The Buffalo Bills head to Charlotte to face the Carolina Panthers on Sunday. Both teams decisively won their week one matches, but they were playing against two of the worst teams in the league. How do the Bills match up against the Panthers’ roster? I dove into the All-22 tape from Carolina’s first game to build a pro personnel scouting report of the team. Here’s what to watch for on Sunday.
The Panthers offensive unit is of a similar character to the Buffalo Bills. They’re built around a strong rushing attack, incorporating a multi-pronged running back group, a dual-threat quarterback, heavy usage of tight ends, and a solid offensive line with a couple of weak points. While Buffalo stays true to its Shanahan roots in a west coast offense with zone blocking, the Panthers use much more shotgun, a wide variety of formations (including wildcat and unbalanced offensive line looks), and man blocking schemes. If the Bills can cover for the most dangerous threats in this group and exploit its weaknesses, then they’ll hold this offense in check.
Cam Newton: MVP
The key to Carolina’s offense, and to this game, is Cam Newton. The 2015 MVP is a brilliant combination of poise, power running, and arm talent, when healthy. Newton sustained a shoulder injury in 2016, and he missed almost the entire preseason rehabbing the shoulder. As a result, Buffalo may be saved by playing the Panthers earlier in the season; in his return to the field last week, Newton showed signs of rust. He started the game 9-of-19 for 105 yards, before completing all six of his passes in the second half for 66 yards. Newton’s arm, still recovering from that injury, isn’t reliable — yet. He missed a few wide open targets, including this deep pass that should’ve been an easy touchdown.
The Panthers schemed their offense to help Newton out. Twenty of Newton’s 26 passes were short attempts. On his deep throws, Newton only completed two of six for 42 yards. One of those throws was intercepted, while another incompletion ended up not counting due to a defensive penalty. Later in the game, Newton adjusted his touch to hit some of those deeper throws. Watch him heave the ball on this 17-yard completion to Greg Olsen.
He fits it into a closing window, but needs to step into the throw and swing his shoulders all the way through. On a good day, this pass needs a lot less effort.
Christian McCaffrey: Christmas Present
With the eighth overall pick in this year’s draft the Panthers added Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey. The Heisman finalist was a major focus of Carolina’s gameplan in week one, though his production was somewhat muted. The Panthers had him run 13 times for 47 yards (3.6 yards per attempt), and he caught five passes for 38 yards. They also used him as their punt returner, and he took a snap as a wildcat quarterback.
McCaffrey is a major threat as a receiver out of the backfield. Watch that first pass of Newton’s at the top of this article and see how McCaffrey shimmies into space as an underneath option. He made highlight reels throughout training camp (not to mention college) with his agility in space. The Panthers will use him a lot in this way, including with passes to wheel routes or to the flats.
While Ron Rivera remarked after week one that he was worried the team used McCaffrey, their new “Christmas present,” too much, for now he should be considered a significant threat. The Bills have a 30-year-old and a 34-year-old at linebacker, and Preston Brown has never been known for his agility. There’s some hope that Ramon Humber, who showed good range and tackling form against the Jets, can prevent big plays from breaking open. But if the Bills want to put their minds at ease, they’ll be bringing Jordan Poyer or Micah Hyde into the box specifically to counter this matchup. It’s also possible that the team tries to bring in a third safety or a “big nickel” player this week for that job.
- The Panthers used a very basic silent snap count on essentially every shotgun play against the 49ers. Watch any of Newton’s passing plays above to see the left guard look back and tap the center to trigger the snap. A silent count like this made Buffalo so predictable in a 2015 match against the Eagles that their blocking fell apart by the end of the game. Since this is a home contest for Carolina, it probably won’t be an issue.
- Rookie Curtis Samuel, who was hurt for much of the preseason, didn’t record any touches, though he played 12 snaps on offense. He’s a flex RB/WR with plenty of speed to burn, and he would give the Panthers another dynamic threat if he’s ready to play.
- The biggest weakness on Carolina’s offensive line is left tackle Matt Kalil. He’s woefully inconsistent, and he especially struggles with timing his punch and establishing an anchor. Either Jerry Hughes or Shaq Lawson could have success working against him, but with the Panthers emphasizing short passes to the sidelines, they might still have trouble getting home in time.
- Jonathan Stewart is still no slouch as a runner. He has good vision, but the Panthers only used him on 43 percent of offensive snaps last week (McCaffrey got 70).
The Panthers run a defense with a 4-3 front and mainly cover 3 in the defensive backfield. The starting safeties (Kurt Coleman and Mike Adams), starting cornerbacks (James Bradberry and Daryl Worley), and two linebackers (Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis) play essentially every snap, while the defensive line rotates at about an 80-20 ratio.
The Panthers played against a very similar offensive scheme in week one against Kyle Shanahan, which is good and bad. It gives Buffalo some examples of concepts that do and don’t work, but it also gives Carolina some familiarity with tactics the Bills might try this weekend.
Spread ’em out and take a deep shot
Facing an athletic defense, the best strategy the Bills can employ is to get them to demonstrate their intentions by using presnap motion and spread-out formations. In a similar way to the play that ended in a touchdown pass to Charles Clay, the Bills could motion their running back out wide. Either they get favorable coverage on the outside, or they take a player like Kuechly out of the box, making room for Clay or a scramble.
Take this play, for example. The running back motions to the right sideline, bringing Luke Kuechly with him.
Thomas Davis comes on a blitz, leaving the middle of the field wide open for a completion to the tight end.
By spreading out their receivers and using presnap motion, offenses can get their opponents to all but explicitly declare their coverage before the play. Look at how the 49ers again use a running back moving out wide to set up their playcall.
With six defenders on the line of scrimmage, a single deep safety, and three defenders next to three receivers on the right side of the formation, the offense has a very good indicator that they’ll have one-on-one coverage on the right side. Marquise Goodwin has a free release and gets open deep, but drops the touchdown pass.
Panthers free safety Kurt Coleman did not have a great game last week. He received PFF’s lowest run defense and pass defense grades across the Panthers’ roster. A few times, he was late to the sidelines, leaving his teammates in difficult one-on-one situations. That can be exploited with deep routes; the 49ers tried it again with Goodwin in the second quarter.
Of course, that’s easier said than done when Buffalo’s roster doesn’t have a go-to deep threat. Zay Jones and Jordan Matthews both have the speed to go deep, but aren’t seen as having the sudden acceleration to win consistently on a fly pattern. Maybe the Bills will look at activating Kaelin Clay for a deep shot or two.
Prepare for a harsh battle in the trenches
Kyle Shanahan did a good job of scheming up plays to attack the Carolina defense, but at the end of the day, the 49ers struggled to establish the run and give their quarterback time in the pocket. It all comes down to the talents of Kawann Short, Star Lotulelei, Mario Addison, and the rest of Carolina’s front four. The players have skill, speed, and coordination.
The key players on Buffalo’s side will be Eric Wood and John Miller. Wood is a great technician, but has difficulty holding an anchor against power. Facing Lotulelei, he’ll have his work cut out for him. Miller has struggled with fast and furious players like Fletcher Cox, and Short is just as dangerous.
The Panthers are scary enough when they rush four players, but they also have an array of blitzes and stunts to confuse an offensive front. Sean McDermott‘s go-to blitz in Carolina was the double-A gap blitz with two linebackers, and that’s still among the bevy of tricks used this season. Carolina supplements those looks with well-coordinated T-E and E-T stunts, which gave San Francisco fits last week.
- Carolina’s back seven defenders are all very quick to close on ball carriers, limiting yards after catch. Buffalo’s best shot to create space is to catch them out of position with play action.
- While the Panthers mainly use cover 3 looks, they’ll often disguise it with another look presnap and rotate into their true coverage at the snap. This places a lot of pressure on Tyrod Taylor to appropriately identify the defense, but if he guesses right, then it will create windows for big passing plays.
- Second-year defensive lineman Vernon Butler, who was injured in the first week of the preseason, looks set to make his 2017 debut this week.
- The Panthers are mostly healthy, though Thomas Davis missed Wednesday’s practice with a knee injury.
A strong challenge, no matter how you scheme it
As Sean McDermott returns to Charlotte to face his former team, he’ll be in a familiar matchup on both sides of the ball. The Bills and Panthers are structured in a similar manner (which makes sense, given McDermott and Brandon Beane’s connections), but the Panthers are further built, and only a couple years removed from the Super Bowl. If the Bills can take advantage of some injury luck and find a way to stymie Carolina’s pass rush, then they have a chance to escape with a win, but this has the look of a low-scoring defensive battle.