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Eagle Eye: Carolina's Offense Presents Plenty Of Headaches, Especially On A Short Week

Posted Oct 11, 2017

As I discussed with Greg Cosell on the Eagle Eye in the Sky podcast earlier this week, preparing for the Carolina Panthers' offense on a short week is no easy task. There are a lot of reasons why but let’s start with the obvious one.

The Freak Show

Cam Newton is one of the freakiest athletes in professional sports. With his combination of size and athleticism to go along with rare arm talent, he’s a challenge for any defense in any week of preparation because he’s capable of making throws like this at any moment.

These are just two throws from last week’s game against the Detroit Lions. Newton drops back and has an offensive lineman propelled into his lap almost immediately. Most quarterbacks would have to break the pocket and run or be forced to step up and get to their next progression. Not Cam. Without even having to step into this throw, Newton unleashes a dart 25 yards downfield from the opposite hash, right on the mark to wide receiver Devin Funchess along the sideline.

On the next throw, from the third quarter, Newton drops an absolute dime on a vertical route downfield for a 31-yard touchdown to wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin. This throw was defended by cornerback Darius Slay, but no one would have been able to make a play on this ball because of how perfectly it was thrown on a line to the back corner of the end zone.

Newton has trust in his towering targets on the outside, and those two receivers, along with tight end Ed Dickson, will be a challenge for the Eagles' secondary. Newton's ability to make any throw down the field is stressful for a defense, and Carolina can attack vertically at any point in the game. The Panthers’ receivers aren’t as explosive as what the Eagles saw a week ago against Arizona, but size is a factor down the field. The Eagles will have to match Carolina’s physicality in the passing game.

Now let’s focus on the run game. What happens in the backfield is really what makes this offense go and Newton is a huge part of it.

Carolina offensive coordinator Mike Shula is one of the best in the league at making a defense believe it sees a play coming, only to hit it with something completely different. With several personnel packages and a slew of potential ballcarriers at the running back, wide receiver, and quarterback positions, Shula utilizes the element of misdirection and disguise to constantly keep defenders guessing. Here’s an example.

Keep in mind that all of these videos are going to have a handful of plays in each. This was by design to show exactly how well the Panthers try to disguise their intentions to keep defenders at every level of the field on their toes.

On the first play, the Panthers line up with Newton under center, running back Jonathan Stewart in the backfield behind him, and rookie Christian McCaffrey offset almost as a fullback. This is a Counter run play, and it’s pretty basic as far as two-back runs go. All of Carolina’s run game isn’t bells and whistles because they will come right at you with the inside run game as well, using Stewart as their primary ballcarrier.

On the second play, Newton lines up under center again. This time there are two backs in the backfield, with Dickson as the lead fullback and Stewart in the I-formation. This is another Counter run from the Panthers ... until it’s not. Newton instead keeps the ball, sprinting on the Naked run to his right to nearly pick up a first down on second-and-short. Newton has scored long touchdowns throughout his career on plays just like this, and his ability to use his legs is a huge part of the Carolina offense.

On the third and final play, Carolina shows that same Naked run look from Newton, except Dickson leaks out on a pass route off the play-action. Detroit converges to try to stop the (second) run play, and Dickson gets behind the defense for a 57-yard reception and a near touchdown.

The Jet Sweep

Whether Newton is under center or in the gun, the next aspect of the Panthers' offense the Eagles have to account for is the Jet Sweep. To be clear, I haven’t actually seen the Panthers give it to the player coming across the formation on the Jet, but regardless of that fact, you MUST respect it. When you have a player with legit speed (whether it’s McCaffrey, fellow rookie Curtis Samuel, or anyone else) coming across the formation with a head of steam, he’s got the ability to get to the corner and race down the sideline. It stresses the defense horizontally. The Eagles must be ready to defend this from a run fit standpoint. Carolina knows this, and that’s why Jet Sweep-action is such a big part of its game plan.

Keep in mind that on a Jet Sweep (and any corresponding Jet Sweep-action), you don’t need to block the edge defender lined up in the direction of the run because he will be occupied by the Jet. The same can be said for the overhang defender on that side (whether it’s a linebacker or defensive back). That removes (at least) two defenders from the equation when Carolina looks to get a hat on a hat in whatever run scheme it is executing up front.

On the first play off of Jet Sweep-action, the Panthers are actually running a simple inside zone run to the right, away from the action. But watch the effect that the Jet Sweep has on the New England defense. The defensive end, No. 91, the safety, No. 23, and the traveling defensive back, No. 24, are all consumed by McCaffrey, the Jet player. McCaffrey essentially blocks three defenders on the play. That leaves a nice and clean five-on-five matchup for the Carolina offensive line, and they pick up 6 yards on first down.

On the second play against New Orleans, the Panthers use Jet Sweep-action again this time with McCaffrey in the backfield. The Jet comes across the formation, holding the linebacker to that side in place. Newton fakes a handoff to McCaffrey, sucking in the rest of the second-level defenders to defend the run. This helps set up a perfect screen play, with two Carolina offensive linemen releasing into space to block New Orleans’ two defenders to that side. McCaffrey takes the pass for a 7-yard gain and a near first down.

On the third play against Buffalo, the entire Carolina offensive line works in the same direction, to the offense’s left, in Jet Seep-action. The entire Bills defense flows to that side. McCaffrey, lined up behind Newton in the backfield, sprints the opposite way. When Newton hits the top of his drop, the Buffalo defense is scrambling. No one is in position to defend Greg Olsen over the middle of the field, and Newton hits the tight end for a quick 10-yard reception and a first down.

On all three occasions, the Panthers make plays both on the ground and through the air off of that action to move the chains. The Eagles have to be ready for the Jet Sweep and all of its complementary plays this Thursday night.

Option Football

Defending the Jet Sweep is all about being assignment-sound across the board on defense, and the same can be said for defending the option run game.

When I worked at Temple, we played both Army and Navy every year, so I’ve seen my share of the option run game and what it can do to a defense. I’ve always said that those teams can win or lose any game every year, regardless of opponent, whether they’re on the road against nationally ranked Notre Dame or at home taking on a mid-level FCS opponent like Stony Brook. Those option teams were impossible to predict going into any given week. Why? Because defending the option isn’t determined by talent or skill level, it’s about discipline and communication and all 11 defenders trusting in each other to do their job. If a defense wasn’t prepared for the game, it could give up 40 points in the blink of an eye.

Option football can be lethal when you have a mobile quarterback, particularly one as big and strong as Newton. Pair that with the speed the Panthers added this offseason in McCaffrey and Samuel, and you have a recipe that can lead to some stressful weeks for defensive coordinators. Whether it’s the simple Read Option, Speed Option, or Triple Option, it doesn’t matter. The Eagles have to be sound in fitting the run, staying in their gaps, and winning one-on-one as a tackler.

In the first (of three) plays, the Panthers are in a two-back set with Stewart to Newton’s left and McCaffrey lined up directly behind Newton. This is a Triple Option run, meaning that the quarterback has three potential options on this play. He can either give it to the dive play inside (run by Stewart), keep the ball himself and run the alley, or pitch it to McCaffrey to the outside. Newton gets to his first key, Patrick Chung (No. 23), and sees how far outside he’s playing this run. Newton hands the ball off to Stewart, and the Panthers pick up 9 yards on first down.

On play two, it's the same run concept except out of a Full House backfield. Dickson is lined up to Newton’s right, with McCaffrey to the left, and Stewart behind the quarterback this time. Here, Newton reads the linebacker off the edge (No. 53). When Newton sees how hard the linebacker is crashing down, he pitches the ball to the outside to Stewart, who runs to the outside for 17 yards and a first down. That’s on the opening drive of the game.

On play three, the Panthers have the ball inside the 5-yard line against the Saints. There are two backs in the backfield. Newton reads the crashing defensive end (No. 57) and attacks his pitch key (No. 53) in the flat. When he sees how passive No. 53 is in attacking downhill, Newton keeps this himself and dives into the end zone for a touchdown. Three plays. Three different options out of the backfield get the ball to pick up positive yardage.

Now let’s put it all together, with the Jet Sweep-action paired with the threat of speed option football combined with a nifty pass play that has been effective in the NFL for a long, long time.

Newton is in the shotgun here with Stewart to his left. McCaffrey is lined up slightly detached from the formation on the right side, almost as a wing where he’ll line up this way from time to time. There is Jet Sweep-action from left to right. The right defensive end crashes down in pursuit of the Jet, and runs right into a block from a pulling guard. Newton runs to his left with Stewart flanking him, very much in a Speed Option look like what we saw on Stewart’s long run against New Orleans above.

Now, Newton just has to read the middle linebacker scraping over the top. Newton is able to execute a perfect shovel pass to McCaffrey, who snuck underneath the defense, once the linebacker attacks downhill and is carried far enough away from the hashes. McCaffrey goes untouched into the end zone for his first career touchdown in the second quarter last week. This is the same play the Eagles gave up to Travis Kelce late in their Week 2 game against Kansas City. The threat of Newton and Stewart in the option run game to go along with the Jet-action going away from the play prevent the defense from playing fast. It’s a very hard play to defend, and the Panthers executed it perfectly on this play to put points on the board.

Power Read

One other play consistently showed up while watching the Panthers - the Power Read play. Sometimes it’s the running back and other times it’s the quarterback, but the read element involved puts defenders in a bind.

The QB Power Read is a form of the option where the running back and quarterback meet at the mesh point. The quarterback can either hand the ball off to the back, who will run wide to the outside, or he’ll pull the ball and keep it himself, running behind a pulling guard in a straight quarterback power run concept. Let’s see how the Panthers use this read play to their advantage.

On the first play, Newton reads the playside defensive end. When he commits to the outside run from McCaffrey, Newton keeps this and follows his blocks into the end zone for a 7-yard touchdown. It’s pretty cut and dried here, as the Panthers have five blockers to block five defenders (the beauty of the quarterback run game), and they reach the end zone.

On the second play, Newton fakes this handoff to Stewart in the backfield and follows the pulling guard to his right. This looks exactly the same as the touchdown against New England, right? Wrong! Newton pitches this ball to Samuel on the reverse, and the rookie takes off for a 31-yard gain. Everything in the backfield said QB Power Read, but instead of a powerful run between the tackles, it was an explosive perimeter run outside the numbers.

On the third play, we see Power Read from Newton in the backfield. Now, instead of Newton, it’s the back, Stewart, who could hit this up inside. Newton reads the backside defensive end. If he crashes hard on Stewart, Newton can keep this ball and run out the back door. Newton gives this ball and it looks like Stewart will follow his pulling guard into the hole, right? Wrong again! Stewart takes the handoff and pitches it to Damiere Byrd on the reverse, and the rookie takes it 12 yards for a first down.

On the fourth play, McCaffrey lines up next to Newton in the gun, and it looks like another straight Power Read play for the running back. Newton appears to be reading the backside defensive end, and watch that linebacker fly to the pulling guard. It’s not Power Read though because Newton pulls this ball on a play-action fake and throws a strike to Funchess on a slant route for a 16-yard touchdown.

All four of those plays above have the Power Read element, but with completely different outcomes as far as who gets the ball and how they get it. This is just one of many run concepts that the Panthers utilize in their deep, deep playbook.

The Christian McCaffrey Effect

The last part of the Carolina offense that I’ll hit on in this piece is the impact of its bright, shiny toy courtesy of this year’s NFL Draft, running back Christian McCaffrey, who is much more than just a runner in this offense. The Panthers move him all around the formation. Whether he’s in the backfield, on the wing, in the slot, or out wide, he’s been making plays all season long. He attracts attention from opposing defenses to open things up for the rest of Carolina’s playmakers.

Let’s start first in the screen game, where we all knew McCaffrey would make a huge impact.

Remember Sheldon Brown's hit on Reggie Bush in the 2006 playoffs? This first play against San Francisco is the Swing Screen. The same play. McCaffrey releases immediately into the flat with the right tackle releasing in that direction. He’s already got two lead blockers way out in front with two receivers to that side, and McCaffrey slips this pass 16 yards on third-and-15 for a first down.

On the second play, the Panthers run that same Swing Screen-action to the two-receiver side. McCaffrey releases into the flat, as does half the offensive line, and the defense is now essentially cut in two. Newton looks right then immediately hits Samuel on the Jailbreak Screen on the opposite side. The Panthers have numbers, and it’s a 7-yard gain.

On the third play, it’s a slightly different look, but we see McCaffrey come in Orbit motion from the left to the right side. Newton again fakes the Swing Screen, except this time he comes back to Fozzy Whittaker who has a parade of blockers out in front. This turns into a 28-yard touchdown. McCaffrey’s presence in the flat in the screen game helps open up two big plays for two of the other playmakers in this offense.

It’s not just the screen game where McCaffrey can make an impact, however, because the Panthers also have him run a number of routes out of the backfield. The Wheel route is one where he can be especially effective, but there are other routes off of the Wheel that will challenge linebackers and safeties.

On the first play, McCaffrey goes up and over a defender to secure a 14-yard catch on a Wheel route against the Buffalo Bills. His route running and his ball skills are pretty unique for a player listed as a running back, which is why many people, even wide receivers coaches I spoke with in the offseason from around the league, thought he could have been a receiver if he wanted to be in the NFL.

On the second play, it's the always-lethal Texas, or Angle, route from last week against Detroit. McCaffrey comes out of the backfield like he’s running a Wheel but throttles down and breaks inside, shaking the defender at the top of the route to pick up 9 yards on first down.

On the third play, you get the complement to the Texas route, where McCaffrey starts inside like he’s running the Texas route but sticks his foot in the ground and breaks back toward the sideline. He’s wide open on the goal line for an easy touchdown, but Newton sails this over his head. This pass wasn’t complete, but McCaffrey will get a big play on it sooner or later.

Those were all routes from the backfield, but how about out from the slot or out wide? McCaffrey ran plenty of routes like this when he was at Stanford. Do the Panthers use him this way? You better believe it.

Here are two shots of McCaffrey in the bunch to the field. On the first play, he flares immediately to the flat against New England. He’s running through traffic and no one is able to pick him up, as he snatches a pass from Newton and runs 11 yards for a first down.

It's a similar type of route on the second play from McCaffrey, who is lined up as a fullback in the backfield. He sprints to the flat, and the defense expands outside. This won’t go to McCaffrey, however, as the soft spot opens up right up the gut for a middle screen to Stewart. The play is set up perfectly and the veteran running back sprints to the end zone for a score.

When McCaffrey lines up in the slot, it’s not just about the quick game. He’ll hurt you deep as well.

McCaffrey lines up in the slot against New Orleans in the third quarter, and he’s matched up against safety Kenny Vaccaro. The Panthers like this matchup and they run a Post-Wheel concept with McCaffrey running a deep out-and-up route down the left sideline. He scoots by Vaccaro and takes this for a 37-yard pickup down the field. The Panthers love to get McCaffrey down the field vertically in the passing game, and it’s not just with passing concepts. They’ll line him up wide and have him run isolation routes as well, expecting him to win one-on-one.

Here’s McCaffrey lined up out wide last week against Detroit. He’s matched up against D.J. Hayden, a former first-round pick at cornerback. The defense has to feel pretty good about this, but Newton is not afraid to test this matchup. McCaffrey runs a stop-and-go route, and Newton puts this ball on the back shoulder. The pass falls incomplete out of bounds, but the fact that the quarterback was willing to target McCaffrey shows how much they expect out of the rookie. The Eagles have to respect his abilities in the passing game.

That respect is shown once again by Bill Belichick’s defense. McCaffrey starts in the backfield and motions out wide. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore follows McCaffrey out wide and the defense shifts. Safety Devin McCourty, lined up over the tight end, now slides over the slot receiver. Linebacker Elandon Roberts is now over the tight end, Dickson. The receiver and tight end run a bit of a Switch release here, with the receiver running a shallow cross and Dickson working an out-and-up. There’s a lack of communication in the New England secondary, and Dickson is open down the numbers to move the chains in an area previously occupied by Gilmore. The pre-snap motion removed him from his responsibility, miscommunication ensued, and the Panthers got the first down.

It should be noted that Carolina's offensive numbers are not exactly eye-popping. The Panthers rank 27th in the NFL in yards per carry. They’re turning the ball over (and not getting enough turnovers on defense to make up for it). They’ve allowed 15 sacks, seven of them on third down. The offense can be stopped, but if the defense isn’t disciplined in the run or pass game, they will torch you as they proved in New England and in Detroit the last two weeks.

Newton is a remarkable talent. The run schemes are diverse and complicated. However, if the Eagles are able to fit the run correctly and win one-on-one matchups both in the trenches and on the perimeter, the defense can be successful. Preparing to do all of this on a short week is no small task, especially on the road. That’s the test facing the Eagles this week.

Fran Duffy is the producer of “Eagles Game Plan” which can be seen on Saturdays during the season. Be sure to also check out the "Eagle Eye In The Sky" podcast on the Philadelphia Eagles podcast channel on iTunes. Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the head video coordinator for the Temple University Football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team’s games, practices and opponents.

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