The Kansas City Chiefs defense has started this 2020 season well. They are third in the league in points allowed per game and third in passing yardage allowed, despite a typically pass-heavy game-script. They’ve also faced some good offenses in 2020, and this week’s opponent — the Carolina Panthers — is no exception, despite their league ranking.
With that in mind, let’s dig into the Panthers’ personnel — and a concept we may see on Sunday. Then we’ll discuss how the Chiefs defense can try to slow them down — and beat an offense with some quality weapons.
Teddy Bridgewater has been given the keys to the Panthers offense, coming over to Carolina after a stint as a backup for the New Orleans Saints. He’s largely been the same player for offensive coordinator Joe Brady as he has been his career to date — but with a higher completion percentage. Bridgewater gets the ball out quickly, ranking seventh in the NFL in time to throw. He also throws the ball short, ranking 28th in intended air yards. To put those rankings in perspective, Derek Carr has held the ball longer and thrown deeper than Bridgewater on the season.
The Panthers get their ultimate weapon back in the fold this week, as Christian McCaffrey is expected to return from IR and be active on this week. McCaffrey is an all-world running back that is just as much a threat running out of the backfield as he is catching the ball from the slot. In his stead, six-year veteran Mike Davis has shouldered the load for Carolina. Davis has played well this season and had three games with over five yards per carry while filling in for McCaffrey.
Carolina went out of their way to add a major receiver this year, signing Robby Anderson from the New York Jets. Anderson was a consistent big-play threat for the Jets, and that has not changed in his time in Carolina. His yards per reception have fallen slightly this season, but his volume has significantly increased. He has almost set the best seasonal marks of his career already through eight weeks of the season.
Anderson’s addition has resulted in slightly less targets for last year’s No. 1 receiver, D.J. Moore. Moore is a dense player that is dangerous with the ball in his hands, and he’s running a slightly deeper route tree this year. The Chiefs will need to make sure to keep an eye on Moore throughout the game, as he’s just as dangerous as Anderson. The Panthers have gotten solid contribution from Curtis Samuel in the slot, as well.
The Panthers don’t use their tight ends often in the passing game, but both Ian Thomas and Chris Manhertz are good blockers that can help spring McCaffrey in the run game. Thomas is the more targeted of the two, and he tends to see a bit more of the 11 personnel reps for Joe Brady’s offense.
Carolina looks to be without left tackle Russell Okung this weekend, as he is listed as doubtful with a calf injury. He missed last week as well, and Greg Little was his initial backup. After Little gave up some pressures, Trent Scott entered the rotation. It’s unclear which player will get the nod should Okung be officially ruled out.
Taylor Moton will line up at right tackle for the Panthers and is primed for a big extension this offseason. He’s been very good opening holes for the running game and protecting Bridgewater as he drops back to pass. The interior of the Panthers offensive line is a different story, as Chris Reed, John Miller, and Matt Paradis have struggled to play at a consistent level.
The offensive concept: Empty sets with 21 personnel
CAR will use heavy personnel to kick the defense to base, then go empty with CMC and the WR's inside.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) November 6, 2020
Zone defense without a boundary switch gets CB's on FB and TE curls. Out-Fade combo from strength pulls the MIKE from hook, and weak slot has easy leverage against LB on slant. pic.twitter.com/tdwlTQ74nW
It’s hard to truly pinpoint what Joe Brady will call this week against the Chiefs defense. He’s had McCaffrey for just under two games this season, and the offense was still installing some of their foundational concepts. Davis has performed well in his absence, but there’s little doubt that McCaffrey’s usage will change the offense.
One of the elements the Panthers could lean on is heavy personnel in empty formations. Bringing a fullback or an extra tight end onto the field typically forces the opposition into their slower base defense. That can create an advantage in the passing game, as McCaffrey can get a good matchup against a slower linebacker.
However, Brady will align his heavier personnel — the tight end and fullback, in the above instance — on the boundary. Against a zone defense that doesn’t switch with personnel, this matches up the team’s best coverage defenders with two players that aren’t likely to get the ball. With the zone identification — and two deep safeties — on the play, Bridgewater motions McCaffrey to the slot, aligning the Panthers’ three best receivers opposite three linebackers. McCaffrey pulls the MIKE linebacker out of the hook zone with his route, and the slant is easy money for a receiver against a linebacker.
This also can work to the offense’s advantage with a man coverage identification. If Bridgewater sees the coverage defenders switching and moving the slower linebackers to the boundary, he can choose to keep McCaffrey in the backfield and hand the ball off against a lighter box with advantageous numbers.
A lesser running back makes some of these choices easier for the defense, but McCaffrey is so dangerous that he requires full attention, no matter his alignment. This could mean more single-high coverages in the base defense to keep a safety in the box — both to help in coverage and in run fits. That will put more pressure on the cornerbacks to step up against good receivers, but could limit some of the explosive plays that can come from advantageous matchups from heavy personnel.
The bottom line
It’s hard to really pinpoint what we’ll see out of the Panthers offense this weekend. One would assume that McCaffrey will return to a high-volume workload in his return, which begs questions as to his full usage. Joe Brady was able to develop a strong rushing attack for Clyde Edwards-Helaire last year at Louisiana State University, so there’s zero doubt that he’ll have McCaffrey in advantageous positions this year.
Bridgewater will also look to get the ball out quickly against the Chiefs, especially since he’s likely to lack his normal blind-side protector. The Chiefs can expect quite a bit of the Panthers’ quick passing game with an occasional play-action deep shot to Anderson or Moore.
This isn’t a particularly great matchup for the Chiefs defense. Every linebacker in the league struggles to contain McCaffrey, and I expect the same to be said for the Chiefs group. The Chiefs cornerbacks will want to press to try to avoid some of the quick passing game, but that could leave them exposed to the deep shot against the Panthers faster receivers — especially in single-high looks. There’s reason to think that the Chiefs defense could be a little bit off-balance with this particular group of weapons and play calls.
However, the Chiefs pass rush should be able to capitalize on the replacement at left tackle, and Chris Jones — no longer on the reserve/COVID list — should be able to continue his hot streak against a below-average interior offensive line. Even if Bridgewater can get the ball out quickly, he may take a lot of hits like Sam Darnold did last week. If the Chiefs can speed up Bridgewater’s internal timer a bit, he has shown a propensity for throwing interceptions to the boundary when he doesn’t see the cornerback sitting on the route.
This will be a much sterner test than it looks on paper, and I expect the Panthers to put up a good fight on this side of the ball. If the Chiefs can limit the full damage McCaffrey can do while affecting Bridgewater early, there’s reason to believe they can help get out to an early lead and take the run game out of the equation for the Panthers.