I think the overlooked element of the Carolina Panthers and their three-game winning streak is the defense, because everyone focuses on quarterback Cam Newton.
Carolina's front seven is exceptional. And I think Sean McDermott, their defensive coordinator, has done a great job with his coverage concepts to camouflage some individual weaknesses in the secondary. We think of coverage as just the secondary, and it’s not just them. The coverage concepts include linebackers, and the Panthers have two excellent coverage linebackers.
The Panthers play nickel often, and I’d argue Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis are the fastest pair of nickel linebackers in the NFL. That’s a very overlooked element of defense if you’re going to play nickel instead of dime.
Carolina also has a terrific defensive line rotation with multidimensional and versatile players. Greg Hardy is a player who rarely gets talked about, but he plays defensive tackle and defensive end and is a really good player. They’ve gotten good snaps out of both rookies at defensive tackle, Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, who is really talented physically but played too many snaps in college. He has played about 35 snaps a game this season and has been really effective.
Defensively, they’re very good. Then offensively, they have a lot of talent and many dimensions, which makes them tough to defend.
I think the issue with Newton has always been that he's a little slow to process and isolate the necessary information. He has been a beat late with throws, he has had some issues with accuracy. I think over the last three or four games – and nobody can answer why, but it’s there on film – he is processing better, the ball is coming out of his hand a lot quicker to the right receiver at the right time and he has recognized coverages better.
Also, their run game is extremely versatile and difficult to defend because so much involves Newton. When your quarterback is part of your run game, you can do so much more in the backfield with formation, personnel and backfield actions. The defense has to account for the quarterback as part of the run game. And the Panthers do a lot of different things in the run game.
A third-quarter run against Tampa Bay showed the diversity of the Panthers running game. They ran a basic quarterback power with the right guard pulling left, but with a read option element added to it. That’s a cool play, and it’s hard to defend this stuff. Newton gained 19 yards on the play.
The Panthers have a lot on offense: a multidimensional quarterback, a diverse run game and weapons at all skill positions. Greg Olsen isn’t Jimmy Graham, but he’s a tight end that can line up everywhere and be effective. Steve Smith is still dangerous, Brandon LaFell is a better No. 2 receiver than most people think, and Ted Ginn is an interesting No. 3 receiver because he can run by your secondary.
The Panthers also have some flaws. Their offensive line is, at best, a little better than average. Their secondary can be exposed in certain games. If they lose a game because they gave up 400 yards passing, that wouldn’t be a big surprise.
This is a big game for them this week against Atlanta, because they’re at home and the Falcons are struggling. If they’re truly improving, they should win.
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NFL analyst and NFL Films senior producer Greg Cosell watches as much NFL game film as anyone. Throughout the season, Cosell will join Shutdown Corner to share his observations on the teams, schemes and personnel from around the league.