Originally posted on Buffalo Wins  |  Last updated 9/14/13
The Panthers went 7-9 last season and have gone 4-1 in their last five games. The Panthers have the potential to make the next step in their progression from an annual loser to a playoff contender, but had trouble moving the ball last week against the Seahawks. This week, they come into Ralph Wilson Stadium and even their record at 1-1. Here are some ways the Bills can prevent that from happening. On defense, Buffalo needs to first stop the Carolina running game. DeAngelo Williams is the primary running back for the Panthers because Jonathan Stewart is injured, and continues to be effective in his eighth season. Over the past two seasons, Williams has averaged 4.79 yards per attempt. The table below breaks down Williams’ rushes by direction. Clearly, Williams is most effective when running on the outside. In order to prevent that, the Bills’ outside rushers need to work to seal the edge on rushes in their direction and force him back to the middle. If the Bills can contain Williams early, they will reduce the effectiveness of Carolina’s play action passing game. The Panthers had a very successful play action passing game in 2012. This Football Outsiders study analyzed all play action plays from all 32 teams last season and the Panthers averaged 8.9 yards per attempt when faking a run, compared to 6.2 yards when Newton dropped straight back to pass. But Newton hasn’t spread the ball around to too many receivers in his tenure. Fifty percent of Newton’s passes last year were intended for either Steve Smith (28.5%) or Greg Olsen (21.4%). Smith is an even more prevalent target on third down, as he was targeted on 37.7% of Carolina’s passes in 2012. The Bills would do well to bring safety help (Aaron Williams, preferably) to Smith’s side, and the linebackers can focus on containing the run. Lastly, everyone knows about Cam Newton’s rushing ability. Last week, Newton’s had five rushes for 38 yards. Three runs came on third down, but only one converted a first down. In the play below, the Panthers opened up the field for Newton to run. The Panthers had three wide receivers and Olsen run vertical routes. The middle of the field opened up, and Newton was able to find a lane up the middle. He came up just short of the first down marker, but gave the Panthers a third and short opportunity (which they failed to convert). On offense, the Bills will need to be better converting on third down. They converted just four of thirteen third downs last week against the Patriots. Only two of Buffalo’s fourteen drives led to scores (all 2012 drives ended in either a field goal or touchdown just under 34% of the time). Carolina’s defense faced third downs twelve times (excluding a kneel down at the end of the game and penalty-negated plays). They sent six players to rush Russell Wilson twice. They didn’t hide the blitz much, either.  One wrinkle the Carolina defense did add later in the game was showing the same look, but only rushing three players while everyone else dropped into coverage. This aggressive third down defense allowed the Panthers to get the Seahawks defense off the field every time they needed ten or more yards (five times). In order to beat the Carolina defense, Manuel will have to hit his quick read receiving option when the linebackers crowd the line of scrimmage. Carolina’s secondary is poor, as they allowed 8.35 yards per target to receivers (with five or more targets) in the last two seasons. The NFL average was 7.1 in 2012. The Bills have a good opportunity to end Sunday at 1-1, despite their underdog status in Las Vegas (line is currently CAR -2.5). To win, they’ll have to keep Williams contained in the middle, limit the single coverage on Steve Smith, and take advantage of Carolina’s undisguised blitz packages.
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