When the Panthers’ defense held the Cowboys’ vaunted rushing offense to under 100 combined yards on opening Sunday, there was a lot of hope that the 2018 Panthers’ defense could once again be among the league’s best. However, after the Falcons put up 31 points and over 400 yards on the Panthers in Week 2, some of that optimism vanished, especially after the run defense, the supposed strength of this defense, allowed 170 yards at just over five yards per carry. After this, both Ron Rivera and Eric Washington talked about breakdowns in gap discipline and tackling – how this led to a number of the long runs – while it is generally fairly easy to spot a missed tackle, it can be much harder to identify and assign responsibility to a breakdown in gap discipline.
So how does gap discipline work, what went wrong against the Falcons in Week 2 and has it gotten fixed?
A Numbers Game
Generally, in the NFL at least, teams tend to have either one deep safety, or split safeties with the lower safety’s primary responsibility being as a gap defender in the run game. What this means is that, excluding QB power plays that only really the Panthers can run, the offense has one fewer blocker than the defense has defenders, thereby allowing the defense to fill all of the ‘gaps’ between the blockers, as can be seen on the following diagram:
What this means, is that if all the defenders execute their job effectively, the running back is funneled into the unblocked gap where the unblocked defender is able to make the tackle – simple. Of course, offenses know that this is unlikely to work and look to force defensive errors using traps and pulls to get the defense to accidentally leave a gap unfilled, as when blockers shift laterally along the line, the corresponding gaps shift as well. It would be unreasonable to expect a defense to never get caught out in this way, offensive coaches get paid quite a lot of money to design running plays that work, but if a team is making systematic errors in this regard then that is troubling.
So what went wrong against the Falcons in Week 2 that allowed Atlanta to rush for 170 yards?
All Over The Place
In total, the Falcons had ten designed running back carries that gained five yards or more – that’s a lot for a single NFL game – and those ten plays can be split into three general categories. First, there are the plays that should never have happened, namely plays where the offense was able to be effective due to a missed penalty, and against the Falcons there was a long run where a fairly obvious hold was missed that likely sprung the big gainer. This is irritating on a single game basis, but it’s hard to build that into your defensive coaching plan.
As they say, it is what it is.
The second issue was missed tackles, and this was responsible for three of the Falcons long runs. One where Donte Jackson was a little slow at coming down to the line so Tevin Coleman had the space to juke him out of his shoes, one where Wes Horton was responsible for the edge on a toss play and simply didn’t have the lateral agility to make the play in space and one where Luke was beaten by a well-timed spin move. None of these were egregious but all three led to long runs by the Falcons.
Lastly, there are the gap discipline issues, and these led to six long runs by the Falcons, and while there is no overarching theme to these mistakes beyond the breakdown in gap discipline, there are a number of teaching moments here that the Panthers will have wanted to learn from.
The first play worth noting is one that can simply be put down to good play by the Falcons; Vernon Butler is responsible for the gap inside the tackle, but the guard chips him on the play, allowing the tackle to swing inside for inside leverage creating a running lane between the right guard and right tackle:
Butler does a decent job of trying to get back into the play, but this is just very well executed by the Falcons. The chip is strong enough to be effective but not lengthy enough to allow Thompson to shoot his gap and get to the running back. If you were an offensive coordinator due to face the Panthers in the coming weeks, you might identify this is as something to plan again – maybe by getting Butler to attack the guard allowing Thompson and he to switch gaps – but there isn’t really a player at fault here for the Panthers.
The following play isn’t dissimilar, as while there is a blown gap, it is hard to ascribe this to anything more than bad luck:
Jackson is responsible for the outside gap, and if he was able to seal the edge, then Addison is right there to make the tackle, but Jackson unfortunately slips, leaving the edge unguarded and allowing the running back to pick up a big gain. This is Jackson’s fault, but slips and trips happen and there’s not much than can be done about that.
The final gap discipline breakdown that can be somewhat dismissed as the cost of doing business is the following mistake by rookie Marquis Haynes:
Here he is looking to cut at the inside shoulder of the tackle, leaving Luke free to pursue to the outside edge, but unfortunately he gets too far inside and the guard is able to get outside of him, leaving Luke isolated on the tackle and unable to cover both of the resulting gaps. This partly failed because of the combination of the play the Falcons ran and Haynes’ failure to recognize it – in the moment, this can be somewhat ascribed to a rookie mistake made by a player in their first game. If Haynes makes this mistake again down the line that is a different matter, but this is a technique error rather than laziness or a breakdown in discipline.
However, while the three plays above are somewhat unavoidable, even if they are unlikely to all happen in one game, the next three plays are due exclusively to player error, and errors by veteran players than should know better. Firstly, there is this play:
Here, Adams is responsible for the gap inside the tight end with Peppers bouncing outside to take the QB keeper, but Adams hesitates for too long and so there is enough space for the running back to cut back before heading downfield. While there are a number of players who probably had a good enough shot at the ball carrier to get him down, it looked to be Adams’ poor pursuit that created the space that made this run possible. From this clip, it is impossible to know whether Adams saw something that wasn’t there and was playing the bootleg throw, but this was an issue with him at times last season as well and something that Eric Washington and the other defensive coaches need to address to prevent long runs on cutbacks.
The next two plays are simply down to taking the easy way out, something that Ron Rivera spoke to after the game. On the first, Shaq Thompson looks to undercut the block rather than going around it like he’s meant to and so creates an outside running lane for a big gain; had he stuck to his outside channel then both Kyle Love and Luke Kuechly were in position to make a play on the ball carrier and, on the second, Vernon Butler is responsible for the gap outside of the guard and after getting beaten to his spot off the snap, simply doesn’t do enough to work back outside and force the running back into the pursuit.
These mistakes are inexcusable for veterans such as Thompson and Butler, and suggest a lack of effort than coaches simply can’t accept. For whatever reason, these players broke from the defensive scheme on these plays and, should this be a consistent theme, this will likely make them unplayable. These mistakes, like repeated penalties, can be coach-killers. But were these issues carried over to the Bengals game, or were they mistakes made on the road by a team who, admittedly, had a few things to distract them at the time?