The Houston Texans didn't light the field on fire Sunday, but the offense did deliver a better performance against the Bucs than it did the previous week against the Panthers.
In the 19-9 win, quarterback Ryan Mallett, who completed fewer than half of his passes in Week 2, was more accurate and, as a result, improved his completion percentage by 15 points. The Bucs have lost a lot of football games over the past few seasons, so it's not unusual to see a quarterback power up when he plays the Pewter Pirates. Since last season, the Bucs have faced a quarterback coming off a loss 11 times and beaten two: Robert Griffin III and Drew Brees.
In addition to a win, quarterbacks often get a statistical boost when they play the Bucs. Fifteen quarterbacks have started against the Bucs since the start of 2014, and 10 of them posted a passer rating above the team's average.
Quarterback performances vs. Bucs compared with their averages vs. all opponents, since 2014
|1, 15||CAR||Derek Anderson||+6.2||-0.1||+13.1|
|3, 10||ATL||Matt Ryan||+8.4||+1.7||+33.3|
|5, 17||NO||Drew Brees||-7.1||-0.6||-30.4|
|11||WAS||Robert Griffin III||+5.4||-1.7||-15.5|
It only gets tougher this week when Cam Newton and the 3-0 Panthers visit Tampa. Newton, who missed both Bucs games last season because of injuries, has enjoyed more success against Tampa Bay than against the rest of the NFC South. He has completed a higher percentage of passes (64.6), thrown for more yards per game (235.7) and posted a better touchdown-to-interception ratio (2.5) and passer rating (102.9).
And the 2015 version might be even better.
No one questions Newton's athleticism or arm strength, but inconsistency and inaccuracy have kept him from ranking among the NFL's very best quarterbacks. Despite his flaws, the Panthers showed their commitment to him in June by signing him to a contract extension that fully guarantees him $41 million. And Newton showed his commitment to improving his accuracy by refining his mechanics during offseason workouts.
Three games is a small sample, but so far the extra time seems to be paying off. His 75.6 accuracy percentage — a Pro Football Focus statistic that accounts for drops, throw aways, spikes, batted passes and passes when the quarterback was hit while attempting to throw — is the highest of his career. His 53.8 accuracy percentage on throws 20 or more yards down the field is also the best of his career and is more than 20 points higher than last season.
Cam Newton's pass accuracy
|Season||Acc % (rank)||Deep pass acc % (rank)|
|2011||68.2% (26)||40.4% (18)|
|2012||68.5% (31)||52.4% (4)|
|2013||72.4% (18)||31.3% (34)|
|2014||66.7% (37)||31.5% (34)|
|2015||75.6% (16)||53.8% (6)|
|Source: Pro Football Focus|
In addition to the small sample size, it's also important to note that Newton played against two of the league's worst pass defenses (Jacksonville and New Orleans), as measured by Football Outsiders' Defense-adjusted Value Over Average metric.
At the same time, the Bucs' cornerback situation is a fluid one. Johnthan Banks missed practice on Wednesday and Thursday, and Tim Jennings, cut by the Bears two weeks before kickoff, replaced Alterraun Verner as a starter against the Texans. If Banks sits out, a stretched secondary might not be able to hold up any better than a pair of Lenny Kravitz's leather pants. Opposing teams' No. 1 receivers are doing quite a bit of damage as it is, racking up 96.5 yards per game, according to Football Outsiders.
Ted Ginn Jr. has stepped into that role for the Panthers, who lost last season's No. 1, Kelvin Benjamin, to an ACL tear during training camp. Last week against the Saints, Newton and Ginn hooked up on the longest play of the Panthers' young season. Let's go to the All-22 coaches film for a closer look at the third-quarter 55-yard pass.
The play begins with a presnap adjustment as Newton motions tight end Ed Dickson from the left side of the line to the right. Dickson will block the blitzing Damian Swann. The Saints have a single-high safety, which will leave one of the Panthers' outside receivers — Ginn or Devin Funchess — one-on-one with the cornerback.
After the snap, safety Kenny Phillips races to the left side of the field to help Delvin Breaux in coverage of Funchess. The Panthers pick up the blitz, so it's basically a race between Ginn and Brandon Browner. Newton is patient and anticipates Ginn separating from Browner. His pass is nearly on the money — Ginn has to turn back to catch the slightly underthrown ball, which might have allowed Browner to close the gap and make a touchdown-saving tackle.
It was the second of two 50-yard gains for the Panthers. The first, a 52-yarder, came just before the two-minute warning in the first half.
Again, the Saints give a single-high safety look. Tight end Greg Olsen is lined up on the left side of the line and runs straight through the zone coverage.
The safety is watching the receiver on the other side of the field, and Newton holds him there when he looks in his direction after the snap, even cocking his arm to sell the threat.
Because of the safety's position, Newton knows he has Olsen one-on-one with Browner. As soon as the tight end is even with the cornerback, he makes the throw. The lack of coverage baffled Fox broadcaster and Buccaneers great Ronde Barber, who wondered whether Browner forgot Olsen could run that fast.
It's unlikely the Bucs will forget about Olsen. In his two games against them last season, he tormented them, catching 18 of his 24 targets for 193 yards and a touchdown in which the Panthers caught the Bucs badly out of position on a run fake.
The Panthers' creative play design is part of the reason Olsen is so difficult to defend. They use him all over the football field — deep, intermediate, in the flat. And sometimes, they'll hide him in plain view. Against the Texans in Week 2, the Panthers ran a play where he went unnoticed until the ball was on its way toward him.
The Panthers begin the play with an unbalanced line — two tackles and a guard to the left of the center instead of the traditional tackle, guard, center, guard, tackle alignment. The Panthers also use a second tight end, which they motion from the left side of the line to the right, and a fullback. With only one receiver out wide, this looks likeks like a classic power run. The question is, will the run go to the weak side where there are two big-bodied tackles or will it go to the strong side where there are two blocking tight ends and a fullback?
The answer, of course, is neither. Everything the Panthers do screams "right!" They pull the right guard around Olsen, the fullback Mike Tolbert kicks out to the right, and Newton fakes the handoff to Jonathan Stewart and rolls out to the right.
Olsen even engages the 325-pound Vince Wilfork in a block before releasing and running free to the left side of the field, which Funchess helped clear when his vertical route drew the attention of both the cornerback and safety. What's Wilfork to do? Chase him? Not his job. Besides, the only time you'll see him move that much is for a rack of ribs. (Don't tell him I said that.)
The concept is similar to one the Panthers executed for a touchdown last season against the Bengals.
This scouting report contains more than 1,000 words, and aside from jokes about Lenny Kravitz's pants and Vince Wilfork's appetite for ribs, they've been about Cam Newton and Greg Olsen, two players who have enjoyed great success against the Bucs and are very much in synch heading into Week 4. If the Bucs' linebackers take the cheese on run fakes and abandon passing lanes, Newton, who accounts for seven of the Panthers' eight touchdowns this season, will guide the Panthers to a 4-0 start.
On the other side of the ball, one player to watch is the player responsible for the only non-Cam Newton Panthers touchdown this season: cornerback Josh Norman, who on Thursday was named NFC Defensive Player of the Month. Some data on the fourth-year veteran from Pro Football Focus:
• He has held receivers to 13 catches and 98 yards on 27 targets. Opposing quarterbacks have a worse rating (38.8) when throwing into his coverage than they do Darrell Revis' (44.2), Patrick Peterson's (56.7) and Richard Sherman's (70.3).
• He held Texans receiver DeAndre Hopkins to two catches and 24 yards on seven targets in Week 2.
• You'll likely see him shadow Mike Evans. When the Panthers and Bucs met in Week 15 last season, Norman held Evans to one catch and 8 yards on five targets. Evans made it count, however, catching a fade pass for a touchdown.
The pick: Panthers
Contact Thomas Bassinger at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @tometrics.