Having studied at the feet of Tampa 2 master Lovie Smith, Ron Rivera knew exactly how he wanted to attack the Bears last Sunday. And while receiver Steve Smith is one of the best in the league at finding the soft spots in coverage, Ron did more than simply go after the infamous seams between the Bears' zones. In the second quarter, his offense called a strong series of plays that were able to dictate coverages, keep the action away from the Bears' biggest defensive playmakers, and otherwise make the Bears look like something less than who we thought they were. "Bend but don't break" was still the name of the game in the end, but Rivera's Panthers were able to make the Bears look pretty flexible.
Mission number one for Chico was to run plays away from the Bears' greatest strengths, their deadly pass-rushers and the two all-pro linebackers standing behind them. The Panthers first play of the drive kept the ball on the ground, but Jonathan Stewart's attempt to run the ball on the side opposite Lance Briggs was foiled by a fleet of Bears commanded by strong-side linebacker Nick Roach, who's no Briggs but no slouch. The Panthers stuck by the plan of moving the ball down the third of the field not defended by Urlacher or Briggs on the very next play, running a well-executed screen down the same side. After snapping from a vanilla three-WR formation, here's how the play looked about a second after:
Having seen what both Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs can do to opposing offenses, Rivera knew his best chances for success would come by running plays designed to neutralize their effectiveness. Plus, after having just seen his running back stuffed by a herd of Bears, Cam Newton had to find a way to get the ball past that first wave of defenders. He drew the line in with a convincing look down the middle of the field, a gaze that also held Brian Urlacher in his middle zone. That the only defender to the play side - Chris Conte (47) - was also bailing into coverage iced the Panthers' cake. Here's how the play ended up evolving:
This is exactly what the Bears defense didn't want, and what they were able to stop on first down. The three defensive linesmen pursuing the ball from behind had Stewart caged last time, but now they have to chase the play from behind while three Panthers blockers are about to wipe out the one defender in the area, Chris Conte (standing on the 30 here). This play more than made up the yardage lost on the last play, and it left the Panthers sitting in a very manageable 3rd and 3.
Having seen how well the Panthers fared on their first run play of the drive, Cam Newton's offense knew it needed to pass on third down to move the sticks. The problem with this plan was that Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher have long made their living jumping the short slant routes that the Panthers would want to run in such a situation. The answer? Spread out the field to force the Bears into man coverage.
The Panthers came out with a personnel grouping that hinted at a run, with short-yardage specialist Mike Tolbert (35) checking in at fullback. Newton, however, motioned both him and Greg Olsen (88) out to his right, giving him plenty of passing options and the Bears very few coverage choices. The Bears defense had to respond to the motions out of the backfield by switching into a man defense able to cover the new "receivers," leaving only Nick Roach in position to defend against a quick pass. Roach, however, had duties of his own:
Here, a few seconds into the play, you can see how open Smith (top) is. Roach, highlighted in the middle, seemed at first to be playing a short zone and in perfect position to block or intercept anything thrown near him, but he didn't react to anyone in his "zone" - to make sure that Newton doesn't take off, Roach is the "spy" here. Newton stays put, so Roach is forced to do the same until it is far too late for him to get in on the play. Smith comes out of his break and makes a routine catch for the first down. So much for the Tampa 2 on this play: in the Bears' standard zones, Roach would have been in prime position to intercept this ball.
The Panthers continued in their basic plan of avoiding Urlacher and Briggs on their next set of downs. After a quick incompletion which had Steve Smith slanting his way through the seams of the Cover 2 zones (again), the Panthers decided to give the run another shot.. With three wide receivers on the field for the Panthers, the Bears brought in D.J. Moore at the nickel spot. The Panthers were hoping for just this substitution, and called a run directly at the undersized DB. They blocked the play with a simple zone scheme: the three offensive linesmen on the right of the formation blocked straight ahead, the left guard went after Lance Briggs, and the left tackle lured Julius Peppers (below at LDE) into the backfield and then sealed him out of the play. And while Jonathan Stewart wanted to run right at D.J. Moore, there was still one Bear not yet accounted for: Brian Urlacher. Lead blocker Greg Olsen, lined up below as an H-back, was more than able to take care of the aging middle linebacker for Stewart. Here's the blocking scheme before the snap:
The blocks went exactly as planned for the Panthers, and Greg Olsen took care of the last threat to break up the play. With all of the front seven blocked, Stewart was able to make a clean run out of the backfield and into the Bears secondary. Look at the size of the running lane his team opened for him:
You can barely make out Olsen's head below the "0" of the yard marker here, but he proved every Bears fan who said to get rid of him because "He couldn't block!" wrong on this one. He took care of Urlacher no problem, giving Stewart a free pass into the defensive backfield and, eventually, the Panthers a second and short.
Ron Rivera's Panthers were on the move, and they looked nigh unstoppable despite the Bears' reputation on defense. By keeping the action away from two of the best linebackers in the game and finding ways to float or run the ball past the defensive line, Cam Newton was able to lead his offense down the field far too easily. Could the Bears patch up their weaknesses in time to stop the drive? Stay tuned for Part 2, where I'll break down how the Bears finally stopped bending in the red zone.