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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

McDermott To Interview

Sean McDermott, defensive coordinator of the Panthers, will interview with the Washington Redskins, presuming they remain named that. Whatever.  Washington Pro Football Team.  Washington [redacted].

McDermott, Carolina DC for three years and Eagles DC for two prior, is 39.  Anyone under 40 with significant success traditionally will get interviews.  It's not undeserved for McDermott, who's called good games this year and helped build one of the league's best defenses.

The Redskins are a dumpster fire, however, and I don't know that GM Bruce Allen is an ideal pairing with McDermott - and owner Daniel Snyder is a whole separate bag of dysfunction.  He's familiar with the area, however, playing at William and Mary, and coaching against the Redskins for essentially his entire pro career.

The interview will apparently happen in Charlotte over the weekend.

McDermott may be interesting for the Chudzinski principle - while it's hard to say how the two got along as coordinators, there's no reason to suggest Chudzinsi wouldn't work for McDermott.  The Browns' staff appears intact so far and there are even rumors that the Browns want another coach to take on the staff, which is interesting if it's not Ray Horton.  But, Chudzinski is available, and that would create a passable offensive situation with Robert Griffin III.

Otherwise, I don't know if McDermott has much to draw from as far as planned assistants, and I've always believed that to be an integral part of an interview.  The prospective coach has to show he knows who he wants to land as assistants, and most of his Eagles compatriots moved on with the Andy Reid departure.

For Carolina, the contingency plan is clear - they brought in DBs coach/Passing Game Coordinator Steve Wilks in 2012, and the defense started tightening up a good bit at that point (with other obvious reasons as well, like having starting level linebackers).  Wilks was reportedly Rivera's initial go-to, and coached with Rivera in previous stops, but couldn't get out of his contract; Wilks was rumored to have been the heir apparent if McDermott, at that point having finished his first year with a basement dwelling defense, didn't start picking up the pace.


So, best of luck to Coach McDermott.  The team is better off if they keep all involved, but if Coach gets a better opportunity I wish him the best.  I don't take that potential departure lightly but I believe the team will survive it if it comes.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Bucs, Falcons Coaches

First a quick note on the Falcons, who have apparently decidede to
retain Mike Nolan. I believe this to be good news for Carolina - it's
not that Nolan's a terrible coach, but lack of change is good and
Nolan's not a great fit in Atlanta. Mike Smith hasn't had a top 10
yardage defense in his Atlanta tenure, and only twice in the top 20.
But, it's a team that's excelled in scoring, finishing top 5 twice and
top 15 two more times; its 27th ranking this year seems to suggest it
lives and dies based on its offense.


Tampa fired Greg Schiano, however. They appear ready to clear house
and start over, as much as I was hoping they'd slog on with Schiano and
Mike Glennon another year.

It looks like the leader in the clubhouse is Lovie Smith. That's
intriguing, and a good mix of the type coach that has expectations of
respect and good play that Schiano provided, with a mix of the players
coach that they desperately needed in the uptight atmosphere there.

Stylistically, he's a coach who plays for defense, and obviously the
Tampa 2. That defense tends to be out of vogue, where more than just
technique and talent are critical to win now. Multiple looks, multiple
fronts, and other scheme variations seem to be what's selling now
against rapidly changing NFL offenses. Offensively, Smith went
through various Coryell coaches in his tenure and had an offense better
than 20th once (15, 2006, the year they won the NFC) in yards, and once
in points (2nd, again 2006).

Smith is intriguing due to his network of coaching contacts, but most
of 'his' coaches went on to Dallas with Monte Kiffin, who for the moment
is still in Dallas. If Kiffin were let go, Rod Marinelli becomes an
immediate candidate for DC. I imagine that Smith would enjoy having
both in some form, if Kiffin took on a chief-of-staff or emeritus type
role.

Smith is intriguing, as well, since he entered the league in Tampa
under Tony Dungy and was a hot commodity under him (and alongside Herm
Edwards). A DC stint in St. Louis left Smith as the head coach of the
Bears for 9 years, including a Super Bowl loss.

Smith hired Carolina coach Ron Rivera for his first coordinator job,
but then let him go following a pair of top five defenses. It was a
matter of circumstance, supposedly - Smith wanted one of his Tampa 2
buddies, Marinelli, but couldn't get him. Rivera, meanwhile, was off
doing interview after interview for head coaching jobs and Smith
apparently felt it was a distraction. That's what sent Rivera, unable
to get in on a coordinator job, to be the guy in waiting under Norv
Turner.

So, that's Tampa. They're not the only team dying for Smith, and even
if they get him I believe him to be a fairly static, non-progressive
coach who can be beaten. But, he was .563 and made the playoffs three
times, so he's not the easiest out, either. You can always hope they'll
pick another random college goober with an attitude problem like Schiano
again.

Self-Scouting

One thing that Carolina can do with its extra time, along with
rest/rehab and preliminary scouting on Philly/San Francisco/Green Bay,
is dig in and self scout.

Carolina did this effectively in the middle of 2012 by re-evaluating
its offensive goals and adjusting tendencies. Ron Rivera, specifically,
has the ability (and apparently from last year, the history) to really
hunker down with some tape and see how he'd stop his offense, and
gameplan accordingly.

That's not the smallest feat - and Cam Newton's high throws last week
don't help. Blamed on heightened emotions, it's something to watch, but
it's as repeatedly fixable as it is repeatable. Schematically, a number
of things were exploitable that just didn't end up working. Carolina
has to start finding the big play on offense, and it has to regain some
run consistency to help give them those crazy 2nd and 2 deep shots. It
lets you take some chances instead of consistently having to try to set
up makeable third downs.

They'll have to find a way to get Brandon LaFell re-involved, while
spreading the ball and making the best of a potentially ailing Steve
Smith. They have to keep Newton in a comfort zone, which while his
bounce-back mentally has gotten better, he has to stay light and ready.
The team can't afford to waste a quarter and a turnover waiting for his
butterflies to go away. But with that said, you also get the luxury of
having time to talk to those players more in-depth.


Defensively, outside of the issues that came up because of the first
Saints game and Dolphins game (and that awful Roddy White TD where
Quentin Mikell didn't get deep enough), the defense has to hunker down
and get on its run fits, and relateldly, gap inegrity. Carolina hsn't a
bad run team at all, but thanks to a couple of busted runs, it's got a
higher yards/attempt than you might want. Carolina's a team that can
and should dominate the run, a team that should discourage a team from
even trying to run. But those occasional blips can cause them to let a
team occasionally establish the run on them.



This is an advantage that Carolina has that the teams they'll play
won't have. Their focus is completely on their upcoming opponent, not
abstract ideas like reflection on how they've done and what they can do
to change the parts that didn't work.

Did Fans Play A Factor?

Give credit to Greg Hardy and others that pushed fans to fill the
Georgia Dome.

A one point win on the road was the difference between rest and staying
home, versus having to travel to Philadelphia this week without some key
components. So with enough fans in the dome to audibly hear
"Luuuuuuuuuuuuuuke" on TV, did that matter?

Possibly.

The final important play, with Matt Ryan under shotgun and 25-30 yards
from a potential go-ahead/potential game winning field goal, Ryan
freaked about what appeared to be a two-man blitz coming from the
strongside C gap. That's definitely the catalyst for the Falcons'
failure, but don't discount this - it was kinda loud there. That's not
traditionally something that home teams deal with (though some Carolina
fans don't have the sense to quiet down when Cam Newton has the ball,
especially on some of the big 4th downs this season).

Did that keep Ryan from being heard? Possibly. Clearly, he and the
center weren't on the same page, and I don't know if the center snaps it
if he hears Ryan trying to alert the blitz.

So, maybe, maybe not. Nice luxury, though. From here on you can't
count on that type stuff, but anything you can get, gets you further.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Ted Ginn's TD

Greg Olsen's score was mostly about biding time, but Ted Ginn's TD was schematically perfect.  At the 2, the Panthers setup in formation Jack Right (TE right was Olsen, offset I with Richie Brockel toward strong side and Mike Tolbert deep), with Brandon Lafell left and Ginn right.  The call on first sound was for Ginn to switch to slot inside LaFell (the call is zoom), leaving both WR weakside, Lafell split to Ginn slot).  My best guess on protection is Scat Right.

The routes were the 2 from the TE, the similar 0 from Ginn, and the 4 from LaFell for what becomes Jack Right Slot zoom, Scat Right, 204. Nothing else since the backs are blocking, and the routes are read from Y to X, backward from the normal, since the Y is the single receiver (I dunno, I just read it, I didn't design it).


The Falcons were aligned in a 6-2, or 4-4 depending on how chippy you want to be about the two outside men standing.  Four down linemen, two standing OLB, two ILB. Single high safety, shaded toward Olsen, two CBs on the two WR.

All 8 of the (6-2, 4-4, I don't care, call them 0-8 because it didn't work) box defenders came, actually a bit of a mismatch on the 7 blockers for Carolina. Furthermore, Ryan Kalil and Chris Scott's men ended up getting free.  That leaves a safety on Olsen, and two corners on two WR; pure man coverage, cover 0.

On the back end, the crossing routes of Ginn and Olsen got caught up in the wash and Ginn came free; LaFell was picked up but was the next option and could've made it a catch, too.   Newton had to backpedal for it, then retreat a bit more, to hit an open Ginn.

Chud, Staff Appear Out in Cleveland

A staff near and dear to many Carolina fans and players appears to be in peril.

While plenty of guys in the Carolina backfield have mixed sentiment about Rob Chudzinski, among the Cleveland staff include the former Panther OC, former assistant WRs coach Scott Turner, position coaches John Settle and Fox-era coaches Ken Flajole and Brian Baker, along with former third-tier assistant Bobby Babich, and topped by former NFL head coach (and the guy who brought most of this together), Norv Turner.  That goes along with a guy who many in the NFL will end up interviewing (if for the Rooney rule only), DC Ray Horton.

Any of which I'd be happy to have on a coaching staff.

The funny thing isn't that Carolina's doing well without the free-wheeling Chudzinski, and in many ways success has gone sky-high but the offense could use a taste of his style.  They've succeeded in important things like time of possession, and third down, and I won't pretend to miss a deep shot on 2nd and 10 waiting to kill a drive, but they need some big plays, too.

And there's no joy that he failed - I wouldn't really even call it failure for him to turn an offense line that into the 12th in yards (or that they'd lead the league in attempts, and fail miserably running) with those QBs.  I don't think he deserves to be fired.

On the other hand here's this tweet:

: "He's a douche. No one on offense trusts him." Text from a player regarding Rob Chudzinski.

and in a fun bit of weird twitter mechanism, I had left it open to see Chudzinski trending and the one quote seems to be all over it. 

Now with that said, I don't know how wide-spread that is.  I do know it's not a great sign, but it's potentially isolated.  Then again, Carolina guys were anywhere from non-committal to outright glad he left, too.


So, now what?

Technically, Chudzinski as a fired head coach can do what he wants from here.  It's not exactly a blazing endorsement to be fired after a year, so he's not the hottest commodity.  The staff might not get fired so quickly.

Is there room for any of them to help with the playoffs?   It would be unorthodox.  I remember a fired Josh McDaniels showing up for work in the playoffs for the Patriots, in the event he was hired with them immediately.  I don't know that will happen here, unfortunately.

There's not much room.  Now, they could hire Turner as an emeritus coach, an assistant head coach/offense type guy to not remove the OC job from Mike Shula, but potentially help out with the big picture stuff.  He and Chudzinski are linked, but only inasmuch as they would work together if possible.  Turner wouldn't ever be much less than an OC, and neither for Chud; since neither will head coach again, there's no room for both to call plays.  So, Rivera attempting to get Turner last year could be a boon, while some of the other staffers might want to stay with Chudzinski.

Defensively, I really like Flajole, a Fox staffer who I'd be willing to bet ends up back in under Fox if/when Jack Del Rio transitions to a new job this year, and maybe even if not.  Brian Baker moving from DL to OLB was a good career move, and hopefully he learned from Horton and Flajole.  And Horton himself brings a good defense.  But there's obviously no room there.

Even if Sean McDermott left for a head coaching job, which would be an outside shot at best and not helped with Carolina being deep in the playoffs, Steve Wilks would elevate and the team would want a new DBs coach or two, not a DL/LB guy.  I'd also go as far as to say that the Panthers are a well coached team defensively, and say it safely.

So, there's that outside conspiracy-theory shot that Turner would come to work here and do it early.  I don't know if it'd be Rivera's style, but even just to employ the 61 year old NFL lifer in a limited role for the next few years to help do things like self-scout and clean up some issues in the Panthers' offense would be fantastic.  I imagine that to be what Rivera hoped of the serendipity of Turner and staff being let go with Chud leaving, but most aren't quite that lucky.  I'm glad Carolina saved their luck for the ballfield.

V/s Falcons, Aftermath - Squeaking By

Carolina won a tight one, 21-20, in a game they hardly dominated.

They trailed 10-0, when momentum went all over the place - a 56 yard catch by Deangelo Williams was the team's first real play made, after a few first down runs by an erratic Cam Newton and then an INT; that 56 yard catch was fumbled, and immediately after the Falcons recovered, threw a pick-six to Melvin White.

They traded relative ineptitude and eventually scores, setting up a 21-20 lead with four minutes to go.  The Panthers ran the ball three times, punted; the Falcons faltered, so the Panthers returned the favor with three more runs.  The Falcons picked it up with 1:20 to go, and dinked and dunked five yards at a time up to their own 40, :35 to go, when Carolina's biggest play was to simply force Matt Ryan to freak out.  Holding six blockers to Carolina's four rushers, when two more came (Thomas Davis and Mike Mitchell, it appeared), Ryan started losing his marbles and stepped away from shotgun behind center with the exchange already in progress.  That, for all real purposes, ended what would've been a scary shot by the Falcons at attempting a FG with time nearly expired.


The details in the middle - Greg Olsen got a nifty 7 yard catch at the goal where he just worked until he could get open, receiving a laser pass from a calmed-down Cam; Ted Ginn was the recipient of a 3 yard TD on a clearout at the goal.  The Panthers notched a franchise high 9 sacks, with Greg Hardy picking up a massive four and Charles Johnson notching two.

And now they're a 2 seed.  Congrats, NFC South Champions.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

V/s Atlanta - Rematch

Since the early November matchup with the Falcons, the Panthers' resume has grown a fair bit.

Contrast the two Saints matchups - one had immediate playoff implications, where Carolina could take the lead on the division and have a shot at homefield.  The other one, two weeks later, saw the team take the lead on the division and homefield.

But way back, Carolina was a team climbing out of disarray against a team in disarray.  4-3 against 2-5, Carolina was a winning team, but they were on a three game win streak against the Vikings, Rams, and Bucs, not teams that were looked upon as much of anything. Even with the Falcons win at home, not a lot of teams took Carolina seriously and a 5-3 start looked just opportunistic.  In their wake since, bigtime wins against SF and NE, a split with NO, and including that Falcons win, 7-1 since.

Atlanta, not as much. 2-6.  On the other hand, it starts to trend up, 2-2 in the last month with a one point loss to Green Bay (minus Aaron Rodgers) and a ten point loss to San Francisco.  I just don't think they're good enough overall to knock out Carolina.

The short answer on this game?  Carolina's run O has sagged to "only" 11th, but Atlanta's run D is 31st.  Carolina's run defense is 2nd, and Atlanta's run O is...31st.  So Carolina can clearly control this on the ground, which shortens the game and makes Atlanta more pass-happy, where they look like an innoculated version of New Orleans.


The remaining details, however, remain interesting.

It's the same defense they faced last time - dipping from 22nd to 25th in pass defense, plain awful at 31st in yards per attempt against the run. Their DBs - Alford/Samuel/Moore/Decoud/McClain/Trufant - are there  still, but there's not much backing them and they do get picked on.  They rate 30th or worse against all WR (#1,2, 3+), via footballoutsiders.com, only doing well with 21st against the TE and 11th against backs.

It's again without their best LB, Sean Witherspoon.   Osi Umenyiora remains their best pass rusher, with 7.5 sacks, but most of that's come in 3 games (TB, NYJ, Miami, 2.0 sacks apiece), so he's barely scratched the surface of past production otherwise.  DT Corey Peters is out, leaving Corey Peters and Jonathan Babineaux underwhelming in the middle to protect Akeem Dent at MLB, and a somewhat surging Joplo Bartu in the run game (but not the pass).

It remains an uninteresting, uninspiring defense run as a 4-3 by 3-4 maven Mike Nolan, at least for this game but seemingly not longer than that.  It's amazing when solid coaches fail miserably, and Nolan has for years now.  Smith's intent on running an ill-fitting scheme for Nolan's background seems to have lost the lesson by Brian Billick that last gave Nolan success - as a position coach in the NFL for the first time, Smith was a LBs coach (who had succeeded Jack Del Rio, and when Del Rio left Carolina, took Smith as DC) under Nolan, who was stashed at WRs coach for a year ('01) so he could be kept for the Ravens to run the D when Marvin Lewis inevitably left.  The Ravens, who had been a 4-3 team for Lewis, moved for Nolan and retooled.  That Ravens defense spawned six head coaches, including Smith himself eventually, all mentioned above, plus Rex Ryan and his successor, Chuck Pagano.  They have things figured out allright up there.  When past connections left Nolan looking to be under Smith, Smith didn't shift, even as there's been minimal talent to be beyond replacement.  It's as if Smith forgot where his career is owed.

This is a base offense sort of game.  I'm expecting some 3 WR, enough to get the backups some playing time, but I would imagine Carolina being at home running a somewhat conservative 2 TE set and having lots of success with it.  It will take nothing exceptional to beat Atlanta's defense.  They might throw some special plays in there, and Mike Shula has definitely brought a few out the last few games, but you're also not going to do anything too nutty with Steve Smith already hurt. Last game, the leading receivers were Brandon LaFell and Greg Olsen, with plenty of distribution of the ball in a



 Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis combined for 17 tackles last time; while the team struggled after Kuechly's INT until the half to stop Tony Gonzalez, they've shown aptitude against the TE overall. That's the likely focus again this week, since Roddy White is having the worst season of his career since becoming a fulltime starter.  Harry Douglas has come back down to earth - he'd put up a few big games in White and Julio Jones' absence before the first Carolina game, but not so much now.  They still lack Jones, and no one's replaced Douglas' third WR ability.  Drew Davis and Darius Johnson remain 8th and 9th on the team in receiving.

It puts a strain on Matt Ryan, whose 16 INT is a career high. He's had 4 in the last three games.  It's not like Ryan's doing anything terrible, he just doesn't have anyone making plays.  Related to that, Jacquizz Rodgers is out for the game, taking away the team's modestly explosive 3rd down type back and leaving them with just big backs Steven Jackson and former FB Jason Snelling.  Neither have more than 3.5 yards/carry in the run game, and both combined barely equal Rodgers' 52 receptions.

That's a key, however; the Falcons' screen game and dumpoffs.  After all, about one out of every four completions goes to a back, on a team with a TE (Gonzalez obviously) leading them in receiving.  It's not that they don't veer from a base offense, it's just that they have the backs, one good TE, and had relied so heavily on the two WR, and that's let them down this year with injuries and age.



This is a game Carolina could, and probably should, dominate.  They should look to get up early enough, without giving up any major gameplan secrets for playoff opponents to pick on, while giving just enough carries to Deangelo Williams - they want to run the ball, but giving him 30 carries might not be wise, either.  3rd RB for the game is Kenjon Barner - he might break one, but so far on contact he's broken down.

Above all, hope for no injuries and a convincing win.

Pro Bowl Snubs -

There's a lot of buzz around Thomas Davis, who seems to have a big shot at the Walter Payton Man Of The Year award, not making the Pro Bowl.

Obviously, Payton Award would be a massive honor, the Super Bowl being even more so, obviously; one has nothing to do with the Pro Bowl, the other keeps Panthers out (and I like that rule about Super Bowl participants).  

But the All-Pro Awards have nothing to do with the Pro Bowl's dysfunction.  Much more an All-American to the pro game, the AP awards to the best players regardless of conference or draft or any of the nonsense the Pro Bowl runs on.


To that end, I think Davis has a shot there.  Either way, he's exeeded the expectations I'd have of him at this point, and it's amazing to still have him. 117 tackles, 8 PD, 4 sacks, 2 INT.  Guys just don't have that sort of year that often, much less after what he's gone through.

The WRs, Without 89

Not to pick on Armanti Edwards, but it's nice to be without him this week (and the distractions that would come with the "is he going to get a chance?  What is he going to do?" crowd) and instead have real, legitimate depth at the position.   I think Carolina fans have had enough of the all-potential WRs that did only enough to barely stay.  Edwards could've had that same Dwayne Jarrett at the end of 2009 type game, but would it have mattered? 



The upcoming week without Steve Smith gives the team time to retool a bit.  If/when Smith returns, it may be tough to rely on him as much, leaving a new Panthers passing offense.    Which might be just what they needed.  

The new X receiver appears to be a mix of Ted Ginn, who’s expected to start, and Sunday’s hero, Domenik Hixon.   Marvin McNutt likely gets a jersey, over Travares King.   This puts the focal point of the passing offense on LaFell, likely a bit deeper than normal, and Greg Olsen filling around him (taking the deep out to clear LaFell’s drive, for instance, or himself taking the shorter out behind LaFell’s post). 

LaFell got a look in the WR screen role that Ginn often has used in packaged plays (including the package that had Smith on a naked WR screen and Ginn behind LaFell on the other side, all off a potential run play), which was less obvious and therefore less easy to stop than with Ginn himself using it 2-3 times a game.   Ginn and Olsen each got a few deep targets Sunday, and chances are, that will continue.  LaFell will get some deep play but with routes run to separate, not just on the 9/go route. 


While the crafty Mike Shula does a lot of shifting and motion, similar to the more mad-scientist Rob Chudzinski of years past, Shula doesn’t move the receivers around quite as much.     It might make more sense to have Ginn inside Hixon to the left, though over the last three years LaFell had been the more likely slot.  In New York, Hixon was an able player to work the slot but generally Victor Cruz was the overwheming guy to move inside in 3WR.   Ginn, as the 3rd guy, has taken some of those slot snaps from LaFell this year, but both are on the field most of the time Sunday so they’ll have to more adequately define Ginn’s role when he’s the X.

So, Hixon is most likely to be a sub-in WR who plays the X, while the other guys move around.   In base, Ginn will play the role.  The X, in this offense, gets a lot of the basic routes, the first look routes that help determine coverage. The 5 route is an option in a lot of playcalls here, so it can be a basic fade, curl, or out route based on the coverage read; not unlike the play in which he helped win the game Sunday, the X tends to be a player in isolation.  525 F Post, 585  being two key playcall examples out of base, the 5 part for the X is a lone route; the x25 F Post are all interplayed route concepts (the TE dragging, the flanker pushing upfield to clear for the F post) no less than the x85 (which pushes the TE upfield and gives the flanker the sideline route options, usually followed by a dumpoff which makes it, essentially, 585 H Corner or 585 F Swing, to that effect), where the strongside routes all interplay. 

But not the X, weakside all alone.  No TE to that side, potentially a back or crossing WR but only behind the X, not playing in tandem or combination.   It’s a role that Smith excelled in, and can be for Hixon when out there given his strength.    It’s a spot that often gets the go route, as is in the base play 940 – a play that puts Olsen across the formation on a 12 yard “in” and lets LaFell drag under the LBs.  

To that end, I don't know that there will be a lot of gameplanning changes.  Between the new roles and Cam Newton's potentially sore ankle, I do see a lot of shotgun, and a lot of intermediate routes, but that's mostly what's been there anyway.  I don't know that the Panthers will magically change to a lot of slants to fit LaFell and Hixon, that's not been a staple for this team.  I might imagine more square-ins, the 4 route, under a clear-out, but all of that's already there, already being used.  


So, Hixon is most likely to be a sub-in WR who plays the X, while the other guys move around.   In base, Ginn will play the role.  The X, in this offense, gets a lot of the basic routes, the first look routes that help determine coverage. The 5 route is an option in a lot of playcalls here, so it can be a basic fade, curl, or out route based on the coverage read; not unlike the play in which he helped win the game Sunday, the X tends to be a player in isolation.  525 F Post, 585  being two key playcall examples out of base, the 5 part for the X is a lone route; the x25 F Post are all interplayed route concepts (the TE dragging, the flanker pushing upfield to clear for the F post) no less than the x85 (which pushes the TE upfield and gives the flanker the sideline route options, usually followed by a dumpoff which makes it, essentially, 585 H Corner or 585 F Swing, to that effect), where the strongside routes all interplay. 

But not the X, weakside all alone.  No TE to that side, potentially a back or crossing WR but only behind the X, not playing in tandem or combination.   It’s a role that Smith excelled in, and can be for Hixon when out there given his strength.   

It’s a spot that often gets the go route, as is in the base play 940 – a play that puts Olsen across the formation on a 12 yard “in” and lets LaFell drag under the LBs.


So, with Hixon – a 29 year old vet with starts under his belt who was a strong 3rd WR for some good Giant teams – Dave Gettleman again proves that it’s not the top of the roster that counts, it’s as often the back end.  I don’t know that, absent Hixon, that Armanti Edwards, or the young kids on staff now in King and McNutt, are coming up that big or being able to contribute the way Hixon can.

McNutt, a 6’3, 215 lb 2nd year, has very minimal experience but will probably get on the field to block a few snaps and get into the swing of things.  He’s a somewhat prototypical Coryell type receiver with a wide catching radius and big hands, and the ability to post up as needed.    He’s not likely to get a lot of looks – Hixon as the 4th guy has four catches and sportingcharts.com’s suggestion that Hixon played 12.2% of team snaps feels high (though 1/3 of that would’ve come this past week, so I’d estimate he played about 6 snaps per game before this week).


But, anything else happens to thin depth, and McNutt becomes a critical component.  Not unlike Hixon, he’s likely to play mostly the X receiver. 

Friday, December 27, 2013

Pro Bowlers

Carolina announced five of its players will go to the Pro Bowl:

QB Cam Newton
FB Mike Tolbert
C Ryan Kalil
DE Greg Hardy
LB Luke Kuechly

It's Newton's second honor, and Kalil's fourth.  It's the first for Tolbert, a sixth year; Hardy, a fourth year; and Kuechly, in his second.

All of this comes on the assumption Carolina isn't in the Super Bowl, which deactivates all participants from the Pro Bowl.

It appears TE Greg Olsen is a 4th alternate, but nothing else has been mentioned.  Alternates aren't always released.

Additionally, Mike Mitchell had been 4th in fan voting, so it's realistic to imagine he's some form of alternate.  Of course, it's also a massive shame that Thomas Davis isn't in the picture, but the Pro Bowl always shades toward the big-sack 3-4 OLB (which is stupid, since the game always plays a 4-3 and you're not allowed to blitz).

The Pro Bowl has a new format this year, in that it's not AFC versus NFC - so there's a good shot Carolina players will have to face each other if they're in there.  As well, it's in a draft format, where it might be a hard sell to pick a center or fullback all that early.

Gross' Future

There's no doubt in my mind that it's time to enjoy the 'now'. It's
been five years since the team had postseason aspirations, and those
ended quickly - making it a legitimate eight years since a playoff win.

But, a small part of me has kept an eye on 2014. It's not hard - you
think about what might happen after this year, and you see a lot of WR
and DB that are not under contract. But as the Observer's piece this
morning reminds, the deal for Jordan Gross struck this past offseason
doesn't leave much room for the OL, either.

The team provided some relief by putting in voidable years to Gross'
contract, which appear to be voiding after the year. Good news? The
team can renegotiate that deal so it doesn't void, or so it voids a year
later. It appears Gross himself is more than willing to return, and
says he'll only play here.

Honestly, I don't see how they can do anything otherwise. It's not
that they couldn't, or shouldn't, put time and effort into the OL, and
with Gross entering year 12 next year it would be dumb to not have a
better backup plan. But Gross is playing at as high a level as ever.

He won't gain Pro Bowl credit for the year, almost certainly. But at
this point, profootballfocus.com has him as a top 5 player of all
tackles in pass protection. I don't think Carolina's going to find
better.

The team has a similar choice with Travelle Wharton. Among the most
consistent players on offense, Wharton never receives the highest
grades, but the stability and experience brought should be valuable
again next year, and I hope they do. That casts maybe a little doubt on
Amini Silatolu, who has to work out well for the team to succeed long
term. Does that mean he goes to RG with the hundred other players they
have there? Maybe, maybe not. But I believe if you don't bring back
Wharton, at the low cost he received this year, you're starting over.

Either way, the OL needs some attention. Byron Bell has his
challenges, and his deep-set drops before he even contacts the DL leaves
a small pocket. The team does have to sort from amongst a legitimate
five starting RGs and more players who they wanted there but never made
it. There's room to make some change. I just hope they don't throw
away their left side so quickly.

Breaking Down Hixon’s Catch

There aren't a lot of catches in Domenik Hixon's Carolina career – but
he made this one count. His TD catch with 28 seconds left in the
Saints game Sunday propelled Carolina to its first playoff birth in five
years.

From what I can tell, the playcall appears to be shotgun bunch right
(formation), jet right (the protection), 794 F Go. With that said,
that's just my interpretation of the call, and they've simplified the
nomenclature this year to what would be more to the level of "Gun Bunch
Utah". Since that playbook and terminology is obviously not


Presnap -
Carolina came out in a shotgun, trips right formation that had Greg
Olsen split 5 yards, off the line; Brandon LaFell 7 outside him on the
line, and Ted Ginn outside the hash flanking – all to the right.
Hixon was the lone receiver to the left as split end, with Mike Tolbert
the back lined up to Cam Newton's immediate left.

The Saints showed a single high safety, four players in a 3-point
stance, DBs covering each split receiver and the FS in space to Hixon's
side at 8 yards.

At the snap, the Saints showed their intentions. The backside S,
Malcom Jenkins, came on the blitz; when the nickel at Olsen's side came,
the SS, Roman Harper, covered Olsen, so no zone at all. Cover 0.

Once Newton recognized it, it's a matter of looking at whose route is
most likely to get open versus man. Hixon's route was the one. He
ran a corner route – a 7 in Coryell terminology – that broke at the goal
line. Ginn, furthest out, had a clearing route behind Olsen and
LaFell's – both of which pushed into the endzone that don't really break
– assumedly, both zone busters that hope to post-up a smaller DB. The
second best hope would've been Ginn's, who would have an easy catch but
would either mean a broken tackle or a step out of bounds with about 20
seconds to go.





In this case, it was a time when Carolina beat the blitz, and beat
cover zero. Not coincidentally, Carolina's other touchdown, the
Deangelo Williams run, was Carolina beating the blitz as well (cover 1
had it been a pass). The Saints were running a base 3-4, but since
Carolina came out at midfield with 2 TE right (Double in this offense -
Greg Olsen with Ben Hartsock flanking, for a likely playcall of Double
Right 40 Counter), Travelle Wharton pulling right and Hartsock taking
the contain man right, and everyone else blocking down. Blitz or not,
it simply became a wall of players, and essentially only Roman Harper to
beat from 12 yards out. When Williams cut inside Wharton's pull block
and bent it back left, Harper no longer had the angle and no one else
was back there thanks to the blitz.


The Rob Ryan blitz helped the Saints at times, and they mixed it up a
good bit, continuing to run a lot of cover 3 in the game. They had
actually thrown a lot of softer zones, trying to hold the deep play up,
through the Ted Ginn cross and the Greg Olsen play. It wasn't until the
Hixon play that they brought a lot of pressure. It's not that it was a
bad call. It just got read and Newton made the play.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Bye Week Crucial For Injuries, But Not Success

The Panthers are a little banged up, so they could use some rest. With
a win against Atlanta, they get a week off.


Steve Smith was the critical change last week, with the strained PCL
being the best possible diagnosis for the injured 13th year receiver,
but he'll miss Atlanta. A second straight week of rest would be
fantastic. I'm sure his recently dislocated finger, freshly stitched
for the game Sunday, could take a little time off, too.

As well, Jonathan Stewart's MCL could use that time, and the team could
use Stewart to help bolster the run game. Ends Charles Johnson and Greg
Hardy have had knee issues in the last month, and it's never bad to be
fresh there. Hardy only showed up on the injury report for 11/24, but
still, nice to be at full force.

Tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short haven't really hit the "rookie
wall", but they're 5 more weeks into an NFL season than they'd be in
college. Backup Colin Cole had become a starter recently, playing more
NT with Lotulelei moving to the 3-tech, and is day to day with a calf
injury that could use some rest.

Cam Newton hasn't really shown up on injury reports, but has had the
ankle, foot, and toe injuries to deal with recently. That's a guy who
could use some fresh legs, obviously. And Deangelo Williams has had 191
carries - most since 2009. A 30 year old back with 1531 career touches
can always use a little rest, even if he hadn't been carrying more in
recent weeks.



On the dark side of getting rest, strategically, the last three Super
Bowl winners were wild card teams. I don't think that continuous travel
has as much to do with it, honestly. I think the Ravens, Packers, and
Giants individually were teams that got hot at the right time, beat an
easy 3/4 seed, and matched up well with the 1s and 2s. I think some of
that comes in the traditionally stronger 5 seed in a top conference
compared to the teams that barely back into a division win. I don't
think anyone really deserves the playoffs in the NFC North or East,
where the Saints/9ers/Cards are all better teams but one will clearly
not get in.



This year, home field has seemed to matter more for travel and
officiating, so I don't take the advantage lightly. Past history has
nothing to do with what happens individually, you still have to win the
game no matter where it's played. Bank of America stadium was
surprisingly loud this week, and you'd hope more home fans keep seats
than ship them off to waiting visiting fans for a playoff game.

V/s Saints, Aftermath and Playoffs

Carolina's in the playoffs for the first time since 2008, with a shot
at homefield advantage. Their fortunes, which went from possibly not
making the postseason at all to a seemingly likely #2 seed and a week
off, were held up by the defense for 59 minutes before Cam Newton and
Domenik Hixon came through and delivered the knockout punch for the win.

It looked dire for Carolina at the two minute bell - after four
straight 3 and outs, they were punting from their own territory, and
then they took too long setting up the punt (which would've saved one
Carolina timeout). I didn't have confidence they would get the stop
against Drew Brees and company, though there's no reason to suggest that
Newton and the offense would've pulled off the 4th and 7 that had just
faced them. No Steve Smith, thanks to what we know now to be a PCL
sprain, and no real production in the second half to that point.

Somehow, the defense (which had Brees for six sacks and 2 INT already),
which had endured 80 plays, held. Sean Payton went conservative, ran
the ball three times, and punted. Carolina threw their timeouts at it
and hoped for a field goal, down by 3. What happened next was magical.

Newton's had trouble stepping up in the pocket this year. After a
couple of years of making the magical scrambles that highlight sports
shows, not unlike the one he had this year against the Pats, he's been
able to make something despite a solid pocket inside and rushers that
keep good contain; this year, especially against the Saints, he's also
taken very long sacks because of it. One 15 yard rush for a first down
has also included more 15 yard sacks, drive killers.

So on that first down, from his 35 and a minute to go, without Steve
Smith, things looked grim. Newton stepped up in the pocket and drilled
Ted Ginn on the deep drive route. Replays showed Newton almost in the
grasp of a lineman; he couldn't step into his throw, forcing him to make
a deep middle pass on arm strength alone. Ginn reeled it in - all of a
sudden, instead of being 30 yards from a deep field goal, Carolina had a
shot at the NO 28. After a misfire to Ginn, Newton hit Olsen for 15
more - a spike, then the corner route to Hixon for the TD. It was a low
ball, and Hixon had to dive for it. The connection ensured the win.


Until then, it was a defensive battle and a sloppy game. The defense
held Brees (30/44, 281, TD/2 INT) based on the turnovers; the offense
just sputtered along, doing enough to play field position. Newton, who
only had 6 yards rushing, had an INT and took 4 sacks, was 13/22 on the
day for under 181. 65 of those came on the last drive. Carolina ended
0-9 on third down. They more or less abandoned the run all game, 13
designed runs to backs (one to Mike Tolbert, who had 3 total touches),
and seven of those came in the first half; there were only two rushes by
Williams after the second series of the second half. Consequently,
third downs got longer, and therefore tougher. The Newton rush threat
was clipped by a problematic ankle. No Smith changed the coverage to
more of a press, and Carolina struggled to answer until the last minute.

But that defense - earning a spot back as the top scoring D, and the
2nd ranked yardage D, it made its plays. Luke Kuechly had 24 tackles
(26 asking the team) and a pick; he's player of the week for NFC
defense. Thomas Davis had a nifty pick on a zone blitz play, lining up
in a 3 point stance and dropping, 14 tackles, and two tackles for loss.
That's two players, combining for two turnovers and almost 40 tackles.
Amazing.

Greg Hardy had three sacks, and what should've been another (either
Drew Brees was sacked/in the grasp, or that incompletion should've been
grounding...it was a throwaway to evade a sack, in the pocket, thrown
behind the line of scrimmage). He picked on rook Terron Armstead for
two, another inside. The DBs blitzed into more - Quinton Mikell got
one, as did Captain Munnerlyn, and Mike Mitchell picked up a half with
DE Mario Addison. Addison and Kawann Short don't get the statistical
credit, but both combined for a hurry that forced Brees into the Kuechly
interception.

Munnerlyn, as well, had a great day in coverage, playing the press
better and allowing two receptions totaling 15 yards in his area, and
got a hand on one of those passes. Drayton Florence had a struggle here
and there but played physical as well, and Melvin White had some hiccups
but the Saints wide receivers only caught 12/19 for 147, with Marques
Colston being 5/10 for 63 yards, 35 coming on one miss by Florence who
went for the ball. It was a much better day for the secondary than the
first attempt at New Orleans.


So, since New Orleans had lost at St. Louis the week before, Carolina
owns the tiebreaker after the split series. They control their destiny
- a win against the Falcons and they're the #2 seed, which comes with a
home playoff and a much-needed week off. They have clinched a playoff
birth either way, but would end up a 5 or 6 seed with a loss and a
Saints win, along with a road game in playoff week 1 against whichever
NFC East or North team backs into the playoffs.







(sorry for dealing with the past week on Thursday - holidays and all)

Sunday, December 22, 2013

V/s Saints, Second Try

Carolina has a shot at redemption at home Sunday, coming off a win
against the Jets to cleanse the concerns of their loss at New Orleans.

Beating up on Rex Ryan's defense brings an odd situation facing his
brother in what would inevitably be the nastiest euphemism in sports - a
Ryan Brothers sandwich. Getting a second crack at the complex Rob Ryan
defense is a unique situation, but not less so than to play his brother
right after. Anything that Carolina fixed against the Jets, was learned
by Rob; on the other hand, Rob can't use his same old tricks against
Carolina, instead creating a completely new gameplan that might or might
not work the same.

Ryan employed a different philosophy against a long-ball offense with
the Rams that was setup completely to beat the blitz and to push
safeties further back. More than that, the Rams pounded the ball, and
that clears up a lot of blitzing, too. Carolina's run game has gotten
better in the last week, and that was against a much better run defense
in the #2 ranked Jets.




For Carolina, a lot of pressure came off the corner blitz this past
week - a really nifty blitz that brought both Captain Munnerlyn and then
MLB Luke Kuechly on a delay. But as effective as it was, and well timed
in its calls, I would caution Sean McDermott from using it often. What
I'd prefer is to show the look a time or two, but bring pressure from
somewhere else. I liked Thomas Davis off the edge a few weeks ago, once
coming outside and another time looping inside the way an end would on a
stunt; doing that with Kuechly would work just as well.

Past that, I'd still prefer to throw some 'big nickel' at Robert
Lester. One easy way to limit Jimmy Graham's looks would be to have
someone who can run with him - which is rare but more likely to be a DB
- and have enough size/physicality at DB to bang with a guy who's 250
lbs., which is more a safety. Lester's been a good sub DB, he can chuck
near the line but still turn and run. If Graham shows covered at ten
yards, he's less likely to get the target.

And that's the thing about Brees, and why getting a good press on their
receivers but getting into good position is key. Brees is great at
cycling through his targets, which means he's not going to be stubborn
about a receiver. If a guy shows covered, he's not going to force it.
He's going to move on. Carolina struggled getting contact early, then
got flagged overdoing it; then they stopped pressing for a bit and it
killed them.

From a matter of over-correction, Carolina could push more attention at
the WRs - specifically Marques Colston, who broke out against Carolina
in a form he hadn't all year, and then followed that with a big
performance against the Rams as well. There's no doubt that Carolina
will receive a little more leniency in the defensive backfiend at home;
it's going to be necessary as they attempt to get more physical with the
big NO receivers.

Might be a wet field - I still think, just throw a 6th lineman out
there and pound it. Hoping for a good game.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Analyzing the Rams' Win Over Saints

I wouldn't have expected the Rams to take on the Saints in the fashion
they did, but they left a bit to look at against New Orleans.

First off, St. Louis remained a very physical team. New Orleans is a
fairly finesse offense - and a defense that uses a ton of different
players, many of them small. They're also fairly dirty - as Carolina
saw. I'm not expecting them to be exceptionally dirty, but Carolina
must be physical. They must hit harder, be stronger mentally and
physically than last time. They must dictate the tone of the game to
win this one. It's something that worked out well against other teams -
like the win at San Francisco, or the should've-won game against
Seattle.

The Rams didn't have exceptional QB play, but career backup Kellen
Clemons executed the offense, and from the looks of things the Rams
don't take any fewer deep shots than normal. Actually, no one Ram had a
ton of yardage, four guys had at least 2 receptions and from the looks
of things, three guys had plays of 20+ yards. That's something that's
repeatable, since Carolina not only runs the same offense as Brian
Schottenheimer but also brought back some deeper passing this week
(finally).

It's also somewhat repeatable to gash the Saints inside - that's their
defense's weakness, and former fullback Zac Stacy's 28 for 133 can be
mirrored a bit by more carries by Mike Tolbert (though it's hard to
argue historically against the history of Deangelo Williams at home
against the Saints, too).

That physical play - which could've included a little home-field
advantage in physical play by the Rams CBs - extended a bit as well by
getting two picks on Brees, who was 39/56 and had one TD. It's not that
they did an exceptional job outside - Marques Colston had 8 receptions
for 92 and a score, for instance, but they kept the Saints in come from
behind mode by going up 17-0 early - yet another thing Carolina has
traditionally done this year, get ahead early.

So, there's some room to be had, a window of opportunity, to win this
weekend. It being at home (with the Saints struggling on the road)
doesn't hurt either - but, they also just lost, and they bounce back
from losses well. So, who knows.

V/s Jets, Aftermath

Carolina controlled this one pretty much the whole way - and they
knocked out a 30-20 win in front of the home crowd.

It provided pretty much everything you'd want to see - a score setup by
a great special teams play (the Jason Williams blocked punt), a
defensive touchdown (Captain Munnerlyn's 40 yard pick-six), and even
some deep passing by Cam Newton (who hit Brandon LaFell on a sweet 38
yarder, and hit Greg Olsen for a number of long gains). You got a
remarkable screen play brought to the house by Deangelo Williams, 72
yards, and the always entertaining fat guy TD (Mike Tolbert's one yard
walk-in - waddle-in? I dunno).

But, while the score could've easily been 30-13 without a late TD where
the Panthers were just playing in deep zones, I don't feel like this was
the thorough thrashing you might hope for. When you're in contention
for the 5 seed, or even with the Saints' loss, the 2 seed, you will
gladly take any win. But, Carolina's gotta finish these games a little
stronger.

They have to punch the ball in a bit more - they started another game
with 2 field goals. While that gets overplayed - they didn't lose the
Saints game because they only got 6 on two long drives, they lost
because their offense and defense collapsed together in the second
quarter for a 21-0 Saints run - they do need to be less conservative in
their approach. Love that they're willing to pound the ball and that
they don't want to do it with Cam Newton if they can help it, but if
that's the case they have to be willing to take shots in the passing
game inside the 15.

I'd also have felt a little better about the non-blitz rush if they had
gotten there a bit more with the DL - I liked the Munnerlyn blitz with
the Luke Kuechly delay behind it, which netted three sacks (two on
Munnerlyn, one on Kuechly's cleanup). But you can't pull that stuff off
against Drew Brees, so don't bother bringing that. Basically, with
Brees, you have to be willing to call that rare blitz at the perfect
time - when he's both looking deep and you can get the pressure up the
middle.
Geno Smith, he's a guy you can blitz.


I'd have also felt better if Newton had been just a little sharper in a
couple of spots - he missed on two more screens, one of which could've
scored, the other a long gain. He had the jump pass, which is a tough
fundamental play anyway, open and missed it. Upside? He was efficient,
his 'bad' throws weren't in dangerous spots, and he made some things
happen downfield. I like that expectations are that a realistic ten
point win where Newton throws for 273 and a score, no picks, and hits
66% of his passes against a solid defense is disappointing.

It's also nice that the defense, giving up 20 points on a late score,
that that's disappointing. I like that Williams can have 168 yards from
scrimmage and feel like he still could've done more (the 72 yard
reception on the screen is an abberation, sure, but that's the #2 rush
defense and he had 5.4 yards a carry with a long of 18).

It was nice to see that Mike Shula could open it up a bit - he pulled a
statue of liberty play to Brandon LaFell, run last in '12, and another
reverse action play to Ted Ginn for 14 yards, but more than that, it was
the ability to let Newton throw up a couple of deeper passes. Teams
have started to crowd the run, and when you pass short, you're not
helping that as much, even if you spread.

So, a little to complain about, but hey, they didn't lose to the Rams
like the Saints did. A home win, I'll take that. Now, if they can
repeat it this week, obviously, even better.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

v/s Jets, Pregame

Not a lot I intend to cover this week - you have two good run defenses facing two teams that like to run, and that puts pressure on the two young quarterbacks.  Cam Newton is better than Geno Smith, and Carolina's pass D is better than New York's.  It's a home game, and hopefully more a reset game than anything else, because they'll need to regain composure for the stretch run.

Newton has been up and down over the last two months when expected to do it all himself, but Smith has struggled mightily to do the same and is a turnover machine. Anything that wasn't cleaned up by the Carolina secondary from last week, or any mismatch that New York might put together, could be masked by Smith's massive amount of rookie mistakes.

While Carolina has struggled at times in the back end, it's also come partially at a schematic ideal of keeping the deep pass contained.  NY has issues from front to back - where its top notch front three are obviously up to the task and their ILBs are just fine for run stopping (280 lb OLB Quenton Coples is obviously fine for run and rush as well) - but none of them are good for the pass. Of the four, Calvin Pace grades out best against the pass, and that's potentially because of smaller sample size than the ILBs.

So, it's a good week to get the backs upfield a bit in the passing game, if all else fails. Limit mistakes, execute, and so on.


Tuesday, December 10, 2013

DB Scheming

Maybe next time, then.

I'd hoped - and assumed - that Robert Lester would get some time on
defense, if for no other reason than to put a bigger body that could
still run on TE Jimmy Graham.

Turns out he only played special teams, with his most prominent role
being the deep protector for PR Ted Ginn.

Lester had started the last few games but often subbed in and out with
Quentin Mikell since both have been healthy. I've seen Lester in the
box before, against other strong TEs. It seemed like a good matchup -
as good as Carolina could realistically provide.

Mikell is better in coverage, and underrated overall, but adding Lester
to the existing quartet doesn't hurt either. Throwing him in for a LB
isn't the worst in the world against a team that ended up throwing 40
times in a 20 point win. The Saints just don't run it a lot. It
appears that Chase Blackburn was minimally effective minus a play on a
pass he batted, and I'd argue that AJ Klein as well would've been a
smarter matchup.

Either way, it wasn't the team's biggest problem. They couldn't find a
person alive able to cover Marques Colston, who is at best their third
best outlet. Maybe they shifted too far toward Graham (not like that,
or anything else worked). I'm not blaming coaching specifically, it's a
complete failure by all involved.

It's not the Cowboys' defense. The team isn't imploding like the
Texans or Redskins. There's room to grow back into a top defense
immediately. There's no doubt how disappointing this game was, however.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Hardy's Intro

What do you say when the best part of your team's night comes when your
right end does his intro?

It all went downhill a bit after Greg Hardy looked through his
sunglasses and, serious as possible - and you never know, he could
believe it - said, simply,

"KRAKEN. HOGWARTS."

Simply amazing, and awesome. Solid work Greg, at least one part of the
night wasn't completely awful.

Disaster in 3/4 Time

Carolina had it covered through fifteen minutes.

They'd kept the ball away from Drew Brees, ran the ball well, converted
on third down. They hadn't put up TDs, but hey, we're hopeful. They'll
get the ball back again and punch it in. They've only given two scores
up in the first half of games all year - sometimes six points is a good
start, right?

That's when the voodoo kicked in, I guess - 21 points later, they went
into halftime having no real shot at getting back to respectability.
All of a sudden, a Marques Colston that hadn't made many plays all year
was burning the secondary. Then the rest of the wheels came off, and it
became harder to put a lot of pressure on Jimmy Graham. The rush wasn't
getting there - I could make some comments about the officiating
favoring the home team (holding calls weren't there, but interference
calls were), but the team didn't do its part and it's hard to pinpoint
many terrible calls - just that there were more calls on the back end,
and suddenly a team doing its best to play press couldn't jam and got
called for holding a lot. The adjustment to stop the calls, made
coverage worse.

And then, the efficient third down Cam Newton disappeared, and the
spazzy, take a 15 yard sack on third down Cam showed instead. The right
side of the line broke down, then everything broke down.

At the end, the Saints coasted a bit, and Carolina finally got in the
endzone, only three quarters too late against a softer coverage. A
total disaster. Is the season over? No, but you can't help but feel
like the team is exposed.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Sean Payton's Offense

An undrafted safety might be the key to limiting Drew Brees.

This is the first time the full-on, top ranked Carolina defense gets to go after a Sean Payton offense.  Obviously, the 2011 team got stomped; the 2012 team that did a good job against Brees, didn't have Payton at the helm.  That makes this battle the key of the game, and therefore the path toward the division crown.

Payton's Coryell-influenced attack does plenty of old-school Coryell staples - 3 verticals, 4 verticals, plenty of post and corner work to keep corners on their heels and a powerful TE up the middle.  Payton also loves to show the same play out of plenty of formations, and shifts into different looks out of base personnel.  Having Jimmy Graham, and the incredibly versatile Darren Sproles, doesn't hurt.  They can do anything out of any formation, so it's not hard to move things around.  The key concept to those verticals include Brees' look-off, to push the safety away from his intended target.

It's interesting that Brees, who really doesn't seem less cerebral or capable of doing so, isn't a guy who has much no huddle capability.  He does plenty of line checking, he runs a wide open offense with versatile personnel, and yet he's been doing it less while makeshift offenses are doing it more (Buffalo, Philly, and Atlanta).  No concerns there - if Sean Payton wants the clock to run a bit, it's fine by me.    Carolina's likely going to run when it can, and stop the run as much as it'll be able to.  Since Carolina leads time of posession through ground game and taking what the defense gives, they're probably going to do their best to limit the chances Brees gets to make big plays by playing keep away.

That's where the strategy starts.  Past that, I expect a lot more two deep safety than Carolina normally runs.  An exception would be dropping Quentin Mikell to ten yards, just to let him have more reach on TE Jimmy Graham.  Graham is obviously the critical target - he's got 12 TDs on the year, and almost 1000 yards as he takes aim at various all-time TE records and certainly the single season ones.

Dropping Mikell to ten yards but setting him up in deep zone might be something - especially if the Panthers somehow get a good chuck on Graham at the line.  It disguises the zone look a bit, and Carolina tends to play one safety up at times. It also allows them to go cover 1 if they want - and in a way, that might have some value.  Traditional man underneath against Drew Brees is less ideal, but if you're rushing four and holding the one safety in zone, you have six cover guys to spread amongst four to five receivers - so you can call that bracket on Graham and read the back.  That's going to be Brees' progression on many plays anyway, and the NO receivers aren't killing it the way that Graham is, or that RB Darren Sproles could.

Marques Colston is now 30, year 8; he's having his worst yards/catch season since '10; he's on place to have less than 5 TD for the first season ever, and his second sub-1000 yard season ever.  Colston has been a secondary target for a while now, but this year he's struggling to keep his normal pace.   He's still a solid posession guy and it's not like the size (6'4, 225) went anywhere, so he can still make the post, slant, corner moves and can be the crossing guy, too.  But he's maybe not the guy who can show open deep.  It's not that Drayton Florence is the perfect guy to leave on an island, but he might be the right guy to play press and stay physical with Florence.

Kenny Stills is the other starter - the speedy but small (6', 195) rookie from Oklahoma becoming the guy to get the bigger play (4 TD, 20 ypc).  But Stills hasn't caught more than 3 balls but once, in a game where his average dipped to 9.8.  He's only caught 4 balls total the last three weeks, for 36 yards.   The Jets, 9ers, and Seahawks each held him closer to 11 ypc with only the Jets giving up more than one score.  Stills has to be respected deep, but outside of that, he doesn't appear to be dangerous.

So how is this offense the 3rd ranked pass offense, then?  Outside of Graham, they've been working both backs hard.  Mark Ingram gets some of Sproles' carries now, but Pierre Thomas has gotten a bigger share.  121 rushes and he's second in receptions with 60 (Sproles has 55).  They're pushing both backs with a heavy role in the run game, and that makes them obvious guys to watch in patterns.   It's, to a point, Carolina's "weak" spot - footballoutsiders has them no worse than 11th in the league at defending a given WR or TE (#1 WR; 2 and 3-4 they're excellent, and 8th against the TE), but against backs, they're 22nd.  Can't cover everything at all times, but it's worth watching to see if they can get on the backs early.

It does have a level of purposeful situationality to it. They're going to sub liberally for situation, and you can tell with Ingram (who has only three catches, and who mostly plays with 2nd TE Ben Watson, who has 10) that they're going to do different things than with Sproles and 3rd WR Lance Moore (who's become an underneath guy in his age) or Robert Meacham (who subs in to pull duty with the go, post, and back shoulder fade).   You can sub in with it too - if you want to really focus on Graham, you'll probably see backup S Robert Lester in for a big nickel look, and the team did that a fair bit against Rob Gronkowski.    You can sub in a sixth DB and not get caught being too light.

It also suggests some level of blitz if you want it.  I don't know that too much blitzing is a great idea against Brees, but it was effective at the end of 2011. It's not happening this year as much; still, though Brees gets the ball out fast, and works the backs, he does still take a lot of deeper shots, a lot more than Brady/Manning over time.  So you're not breaking your neck to get to him in under 2 seconds, hoping to get a free man through.  Brees' timing isn't going to be the same every play.


I don't know that a lot of blitzing is necessary - and if the rush starts really landing, stop blitzing.  The screen game gets heavier, and the playcalls get closer in; that's the typical Payton adjustment.  First you have to get the rush there, though, and I think Carolina has a good shot at it.

Charles Johnson gets back this week, and hopefully he's rested. He faces Zach Strief, who likewise is a little banged up.  He's given up only three sacks on the season but struggled last week.  Greg Hardy gets the easy part - not only does he get to go back to exclusively playing the right side, but he gets Charles Brown.  Brown's second in the league in penalties, and per profootballfocus.com, has given up 9th most pressure of any OT (so, out of 64+).

Inside, it gets more even.  Bruce Grubbs and Jahri Evans are a top notch guard combo; Brian De La Puente is smart, and just athletic enough to keep a job. Star Lotulelei is stout enough to take on anyone, but Dwan Edwards still ailing, and never being a great run player, might struggle a bit.  It might be worth having more snaps for Kawann Short this week, and I'm sure with healthy end depth for once, you'll see some inside rushes for Hardy or Johnson.

It's obviously a good week to stop the run - Carolina is 2nd stopping it, New Orleans is 23rd trying to run it.  Another good reason to expect less single-high safety, and potentially more reason to expect SLB Chase Blackburn to play only modest amounts. AJ Klein is better in coverage (in the hypothetical where neither is suckered into playaction), and faster, though I would honestly expect them to sneak Robert Lester in base about 10-15 snaps.  If Carolina suddenly gives up 3.5 on the ground instead of 2.5, it's allright.  Lester isn't a magic cure-all for Graham, but they do play him liberally against good TEs.   Dropping him right into the base and lining him up inconspicuously where Blackburn was, might be a good way to stop the shorter stuff to Graham.  It also gives a better matchup should Graham end up lining up in space.

Graham notwithstanding, this offense is still very good but it doesn't have that elite punch.  They're 2nd in time of possession (2nd to Carolina) and remain efficient, and they're 7th in points.  They're good.  But, they've had struggles with borderline defenses like Atlanta's, and lost to 2 of the last 3 good defenses they faced (NYJ, SEA, and the exception being the last minute bailout call v/s SF).  None of those defenses, statistically, are Carolina's.  Sure, Seattle has excellent DBs and Carolina has mostly castoffs, but San Francisco and New York aren't working with much better, honestly.

Carolina, definitely not the offensive power that New Orleans is, has to play the field position game.  If that's going to work, this defense has to stop the run, set up great 2nd, 3rd and long situations, and capitalize on them.  That's where something nutty like using Lester as a 3rd safety for Graham could pay off.




Friday, December 6, 2013

Rob Ryan's Defense

I'm going to do breakdowns separately.
Schematically, both Sean Payton's offense and Rob Ryan's defense have a lot of ground to cover. The other half should be done tomorrow, so hang in there.


Starting off, this is a team 8th in total yards, and fourth in passing yards. They're a team that forces you to choices with pressure from every direction (3rd in sacks); but they can be soft (16th in rush yards, 24th in redzone TDs, and 20th in turnovers). They're an exotic set of moving fronts and bizarre matchups.


Ryan's 'base' defense is routinely written off as a 3-4. But they spend more time in nickel than they do anything else (62% of the time), and some analysts say that's part of the reason that Ryan's defense is 16th against the run and 28th in yards per attempt. To that end, however, he's also used some new tricks for stopping San Francisco recently.

The Saints struggled defensively to adapt to the zone read against the Jets. They gave up almost 200 yards rushing, a season high for the defense. So, against a similar quarterback in Colin Kaepernick, whose deep ball game has dried up a significant amount this season, the Saints came out in a stacked front.




Call it a 5-3, 4-4, 3-5, whatever you want. They leave three DL on the field, and two OLB (though you could quibble since Junior Galette tends to have his hand in the dirt, that he's an end), and have three linebackers in formation. Not a safety walked up, or a linebacker moving up and back as if he were a safety. Three ILB just standing in two-point stances. So you can call it anything between a 3-5 and a 5-3, but it's tougher to run against. San Francisco rushed for a season-low 81 yards - not a dominating performance, but definitely bottling up Kaepernick and Frank Gore, the league's 7th ranked rush offense.


One interesting coaching note appears that when they go to the stacked defense, they play more two-gap with it.


Assuming you get Ben Hartsock, an excellent blocker, back at TE, one counter to that is to plop into 22 personnel, or even 32. Carolina's had some success there, but it's situationally relevant on  non-short-yardage in this case against that defense. If they want to get big? Get bigger. Carolina can bring in Geoff Hangartner as one of the TEs, giving them 6 x 300 lbs; Hartsock is as good a run blocker as the linemen, giving seven; you have Greg Olsen as a competent wall-off guy. Put the adequate Richie Brockel in front of a back and just demoralize them a few times a game. The team has come up with good pass options from this set, and if nothing else, Olsen and a back can attempt to get open. The bootleg game gets better here; you don't get much option since it's stack against stack (not a lot of space).


Two TE has another advantage, in that you create more gaps to cover. Eight men now have to cover eight gaps. Those three ILB aren't as easily shielded. Is it that different from what the fullback provides you? Maybe not, but it gives you a better read on your zone blocks and less room for confusion against a funky front.



Of course, one way to make that less a factor as well, and setup more space inside/more one on one matchups, is to spread. Force them to react to what you're doing, instead of let them dictate. You can do that out of base (if you split the RB and Greg Olsen out, it's a 4 WR look), and since the Saints don't seem to split out a LB to cover a secondary receiver after a shift, you can use that to tell if it's man coverage. Alternately, they are more likely to trade out those ILBs and DTs when you trot two extra WR onto the field, and most teams just don't keep a box safety as much against spread.  



As well, they play a more traditional 3-4 nickel set a good bit - splitting between the 3-3-5 (Junior Galette nearest the line) and the Dom Capers-style 2-4-5 (with two of the four obviously being rush OLB).  They actually throw a 6th DB on the field a good bit as well - about 40% of their non-base snaps involve a 6th DB, often split between backup safeties Rafael Bush and former starter Roman Harper.  They go into nickel for matchups, not just obvious pass situations, if they are choosing to not be exploited by a specific offensive weapon.




Schematically, their base 3-4 plays a lot of 'under', which leaves a lot of DL playing 4-3 type alignments. The weakside end is playing a 5-tech, which is typical in a 3-4, and there seems to be a nose tackle in every defense on the field every week.  But the other end plays a 3-technique often, which leaves a more typical spacing between he and the strong OLB.  In the trap, and zone read games, that makes for a bit easier running - you don't have the strong end and OLB in concurrent gaps. It doesn't hurt off-tackle and outside runs, either.  And Greg Olsen has done an above average job of crashing down on the strongside end - same for Brandon LaFell.

That crack inside leaves a significant opportunity to break contain, and if they're playing base defense instead of stacking, that leaves some open field.  Alternately, if the Saints are running a full 8-man front with the extra LB, it allows the pitch option to be read outside to the SLB instead of the end.  That's still a foreign concept for the NFL, but before the league adopted the zone reads or the triple option, the college game was already starting to read the DT.  Since then, essentially you can choose to read any box defender in college, and the same situation is in this concept - you simply wait for the next man to fill, this case being the SLB, and you keep or pitch based on his action.

Carolina hasn't run the outside option in a number of games so this has some potential.  Against the 5-3, clearly that's not as exceptional an option, though there's room for the packaged plays - allows for the playaction, allows another play for the line to runblock a soft middle, and it gives one on one matchups on the outside.  If you give Cam an option of Greg Olsen upfield, or a WR smoke route/slant - either one really - you have a numbers advantage outside.


Which might be an interesting thing to watch anyway.  Whether 3-4 or more exotic, the Saints play a lot of cover 3.  That leaves the CBs playing some man technique but dropping - and a lot of room to make things happen intermediately.   They take that a step further and play a lot of cover 1 (man with a free zone), but went further aganist Seattle. Russell Wilson beat the Saints' attempts at playing strict man - cover 0 - which is much more exotic, a look that Ryan chose to have pressure on Wilson, be able to stop the run, and that obviously burned him a few times.




Regardless of the front, Ryan has done a lot regarding stopping the run lately.  He's causing the young QBs to beat them deep, beat them in the air.  The playaction game has some validity in freezing the middle, and with a defense this eager to make something happen but low in turnovers, you can pump fake them into mistakes as well (Newton's PA game is top notch, but he's not often used the pump fake).    Russell Wilson was the benefactor of the run game situation, making plays downfield but also picking up 47 yards on the ground on half the carries it took Marshawn Lynch to get the same.  Wilson has the element of surprise on a few of those, of course, and the extra blocker/misdirection.

One thing that Carolina can't do, especially against the stacked front, is do a lot laterally.  It's tough running against 8 in seven gaps, but you set yourself up for ruin trying to beat five linebackers to the edge (though, enough counter action and you can still exploit it a bit backside).


Now, as for the personnel - despite their below average rush rating, this is a team built from inside out.  You don't just put up a wall and block the edge, you have to win your inside matchups.

They use a rotation at NT -  Broderick Bunkley is a good veteran runstopper, but still likely a good matchup in Carolina's favor for Ryan Kalil.   Backing him is the massive John Jenkins, the rookie from Georgia.  Jenkins is a guy they'll situationally use against the obvious run, and at a legitimate 350, he's a guy who requires attention.  If they pull Bunkley for a more pass heavy look, the undrafted Glenn Foster is the guy.  A more lean 6'4 285, the former Illini tackle provides some push and explosion, and also fills in at DE.

Cam Jordan is playing an excellent 5-tech end, and the unfortunately spelled Parys Haralson does the edge rushing outside him.  These aren't an easy duo for Travelle Wharton and Jordan Gross - I think Gross has the easier matchup, as Jordan has 9.5 sacks and is clearly the better player.  The team may shade toward that side and have Gross take on Jordan more, and let Wharton help out inside; Hartsock and Brockel have had some success in 1 on 1 pass blocks on the edge against lighter edge rushers, with Brockel doing a good job against San Francisco on the strong side.

Akiem Hicks is the other end, a massive 2012 3rd rounder that I liked coming out, whose projections were hard to figure as he spent his time in community college and at Canada's Regina University.  He's got 3.5 sacks, solid for an interior player, but his run technique isn't always great and he relies on his size often, so he can be moved.  If he's ever shaded inside, he's a good player to use to exploit the angle with Byron Bell.   He can overpower Nate Chandler on paper with good technique, but there are a ton of variables when talking about a pair of extremely raw first-year starters.  Hicks had 2.5 of his 3.5 sacks in the last three weeks.

The other edge rusher is Junior Galette, the better of the two OLB; he has 6 sacks.  Another first year starter, he's adequate at keeping contain, and stout enough at 258 lbs, but not as active in the run game. He's not an elite athlete, just a guy you keep in front of you.

Behind that, Curtis Lofton is a traditional thumper who leads the team in tackles.  The other ILB is the more versatile David Hawthorne, the more likely blitzer (3 sacks so far) who had 15 defensed passes and 7 INT in his three years as a Seahawk starter (09-11) before coming over.  His tackle stats aren't as gaudy but he's the more active cover guy.  He can go outside, as well - Haralson's snaps tend to be in the 3-4 more often, where Hawthorne will play more of an outside role at times in the nickel sets.

Ramon Humber is an undersized (5'11, 230) utility player that comes in at ILB for some nickel opportunities and to give more of a 4-3 WLB type presence.  He appears in the 2-4 nickel when Hawthorne plays outside more, to cover Haralson's coverage deficiencies.


Of course, it wouldn't be a Ryan defense without a wide array of players coming at the QB, either, and any team willing to go Cover 0 in the NFL can bring a DB.  17 different Saints have more than 20 pass rushes, including starting safeties Kenny Vaccaro and Malcolm Jenkins.  Jenkins has 2.5 sacks for his part in it; Vaccaro, the Saints' first rounder, has added a versatile, and sizeable, presence to the safety spot missing with Harper, and is second in tackles.

The corners get a lot of expectation with Ryan's intent to use man and man-technique disciplies on cover 1 and cover 3.  Keenan Lewis, the bigger corner, leads the team in INT with 3; he had 23 PD as a Steeler starter last season, though no INT.  He's allowing about a 50% completion percentage, and a QB rating that was in the low 50s (before Seattle).  He's a fairly sure tackler as well.

Corey White's the other guy - another physical bump and run type, in his second year out of Samford (where he was a safety part-time).  He's got size, but can be overmatched by big, physical receivers anyway.  Nickel is the vet Chris Carr, the 9 year product who played for both Ryans over time, who plays more against slot types but still loses a lot of time to Harper or Bush in situations.


Interesting that, the past week, though the Seahawks have played a lot of base offensive personnel, that the Saints got 47 scrimmage snaps out of their backup safeties (it appears Vaccaro was out for four snaps, if that's helpful), and ten out of Carr (Lewis missed 7 snaps).  That shows how much more the Saints use their backup safeties in nickel (this game for instance, Harper played more than 3:1 over Bush).  I don't think that will change much, as the Saints will likely throw a safety in the face of Greg Olsen all day.   Empirically, Harper plays more at times, but Bush started early in the season over both Harper and Vaccaro.

 Do with that what you will, Olsen won't always out-physical everyone but it might be a good time for the traditional post-up moves from the TE.   Olsen isn't always the safety valve, but it might be smart to keep the back(s) in and have Olsen be the hot read more often.



Schematically, the safety might or might not be an ideal matchup downfield for New Orleans, but they do have more ability with the run and more blitzing skill; it's also a better talent situation for New Orleans.  It would be interesting to see how willing the Saints would be to step a 4th corner on the field with enough spread, but you'd have to really do the most you could with just the five/six blockers.

You might also see a lot fewer guys put into patterns at times - block 8 guys, throw Olsen and two receivers into deeper patterns.   Not only does that potentially clear some room for Cam Newton to run, but it also helps exploit the Saints deep.  The Seahawks had a 60 yarder to TE Zach Miller and a 52 yarder to slot guy Doug Baldwin.  So there is room for deep stuff, and not just to the fastest guy.  If you give more time versus man, and more options to block the blitz, a well-timed 2 or 3 vertical route combo can give your QB time to look, and doesn't have to look off the safety.

Beating the blitz was the paramount reason that Wilson beat this defense and came out victorious.  Against 5+ rushers, Wilson as 8-9 for 170 and 2 scores, and 3-3 with a DB coming.  That's not to say that what the Seahawks did was extravagant, a lot of those passes were short.  But they were very prepared to beat the blitz and called the right plays at the right time.   Wilson spent a lot of those attempts against Cover 0, and beat it effectively.  Carolina has to be ready for man coverage and have good check plays against it. 





Even just base O versus base D, generically, you have a lot of traditional ways to beat cover 3; obviously a lot of them involve running off the corner with a deep route and putting a good receiver underneath, where a LB has to cover a quarter of the underneath;  you can use option routes with the single coverage (post/corner based on the CB's leverage/technique); you can also run a two-route combo under the corner's deep third, like the post/swing with the TE and RB; you can use two TE to that side to create other overloads.


This one could go either way.  Carolina offensively has struggled a bit with top defenses.  But this one takes more risks, plays to the pass; Carolina's strength is the run, but they'll have to pull defenders out of the box to do it.   You have to limit mistakes and play the team game here, so the game will be much more than just this matchup.   Offense tomorrow.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Coaching Carousel, Part 1

It looks like Carolina has escaped the want or need to make any changes
this year, and I'm going to guess that, for now, they won't lose anyone
to upward mobility either.

But, other teams, of course, are going to have changes. I find that
type stuff interesting, so excuse the non-Carolina nature.

I don't know if Gary Kubiak makes it through this mess in Houston.
It's a good team, and if they can keep Wade Phillips, they probably
become pretty good again. This might be a unique place to throw in a
young college with a read option/packaged play type setup, since the
West Coast and Matt Schaub appear to both be out of the picture soon as
well. Since keeping Phillips has to be a top priority, that gets rid of
the potential of a Lovie Smith or a pro defensive coordinator; I don't
have a lot of hot OCs on my radar, but I tend to lean away from the pro
guys right now with the college game taking a greater hold. I also
think that dropping Phillips into the job would be as big a mistake as
letting him leave for a new staff.

Jacksonville could be spared. Gus Bradley's very slowly starting to
turn things around and they're already on coach three of three years.
Just throw the QB under the bus and go.

I think Atlanta isn't going to make any moves; I hope they don't cut a
coordinator, because I think their defensive deficiencies and Mike Nolan
are an advantage for Carolina (but, I'd bet they do something there).


Tampa seems to be staying the course here in the late part of the year,
too. People have seen that Josh Freeman isn't necessarily this
incredibly talented player they threw away, and that there's no 'good
guy' or 'bad guy' in this. Greg Schiano's undeniably unlikeable, but if
his team seems to buy in, they get what they pay for. That works for
Carolina - an experienced coach coming in would probably whip that team
into shape and possibly dump doofy Mike Glennon.

Washington? That might end up being fiscal. Mike Shanahan hasn't
really managed things well over time. His saving grace would be
dropping DC Jim Haslett - Shanahan's never been afraid of firing a DC
but he's never been good at picking them, either.

New York Jets? I think this might be it for Rex Ryan. And with new
coordinators, he's got nothing existing to lay on the line, not that I
love the idea of dropping a coordinator to cover yourself anyway. It's
a mess out there, and even though they show plenty of life, the
inconsistencies have to be maddening and they have a new GM.

When your specialty is sagging and you're a middling team anyway, it
might be time to get your guy to go under good circumstances. Minnesota
isn't in good circumstances. It's not working. The defense is sagging,
and sure it's because of the QB, but they haven't had a QB for a long
time. If nothing else, Frazier (who I'd bet to end up on Lovie Smith's
staff depending on how Rod Marinelli fits in) has had time to make
things happen. Can they dump Bill Musgrave and find something more
viable? Could, along with a QB change. That's what I'd do to beg for
my job, too. But I don't see the defensive longevity to build on,
either.

An outside shot might be Mike Munchak - they show life, but it's just
odd the way they bounce in and out of playing well so easily. I think
Dennis Allen gets another shot and maybe a steady vet QB to buy a year.

As for coordinators I haven't addressed, I don't see a way Monte Kiffin
isn't going to retire and Dallas starts over again. That probably kicks
the assistants out, too, as I've thrown in above with Marinelli. That's
the only assistant of a head coach I would expect fired, at first sight.





If I had to guess at hires - and who knows, because I didn't see the
success in Greg Schiano or Doug Marrone in a lesser conference to
suggest they were guys you had to hire - here's what I'd anticipate.

*Jack Del Rio has obviously set himself up for a rebound coaching job.
I'd say someone will look for Lovie Smith to right a ship. Both have
similar challenges, like setting up a good offense and being less
conservative, both are guys that players love and both have a chance of
rebounding with a different GM**.

*Jon Gruden will flirt but not put out. Bill Cowher's not coming back
to the league. I think the remaining retread coaches you'll see are
guys who might get fired - Rex Ryan, maybe Kubiak. Ken Whisenhunt, I'll
guess, gets an interview.

*I think it's probably the year for Mike Zimmer. He's had a top
defense four of the last five years, he's well liked and hard nosed but
he's not a complete tool. If I were hiring a pro DC, right now, that's
probably my guy.

*Two other guys who have made heavy waves are Todd Bowles, whose Philly
struggles were apparently a hiccup as he has the Cardinals' defense
doing some top notch work, and Ray Horton. Horton was the architect of
that Cards' D, and left because he was passed over as the head guy, so
at the least that will get him an interview. Horton's in-house
replacement would be former Panther DL coach Brian Baker, I'd assume.
Still kinda miss that guy here, FWIW.

*Horton and Bowles, I'll guess, become Rooney candidates for some
teams, replacing that always awkward Perry Fewell interview (the Ron
Rivera Emeritus interview, so to speak, though it's a Sherm Lewis thing
historically). Outside Lewis, there aren't other good minority
candidates, and the league likes defensive interviews, so both of these
guys probably travel a lot in January.

*I'm hoping that Carolina will dismantle the Saints' defense enough
that Rob Ryan doesn't get interviews, but he's doing some creative stuff
out there. If anyone's going to put together the blueprint for the
future defense that will stop all this flag football stuff being put
into the rules to go with the spread, read option, packaged play future
of the NFL, it could be Ryan. I don't know if he's there yet. He's
also undeniably weird.

*Of the college guys, I'd anticipate all-offense, and that's been the
trend. I like David Shaw and love Kevin Sumlin, but both are guys who
seem legitimately ready to stay where they are for the duration. You
could always see something funky, like Art Briles in Washington or Gus
Malzahn, but with the ups and downs of Chip Kelly and the weekly "is
this dead?" questions from media about the read option or Kelly's unique
spread stuff, I don't know if the time is right for a Malzahn or
something nuttier like Dana Holgorsen, both ridiculously interesting
spread coaches; Holgorsen's shine has come off a bit with a down year,
but he's undoubtedly talented.***

*Mark Roman of the 9ers is a guy I like. If I were hiring an offensive
coach right now for Carolina, it'd be him, though the later struggles of
the 9ers and Colin Kaepernick probably pull him out of getting
interviews for now. I don't know if Jay Gruden has the shine on him
that he used to; a lot of the other good offenses are head coach-built.
It becomes the Pete Carmichael instance - where you might try out an
assistant to see what he can do out from under a signal calling head
coach, but then they got to see Carmichael for a year and it didn't
work.

*in the end, it still comes down to reputation, interview, and your
network of coaches. If Shanahan is fired, Kubiak has a leg up since he
has a his guys plus Shanahan's guys to draw from. Smith's stock goes up
a huge deal being able to pull from the Dallas staff, since his guys had
moved on when Smith took a year off, but he seals a job quickly if he
can pull off association with an offensive coach he hasn't worked with.


**I will spare you the full-on GM situation, and there's not always
rhyme or reason to whether GMs get fired with coaches, but I do still
like Marc Ross and Lake Dawson.


***remember that John Fox was hired here coming off a 7-9 NYG season in
which his defense finished 14th points/16th yards. You get opportunities
based on your body of work sometimes, not just the last year.