Breakdown: Sugar Key to Panthers Zone Blitz Success
In each of their first seven games, the Panthers have utilized a zone blitz scheme. The first two weeks, both Russell Wilson and EJ Manuel audibled out. Wilson, to a wide receiver screen (no play, penalty on SEA) and Manuel to a toss run play (5 yards). Against the Giants, the Panthers showed the look, but bailed out, only rushing their front four. The play still resulted in a sack from Greg Hardy despite Eli Manning changing the protection.
Beginning with the Cardinals game, however, the Panthers zone blitz scheme has become increasingly effective at creating confusion for the offensive line and has evolved on a week to week basis.
The Situation: 13:41 in the 1st quarter, 3rd and 6, Arizona 24 yard line
One of the tell tale signs of this package is a linebacker (or both) “sugaring” the A-gap. With Kuechly showing pressure right up the gut (the A-gap is between the center and guard), the offensive line must account for him, as most offensive line protections prioritize from closest to the ball, outward. In this first image you can see how Arizona plans to block the rushers, ignoring Thomas Davis who appears to be covering the tight end, Rob Housler (84).
As soon as the ball is snapped, Thomas Davis blitzes and Luke Kuechly peels out to cover Housler. The center is left blocking no one and Thomas Davis is unaccounted for when Housler runs a route.
The Cardinals center, Lyle Sendelin, quickly moves to take over blocking Star Lotulelei, allowing the left guard to block the blitzing Davis, but the slightest hesitation is enough for Davis to get by the line (notice the left guards arm reaching out, but behind Davis). With Kuechly filling in behind Davis in coverage, Charles Johnson drops out into zone coverage, instead of rushing. Because of the look presented, the Cardinals right guard ends up blocking no one (yellow highlight in the full field image), while Davis gets to Palmer untouched. Palmer sidestepped Davis’ rush and completed a pass to Larry Fitzgerald, but from a schematic standpoint, the play worked.
The Situation: 2:43 in the 2nd quarter, 1st and 10, Minnesota 34 yard line
The Panthers run a similar zone blitz, but this time out of their base 4-3, with Chase Blackburn “sugaring” the A-Gap. With the Vikings protection, a blitzing Blackburn would be the responsibility of Adrian Peterson. Thomas Davis once again appears to be covering a tight end, this time, Kyle Rudolph (82).
Peterson jumps up to meet Blackburn in the hole, but Chase bails out to cover Rudolph. Vikings left guard, Charlie Johnson (74), also focuses on Blackburn, perhaps concerned about a looping blitz, or stunt, with Blackburn coming around the back of Colin Cole. Greg Hardy crashes down into the the left guard, taking left tackle Matt Kalil with him and creating a shorter route for Kuechly and Davis on the blitz.
Unlike Housler for the Cardinals, Rudolph recognizes the blitz and runs a hot route, which is open. Again, with Blackburn filling in for Davis in coverage, Charles Johnson drops into coverage leaving right tackle, Phil Loadholt, blocking air . The speed of Thomas Davis along with quarterback Matt Cassel failing to recognize the blitz quickly enough results in a sack.
St. Louis Rams
The Situation: 2:07 in the 4th quarter, 1st and 10, St. Louis 26 yard line
The Rams have a six-man protection to go heads up against six Panthers defenders, but at the last second safety Mike Mitchell walks up to the line, creating a one man advantage for the Panthers. This time, both Kuechly and Davis are “sugaring” both A-gaps and you can see how the Rams plan to block the Panthers, with Mitchell unaccounted for.
Both Kuechly and Charles Johnson bail out into coverage, leaving two blockers on the right side staring at open space. Mitchell blitzes untouched and quarterback Kellen Clemens does a nice job of recognizing the pressure and immediately locks onto his hot route. Notice that Clemens plants his foot at the back of his two-step drop and Kuechly has almost entirely closed the gap. Clemens actually raises his arm to throw, but Kuechly has converged on Chris Givens and Clemens has to take the sack.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Situation: 3:50 in the 3rd quarter, 3rd and 7, Tampa Bay 34 yard line
Again, the Panthers have both of their linebackers showing blitz directly over the center. Safety Robert Lester walks up to the line (out of frame to the right).
This time, it’s Luke Kuechly on the rush, with Thomas Davis dropping out to cover tight end Tim Wright. Robert Lester, like Mike Mitchell v. the Rams also comes on the blitz from the right side. With his hot route taken away, quarterback Mike Glennon is forced to roll out to his right and throw an incomplete pass in the neighborhood of Charles Johnson.
One possible explanation for why Luke Kuechly wasn’t able to get to Glennon:
The Panthers success on these zone blitzes is predicated on the abilities of both Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. Their ability to show blitz until the ball is snapped and to be able to cover the ground to take away throws to the hot routes are essential to the success of these plays. The only time a team’s hot read was open was in the Vikings game, when Chase Blackburn was attempting to get over into position. When you hear weekly Mac Attack guest, Greg Cosell, call the duo the best pair of nickel linebackers in the league, these plays show why. While their teammates get some of the sacks, it all starts with “sugaring” the A-gaps, thereby disguising the coverage, creating doubt in the offensive line and being able to cover the ground necessary to prevent the quick throw.
As stated earlier, the Panthers have shown this look against every team this year, but the only time they sent their front rushers was against Eli Manning. Each time sending slight variations of pressure coming up the middle and around the edge to the quarterback’s blind side. It will be interesting to watch on Sunday to see if they send additional pressure out of this look at another veteran quarterback in Matt Ryan, although they may not have to with the Falcons depleted offensive line. Whether the Panthers opt to blitz the Falcons or not, rest assured at least once during the game, the A-gaps will be “sugared” and the pressures will continue to evolve.
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