Chico's Panthers were slashing and scheming their way in between the twenties, but the Bears defense forced the Panthers to settle for field goals. Here's a breakdown of how the Bears D bent but didn't break down.
In Part 1 of this week's Playbook, I looked at a few of the ways the Carolina Panthers broke apart Lovie Smith's Tampa 2. As Bears fans have long had to deal with, Lovie's defenses often seems content to give up play after play to an opposing offense, a weakness Ron Rivera knew how to exploit perfectly. Rivera's plan worked all too well, and Cam Newton's remarkable patience converted this nickel and dime plan into numerous sustained drives. But those nickels and dimes only become worthwhile if you get the big payoff in the red zone - in other words, you can't settle for field goals. The Bears forced Newton and his offense off the field when it mattered most, and ultimately kept the Bears close enough to give Jay Cutler the chance to drive down for game-winning field goal. Here's the conclusion to the Panthers 8+ minute second quarter drive, a drive that tells the story of between-the-twenties success and red zone futility better than any other.
The Bears D had already gotten gashed by one screen play on this drive, and they were eager to make sure it didn't happen twice. At least, that's what the Panthers hoped the Bears were thinking. Newton called a "fake left, go right" screen, and the gamble paid off: the Bears bit on the fake to a man. Here's how the two teams lined it up before the snap:
As the diagram shows, the "real" screen here moved the center and two guards out to the right of the formation to serve as the screen for Jonathan Stewart. The Bears are expecting exactly this play, however, so it wouldn't work unless Cam Newton could distract the defense while the all-too-obvious screen develops. Cam accomplished this by quickly faking a bubble screen to Steve Smith (89) on the left side of the formation. This play-action lured an entire half of the secondary - Lance Briggs, Chris Conte, and Tim Jennings - away from the real action long enough for the blockers to get in place. Even worse for the Bears, this fake screen took away their best chance to blow up the play, the zone blitz being run by D.J. Moore (highlighted below). Moore comes free on the line and has a free shot on Newton, but he slows up to "block" what proved to be a pump fake.
With the whole left side of the Bears defense now out of position to make the play, Newton pulls the trigger on the real screen on the right. Here's just how open Stewart is when he starts to take off on his second big catch-and-run of the drive:
While the swarming nature of the Bears defense can get them into trouble in situations like this, it is also their greatest asset when they are in the red zone. The Panthers found out as much a few plays later, after first riding a Greg Olsen slant pass to inside the Bears fifteen. On first down, they tried a wildcat DeAngelo Williams , which ended with Williams buried underneath a pile of Bears and the Panthers only three yards closer to paydirt.
The Bears, patient for so long on this drive, were still waiting for the Panthers to make that one mistake that Lovie Smith's whole plan revolves around. His bet that the Panthers would make a mistake before his defense did finally hit on the final two plays of this drive. The first Panthers mistake came from our old friend Greg "Charmin" Olsen. The Panthers stuck with the run on the next play, but for a slow-developing run play to work, you generally need to block the fastest defensive linesman on the field - in this case, Shea McClellin - before he tackles your running back for a loss. This snapshot tells the whole story:
Olsen gives a "Wasn't he your guy?" look to right tackle after the play, but I suspect that as the only player on the line who didn't engage with a Bear, our former first-rounder is the goat on this one.
The Panthers were now right where the Bears wanted them to be - in a third-and-long where the defense could run a Cover 2. One problem for the Bears, however: the Panthers had a final ace up their Cover-2-beating sleeves. Those same tricks that work moving down the field, however, become a lot hard to rely on inside the twenty. With far less field to defend, those "soft" zones get a lot smaller, and while elite QBs have fitted balls through the progressively smaller cracks between the Cover 2 zones many times before, Cam Newton proved to be something less than elite on this final play.
Here's what the third down play looked like a moment after the snap. The Panthers' plan to break open the Bears zones was strong. They ran Louis Murphy (83) and Greg Olsen (88) to opposite sides of the deep right defender, Major Wright, who is standing off-screen in in the middle of his "21" zone. Not wanting to give Newton a clear one-on-one with either receiver, Wright is forced to stay put until the ball is finally thrown. Meanwhile, the slant route being run by Brandon LaFell (11) is run to squeeze Urlacher (whose middle zone is also boxed off above) up in his zone and off of Olsen, who would then come wide open before getting picked up by Wright. But while Urlacher may be a step slower, his brain is working fine - he was content to leave LaFell with D.J. Moore (30) and defend the most important zone - the end zone - at all costs.
Urlacher smothered Olsen in coverage, but Olsen's route did keep Major Wright from getting in front of Louis Murphy's path down the sideline. Murphy was closely covered by Charles Tillman as the two ran down the field together, but Murphy was open enough - Newton could have thrown him open with a back-shoulder fade. Instead of throwing such a "touchdown or a pick-six" pass over Tillman's head, however, Newton threw the ball over Murphy's head and out of the end zone.
The Panthers came away with another three on this drive, but as TV announcer wisdom tells us, field goals don't win you games. By continually forcing the Panthers to take three points instead of six, the Bears kept this one in reach for Jay Cutler, Robbie Gould, and Tim Jennings to sneak out a win in the fourth quarter. It wasn't pretty, but pretty wasn't going to happen against a team that knows your weaknesses as well as the Panthers do. What matters in games like this - the ones where your opponent knows exactly what you are going to do - is that you execute your plan so well the rest doesn't matter. A well-designed gameplan by Chico, to be sure. In the end, however, Lovie's guys were simply too good to be beaten.