The Multiplicity of the Panthers Defense
Carolina may have 2021's most exciting scheme and it revolves around their diverse personnel groupings.
We are only two weeks into the NFL season, but one defense is already gaining momentum as one to watch this year, the Carolina Panthers. Yes, the defense that finished 24th in overall EPA last year took a dive into free agency, added a few players through the draft, and is now a team worth watching on Sundays. Phil Snow, the Defensive Coordinator, has done a tremendous job of morphing a bottom-tier defense into one of the best so far.
Things can change over time, but the Panthers are setting their eyes on the post-season if the first two weeks indicate how the season will go. One of the main factors in their early success is the multiplicity the Panthers carry into games. Some of this can be attributed to Snow’s time in college, but more importantly, the masterful job the organization has done in roster building for the 2021 year.
The additions of Haason Reddick and Morgan Fox have already paid dividends in the pressure. Most viewed CB Jaycee Horn as a Day-1 starter, and last year’s 2nd Round pick Jeremy Chinn was viewed as an intriguing “hybrid” pick. In addition, Auburn’s Derrick Brown has shown improvement in year two and is combined with Reddick, Fox, and another former 1st Rounder in Brian Burns to create a formidable front line.
Snow has been handed the keys to a highly athletic group. For most of Snow’s career, it has been the second or third year when his defenses begin to jump. The trend is no different in Charlotte. His ability to adapt to his surroundings and personnel have made him one of the top college DCs, and now it appears he is one of the best in the NFL. What is strikingly clear in the first two weeks of the ‘21 season is that Snow will use his athletic personnel in multiple ways.
The adaptability of Snow was no more clear than his final year at Baylor. Within the first two years, Rhule and Snow knew they had a problem. The Big 12 was eating them up on defense, and a change needed to be made. The experiment in Ames with the 3-3-3 was now taking over the Big 12. Snow decided to try his hand at the system, and it paid dividends.
Moving to the NFL, many asked if the 3-3-5 would follow. It did, but by no means is it the Panthers’ base. Instead, Snow has learned from experiences at the college game how to develop a hybrid defense, and the ‘21 season appears to be a culmination of his adaptability as a coach. He now has the personnel to be as creative as he wants. According to Doug Farrar in his latest article, that is exactly what Snow was attempting to build in 2020:
“…in 2020, per Sports Info Solutions, the Panthers played more 3-3-5 packages than anything else — they did so on 263 plays, 26% of the overall. There was also a lot of 4-2-5, and Snow wasn’t afraid to get exotic. No team played more 4-1-6 than the Panthers at 18%, only the Dolphins played more 3-2-6 than Carolina’s 15%, and the Panthers played 67 snaps of 2-3-6. So, part of the problem in facing Snow’s defense is that you never really know what you’re going to get.”
Let’s dig into the basics of what Snow has done so far in 2021.
Looking at the official Panthers depth chart, you will see a base 4-3 alignment (below). Outside of the Pete Carroll system and some others, the Odd Front has become the defense of choice. Though the Panthers list their depth chart as a 4-3, they aren’t tied to it. Unlike previous decades where this meant a rigid alignment in a 5-2, the modern NFL jumps from package to package according to what the offense has on the field.
As stated, though Carolina bases from a 4-3, they don’t live it. The multiplicity allows the Panthers to match up their athletes against those of the offense. In their first two games, the Panthers have used several alignments to match their opponent. Against the Jets 21 pers. looks, the Panthers aligned in Base to start the game. Below Carolina went to Phil Snow’s home in the 3-4 when the Jets went “big.”
From this 3-4 base, the Panthers can do a multitude of things. With two EDGEs on the field, the defense can rush the passer or set an edge (hence the name). These players are “big” hybrids and live with one foot in the linebacker world and the other as a DE. The particular defense highlighted in the clip has become the en-vogue way for NFL defenses to align versus heavier sets.
Last year, Chargers’ Head Coach Brandon Staley came on the NFL scene with the Rams as a young, forward-thinking DC. Staley used a multitude of different fronts but primarily lived in a 5-1 alignment. The adjustment in this defense is to take one of the ILBs out and substitute a Ni CB. Below, the Panthers sub out #4 Jermaine Carter and place Jaycee Horn at the Star or Nickel position. The defense now has three CBs on the field but still uses a five-man front.
Unlike Staley, the Panthers utilize a single-high shell. However, the Saints were in a 21 pers. formation, their ability to pass kept Snow from using his 3-4 defense. Opting for a 5-1 look allows him to be stout upfront but have ample coverage ability in the back end to cover anything the offense throws at it.
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4-3 (Base Pers.)
According to the Panthers website, they are a 4-3 base. Reddick, to most, is considered an EDGE, but Snow (at least on paper) has converted him to an off-ball ‘backer. Below, the Panthers shift to a 4-3 alignment. Reddick is out of alignment, but the base structure is there.
The 4-3 with the Panthers personnel can easily shift from a four-down to a three-down at no time at all. Reddick’s ability to play the EDGE is a bonus and illustrates the hybrid nature of what Snow is trying to do. At any time, he can jump from one front structure to another without losing any integrity regardless of who is on the field. The four-down base is a jumping-off point for Carolina’s hybrid Nickel, and Dime sets used to combat lighter formations and utilized on passing downs.
4-2-5 (Big Nickel)
The “Big” Nickel is a traditional package used by many NFL teams. Instead of placing a coverage CB on the Slot, the defense can place a third Safety as a more robust or “bigger” Nickel. Though the coverage ability is less, most NFL teams wouldn’t put their Safety on the opponent’s slot WR; Carolina uses this package for teams like the Saints that can equally pass and run out of 12p. In the clip, starting Safety, Justin Burris moves from the “table” (high) to an off-ball position in the box.
Teams can opt to go “small” with their Nickel package too. Carolina can keep Burris and Chinn deep while bringing Horn into the Nickel position, as illustrated in the 5-1. The ability to constantly move guys around without losing your playbook or overall structural integrity is the key to a successful modern NFL defense. The ability to match your hybrids to theirs wins games in a league that is ever becoming a “space” league. I call this the era of Spatial Darwinism.
The final piece to the Carolina puzzle is the use of their Dime personnel. In Dime, the defense has six DBs on the field. Unlike the “Big Nickel” above, the Snow opts to move Chinn from the table and place Burris and Sean Chandler up top. Chinn made waves in his draft class as a hybrid that might play near the box. For the Panthers, placing Chinn near the box in obvious passing sets keeps the offense honest because Carolina isn’t losing any integrity in their run defense.
Above, the Panthers are attacking the Saints Empty formation on 2nd and long with basic two-high coverage. Chinn at the bottom easily collects the WR, and the Saints now face a long yardage 3rd Down. With Horn on the other side as the Ni CB, the Panthers have hybrids all over the field. Reddick and Burns align as the EDGE defenders while Fox and Brown are inside.
The Panthers’ ability to be multiple and get their hybrids into situations to win their matchups is what has stood out in this young year. The additions and development of several players on defense have opened Snow’s playbook and creativity. Opposing offenses will have to deal with a defense that can match most packages that they throw at it. Only time will tell if the Panthers will remain at the top of the NFL standings in defense, but if history has proven anything, Phil Snow has a knack for turning around defenses and putting top groups together.
We are seeing in Carolina a culmination of Phil Snow’s experience at the college level and being flexible when needed. In addition, his ability to create a defense that highlights his players' strengths is something all coaches can study. As the 2021 season gets rolling, the Panthers have already made noise and barring injury, and it looks like they are here to stay for the time being.
Related content: Here is my whole series on Phil Snow’s ‘19 Baylor Defense-
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