Editor's note: Yahoo! Sports will examine the biggest weakness of the 2009 season for every team and explain how the franchise can address the issue. The series continues with the Panthers, who finished third in the NFC South (8-8).
Biggest problem in 2009: An ever-declining run defense
Over the past five seasons, the Carolina Panthers have effectively changed their offense from a balanced zone-blocking set to one of the best power-based rushing attacks in the NFL. Unfortunately, they have not been able to match this power on defense, and the team's ability to stop the run has suffered. According to Football Outsiders defensive adjusted line yards numbers, the Panthers were among the best run-stopping teams in the NFL from 2002 through 2007, never ranking lower than ninth in DALY and allowing four or more yards per carry only in 2004. But as that formerly great front line got old, and the front office found pieces hard to replace, the numbers plummeted accordingly. The Panthers ranked 24th in 2008 and 27th in 2009. Reinforcements aren't on the horizon – with linemen Julius Peppers(notes), Damione Lewis(notes) and Maake Kemoeatu(notes) out of the picture, and linebacker Thomas Davis(notes) sidelined following another ACL tear, the Panthers will be piecing things together for a while. As a result, if they want to contend for the NFC South in 2010, they'll have to get creative with their linebackers.
The 2010 solution: Use run blitzes to redirect enemy backs
There's nothing terribly complicated about the run blitz – it's basically an attempt by a blitzing defender to stop (or at the very least, redirect) a running back by getting quick pressure on the enemy backfield between the tackles. You'll occasionally see overload run blitzes in specific situations, with multiple defenders crashing through one or two gaps, but directing that much action away from the quarterback and off coverage assignments leaves a defense very vulnerable to the pass. Because running plays (traps and draws excepted) don't usually take as long to develop as pass plays, run blitzes tend to be less about stunts and loops, and more about getting through gaps as quickly as possible.
The Panthers allowed 154 rushing yards in their Week 11 loss to the Dolphins, and that included 119 yards and two rushing touchdowns from Ricky Williams. Two fourth-quarter plays detailed how the Panthers can effectively use run blitzes, and what happens when they simply put a bunch of guys at the line in a more nebulous formation.
The first play came with 5:13 left in the game and the Dolphins up 17-14 with first-and-10 at their 41-yard line. Miami lined up in one of their favorite formations (Fig. 1); one that the Panthers use quite often as well. It's a two-tight end set with the second tight end split back about a yard in an H-back look. The backs were in an offset-I formation. The Panthers actually brought a blitz look from the defensive left side, which tight end Joey Haynos(notes) (81) split by motioning left and having cornerback Chris Gamble(notes) (20) follow him across the line. At the snap, linebacker James Anderson(notes) (50) blew right through the line as quarterback Chad Henne(notes) faked to fullback Lousaka Polite(notes) and handed off to Williams. As nose tackle Tank Tyler(notes) (93) engaged the center and pulled off, Anderson kept Williams from bounding outside by wrapping him up just as Tyler came through to assist with the tackle. A potential long gain from a power sweep was turned into a two-yard loss because the run blitz worked. On the backside, Tyler was able to beat the center to the ball. The Panthers were helped by an injury on the play to left guard Nate Garner(notes), but Anderson had the speed and position either way.
Three plays later, however, the Panthers made a serious strategic error. In 2009, the Dolphins ranked third in Football Outsiders' offensive adjusted line yards up the middle; only the Packers and Saints were better at blocking for their compadres between the guards. The Dolphins had first-and-10 at the Carolina 46, and went with another 2-TE I-formation set (Fig. 2). The Panthers responded by putting six defenders up at the line – an extra cornerback and linebacker. But in doing so, they weakened their reinforcements up the middle. The Dolphins, took immediate advantage. In truth, the Panthers should have had the stop, because the left guard overreached his way right out of the play. But the Panthers couldn't get push inside, and center Ryan Kalil(notes) shoved Tyler out of the way from the nose position, which gave Williams all the room he needed to blast through into the open field. The linebackers had gap responsibilities, but they guessed wrong; Jon Beason's(notes) (52) whiff was particularly problematic because he had a shot at Williams if he'd only followed Williams through his cutback. By the time Beason recovered, Williams was off to the races, running through the secondary, and on his way to a 46-yard touchdown.
Certain linebacker corps are better at reading and reacting – generally those groups will have stronger front lines to soak up blocks and make quick stops. Because the Panthers must rely more on their linebackers to make those plays, quick action to the ball is the best way to overcome personnel deficits at the line. And that quick action has to happen between the tackles – the Panthers simply aren't strong enough to leave the gate open up the middle.