The Carolina Panthers face off against the San Francisco 49ers for their first regular season game of the 2017 season. One key match-up playing out happens to be the battle between Panthers DC Steve Wilks and 49ers Head Coach and Offensive Coordinator Kyle Shanahan.
During the 2016 season, Kyle Shanahan had a field day against the Panthers. The Falcons scored a total of 81 points on each of their match-ups, embarrassing the Panthers. Through each game, Shanahan found weaknesses in McDermott’s defense and exploited them.
While key injuries were a factor, that shouldn’t downplay anything from Shanahan. Unlike previous years, the Panthers defense proved incapable of finding an answer. The result is the current three loss streak against Shanahan’s old team since 2015.
This time, the Panthers get their chance to face Shanahan’s offense once again against the 49ers this Sunday. While many want to write off that game as a Panthers win, it won’t be as easy as most believe. If the 49ers preseason week 3 performance was any indication, the Panthers will most certainly have their hands full.
So, what should the Panthers focus on defensively to prevent an upset?
Stop The Run
As seen in an earlier article, Shanahan’s offense revolves around getting a good ground game going. When he gets the running game going, it opens up the playbook for them. His offense forces defenses to respect any run looks and allows for passing plays to open up.
Lol. Shanahan makes this look easy. 2 WR bunch. Sherm off-cov. Ryan reads Sherman, o-line/RB gets LBers to bite, easy TD throw to Jones. pic.twitter.com/h1fHPnYeYB
— Nathan Ray (@saca312) September 3, 2017
So, it comes as no surprise that Shanahan’s offense has its worst performance when they’re unable to establish the run.
The Falcons only lost two games by more than three points last year. Statistically, the constant appears to be the number of rushing yards they accumulate. Shanahan’s Falcons never exceeded 52 rushing yards in each of those losses.
Even in the Superbowl, the Falcon’s running game was nearly non-existent in the second half. Without a reliable running game, Kyle Shanahan started calling reckless plays, ultimately leading to the Falcons demise.
What this indicates is a correlation between success and running. Stopping the 49ers from running should put a limit on the 49ers playcalls. This should be the Panthers #1 priority.
Luckily, the Panthers run defense over the course of the preseason was exceptional. If this high level of play continues, the Panthers will have a much easier time containing the 49ers offense.
Take The Short, Easy Options Away
Kyle Shanahan’s offense predicates around the WCO style offense. This style often includes very quick short passes that methodically gashes defenses up.
The Panthers were no exception. The Falcons took advantage of the Panthers weaknesses (backup MLB AJ Klein, NB Leonard Johnson, etc.) consistently in their second matchup, ultimately leading to a clear victory. Using their runningbacks and underneath options, the Falcons took advantage of the Panthers.
For inspiration, the Panthers need to look into what the Chiefs did against the Patriots this past Thursday. The Chiefs made Tom Brady try and beat them deep, which he struggled at. As a result, Brady had one of his worst games and ultimately lost.
The Chiefs did not really take Brady’s deep ball ability seriously. They took out the underneath options while forcing Brady to try and beat them down deep.
To put Brady’s numbers into context, he was 16th in the NFL on passes over 16 yards during 2016, and 20th on 20+ yards. As an short to intermediate passer, he was one of the best in the NFL.
The Panthers should employ a similar style on Brian Hoyer. Like Brady, Hoyer’s also not the best at the deep pass. In 2016, Hoyer was accurate around 46.15% of his passes in the 16-20 range; 28th in the NFL. On anything 21+ yards, he was accurate on 31.58% of them; 26th in the NFL.
By locking out the short, easy options, the Panthers force Hoyer to play at his weakness. History shows he’s not at his best throwing deep. By keeping the middle of the field covered, the Panthers should be able to keep Hoyer worried and give their front four time to pressure him into a dumb decision.
Stay Disciplined Deep
Finally, if the Panthers employ the two ideas seen above, Hoyer’s going to be going deep on a lot of throws. The Panthers need to make sure Shanahan’s tricks don’t fool them.
Against the Vikings in week 3, Shanahan called up an interesting deep ball involving a lot of action. The Vikings found themselves caught off guard, leaving Goodwin to burn them down deep. All Hoyer had to do
Even though Hoyer’s deep accuracy isn’t the best, this throw was not hard to make either. Shanahan can and will make plays like this happen if the defense isn’t careful.
The Panthers should keep their primary focus on underneath plays, but should also ensure their players in the secondary are doing their job. Keep the plays one-dimensional and show no signs of weaknesses, and the Panthers should come out on top.
While this will likely be the hardest task, it’s still an important one. The 49ers will try and air a lot of balls out if their run/short passing game fails. As the Panthers focus on the underneath options, they need to treat Hoyer as if he’ll make every deep throw and capitalize on his mistakes.
If the Panthers can at least do at least half of the above (especially stopping the run), expect the 49ers offense to have a rough day.