The Carolina Panthers closed Training Camp 2019–perhaps the final session ever at Wofford College–with a wide spectrum of emotions.
Though the atmosphere among fans and players was largely festive and celebratory, questions loom for the Panthers over several key positions. These concerns are aided by a stellar defensive showing from their guests, Sean McDermott’s Buffalo Bills.
Here’s a closer look at what we saw on Wednesday at the camp finale:
The best secondary in the NFL
One particular unit during this two-day scrimmage has shined: the physical, fast and heady Bills secondary. This unit is coached by John Butler and schemed up by defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier—both men employing a throwback style of corner play from the early 2000’s, it would appear. A good deal of contact, perhaps a little too much for the 2019 rule book.
But facts are facts, and no secondary played better football over the last half of 2018 than this one. By all appearances, little has changed.
Corners Levi Wallace and TreDavious White played tough up at the line, challenging Carolina’s speedy perimeter duo of Curtis Samuel and D.J. Moore. In doing so, the Bills created subtle but meaningful traffic/route integrity issues—few offenses rely on precise timing more than Norv Turner’s.
The team also utilized a bit of the Bill Belichick strategy from Super Bowl 36: keeping Christian McCaffrey in containment with two defenders regularly in his wheelhouse, making contact, asserting their presence. Tight End Greg Olsen was left to deal a LB in coverage with a roaming safety up top to assist in coverage.
It’s a schematic approach worth considering when facing this offense. Not that Samuel and Moore are incapable of making big plays–quite the contrary. But McCaffrey and Olsen are the matchup cogs that make the passing game go. If you can take those two guys away and put them out of their comfort zone, you’ve got a fair chance on defense to win
Newton stands tall, pressure and all
Here’s a look at one of my favorite throws of the week: a quick slant to Samuel, beautifully covered by Hughes underneath and safety Micah Hyde over the top.
It’s the type of throw we discussed early in camp–the intermediate bullet between defenders in tight spaces. So far, we are as impressed with this as much as any other part of Cam’s game.
Newton looked solid, though there were several plays where he was unable to get the ball to his receivers due to the intensive pass rush from Buffalo.
In particular, pass rushers Jerry Hughes and Eddie Yarbrough were tenacious off the edge, coming up with a pair of simulated sacks. Samuel did get Carolina going, using his straight-line speed once again to split the safeties in a hurry-up drill for a beautiful touchdown from Newton.
Remember this name, sports fans
Tremaine Edmunds. Make a note of that name. The second-year LB from Virginia Tech made a great play on Olsen on a deep corner route, timing his jump at the perfect opportunity to knock the ball away.
Edmunds also spent much of his two-day visit shadowing McCaffrey, often times running step-for-step while eliminating the big play opportunities.
He is a freakish athlete, and will be a key centerpiece of McDermott’s intermediate-yardage defense in 2019.
Captain works his way into the mix
We did see a bit of former Panther Captain Munnerlyn split some time in the nickel position. He’s not getting all the reps yet, but don’t be surprised if he is by the end of the preseason. Much like Boston for Carolina, the 10-year vet has the familiarity with head coach Sean McDermott’s scheme and would likely be the best fit.
Elliott: the more you can do
We have chronicled the progression of camp sensation Javien Elliott, a sneaky good free-agent acquisition from Tampa Bay. Elliott has made multiple plays on defense throughout camp, coming up with a great PBU against Moore a couple of weeks ago, and then baiting Cam into a beautiful interception last week in practice. He is our front-runner at One Panther Place to land the starting nickel job when the season opens in a few weeks.
Elliott made his mark Wednesday on special teams, putting time in at the gunner position. This is an important role on this team, or any team for that matter. Elliott may have further enhanced his value through the eyes of head coach Ron Rivera with an exceptional piece of punt coverage, weaving his way past both Buffalo blockers on straight line to the punt returner.
Sometimes, you can pick up on special things in camp. I have seen enough special attributes in Elliott’s game to know that he can be a solid contributor this year, a special teams standout, at the least. Perhaps even the team’s go-to guy at slot corner.
Allen still has the edge over Grier
On the Will Grier front: not much to add on top of what we shared yesterday. As many of you know, we have been quite frank about the rookie’s lack of progression during camp. Regardless of the pushback, we report what we see, not how we feel.
In a limited round of snaps, Grier’s first two plays were scrambles, largely necessitated by poor blocking up front, and the third was a nice pass on a hook route, standing tall in a crowded pocket in doing so.
Kyle Allen moved the second unit efficiently during his first crack at the 11-on-11 scrimmage. We are seeing poise and confidence from Allen, and his arm has been on point, throwing a tight ball with consistency.
The real test comes Friday, as Grier should see plenty of snaps to improve upon his performance last week in Chicago. I would look for a healthy diet of check downs and short throws to keep his confidence up, as it just doesn’t appear that he is fully ready to read an NFL defense down the field. He has time to learn it, but you’d like to see more, soon.
That Carolina secondary? Not too shabby.
At the safety position, the Ross Cockrell experiment appears to be over. He’s working with the corners now primarily on the outside behind James Bradberry and Donte Jackson.
Tre Boston has cemented his role as the starting free safety, and as he knocks off a little rust, he’s bringing a good deal of confidence and physicality to a secondary that failed to close out several key games in 2018.
Boston also appears to have a great relationship with fellow safety Eric Reid. The two men are in constant communication prior to and during practice.
It’s good to see a pair of veteran safeties back there bonding, both of whom possess great athleticism and experience.
Boston has been a dynamic football player for the Chargers and Cardinals over the last couple years, and while he hasn’t been widely-revered by the media, he has made a good deal of impact plays, pulling in 8 interceptions since 2017.
While this may not yet be Thieves Avenue, it’s starting to take shape. If this secondary can avoid the catastrophic breakdowns they regularly endured on third-and-long last year, it could be the difference between 7-9 and 12-4.
As for the joint-practice with the Bills, Carolina’s secondary performed well. Perry Fewell’s unit did what they had to do: eliminate the explosive plays. Ultimately, that’s what you’re looking to get done—keep the ball in front if you. You do that, and the takeaways usually come.
As my HS position coach once told me, “sure as hell can’t intercept a ball 20 yards behind you.”
There was also quite a bit of small-ball from Bills quarterback Josh Allen, who completed over 75% of his passes in full scrimmage play. A good deal of those were less than 10 yards in the air, some of them perfectly horizontal. The shifty Cole Beasley was active in the slot, picked up from Dallas.
Heads up: you’ll hear and read some reporting from Buffalo that Allen “lit up the secondary.” That was hardly the case. It was all short intermediate stuff, largely due to the fact that the Panthers pass rush was consistently in the backfield. Bruce Irvin, Mario Addioson and KK Short in particular made an impact.
Speaking of pass rush specialist: rookie sensation Brian Burns was prudently held out of practice after initially planning to give it a go. According to media reports, Panthers head coach Ron Rivera believes Burns may have a shot play Friday. Your humble correspondent here feels that could be a poor decision. I would give Burns’ ankle a week off to heal, and turn him loose in the all-important third preseason game.
PSA: Beware of the generic Tweet.
It’s a good idea to be completely honest about the context of what you’re reading on Twitter from most reporters. You see, here’s the deal: reporters can’t give a lot of live-tweet detail on plays.
So, for instance: you may have come across a few updates and reactions on Torrey Smith having a “big day” on Wednesday. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Smith is a good player and he’s had a pretty solid camp. However, he was the benefactor a badly-blown coverage, even looking a tad guilty as he reluctantly trotted into the end zone.
Twitter: “oh boy, here comes Torrey Smith pushing the other guys on the depth chart!”
Not really. Touchdowns are always great to score and they always look good on tape, but he didn’t create the play. It fell in his lap. Again, context.
Versatile OL Dennis Daley, who has received considerable praise from coaches and some in the media, was seen taking several reps at left guard. He struggled mightily on this play, but was bailed-out by an Olsen one-handed snag. While I do like his potential as a 6th OL in jumbo, it’s clear Daley has some work to do before he can be trusted to play meaningful snaps at the guard position.
Rookie LT Greg Little has been given mixed reviews from a variety of sources. Some have observed that Little did a nice job Wednesday holding his own on Hughes.
Well. You know, see. Here’s the thing: no, he didn’t. Not at all.
He was routinely beaten by Hughes on the left side with a blazing speed rush, something he will face quite often at left tackle in a speed rush-heavy NFC South. I’d need to see some vast strides made in the next couple weeks before trotting him out there to defend the blind side of a franchise quarterback coming off shoulder surgery.
The Williams dilemma: Daryl Williams, who has played left and right tackle this year in camp, and in the past, is a much more natural fit on the right side. Williams has not looked particularly comfortable on the left side, even going back to last year’s season opener against Dallas before his season-ending injury. It’s better than what Little is giving them right now, but I not sold on Williams as a franchise left tackle. Particularly coming off an injury.
If anybody can work wonders, it’s a veteran line coach John Matsko. He’s done it Mike Remmers, developed Andrew Norwell into an All-Pro. Hell, he made Byron Bell halfway serviceable in 2014. Don’t underestimate the loss of Ryan Kalil. Line calls are critical, and he made them for Carolina over the past decade or so. Matt Paradis is a good player, and a fine replacement. But this whole deal may take time to mesh.
With Olsen seeing limited snaps and Ian Thomas out with an injury, Chris Manhertz snagged a touchdown and made some key contributions in the blocking game Wednesday . We chronicled Manhertz in our recent “pass catchers” piece. He’s a viable weapon in the red zone, and in a 23 personnel situation, big #82 would be a fine option for a little play action, given all the attention would be on 88, 80, 22 and 1.
There were quite a few pre-snap penalties from both teams during 11-on-11. Several came courtesy of Cam Newton’s legendary cadence. One such play, here, shows Newton utilizing a hard count to draw Jerry Hughes offsides. Solid work by Williams to maintain position. This is not an insignificant part of what Carolina does. Think back to 2015, at home against Washington. There must have been a half-dozen offsides penalties from the Redskins defensive line.
More on tonight’s game in Charlotte–later today: onepantherplace.com. Follow along with us on TWITTER all day leading up to the game, and live on Twitter for real-time analysis.