Every NFL franchise strives for perfection. Front offices and coaching staffs attempt to build well-oiled machines, with all 53 players on the roster firing on all cylinders. But in the ultimate team sport, with moving parts across three different game phases (offense, defense and special teams), there are inevitably imperfections. And if these defects aren’t properly tended to, they can snowball and bring down the entire operation.
Not to fret, though: Mr. Fix-It is here!
Each week, 12-year NFL veteran and noted tape junkie Brian Baldinger will spotlight specific shortcomings and offer solutions for the affected teams. All free of charge! Here is his advice for three teams heading into Week 6:
1) CAROLINA PANTHERS: Continue to limit Kyle Allen’s deep throws.
The Carolina Panthers are an anomaly. They have climbed out of an 0-2 start to win three straight behind quarterback Kyle Allen, whom most people had to Google because they were unfamiliar with him prior to his promotion after Cam Newton‘s injury. Most teams tasked with starting a quarterback with four career starts would be trying to make excuses for poor play stemming from inexperience. And while the mantra in the NFL has always been it’s hard to win games while trying to develop a quarterback, that hasn’t been the case in Carolina. Much credit goes to offensive coordinator Norv Turner, who has shaped this offense around a myriad of motions and shifts to get the ball into the hands of the league’s scrimmage yards leader, Christian McCaffrey. I asked the early MVP candidate this week if he ever gets tired and he responded like you’d expect, saying, “We gotta keep rollin’. Can’t get complacent.”
The Panthers boast the league’s 11th-ranked offense thanks to the young, talented nucleus of McCaffrey, Curtis Samuel and D.J. Moore. They can continue their winning streak if Allen keeps favoring a barrage of short passes and allows the trio make plays after the catch or on short handoffs. If the Panthers take their deep shots, Allen’s completion percentage decreases. In fact, in his three starts, his downfield completions are less than 30 percent. I might add, though, that his most impressive throw of his 90 pass attempts this season was a strike to Moore through the jaws of the Cardinals‘ defense for a 52-yard catch-and-run in Week 3. Then in last week’s hard-fought win over the Jaguars, Allen attempted just two deep shots and connected on a beautiful sideline toss to Moore that resulted in a 52-yard completion.
Allen’s strength is on short and intermediate throws, and it appears that Turner knows this as he’s crafted game plans that seem far different than those that catered to the strong arm of Newton. Also missing from this offense are the QB runs that Newton used to trample defenses and win the league MVP award. The last time we saw Newton on the field, he was hampered by a foot injury and the Panthers fell to the Bucs in prime time. This weekend in a contest played in London, the Bucs will see the Panthers for a second time in less than a month, but this time with Allen under center. They will see the isolation plays that Turner has created for McCaffrey — ones that show that there aren’t many defenders in this league who can cover him in space. My guess is Lavonte David will be assigned to cover the Panthers‘ dynamic back, which could be one of the best matchups to watch in this game.
I believe Allen can get to 5-0 as a starter as long as the Panthers don’t fall far behind. If Carolina finds itself in a deep hole, Allen would be asked to throw often to bridge the gap. The formula for continued success is limiting Allen’s deep throws, leaning on playmakers through a number of short passes and handing the ball off to a feisty and indefatigable McCaffrey.
2) ATLANTA FALCONS: Unleash Vic Beasley and Takk McKinley on the QB.
The Falcons continued the tailspin that has them looking up from the NFC South cellar, allowing five TD passes to Deshaun Watson last week. After examining their defense earlier this week — a unit that allowed the Texans to score 47 points — I turned off the projector scratching my head. Why, you ask? Well, both Vic Beasley and Takk McKinley were drafted in the first round presumably to chase after quarterbacks. The plan was for Matt Ryan to engineer a unit that could put up a lot of points, putting the opposition in a situation where it would have to try to play catch up while being hounded by the likes of the young pass rushers. Last week, Ryan and Co. put up a respectable 32 points, but the defense failed.
On three of Watson’s five touchdown passes, both Beasley and McKinley dropped into flat coverage. Watson saw a three-man rush and had plenty of time to survey the field and make pinpoint passes on all three occasions. Watson’s final touchdown pass was preceded by a third-and-5 with two minutes to go, when the Falcons trailed 40-32. Both Falcons pass rushers dropped into coverage, giving Watson oodles of time since his five O-linemen easily manhandled Atlanta’s three rushers, and Will Fuller ran an out route and converted a first down. Later, when Beasley and McKinley again dropped into coverage, Fuller converted his out route into a go route for an easy touchdown and just like that, the Falcons were buried in their crypt.
When you look back at the Falcons‘ lone win of the season — a Week 2 victory over the Eagles — you see that they unleashed a powerful four-man rush and repeatedly hit and harassed Carson Wentz until the final throw. On that night, the Falcons gave up their lowest point total of the season (20) because the defensive front — McKinley, Beasley, Grady Jarrett and Adrian Clayborn — was very effective. The Falcons have a measly five sacks through five games, but pass rushers need attempts to accumulate numbers. Dan Quinn’s defense looks completely different (in a good way) when Beasley and McKinley are allowed to tee off and pressure the quarterback. If Atlanta is going to turn its season around this week vs. the Cardinals, Quinn would be smart to allow his pass rush to harass and chase Kyler Murray the way it did against Wentz a month ago.
3) MINNESOTA VIKINGS: Use play-action often vs. Eagles.
The Vikings went from being the national story after suffering a beatdown from the Chicago Bears to seeing a lot of that negative chatter vanish after their resounding defeat of the New York Giants a week later. What changed? Well, offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski went to a game plan that called for many bootlegs and play-action passes and used the NFL’s second-leading rusher, Dalvin Cook, as a decoy. By faking the handoff to Cook then rolling or dropping to throw, the game plan sucked up the linebackers and moved Kirk Cousins out of the pocket to give him vision and space to locate his receivers. The Vikings were successful on play-action nine times for 153 yards against the Giants, including a 9-yard TD to Adam Thielen.
Entering this weekend’s tilt with the Philadelphia Eagles, look for the Vikings to use play-action on first and second down when the defense will be guessing as to whether the Vikings will run or pass. Minnesota must continue to employ play-action to slow down an Eagles pass rush that helped Philly to the Super Bowl two years ago when these two teams met in the NFC Championship Game. Many of the Eagles‘ defensive linemen still remain the same — Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, Derek Barnett and Vinny Curry — for a unit that enters Sunday’s contest as the league’s top run defense. If the deception works by using Cook as a decoy on hard run fakes, perhaps it will allow Minnesota’s receiving tandem of Thielen and Stefon Diggs to have success against the Eagles‘ vulnerable secondary. And further reduce the noise around the Vikings.
Follow Brian Baldinger on Twitter @BaldyNFL.