As already mentioned, when you draft a defensive lineman in the first round, it is hard to justify that based on them just being a good run defender. As good as Star Lotulelei was as a run defender, a major reason why the Panthers chose to move on a year ago was because of his limited impact in the passing game. The bigger defensive tackles who have justified their high draft stock in recent years have done so because of their ability to impact the passing game despite their size.
It is no surprise then, that having produced just two sacks in his first three NFL seasons, that Vernon Butler has been seen as something of a disappointment in Carolina. As detailed previously, not all of this is Butler’s fault, as he has spent most of his career being rotated as a tandem with Kyle Love, and teams have almost exclusively looked to double Butler inside and take whatever damage Love is able to muster rushing one-on-one against the guard. However, when he has been given chances to rush one-on-one, Butler just hasn’t been able to have the impact fans and coaches would have wanted until recently. So what has changed?
Well, not everything, as like in the passing game there were still times when the Panthers used Butler exactly how they have done through the past three seasons, such as this snap where he lined up as the 1-tech, got doubled off the snap and contributed nothing to the play beyond that:
While it is hard for a player getting doubled to add much value in terms of getting to the quarterback, one advantage of the Panthers new defense is that they can use Butler to add value beyond simply eating up another blocker. They do this by using him, and other interior defensive linemen for that matter, on the far side of the line from where the blitz is coming from, so that they naturally attract the double team with the tackle, but are also able to provide outside contain in case of a scramble at the same time:
Butler, however, took this one step further on Sunday, as having initially been doubled off the line, he recognizes Bruce Irvin winning inside the tackle causes Winston to bail the pocket and reacts in order to contain the scramble, with the nifty forced fumble acting as an added bonus:
However, in order to make Butler more than an afterthought, the Panthers need to be able to make use of his quickness and hand speed as more than just a contain rusher. Quickness that really showed up on his first sack of the day:
However, while the strip-sacks will undoubtedly be the plays that make the highlight tape, some of his more impressive plays came without any corresponding stat, but exhibited just how he might fit perfectly into some of the things the Panthers are trying to do on defense.
On the first of these, the Panthers lined him up outside the tackle, and used him as an edge rusher where, in combination with Mario Addison, he was able to force Winston up in the pocket and into the arms of Gerald McCoy:
The other way the Panthers used Butler effectively as a pass rusher was when they asked him to simply penetrate into a gap rather than trying to work laterally against a blocker. Here, he used both his quickness and some well-timed punches in order to crash into the pocket, thereby preventing Winston from escaping to that side:
However, as was mentioned earlier, he could stand to work on his knee bend – in both cases, he missed out getting further sacks as his high pad level enabled the blocker to rescue the block just enough by driving him wide of Winston as he ran around the block. If he is able to lower his pad level, it would make it easier to twist his body around the block, allowing him to remain facing the quarterback at all times.
The other effect this has is it makes Butler a menace on stunts, where his ability to get quick penetration outside the guard makes it all but impossible for the guard to pass him off to the tackle, leading the edge defender free to loop back inside while Butler acts as an effective contain defender:
Butler does still need to continue to grow as a player, as there were times where his somewhat upright rush position made it almost impossible to create leverage:
With the biggest step he needs to take being to develop effective counter moves if he is unable to generate immediate leverage off the snap. A couple of times on Sunday, he was too easily contained by blockers once they were able to cut him off from his gap, something he needs to anticipate will happen more frequently the more teams are aware of what he is trying to do:
Vernon Butler isn’t the player the Panthers hoped he would be at this point in his career when they drafted him, and while there are a number of reasons why he struggled to make an impact during his first three seasons in Carolina, if he is able to make the most of it – there have been several signs so far this season and on Sunday in particular – that the Panthers new defensive scheme should give him a chance to show just how good he can be when his talents are maximized.