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Saturday, October 19, 2013

v/s Rams, Pregame

Jeff Fisher's Rams come in 3-3, but don't necessarily look the part.  

Looking at the design of this team, and I see some flaws.  Brian Schottenheimer's offense is of Coryell roots - like Carolina's current regime, and Mike Martz's Greatest Show On Turf.  But, don't confuse it with either.  Schottenheimer, like his Jets past, runs a very conservative version of the offense, but unlike the Jets' strong running game fueled by first round linemen and Bill Callahan, there's not a lot of success there.

Starting RB Daryl Richardson comes in with under a 3 yard per carry average; the Abilene Christian product hasn't hit 100 yards rushing since graduating.  Some of his value is versatility, often catching 3-5 balls out of the backfield, but again, not to a lot of explosion.  Rookie Fullback Zac Stacy has, the last two games, received a lot of carries - 32 in the pair, and 1 in the five before that - but he's faring better than Richardson.  Is it easy to pull almost six yards a carry against Jacksonville?  Sure.  But he had 79 yards against Houston, too.  Stacy doesn't normally get the ball in the passing game, though he pulled down two this past week.  There are minimal data points on Stacy.   Fellow rookie Benny Cunningham is the other back, and carries a 2.7 yard average as well.

So what is it?  Is it the backs, or the line?  They tried to put effort into the line, throwing money at LT Jake Long but have a lot of journeymen around him.  They've been attempting to develop former first round Bear Chris Williams at left guard, Harvey Dahl at right guard, and 3rd year Joe Barksdale at RT was a third rounder, but by Oakland; he was cut.   It's good enough at times, but it's not going to make OK backs look great.   It all comes together for the 28th ranked rush offense.  Stacy's their best rusher, and he did it in two weeks; he also did 99 of his 157 yards after contact.

Scott Wells at center is a decent enough pass blocker but liability in the run game, so it might be a good time for Star Lotulelei to bounce back; it doesn't look like Dwan Edwards will be back however, so the Panthers will probably put Star to the open waters for the 3-tech.  That would put Colin Cole on Wells, and that should still work in the run game.

So that puts the pressure on the pass game - and Sam Bradford, in year 4, isn't being the dynamic player that was expected of him so far.  It's tough to watch, honestly, the constant pressure Cam Newton has on him, starting into year 3 and having had the best two years as a passer in history, when Bradford doesn't have constant worries from the media about being benched or whether he should be kept.  Has he earned it?

Somewhat.  He's on pace for 34 TDs, when he's never thrown more than 21.  And he's not turning the ball over.  It seems that would be enough for him - and it probably is.  But they're not moving the ball well.   3rd year WR Austin Petts has 4 TDs, but isn't good upfield, and 2nd year Chris Givens is a fairly one dimensional deep receiver.  

They spent big going up for Tavon Austin - and he's caught more balls than anyone, mostly out of the slot, but he's going at a 6.6 yard per catch rate.  They're forcing him the ball and it's not working.  Consequently, he barely played last week.  They've been using a lot of 2 TE sets, as well, and Austin just isn't showing as a starting WR.

Those two TE, however, are definitely able.  Lance Kendricks came out of a similar system at Wisconsin, and he's got 3 scores on the shorter stuff.  Jared Cook has 2 scores and a 14 yard/catch average.  They're part of the way that Bradford appears efficient with so many scores.  But you don't get big plays out of dumpoffs.

It's worth noting that Carolina likes the inside pressure lately with Lotulelei moving over, in that they're blitzing inside more.  Thomas Davis had two inside; SF's Navarro Bowman had two sacks in their game against the Rams.

On the other side, it's not looking like the elite Jeff Fisher defenses you'd expect.  They dumped Gregg Williams after the suspension was over, and then his son, Blake, who many considered the de-facto coordinator.  Relatively unknown assistant Tim Walton comes over from the Lions, where Jim Schwartz (a former Fisher disciple) had him as DBs coach.  Walton has only been a pro coach since '09, and his only prior DC experience was '08 in Memphis.

So with that said, so far, no defensive coordinator last year works better than a full staff this year.  A unit that was 14th in points and yards last year, and 15th in rushing defense, is now 30th in rush defense and 19th in pass defense.  It's doing allright in forced fumbles, but not up to Fisher standards in INTs.

Starting from the back, Cortland Finnegan has struggled since signing a new deal.  He's doubtful to play, and yet that might help St Louis. Since had the Rams as 30th best with the 3rd WR, it's not that 3rd corner Trumaine Johnson is "better", either.  He does have a big frame, which is helpful, but he's struggled as an outside corner.  Rookie Brandon McGee is blazing fast, but hasn't gotten much playing time.  Adding in starting corner Jannoris Jenkins and FS Rod McLeod being 2nd year guys and S TJ McDonald being another rookie, there's not a lot of experience back here.  The only thing that really helps them is practicing against a similar offense.  But, that's without the zone read, and San Francisco dismantled them mightily without using much of the option.

The truth is, new Panther Quintin Mikell probably knows more about this defense than most of the DBs that will be playing - Finnegan was their one vet, and he's doubtful.

Up front, they've got better stock; Chris Long and Robert Quinn are good all-around ends, Michael Brockers has a very good stop rate at DT and has almost eclipsed last year's 4 sack mark already.   This is a spot where Carolina can't afford to allow things to happen; they should have a run edge, especially with Travelle Wharton having an excellent game last week and Ben Hartsock's traditionally excellent blocking, but the right side duo of Chris Scott and Byron Bell will have to have some help, and Jordan Gross v/s Quinn might be tough going as well as the UNC product has the 2nd most sacks from ends.

The pedestrian duo of Will Witherspoon (still in the league!), and leading tacklers James Laurianitis and rookie  Alex Ogletree, are not much of a blitz threat and don't add much in coverage outside of Ogletree.   They don't make many mistakes, however; they stay on their assignments.  The packaged plays and read option stuff might not work as well, and despite Carolina's recent propensity to get cuter offensively, I don't know if the reverses and flea flickers will be exceptional ideas either.

The rush might predicate short stuff to the WRs, and maybe less deep. There's definitely room to spread them, however, and still pull that off while stretching them thinner in the secondary; the rush definitely suggests some screen action.

Fisher, not unlike last week's Leslie Frazier, has ties to Ron Rivera through the old Bears teams. Rams Asst. head coach Dave McGinnis was a coach on those teams as well.  I don't know why Rivera seems to pull out some big games against old friends (his Chargers/Eagles wins; his Bears loss was by a point), but he has that in his back pocket hopefully.  Fisher and Rivera don't have an extensive history, so it's probably a useless data point.   However, it's a very winnable game against a team with a better record, and it's a home game, so hopefully Carolina can exploit another bad defense on its way to a win.  So far that's the only thing that's worked for them all year.
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