The Saints don’t need to be reminded how dangerous the zone-read elements of the Carolina Panthers’ offense can be if it isn’t defended properly.
They lived it.
In what might have been the back-breaking moment of last year’s playoff hopes, the Panthers ripped off a 69-yard touchdown run off a zone-read play during a Week 14 game at the Superdome. It was an example of how quickly things can turn when trying to defend Carolina quarterback Cam Newton.
“We’ve played some of our better games and some of our worse games ever against them,” coach Sean Payton said. “It’s been an up and down battle, but your eyes have to be good, with regards to defending the run.”
The eyes weren’t good on Jonathan Stewart’s big touchdown run last year. The play was an inside zone-read option play. Newton had wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery running to the outside, but the linebacker on that edge was unblocked. Seeing this, Newton handed off to Stewart. That’s where things fell apart.
Cornerback Patrick Robinson continued to follow Cotchery after he motioned from the left side of the formation, instead of bailing and putting himself in position to make a play. Kenny Vaccaro also played the run wrong, giving Stewart an open running lane down the field during regular passing plays.
Those mistakes cannot be made and that point has been hammered home this week as the Saints prepare to play the Panthers in Carolina on Sunday. It will take a disciplined effort to make sure Carolina does not expose the Saints with its zone-read plays, and extra measures also have to be made to keep Newton contained to the pocket.
“Everyone has to do their job and be real disciplined,” Vaccaro said. “Have to have someone always on the dive and someone on the quarterback. It’s easier said than done because through the flow of the game you get tired and have mental lapses sometimes. If you have those they can go for a big play.”
New Orleans was mixed against Carolina’s zone-read package last season. During a Week 9 game, the Saints held the Panthers to an average of 2.7 yards on 10 option plays, according to Pro Football Focus. That figure jumped to an average of 9.7 yards on 19 carries in the second meeting.
Overall, the Panthers averaged 4.96 yards per carry on option plays last season, with 45 of the 182 plays resulting in either a first down or touchdown. They’ve run 21 option plays during the first two weeks of this season, averaging 6 yards per play. Only one of those runs has resulted in lost yardage.
Carolina mostly runs plays that consist of inside and outside zone read options, but also uses an inverted veer, which requires the quarterback to make a front-side read as opposed to the typical back-side read. The Panthers also use a triple option. This was the play that led to Stewarts big gain against the Saints. If Haralson hadn’t been left unblocked, Newton would have either kept the ball or pitched to Cotchery.
The key to stopping it comes down to everyone doing their job, as Vaccaro said. Staying fundamentally sound is the biggest key. Players need to fit the proper gaps and keep their eyes focused on what they should be seeing. The defensive end needs to crash down and the force player, which would typically be a linebacker or safety playing the box, need to be able to react and make tackles.
If the Panthers run a play to the strong side of the defensive formation, New Orleans could have an advantage when Hau’oli Kikaha is playing close to the line and shooting off the outside shoulder of the defensive lineman.
“It wouldn’t be one specific guy that is spying him but if the play comes to the weak side, it might be a combination of end and force player,” Payton said. “There has to be discipline with regards to how you handle some of that option stuff.”
Watching the Panthers this week in preparation, Kikaha has noticed that the zone-read plays opens up a lot of things for Carolina. They do a good job of setting up passes off of it and sometimes mix in a bubble screen to some of the plays.
The key, he says, is not to overthink things and trust that the other players on the field are also quickly diagnosing the plays.
“As soon as you start to think twice about who to cover they got you,” he said.
But even with everything going on and different things to worry about, Kikaha said that his job will actually be easier this week.
“You have to focus on one thing at a time,” Kikaha said. “It will change throughout the game, but you’ll have one job and you won’t have to cover multiple people.”
It’s just that if you get confused or focus on the wrong thing, the Panthers have enough wrinkles to rip a defense apart.