That’s not great news for a Giants offense that’s trying to figure out how to overcome its own injury woes as well as the opposing defense.
Second-year defensive coordinator Phil Snow has his defense playing very well. While the Panthers’ offense has stumbled (badly) in recent weeks, the defense is playing fast and flying around the field. There was likely some trepidation regarding Snow as he came from Baylor — the Big 12 is hardly known for its defense — however that’s prepared him for many of the concepts now taking the rest of the NFL by storm.
The Panthers’ defense presents yet another stiff test for an ailing Giants’ offense.
Can the Giants find somewhere to attack and move the ball?
A fearsome pass rush
If there’s been one constant for the Giants over the course of the 2021 season — apart from injuries — it’s that they have seen good defenses on a weekly basis. This weekend marks the third straight game that the Giants will see an athletic defensive front boasting a top pass rusher.
We all saw how the Giants’ pass protection made their game against the Los Angeles Rams feel more like a mismatched college game than regular season NFL football. That was against the NFL’s sixth-ranked pass rushing defense, per ESPN pass rush win rate.
The Panthers currently field the best pass rush in the NFL. While the difference isn’t great, 53 percent win rate to 51 percent, that’s not insignificant, either. Perhaps the biggest difference is that while the Rams’ pass rush is geared around iDL Aaron Donald, with Leonard Floyd and Terrell Lewis benefitting from Donald’s presence, the Panthers’ pass rush is built off of EDGE pressure. Those EDGEs being Haason Reddick and Brian Burns, both of whom have been creating havoc this year.
The Panthers’ official depth chart classifies them as a 4-3 defense, but their play on the field shows a much more “multiple” defense. They play more snaps in a 3-3-5 front than any other, but even that is misleading, as they tend to play with five (or more) defenders on the line of scrimmage.
Giants’ fans will surely remember Reddick from last year’s game against the Arizona Cardinals, in which he simply took over. While he was widely viewed as too small to play on the EDGE at the NFL level, Reddick finally got the opportunity after injuries forced the Cardinals’ hand and he responded with a 12.5 sack season. This year the hyper-athletic pass rusher is off to a similar start, recording 6.5 sacks, 9 quarterback hits, and 8 tackles for a loss through the first six games — as well as the eighth-best pass rush win rate among edge defenders.
Burns, at 6-foot-5, 250 pounds, is more in the mold of a modern EDGE defender. And while he hasn’t generated the raw sack totals that Reddick has with just 3.0 so far, Burns actually has more total pressures than his teammate. Both Reddick and Burns are playing exceptionally fast right now, reading and reacting to plays quickly, which makes life even more difficult for blockers.
The Panthers pair their athletic EDGE defenders with a stout interior defensive line. Derrick Brown is a massive and powerful defender, as is former Tennessee Titans nose tackle DaQuon Jones. Both players are nearly impossible to move off of the line of scrimmage and do a good job of both commanding and controlling double teams.
The Panthers’ young second string of Davyion Nixon and Bravvion Roy don’t get to play much, logging 60 and 78 snaps respectively for the season, but they’re able to fill in effectively when the starters need a breather.
Carolina’s defensive front is pretty multiple in its alignment. While they’ll play with their down linemen in TITE fronts or with two tackles lined up over the guards (a la the Base 4-man front Tom Landry innovated when he was the Giants’ defensive coordinator in 1956), they’ll also use other alignments. The Panthers also make use of classic 1-gap 3-4 or 4-3 Under fronts, keeping 5 defenders on the line of scrimmage.
I would normally try to pinpoint a favorable matchup or potential area to exploit here for the Giants, but Jason Garrett might just have his hands full trying to come up with effective blocking schemes with his depleted offensive line.
More speed at the second level
The Panthers use their stout defensive front to make life easier for the athletes at their second level.
The big name in Carolina’s linebacking corps is Shaq Thompson, who was having a great start to his seventh season. However, there might be a glimmer of good news for the Giants here, as Thompson is currently “week-to-week” as he recovers from a foot injury he suffered against the Dallas Cowboys. Thompson is one of the most athletic linebackers in the NFL and also shows fantastic recognition and processing, allowing him to play even faster.
While career backup Julian Stanford is exceptionally athletic in his own right, he is also a significant downgrade from Thompson.
Likewise, Jermaine Carter Jr. (Carolina’s other starting off-ball linebacker) has seen his snap share jump considerably following Thompson’s injury. Carter is, again, an athletic linebacker who is playing relatively well in pass coverage while also being used more as a pass rusher.
Perhaps the most important player to be aware of at the second level for the Panthers is safety — or maybe more accurately “defensive weapon” — Jeremy Chinn.
Chinn is nominally the Panthers’ starting free safety, and does align as their centerfielder often enough. However he is really used as a movable piece all over the Carolina defense. Chinn not only plays both free and box safety roles, he also plays a psuedo-linebacker role and even lines up as an EDGE defender on occasion. At 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, he has the frame to play just about anywhere but defensive tackle and cornerback, while his 4.45 second 40-yard dash and 41-inch vertical show the athleticism to keep up with most offensive players against whom he is going to be matched up.
The injury to Shaq Thompson could be an opportunity for the Giants to attack the middle of the Panthers’ defense. However, they’ll need to keep an eye on Chinn and account for him wherever he is aligned.
The Panthers have an underrated yet quietly effective secondary. On the outside coming into this game they have veteran A.J. Bouye and Donte Jackson, who is in his fourth year out of LSU. Both players are long and disruptive corners, and neither is allowing much to be completed in their area.
Bouye is playing like the cornerback we remember from a couple years ago, when the Jacksonville Jaguars nearly rode their defense to the Super Bowl. He’s allowing a completion rate of 63.6 percent, with 8.1 yards per completion, 5.1 yards per target, and a passer rating of 76.5 — all four-year lows.
Jackson, meanwhile, is allowing 54.3 percent completion with 7.1 yards per target and a passer rating of 74.3, which are career bests for him.
The Panthers primarily play Middle Of Field Closed (MOFC) coverages, splitting between Cover 3 and Cover 1 shells. It’s notable that while those are their primary coverages, they also make use of Cover 4 and Cover 0 at a relatively high rate as well.
Those coverage rates are notable for two reasons, both of which could be concerning for the Giants.
The first of which is the Panthers’ acquisition of All-Pro cornerback Stephon Gilmore from the New England Patriots. The heavy use of man coverage — in the form of Cover 1 and Cover 0 — plays to Gilmore’s strength as one of the best press man cover corners in the NFL. At 6-foot-1, 200 pounds, Gilmore is big enough to match up with most NFL receivers, and he also has enough athleticism to keep up with most receivers down the field (particularly after jamming them at the line of scrimmage). Gilmore started the 2021 season the the PUP list with a quad injury, and the Panthers acquired him before he was activated with the expectation that they could get him up to speed on their defense before having to get him on the field. He is eligible to be activated this week, and as of this writing, the Panthers hope to have him on the field against the Giants.
The Panthers use of aggressive coverage schemes is also notable for another reason, related to their potential upgrade in man coverage: Their pass rush.
We already noted that they field one of the best pass rushing defenses in the NFL, and a big part of that is the play of Reddick and Burns. However, they aren’t content to sit back, play coverage, and rush four. The Panthers have the second highest blitz rate in the NFL, per Pro Football Reference. Their use of Cover 1 and Cover 0 shells allow for eight, or more, defenders near the line of scrimmage, while the heavy use of man coverage frees up extra defenders to rush the passer. The Panthers send five defenders after the quarterback
While man coverage can create opportunities for big plays down the field, that’s dependent on both the receivers winning their matchups and the quarterback delivering the ball. As of this writing, the Giants can only really trust Sterling Shepard to consistently separate and win his individual matchups. Likewise the loss of Andrew Thomas puts the Giants’ pass protection in serious doubt.
If the Giants can manage to slow down the Panthers’ pass rush and keep Haason Reddick from having another career day, while also finding ways to scheme separation, they could take advantage of the Panthers’ aggressive defense.
However, that will be much easier said than done.