestion. Alexander has two more games before he's back from a PED

*Wes Horton has somehow become a run-downs player
Horton, a UDFA last year, outperformed Alexander above, who only got
significant playing time when Johnson was out. I might've gotten my
signals crossed but figured that Horton was the rush guy (he tended to
have preseason sacks that Addison didn't, and it felt like Alexander was
on run downs). But this year, Horton is playing the run snaps and
Addison the pass snaps, based on rushes v/s runs. So far it's seemed to
work, based on the want/need to contain a suddenly mobile Matt Stafford
(who kept things closer in the first half with sprint outs and a bit
more of a moving pocket, shut down in the second half).

*Remember Kony Ealy?
Yep, it's a nice luxury to have a 2nd rounder (who could've been a late
1st) on deck who wasn't active with Hardy playing. Sure, he can rush
inside and they pushed that, figuring it to be his role this year. But
he has size to hold up outside and possibly the most pure talent of
what's left, depending on how you view Johnson (who has a nice first
step but who many crapped on because he's not 6'5, and didn't run a
4.59). Ealy moves like a LB in open space and had a great shuttle time,
and that leads to his splash plays. Time will tell if a 4.92 40 is a
negative. Mike Mayock notes a lack of consistency in his play,
something that's plagued those that came before him (including Johnson
and Hardy early on), but it's fixable. Ealy will still have to earn his
playing time, but there's obviously a ton of potential here.

*There's also the 3-4.
I saw some 3 man lines, and while Carolina tends to put up one of the
DEs as an OLB in that situation, it can be fluid. You could even stack
three DTs across the line, throw one end in as a standing OLB, and one
true OLB to the other side, and get nice rush. Granted, that's base
defense - Carolina doesn't play a ton of 3-4 anyway, but even if they
did 10% of base, that becomes 4% of total snaps historically.

The rotation:

I anticipate Johnson will still play 80% of snaps or greater on the left
end. Historically Johnson and Hardy would each play at least that
amount when either or both would be healthy, and it was always a platoon
around that if one wasn't.

So for now, Horton appears to play early downs, Addison late. When
Alexander comes back, he'll be fresh and Addison might get fewer snaps
(as he's still an integral part of special teams). Ealy remains a bit
of a wildcard, the most fluid of the players regarding potential and
consistency. Last week, he played 30 snaps (42%), essentially the same
as Horton/Addison, but that was in a game that saw the Lions taking a
lot of quick snaps. Assume that there are about 5 snaps at left end,
maybe 5 inside, and 65 snaps at right end to go around between the three
(with Alexander, four) guys, assuming all stays well with Johnson.

This was going to happen for 2015 anyway, so the remaining players
simply get an earlier audition to be an heir to Hardy's position.
There's always that chance something happens with his issues that allows
him to play, but who knows. For now, this is what the team looks like,
heading forward.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Bene Benwikere, Kelvin Benjamin Get Love

the story is apparently insider, but it ranks Benwikere 5th and Benjamin 7th, including free agents, in newcomers.

It gives a bit of Profootballfocus information, including Benwikere's 54 QB rating.  I see Melvin White is worth a 51, too.   Benwikere is apparently PFF's 2nd best corner in the league right now.  

All in all, not so awful to be a young guy in Carolina's passing game on either side of the ball.  Credit to Steve Wilks and Ricky Proehl for coaching these kids up, and to them for making the absolute most of their shot.

Tavarres King a Jag?

Jacksonville drafted a guy a lot thought would be a Panther - Marquise Lee - though Carolina passed for some other kid that's working out allright.  They then drafted possession guy Allen Robinson soon after.  Breakout Allen Hurns bested both as a UDFA rookie with two scores in what looked like an Eagles upset (before the Eagles solved the issue).

None of that's kept the Jags' passing attack from being in disarray, while they hold onto a 2010 Panthers style attack full of inexperience with a journeyman QB at the helm, and a rookie on deck (that kinda feels doomed, but who knows).

Having a heavy reliance on rookie WRs didn't keep them from reaching for Carolina's own inexperience - the Jags picked up Tavarres King from Carolina's practice squad, to kinda get to a point.  Good luck Tavarres.

There are rumblings about Greg Hardy.  Looks like he won't play again this week possibly - who knows. No accounting for political decisions.  The general public wants blood, the team wants to wait for the legal process to play out but that's not the situation Carolina lives in right now.   I'll leave the rest alone.  It's an unfortunate situation to which I know too little to really judge.