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Eagle Eye: How The Panthers' Run Game Stresses A Defense

Surveying the NFL, there aren’t many offenses in the league that are as fun to study as the Carolina Panthers. This is not a traditional offensive attack, at least from a pro standpoint. The Panthers have a lot of avenues that they can take to burn you with the amount of speed they put on the field these days.

Norv Turner was hired this offseason as the offensive coordinator. Turner is one of the most "old-school" coaches in the NFL. He runs a scheme that’s predicated on vertical stretches. He loves to attack downfield. He takes over a system run last year by Mike Shula, an option attack that utilized the quarterback’s ability as a runner to stress defenses horizontally sideline to sideline. I was anxious to see how that marriage would work with Turner’s scheme and the personnel they have in place, but it’s turned out to be pretty fun to watch.

The Panthers aren’t the most efficient team in football – they’re 21st in the league on third down entering Week 7 – and they’re struggling to throw the football at a high rate compared to the rest of the league. This run game is dynamic and Carolina hits you in a lot of ways.

A lot of fans may look at this team and think it’s all about Newton and the option element. While that’s certainly a big part of it, it couldn’t be less true. This is a team that wants to line up and smack you in the mouth up front. Trai Turner is a mauler at right guard, and Ryan Kalil is still one of the best centers in the league. I really liked right tackle Taylor Moton a couple of years ago coming out of Western Michigan, partly because of his physicality. As much as Carolina likes to dress things up and give a defense eye candy in the backfield, it will put Newton under center with Christian McCaffrey behind him, sometimes with a fullback and sometimes not, and pound the rock.

There are two different ballcarriers on those four plays – McCaffrey and Newton.

McCaffrey is naturally instinctive between the tackles, just like he was at Stanford, and his ability to "pick his way through the briar patch" to find extra yardage still stands out at the NFL level. Don’t let his size fool you either. He will try to stiff-arm guys and he runs through more arm tackles now than he did as a collegian. He’s also an outstanding receiving threat who can impact the game in space. His versatility is a big part of what makes Carolina go.

Then you have Newton, who is such a mismatch in space with his combination of size and speed. He’s tough to bring down and when the Panthers are in short-yardage situations they are not afraid to put him in position to run the football as a primary ballcarrier – not just on option looks but on direct quarterback runs as well. Even under Turner, the Panthers love running "naked bootlegs," where the entire offense sells out for an inside run between the tackles before Newton pulls the ball and sprints the opposite way with no blockers out in front – which is why they call it a "naked" run – for him to run for the first down. The plays above show how the Panthers marry their staple inside runs from under center with those carries by Newton.

That’s one of my takeaways with this Carolina offense. The Panthers are very good at running a multitude of concepts out of the same looks. This may not seem like a lot, but with all of the things they do in the backfield – the actions, the shifts, the option looks, the play fakes – those are all things that add up. Opposing defenses have a lot to study during the week of preparation. When you make things look the same pre-snap, defenders have to go through mental checklists. Take these plays for example. If Carolina lines up in a heavy set with Newton under center, it could be one of those inside runs, it could be a deep play-action pass – which is in Norv Turner’s DNA, or it could be one of these naked runs with the quarterback. That may not seem like a lot, but keep this in mind as we continue peeling back all of the layers of this offense, and you’ll appreciate how lucky the Eagles are to get the Panthers on a long week of preparation leading up to the game.

Let’s get to the next phase of this Carolina run game, the Jet Sweep. A Jet Sweep is when the quarterback takes the snap and hands the ball off to a wide receiver sprinting across the formation. Everyone in the league is running Jets these days, but the Panthers do a ton of it. Whether it’s McCaffrey, rookie receiver DJ Moore, second-year slot man Curtis Samuel, or former Eagles wideout Torrey Smith, the Panthers get these guys the ball out in space for nice chunks of yardage. Sometimes, the play may only gain a yard or 2, but it’s not just about the Jet Sweep itself. Carolina is very good at using complementary plays off of the Jet Sweep to generate big plays in both the run game and the passing game.

Think of what you see there in just that six-play sample. You get the Jet Sweep, an outside run, a reverse, an inside run, a screen, and a play-action pass. The Panthers run the Jet Sweep with Newton both under center and in the shotgun, so as a linebacker when you see that wide receiver coming in motion just before the snap, you have to revert to that mental checklist. What are you about to see? It’s important for the Eagles' defenders at every level in this game to do their job, don’t try to be the hero and make the play outside of your responsibility. Do your job, be in your gap, and rely on your teammates to do the same. That’s what defense is all about, but against an offense like this doubt can always creep into a defender’s mind because of all the stress it puts on you. Now let’s get into the next aspect of this – option football.

The more I watched the Panthers, the more I got a sense of what they wanted to be offensively. If they can stay on schedule, meaning they pick up at least 4 yards on first down and get to a third-and-manageable situation, they can get into those short-yardage plays and run some kind of option football. Most college offenses follow that kind of formula, mainly because option runs with a viable threat at quarterback are typically reliable play calls. When run correctly, an Inside Zone Read, a Triple Option, or even a Run Pass Option (RPO), shouldn’t result in negative yardage.

It may not pick up 20 yards every snap, but you should be good for a positive gain. On plays like you see in the clip above, you can see why. Newton takes the snap and reads one defender. If that defender plays the handoff, Cam keeps it. If the defender plays the quarterback, Cam hands it off. No matter what Newton does, the defender can’t be right. These options plays don’t just stop with a simple Zone Read, however, because the rabbit hole goes deeper. Let’s look at the Triple Option concepts in the Panthers' scheme.

A Triple Option play is a run concept where any of three potential ballcarriers can get the rock on the play. It starts as a basic read of a defensive end. Newton reads that player and decides if he will hand the ball off or if he will keep it. If he keeps the ball, that’s where the second "read" comes in. This next defender is what is called the "pitch key" for Newton, as he reads that defender to figure out if he will again keep the ball or pitch the ball outside to another ballcarrier. These types of plays appear on a weekly basis in college, but not all that often in the NFL. Just like everything else though, the Panthers do a great job of complementing those looks with other plays.

All of those plays above look like they might be Triple Option before the snap, but they’re actually something completely different. The Panthers like to motion late into those looks because it gets those linebackers and safeties panicking quickly just before the snap. Think back to that mental Rolodex.

Is it triple option? If it is, what is my responsibility?

If it’s not triple option, is it an inside run? Is it coming my way or away from me? What gap am I responsible for? If it’s play-action, I have to get into my landmark in zone coverage. If it’s man coverage, I can’t get too nosy on the run fake.

What if it’s a screen? What if it’s a trick play? What if they try to take a deep shot?

The defenders must do all of this in a split second’s notice, and all the layers of the Panthers' scheme make each option a possibility. Last year, the Eagles had a short week to prepare for the Panthers and allowed just 80 yards on the ground, one of four games Carolina gained fewer than 100 rushing yards. This week, thankfully, the Eagles have 10 days to prepare. I’m excited to see how they defend this rushing attack.

Fran Duffy is the producer of the Emmy-nominated Eagles Game Plan show which can be seen every gameday during the season on NBC10 in Philadelphia. He is also the host of two Eagles-related podcasts, Eagle Eye in the Sky, which examines the team from an X's and O's angle each and every week as well as the Journey to the Draft podcast, which covers college football and the NFL Draft all year round. Fran also authors the Eagle Eye in the Sky column, which runs four times a week during the football season to serve as a recap for the previous game and to preview the upcoming matchup. 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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