Aaron Rodgers is dead.
...metaphorically speaking, of course. Prior to last Sunday the best quarterback in the league has been waved around at Panthers fans like bikers aim mace at stray dogs. "Who've y'all played?" has been the common refrain when discussing records - particularly undefeated records - and it's been made clear by everyone who cares to give an opinion that Rodgers and the Packers are the measuring stick for success. Naysayers from Bristol, Connecticut to Greenville, South Carolina predicted losses to the first winning team Carolina has faced since week 10 of the 2014 season (a horrific loss to the Eagles.)
The Panthers responded anyway, hanging 37 on their defense despite leaving 17 points on the field (two wide-open touchdowns and a missed field goal) and shut Rodgers down for three full quarters, stymying his furious fourth-quarter rally once and for all with a Thomas Davis interception for a win reminiscent of Jon Beason's game-ending grab against him in 2008. But the Panthers were a hair's breadth away from 7-1 and a deflating loss despite being up 37-14 at one point in the fourth quarter. How could that Carolina defense have been so dominant for so many quarters and then fall apart so spectacularly in such a short amount of time?
The answer is simple:
Carolina played man coverage and got creative on the defensive line. In other words, they ripped off Wade Phillips's gameplan and executed it to near perfection. Take a look at this play:
The Packers offense thrives on isolation routes. They rely on an excellent, heavily-invested-in receiving core to beat man coverage. Aaron Rodgers's diagnostic abilities are the quickest in the league, and Edgar Bennett's route combos are designed to let him quickly scan the field and immediately hit the guy that's beating his man. It's simple, incredibly efficient, and maddening for pass rushers. The above play is a Packers archetype: two receivers running go routes on the outside, two inside receivers running routes into the middle of the field at different levels.
But look what happens:
No one open, no one open, no one open, sack. This play sums up the first half for the Packers, whose receivers, offensive line, and quarterback were stifled by Sean McDermott's defense from their first snap.
One of the reasons the Packers are a perennially elite offense is because they know how to make adjustments. Two plays into the second half they broke this one out of the playbook:
Look at the routes at the bottom of your screen. They don't cross, but they're not isolation routes, either; they're designed to slow down the corners (Tillman at the bottom, Benwikere in the slot.) On the outside Davante Adams is running a three-step slant while Cobb, in the slot, runs a wheel route. What what happens:
Benwikere follows Cobb to the sideline, covering the flat and watching the quarterback's eyes for a hit on that slant. But Cobb simply beats him to the edge of the flat, vacated by Tillman, and when he turns upfield it's too late for Benwikere to catch up. Rodgers throws a perfect ball, hits his receiver in stride, and it's a sorely-needed touchdown for the Packers.
In light of this play, Carolina switched to a zone defense for most of the fourth quarter. They consistently saw plays like this one:
I don't watch a lot of Packers games, but it's my understanding that Bennett's offense doesn't use bunch formations very often. They do here, part of an attempt to run crossing routes, misdirections, and pick plays to exploit holes in the soft cover three the Panthers were showing for most of that fourth quarter. This particular play wasn't successful, but it's indicative of the type of play-calling the Packers used to get back into the game.
Thankfully it didn't matter.
Like the ancient Titans to the swords of their children the Packers fell, gods no more, Mount Othrys a desecrated wasteland. Aaron Rodgers bent to Kawaan Short's lashing blows like Uranus to the emasculating sickle of Kronos. New god-kings claimed the heavens - Zeus and Artemis and Poseidon and Hermes, Davis and Keuchly and Norman and Ealy - Olympians in heart and spirit.
But vanquishing a titan is no small feat, and the Panthers have plenty more to face, starting Sunday in Tennessee. Atlas may shrug, but Cam and Shula can't: Tennessee is only allowing 217 passing yards per game over the course of the season, third best in the league. They are a dangerous team with Mariota back and a defensive line stacked with pass rushers.
They have weaknesses: on Monday new head coach Mike Mularky announced a lineup change in the heretofore atrocious offensive line, shifting guard Byron Bell to right tackle, their right tackle to right guard, and inserting a center somehow named "Looney" into the lineup. Offensive coordinator Jason Michaels runs more staggered, multi-level crossing routes than the Packers, but the Panthers can at least use a similar strategy on the defensive line if not the coverage calls: lots and lots of stunts. They will have every opportunity to feast on an inexperienced and talentless trench unit.
On offense the Panthers have a challenge against a defensive secondary that's unremarkable as a unit, but bolstered by a quality pass rush. The good news is they've allowed the 7th most yards in the league to tight ends. Greg Olsen is licking his chops. With starting CB2 Jason McCourty questionable for Sunday, expect to see plays like the following:
The strong safety (bracketed in red) is the target here. The outside corner at the bottom of your screen is turned, trying to route his man (Philly Brown) inside. Fine. Run him inside on a drag five yards upfield, occupying the OLB and making him release the tight end (or get burnt by brown.) This is a pretty simple way to get one-on-one coverage, especially when the other side of the field is forcing the free safety to roll out to protect Ginn's deep route along the sideline. Cam is money throwing up the seam and this is a matchup Olsen wins all day. Easy touchdown.
On a final note: Cam Newton transcended his position at quarterback by becoming both the police, a cultural hero, and the patron saint of Bank of America Stadium. Moved to artistry, I painted this rendition of Cam stealing those Packers fans' banner and running off with it. Picture quality is poor due to my camera's lack of a flash.
I call it Solidarity's Genesis.
13x17 oil on canvas, $300
Here's to titans falling.