Panthers must get back on track
After watching a lot of film on both the Panthers and Eagles, Gary Horton picks out some key points to watch in Monday night's game.
Watching a lot of film on the Panthers and Eagles and talking to coaches and scouts, I found some key things to watch in their "Monday Night Football" game (ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET).
The Eagles must stretch the Carolina defense
The Eagles are still ranked fifth in the NFL in yards gained per pass play, but that's a very misleading stat now. Donovan McNabb is gone for the season, and under Jeff Garcia, this is a dink-and-dunk offense. Last week, 15 of Garcia's 23 completions went to backs and TEs.
The Panthers are ranked fourth in the league in fewest yards given up per pass. They do a good job of creeping up and jumping routes. Garcia must try some deep shots to keep the Panthers back and somewhat honest.
Carolina's defensive front four must pressure Jeff Garcia
One week this defense dominates and the next week it looks terrible. Garcia is now running a true version of the West Coast offense and will utilize a lot of three- and five-step drops, with slants and short routes designed to give the Eagles a ball-control passing game. The Panthers' defensive linemen must get their hands up and get some hits on Garcia, and they should take away a lot of his throwing lanes.
Carolina must gash the vulnerable Eagles' run defense
In the last four games, the Eagles have given up 801 yards on the ground and a ridiculous 5.3 yards per rush. Their front four is undersized and gets engulfed by big offensive lines, and now the LBs can't get off blocks when runners get to the second level. Even MLB Jeremiah Trotter is struggling.
As a result, the secondary, especially the safeties, are forced to defend the run. The Eagles' one-gap, penetrating style leaves a lot of big running lanes open if they don't get to the ball, and their tackling has been atrocious. Carolina should commit to a downhill run game.
• What has happened to QB Jake Delhomme? When you break him down on film, his mechanics are sloppy, he throws off his back foot too much, causing the ball to sail, and he is forcing the ball into coverage too often. He's always been a gambler, but now his tendency to take chances is starting to backfire.
• The coaches are taking a lot of heat for what is perceived to be conservative play calling. Even though they are struggling in the run game, Carolina typically runs on first and second down, leading to a lot of third-and-long situations. When that happens, the Panthers are running a lot of safe draw plays that don't create a lot of first downs. They are 31st in the NFL in third-down conversions. Where is Steve Smith or Keyshawn Johnson when they need a big play on third down?
• The Panthers are quietly concerned about poor tackling in the secondary. The DBs are not doing a great job of wrapping up and opposing receivers are getting too many yards after the catch. It's not a major problem yet, but it's something to watch.
• If the Eagles play a lot of Cover 2 in an effort to eliminate big passing plays, look for the Panthers to utilize Smith on some quick bubble screens and reverses, designed to get him in the open field against a poor-tackling Eagles defense.
• It wouldn't be surprising to see the Panthers play a lot of nickel packages against the Eagles -- substituting a safety for a LB. With that scheme, the Panthers can almost spy Brian Westbrook with a safety, walking him out to the slot when Westbrook flexes or lines up wide. With Garcia being only a marginal threat to throw a lot of deep balls, Carolina can get away with only one deep safety and marginal help over the top.
• Carolina will also likely load up in the box and dare Garcia to throw deep. Carolina will gradually try to creep up and choke the short West Coast passing game. However, the Panthers must not get too close or they could be susceptible to play-action passes by Garcia.
• Carolina has obviously watched the film of Philadelphia's loss at Indy Sunday night and the first thing it will notice is the Colts really attacked the edge of the Eagles' defense with their patented stretch play. The Eagles are not very good on the defensive perimeter, and that is where Carolina should attack with RB DeAngelo Williams, who has excellent outside speed.
• The Carolina front four may play this game a little differently because of Garcia. Because he lacks height, Garcia needs to move around and find good throwing lanes, rather than going over the top. With a lot of three- and five-step drops and quick releases, it will be difficult for the pass rush to get Garcia, but if the linemen get their hands up, it will be hard for the Eagles to complete passes over the middle.
• What is the identity of this Carolina team? It used to be great at running the football and playing solid defense. The Panthers used to be great on special teams and were always very smart. This season, you just don't know what you are going to get on a weekly basis.
• Defenses have been cutting off the Panthers' run game by playing their LBs very close to the line of scrimmage and taking away running lanes. Look for Carolina to run wider if the Eagles try to crowd the line of scrimmage with their LBs.
• The Eagles have really been soft versus the run in recent weeks and show marginal ability to stack and shed at the point of attack. Their front four gets pushed around a lot, and their tackling is not very good. They give up a lot of yards after contact. Carolina will try to establish an inside run game early and the Eagles may resort to a lot of run blitzes to fill the gaps and avoid big plays. This team loves to blitz, but it's usually in passing situations.
• If the Eagles are forced to bring a lot of run blitzes, they will be taking a chance by leaving Smith on an island in single coverage. They could walk a LB out to jam Smith and cover him with a corner, or they may use a combo coverage with a corner and safety help over the top. The Eagles cannot get away with letting Smith get a free release.
• Although Michael Lewis is no longer the starting SS in the Eagles' base package because of coverage deficiencies, he has actually looked pretty good in the nickel and dime schemes as a LB, where he can put his physical style of play to better use.
• The Eagles have gaudy stats against the pass (No. 4 in passing yards allowed per game), but the numbers are somewhat misleading because offenses are running the ball so well versus the Eagles' front seven, they don't need to throw the ball a lot. In addition, the DBs are dropping a lot of INTs. It is not the playmaking group it was in the past.
• Even though they are running the ball much better than most of us anticipated (10th in rushing yards per game), the Eagles still have no semblance of a ball control offense and are 29th in the NFL in time of possession. That keeps an undersized defense on the field too long and the unit simply wears down versus physical run games. Will Carolina stay with the running game, even though it has shown no explosiveness?
• The Eagles have been uncharacteristically sloppy in terms of their mental discipline and are near the bottom of the NFL in penalties. They seem to lose a lot of momentum with silly mistakes and are not good enough to overcome it.
• The coaches must be careful not to overuse Westbrook with the loss of McNabb. While he is playing very well, Westbrook has touched the ball 86 times in the last three games.
• Look for the Eagles to play a lot of Cover 2 schemes, with Dawkins and Sean Considine both playing the deep half of the field. The Eagles may use Lewis as a LB in nickel situations, which could be their base package. That would allow Lewis to occasionally slide outside to harass Smith, and the Cover 2 will keep everything in front of the safeties and eliminate big plays.
• The Eagles do not match up well against Carolina's defensive front seven, and may utilize a lot more two-TE sets to offset the Panthers' quick front four. This approach also sets up more double-team blocks, if necessary. Garcia will also use his TEs in the passing game more than McNabb did.
Gary Horton, a pro scout for Scouts Inc., has been a football talent evaluator for more than 30 years. He spent 10 years in the NFL and 10 years at the college level before launching a private scouting firm called The War Room.
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