SPARTANBURG — Most NFL teams don’t do much game-planning before preseason games because coaches generally keep their schemes fairly vanilla, not wanting to show too much before beginning the regular season.
But the Carolina Panthers’ defense has taken special measures this week to get ready for Thursday’s second preseason game at Philadelphia. Carolina isn’t all that concerned about what plays the Eagles will run under first-year coach Chip Kelly, but how fast they’ll do it.
Gentlemen, start your engines.
“They always try to hit you with something quick, gas you and when you get tired they try to do something different,” Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. “They just try to keep doing the same ol’ plays until they wear you down, until your D-linemen get tired, you relax in the back end. Then they hit you with a home run.”
While the NBA 76ers were taking four months to settle on a head coach, Kelly installed his own fast-break offense at the Eagles’ complex in south Philly. Gone is the stoic Andy Reid, replaced by the energetic Kelly, who talks fast, walks fast and wasted no time putting his stamp on the Eagles’ offense.
Philadelphia ran 86 offensive plays in a 31-22 loss to New England last week in its preseason opener. By comparison, the Panthers ran 63 plays last week against Chicago, and averaged 61.8 offensive plays per game in 2012.
The NFL average was 64.2 plays a game last season. Even the Patriots, whose 1,191 offensive plays in 2012 were just eight off the league record set by the Drew Bledsoe-led, 1994 Pats, averaged only 74.4 plays last season.
And Kelly, whose Oregon teams featured the same frenetic, up-tempo pace, isn’t planning on slowing down.
“We have a bunch of football junkies, and I think they like playing the game that way,” Kelly said after last week’s loss to New England. “I think it will be a weapon for us and a tool in our toolbox.”
Panthers rookie running back Kenjon Barner is well familiar with Kelly’s toolbox, having rushed for 1,767 yards as a senior at Oregon last fall during Kelly’s final season in Eugene.
Barner said there were no conditioning drills at Oregon. The practice was the conditioning.
“We would run 140 plays at practice, but there was no time for correction on the field,” he said. “You would correct one day after (in) meetings. You could slow down and coach the player up. But on the field it was go, go, go, go.”
That go-go approach served the Ducks well.
Oregon went to four consecutive BCS bowl games under Kelly – losing to Cam Newton and Auburn in the 2010 national title game – and won three conference crowns. He was hired in January to replace Reid, who was fired after going 4-12 last season and landed in Kansas City as the Chiefs’ coach.
Kelly met with Patriots coach Bill Belichick and his staff several times while Kelly was at Oregon. According to the Boston Globe, the Patriots were interested in Kelly’s offensive terminology, in which one word encompasses everything involved in a play.
The Panthers simplified their terminology this past offseason to make huddle calls easier and quicker. The idea was to give Newton and the linemen more time at the line of scrimmage to survey the defense and make pre-snap checks and audibles.
But the Panthers aren’t trying to fire off rapid-fire plays.
Carolina coach Ron Rivera said Atlanta tries to maintain an up-tempo pace, but not like what the Panthers will see in Philly.
“It’s going to be a great test for us. It’s going to get you in shape,” Munnerlyn said. “I think they ran (86) plays last game. For a first preseason game, that’s very impressive.”
Barner has talked to Carolina’s coaches and players about what to expect. But how do you defend an offense that – according to Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly – snaps the ball about 12 seconds after the previous play has been blown dead?
“It’s gotta be quick,” said Kuechly, who will call the Panthers’ defensive signals Thursday.
“If we need a sub, if we need to get guys in and out, by the time we get the call and communicate it to everyone, it could be snapped. So we’ve got to work on getting the call, getting set, getting going quick and not wasting time dawdling around or hanging out.”
The Panthers tried a couple methods this week to prepare for the hurry-up offense, which will be directed by second-year quarterback Nick Foles. Michael Vick also will play for the Eagles.
During team drills, defensive players stood with their backs to the line of scrimmage until Newton broke the huddle, trying to approximate the short time they’ll have to read and react to the Eagles’ formations.
Carolina’s defensive backs also did extra running during practices.
But other than the pace, the Panthers don’t expect the Eagles to do anything too crazy.
“When we were back at Oregon it took us nearly two years to run it how he wanted it to run,” Barner said. “The tempo of it is very, very intense, but it’s not as complicated as it seems.”
“They’re going to run a bunch of plays. And they’re going to try to wear you down,” Kuechly added. “And they’re going to hit one eventually. That’s what they’re trying to do.”
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