*App users, click on "View In Browser" for the full experience.
Greg Cosell said it best on the Eagle Eye in the Sky Podcast this week when talking about the Carolina Panthers' rushing attack.
"They're the most diverse and multidimensional running game in the NFL," Cosell said, "and it isn't even close."
This is an offense that wants to grind it out on the ground, and they attack you in a number of different ways. Whereas some teams, like the Eagles, may run two or three different concepts in a game, the Panthers may run seven or eight. That's not the only reason for their success. There are lots of teams that aren't as effective that run systems like that, but it means that there is a lot to prepare for when this team lines up.
The beauty of the Panthers' run game is that there are so many layers to it. The main reason for those layers is the natural ability of quarterback Cam Newton, who is playing probably the best that I have ever seen him in the NFL. Are there still missed throws from time to time that likely drive some of the coaches nuts? Absolutely. But Newton has looked more comfortable, more confident and more in control of that offense than ever before without a big-time threat on the outside). Newton's arm talent and athleticism make this offense go.
I mentioned the different layers to this run game, and it's Newton's presence that lets them peel back each layer week after week. With every basic run concept they use, they also run versions of it with Newton. They'll run versions of it with a read-option element. They have different play-action pass plays that complement it. They mix in so much misdirection that defenders are constantly on their toes. With that in mind, I wanted to take you through their four most popular running plays, and peel back the layers, so you have an idea of what kind of task the Eagles' defense is faced with this Sunday night.
Last year in our Anatomy of a Play segment, we broke down the Power run play and all it entails. With every power run, you can count on two things. First, you'll have a double team to the play side on a defensive tackle working up to the linebacker. Second, you'll have a pulling guard from the back side serving as a lead block for the running back, who has a number of options downhill.
This is your basic power play from the Panthers. Notice the block from the pulling left guard Andrew Norwell, as well as the one from right tackle Mike Remmers, who both get their men on the ground. This is Carolina's favorite "gap scheme" run, and you'll often see it with running back Jonathan Stewart, but he's not the only one toting the ball on the power play.
What you've got here is "Quarterback Power," a designed run for the quarterback out of the shotgun with a pulling guard, a double team and a lead block from the fullback. The Panthers benefit from the quarterback run game because it helps the offense win the "numbers game" in the box. Notice that this is a six-man box from the Houston Texans. If this was a handoff to the running back, you'd have five offensive linemen and a tight end (six blockers) to counter. Since the running back becomes an extra blocker for the quarterback, Carolina now has seven blockers for six defenders in the box. Newton picks up 9 yards on third-and-8 for a first down.
That play is a straight up run for Newton. The other area where you'll see him use his feet to pick up yards on the ground is in the read-option game, an element that is present in every facet of the Panthers' rushing attack. It's done in a way that isn't often seen at the NFL level.
This is a "Power Read" play from the Panthers. The great part of this concept is that you have two run plays built into one play call. You have the double team and pulling guard who are always present in the "Quarterback Power" play, but the running back is a part of the concept running on an outside track to the perimeter. The unblocked defender (No. 59 of Houston) is read by Newton. If he tries to take away the running back, Newton keeps the ball and runs. If the defender tries to take Newton out of the play, the ball goes to the running back who has room to run to the outside. It's up to Newton to make the defender wrong each time.
Newton pulls the ball this time. He may have correctly read that the Texans were utilizing a "gap-exchange" tactic, with linebacker No. 56 scraping over the top to take away the running back. Newton makes the unblocked man miss, then bolts for a 15-yard gain and a first down.
Here's the same exact play against the Jaguars. This time Newton gives the ball to Stewart, who gets the edge and picks up 8 yards for a first down. The read-option element of the Panthers' offense is very effective. I'll explain how it permeates into every level of Carolina's attack.
The other area where the Panthers are very effective is in the play-action pass game, where they complement all of their favorite run plays with a vertical shot play. Newton easily stresses defenses down the field with his arm. Carolina may not have a big-name, go-to target on the outside, but players like Ted Ginn, Jr. and Corey Brown can stretch the field.
Against Houston, you can see the effect the power run-action has on the safety playing Quarters coverage. He steps up in his run responsibility to defend the power play, only to have a deep post thrown over his head.
The Panthers run a lot of zone schemes as well, with a mix of inside and outside zone, and some split zone mixed in as well. Eagles fans who come to this page often should have a good understanding of what those plays entail, and how the read-option factors into it. This is something that the Panthers make great use of each week.
Newton is so lethal as a runner. He beats the unblocked defender to the edge, evades a big hit from the outside and bursts downhill for a 19-yard gain and a first down. All he has to do is read that unblocked defender. If he stays with Newton, the ball goes to the running back. If he crashes down on the back, Newton keeps the ball. Make him wrong every time and pick up free yardage, that's Newton's job here.
In the chat with Cosell in this week's Chalk Talk on the podcast, I brought up the idea of "Gap Exchange." Chris Brown of Smart Football wrote a great piece for Grantland where he did a great job breaking down Gap Exchange tactics against the read-option here. The main idea of the concept? Force the quarterback to keep the ball, because he's the lesser of two evils. You do this by making that edge defender, who is often the target of the read-option, responsible for the back every time. The quarterback will keep the ball, but what he may not see is a linebacker scraping over the top. The quarterback keeps it and runs directly into the waiting arms of a linebacker coming downhill.
This should give you a decent picture of what I mean. With the unblocked defender crashing down, Newton is expected to pull the football. But with the defender (out of Newton's vision) coming from the back side (scraping) over the top, there's a player accountable for Newton in the run scheme. What do the Panthers (and other teams) do to combat this? Add another blocker, of course.
With tight end Greg Olsen coming across the formation, he runs past the read defender and into the second level. His sole purpose is to be ready to block a scraping defender just in case Newton does keep the ball.
The other tight end (No. 84 Ed Dickson) takes care of the other linebacker as well in case he scrapes. Newton runs for a 9-yard gain.
The Panthers will bust out some exotic formations and plays, and a lot of them are based on versions of read-option football.
On this run against Tampa Bay, the Panthers come out in a version of the Inverted Wishbone. Newton is in the shotgun. Stewart is lined up behind him, and Dickson and fullback Mike Tolbert flanked on either side. The Panthers are a threat to go either right or left on this play. There are a lot of different plays they are able to run out of this formation. On this play, you'll see a concept that is very rarely seen at this level, the Triple Option.
The first option comes on your basic read-option play, with Newton reading an unblocked defender off the edge. Cam has the option to give it or keep it, depending on what that defender does.
The second and third options for Newton are available if he decides to keep the ball, as he sprints to the play side along with Stewart out of the backfield. The defender I've pointed out above is the "pitch key" for Newton. If that defender comes for the quarterback, Newton will pitch it. If he runs outside for Stewart, Newton will keep it himself and run. Three potential ball carriers on one play, and all out of the Inverted Wishbone. This isn't the Army-Navy game you're watching, this is one of the NFL's most effective rushing attacks.
Newton runs for 8 yards and a first down on this play, as the Bucs' star linebacker Lavonte David gets caught in no man's land out in space against Cam. How about more misdirection from Carolina?
With a look that initially looks like a typical Split Zone run, the Panthers bring a receiver in motion on an end around and give it to him. Look at how many second-level defenders from New Orleans get lost in the backfield, as Corey Brown rushes for 12 yards and a first down.
Fast forward to last week's game against Seattle, and the same exact look from the Panthers' backfield. This time, Cam doesn't give it to Brown on the end around, and Stewart gets the ball. Seattle, in place to defend the end around, has three defenders unable to participate in pursuit, leaving them out of the play as Stewart runs for 11 yards and a first down. This is part of the problem with defending all of the different options of the Carolina run game, since you have to defend every inch of the field. It's going to be imperative for the Eagles' defenders to win their one-on-one matchups consistently.
Lastly, you have the play-action off inside zone. This time, Newton is under center, and Carolina runs inside zone-action and rolls to his left with crossing routes coming from the opposite side of the field. This is where Newton's athleticism comes into play in the pass game, where he decides to just take off and he scampers for a 13-yard touchdown against the Saints.
The Panthers' other favorite "gap scheme" run is the Counter play, and like everything else, they run it in a bunch of different ways.
On this play against Jacksonville, Stewart gets two lead blockers out in front and goes for one of his longest gains of the year, a 22-yard pickup against the Jaguars. This is as basic as the Counter run gets out of the shotgun. It's well-executed up front by Carolina.
I found an example of a "Counter Read" play from the Panthers against New Orleans, and while it didn't go for a big gain, you still have to be ready for it. It's just another example of how the read-option element is present in every facet of this scheme.
I had to go back a couple of years, but here's Newton on the "Quarterback Counter" run against the New York Giants from back in 2013. Once again, the QB run game is a big part of what they do. You can count on more than a few designed runs for Newton on Sunday night.
I mentioned that I thought Newton was executing as well as a quarterback as I have ever seen him in his career, and this pass off counter run-action last week against Seattle is a great example of it.
Despite the fact that he had been sacked numerous times up to this point, Newton stands in the pocket, stays in rhythm, works from left to right and hits the open receiver for an 11-yard gain and a first down. Newton's always been a great arm talent, capable of reaching any point on the field, but he's come a long way this year in terms of working within the pocket and executing the offense the way it's meant to be run.
The Panthers also run one of the Eagles' favorite run plays. It's the outside Sweep play, with "pin" blocks working outside in and two pullers from the front side working up to the second level.
This play should look familiar to Eagles fans because head coach Chip Kelly calls it more than a handful times per game. It's been one of the most consistent plays over the last month of the season. Carolina, like the Eagles, utilizes different motions and formations to help create running lanes for the ball carrier.
On this play, the Z receiver motions from right to left. With the cornerback following him in man coverage, a defender is removed from the side where the run is going. This helps create more space for Stewart to work with as he runs for 13 yards and a first down.
In case you were wondering, yes, they'll run Quarterback Sweep as well with Cam Newton as the ball carrier. Much like the versions of Power and Counter with the quarterback holding the ball, the offense gains a numbers advantage in this scenario, with six blockers now blocking six defenders. They have a man on a man up front, giving Newton the ability to run for 12 yards and a first down.
The Panthers' use of QB Sweep opens up the potential for one of my absolute favorite misdirection plays. It's a play that Eagles fans everywhere should know, the Shovel Pass.
If you look at the offensive line and Cam Newton, the first few steps of this play are very similar to Quarterback Sweep. It becomes a one-on-one situation with Newton and an unblocked defender to the play side. The defensive end, Cameron Jordan, rushes at Newton, thinking it's a run. This is just what Newton wants, as he shovels the pass to Stewart for a 12-yard gain on third down. How many times did we see this play work to perfection from Donovan McNabb to Brian Westbrook in the 2000s? I've seen Carolina run it more than few times over the last couple of seasons.
In a play straight out of the (current) Eagles playbook, the Panthers run a bootleg off of Sweep run-action. Newton makes perhaps one of the best two or three throws I've seen a quarterback make all season long. He stops dead in his tracks, loses all of his momentum, flicks his wrist and slings a bullet into the chest of Ginn on a crossing route for a 17-yard gain and a first down. These are the types of throws that Newton can make at any given point in a game, and the Eagles' defense will have to be prepared for it.
THE OLSEN FACTOR
It wouldn't be a proper breakdown of the Panthers' offense without mentioning their top receiving threat, tight end Greg Olsen. Thankfully, Greg Cosell did a great job analyzing the way the Panthers like to utilize the versatile chess piece in their offense in this week's Advance Scouting piece. One play I wanted to show you was the game-winning touchdown against Seattle, just because it came off of a busted coverage down near the red zone.
Most of the defense (blue arrows) is playing in Tampa 2 on this play, except one key player who didn't get the call. Safety Earl Thomas (circled) is supposed to be in the rectangle as a half-field player in Tampa 2. Cornerback Richard Sherman is a cloud corner. Linebacker K.J. Wright is dropping down the seam. Safety Kam Chancellor is playing in the deep half on the other side, but Thomas is playing as a seam player in Cover 3. This hole in the busted coverage gives Olsen all the room he and Cam need to make a play.
Cam sees Olsen, delivers the ball, and it's a game-winner for the Panthers in a come-from-behind victory on the road against the defending NFC champs to stay undefeated. Sunday night will be a true test for this Eagles defense.
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.