Panthers defense prepares for Bills' up-tempo attack

Can the Panthers slow down the new-age, up-tempo offensive attacks? They'll find out against the Bills.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - The Philadelphia Eagles had the entire league buzzing in their season opener Monday night.

As the Eagles put on an offensive clinic in the first half, the Redskins sucked wind. It was impossible not to wonder if you weren’t watching an NFL revolution — the moment where everything changes. The Panthers saw the Eagles in preseason and they’ll see the second-closest thing come Sunday in the form of new Buffalo Bills head coach Doug Marrone’s no-huddle attack, led by rookie dual-threat quarterback EJ Manuel.

“Not sure if it’s quite as fast as Philly, but they’re definitely up-tempo,” defensive tackle Dwan Edwards said.

Marrone says the roots of his attack aren’t based in Kelly’s attack and believes this isn’t a new phenomenon. He’s quick to reference previous no huddle attacks of Joe Theismann’s Redskins and the offense Marv Levy ran at times with the Bills — both of which went to the Super Bowl. Those two weren’t as fast as the Eagles, but Marrone said a lot of the roots of Kelly’s offense and his today come from those offenses. He also employed similar tactics at times as the offensive coordinator in New Orleans.

“Obviously we’ve had that everywhere we’ve been — even if you just want to talk about it as two-minute offense. Even in New Orleans, we had different types of huddles, different types of tempos to be able to control the game and a lot of spontaneous plays where we could just go ahead and line up on the ball,” Marrone said. “It’s always been there in the system.”

There’s been some study of the old Oregon offense, but it’s too difficult to replicate something without knowing the ins and outs.

Therefore, Marrone's and Kelly's styles and attacks differ.

“As far as what the tempo does, it changes the pace of the game, puts a little bit more pressure on the calls coming out quicker,” Marrone said. “The two ways we use to think about attacking were shifting motion, and change the formation and make defenses go through multiple calls, but I think the defense caught up and they just went field and boundary calls. Now I think with the tempo, you try to get them to limit some of the calls. So I think everyone can be different as far as what you’re seeing with the attacking style."

The tempo’s not the same but Panthers coach Ron Rivera sees a lot of similarities in what the Panthers have been doing the last two years with the read option. They haven’t run versatile attack as much this season – mostly because Rivera’s aware of the risks of what this offense could look like without Cam Newton. 

“We’re still trying to find the right balance,” Rivera said. “The concern would be what happens if your quarterback is hurt. Do you have two Michael Vicks? Do you have two RG3s? Do you have two Colin Kaepernicks? Because if you don’t have two exacts, do you have to fall back to more traditional? Only time will tell, everybody talked about the Run-and-Shoot and the Wildcat another time. It’ll be interesting to see how it all unfolds, but it’s been a lot more fun because people are talking about what’s going on with offenses.”

Rivera is also aware of the pressure that tempo puts on your own defense.

Faster tempo and more plays means quicker three-and-outs and less recuperation time.

Regardless, defensive end Greg Hardy’s ready for the Bills’ speed and thinks he knows exactly how to slow it down.

“They get plays off fast, but like I said, you can’t get plays off that fast when you get hit in the mouth by Kraken all day — plain and simple,” Hardy said, referencing his own nickname. “You got guys on the ground, guys getting up slow, and your tempo slows down.”

Panthers coach Ron Rivera’s got a little different plan to slow them down, but it still centers around his defense. Rivera wouldn’t give away whether linebacker Luke Kuechly will have preset calls, though, to counteract the speed of the Bills’ offense.

“The most important thing, more than anything else, is when you play these up-tempo teams is if you can control the chains, three-and-out and it doesn’t matter because your offense is back on the field,” Rivera said. “How we handle things when it comes to first and second down is just as important. You want to slow them down and get them off the field.”

Other Panthers aren’t necessarily sold the evolution is here to stay either.

“I think the league’s going to be a passing league regardless,” cornerback Josh Norman said. “These guys are athletic, man. I don’t know if that’s going to hold up that much.”

Norman may not necessarily be sold on the tempo, but he does think the zone read in the spread attack puts more pressure on the defense in the run game. The need to set and maintain the edge for defensive ends to counteract the threat of the quarterback tucking and taking off can slow down a pass rush and make it harder to crash down on the hand off. That threat of the quarterback taking off and running makes it more difficult on the edge for corners, too, who can easily get caught looking and have to account for all 11 men.

“You can pull the ball, you can throw the ball, you got a lot of elements that go into that,” Norman said. “But just reading off keys and letting the guys up front go hunt because like I said they are athletes up there to the point where they’re going to get to the quarterback.