In preparation for the Super Bowl, Inside the Pylon‘s editors have compiled everything we have on the Carolina Panthers offense.
Spread Run Offense
The Panthers’ spread-run offense has attracted a lot of attention because of the team’s incredible success. No NFL rushing attack in the modern era has involved the quarterback quite like Carolina has the past few seasons. This run game creates a numerical advantage because the defense has to account for the quarterback. In the NFC championship game, another wrinkle was added to the Carolina run game that will have Denver defensive coordinator Wade Phillips scrambling for answers:
In the red zone late in the third quarter, the Panthers line up in a trey open formation ‒ a shotgun formation with 11 personnel and trips to the left (field side) while a tight end, Greg Olsen, is in a two-point stance to the right (boundary side). Fullback Mike Tolbert is lined up to the right of Cam Newton in the backfield. This alignment alerts the defense to watch for the inside zone cutback, which the Panthers used successfully early in the game, or for a speed option to the right:
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Tolbert motions to the left of Newton (some teams call this tear motion) and turns outside to run a bubble screen. The motion catches the attention of the inside linebackers, as they both flow to stop the potential screen.
The play is a run/pass option (RPO). Tolbert’s motion gives the Panthers a four-man bubble screen to the field side combined with a pin and pull QB sweep to the boundary side. Newton has the option to either throw the screen or keep the ball on the QB sweep. Newton’s RPO read is the safety, Deone Bucannon (#20), who is playing in the box like a linebacker to the trips side:
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From the end zone view, it is clear that Newton locks on to his read before the snap. If Bucannon stays in the box, Newton will throw the bubble screen and the Panthers will have three blockers matched up with three defenders. However, Newton sees that Bucannon (#20) is playing the screen and keeps the ball as the Panthers’ offensive line does the rest, easily clearing the way for the QB to dive over a defender at the goal line for the touchdown.
The Broncos should expect to see this concept in the red zone at the Super Bowl. A possible wrinkle that could be added is a double pass concept with Newton throwing the screen to Tolbert and the running back then throwing a pass to the end zone. This shows one possibility among the wide array of spread-run concepts that Phillips and the Broncos are going to have to game plan for.
QB Power Run
In 2013 Carolina head coach Ron Rivera acknowledged, “…we have a library of all of [quarterback] Cam [Newton]’s plays from college… [offensive coordinator Mike Shula] took three or four things that [Newton] did really well and we’ve incorporated that and put that into what we do as an offense.” Two years later, Shula and the Carolina offense haven’t just taken three or four concepts from Newton’s Auburn career: They have adopted that system whole-heartedly by making zone reads, split zone, power-reads, and run/pass options staples of the Panthers’ offense. None of these concepts are new, but the Panthers’ volume of spread concepts and their success using them appears to be a step in the NFL game’s progress towards a more scheme-diverse league than it has been in the past.
The Panthers’ rush concepts utilize their quarterback in a way that nullifies opposing defenses’ usual numerical advantage. Newton’s unique talents make this scheme possible. The league has never seen a quarterback quite like Newton before. Not only is he elusive enough to evade defenders, his 6’5”, 240-pound frame size allows him to take and deliver hits, making him durable enough to lead all quarterback in carries (132) without missing a game this season. Gus Malzahn at Auburn and now Shula have both taken advantage of Newton’s north-south running style – and ability – by using him as a runner in shotgun power:
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The Panthers often have a tailback or H-back next to Newton when running power, similar to a broken i-formation, with the fullback or H-back blocking the contain defender. With the quarterback carrying the ball, the offense can spread the defense out with a lone running back and one tight end, along with three wide receivers:
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The Panthers also run power out of the shotgun by lining up the running back on the backside and having him sweep playside with Newton reading the contain player. In the first play above, the contain defender plays the sweep and Newton keeps the ball, running the power concept. In the second play, the contain player crashes down and Newton hands the ball off to running back Jonathan Stewart (#28), who is able to get outside and break a couple tackles for a nice gain. The power read allows the offense to leave a good defensive end unblocked while forcing the defense to respect the sweep, demonstrating the possibilities that come with negating the defense’s usual numerical advantage.
A running back here doesn’t take the handoff at full speed running downhill as in traditional power, which would be a drawback for most shotgun power runs. Newton’s size and power, however, have made this an effective concept. Also, forcing defenses to place extra men in the box to account for Newton – coupled with the aforementioned negation of the defense’s numerical advantage – opens up options in the secondary, and the play-action pass becomes a dangerous weapon.
Quarterback Cam Newton continued his impressive 2015 campaign in the win, completing 28 of 41 passes for 331 yards with five touchdowns and one interception. His touchdown pass to Jerricho Cotchery with just over one minute remaining sealed the win and a playoff berth – and is the latest example of the impressive development from the young quarterback.
Facing 2nd and 9 at the Saints’ 15-yard line, the Panthers line up with 11 offensive personnel on the field and Newton in the shotgun. The QB is flanked in the backfield by Tolbert (#35) and Greg Olsen (#88). The offense uses a tight inverted slot to the right, with Cotchery (#82) to the inside and Philly Brown (#10) on the outside. Ted Ginn Jr. (#19) is the single receiver split to the left. New Orleans has a 4-2-5 nickel defense in the game, and before the snap they show Cover 1:
The Panthers use play action on this snap, with Newton taking the snap and faking a counter play to his fullback. Tolbert takes two steps toward his quarterback to fake the run, then blocks to the left edge, as does Olsen. Newton has these routes to choose from:
Ginn runs an out-and-up route from the left, while Brown runs a deep out toward the right sideline. Cotchery runs a post route, using a Dino stem along the way to set up his cut to the inside. The Saints stay in Cover 1 on the snap, with Brandon Browner (#39) in press alignment against Ginn:
Newton takes the snap and, after carrying out the run fake, immediately wheels his head to the left to pickup Ginn on the double-move. Despite his struggles on the day, Browner plays this route very well. He decides not to jam the WR at the line, but stays right on his inside hip throughout the pass pattern and maintains a great relationship with Ginn. While this route is covered, a problem is developing in the middle of the field for the Saints. Jairus Byrd (#31), the free safety on this snap, sees Newton open up to the route from Ginn, and at the snap he races toward that side of the field. That frees the middle of the field – and the end zone, for Cotchery’s post route:
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Newton reads the coverage extremely well. He starts his field of vision to the left, but quickly determines that the combination of Browner and Byrd have the double-move from Ginn covered. He then peels his head back toward the middle of the field to pick up Cotchery, who is just making his cut on the Dino stem. Newton delivers a perfect throw for the eventual game-winner.
From this angle we can see how Newton takes the snap, checks the route from Ginn, and once he sees Browner in position – and the free safety screaming across the field toward the outside – he shows a pump fake to keep Byrd occupied, then comes back to Cotchery for the post route:
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Not to be outdone is the route from Cotchery, which is a perfect example of the Dino stem:
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The receiver is working against Chris Owens (#30), and the slot CB has Cotchery in man coverage. When the WR reaches the top of his stem, Owens is right on his outside shoulder and hip, in very good position. When Cotchery uses his Dino stem, and bends to the outside for a few steps, Owens is forced to cut to the outside. This sets up the break back to the inside perfectly. Executing this route is all about feel in this situation, and the receiver needs to know exactly when to make each cut to best separate himself from the defender. Cotchery is flawless on this play.
The win secured a playoff berth for the Panthers. But more importantly, it was another afternoon where Newton showed just how far he can take this offense, especially with execution as perfect as it was on this one play.
Newton Patience and Decision Making
On this play Newton is in the shotgun with 11 personnel on the field with trips right. Kelvin Benjamin is matched up on the outside against cornerback Richard Sherman. Seattle has a nickel package on the field and show Cover 1. Thomas fourteen yards off the line of scrimmage, playing free safety:
Benjamin uses a double-move after releasing vertically down the sideline. Watch Thomas read Newton’s eyes and break on the ball:
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Thomas nearly pulls down the interception, killing the Carolina drive and any momentum for the Panthers heading into halftime.
The Panthers quarterback struggled in the two previous regular seasons meetings, completing 16 of 23 passes for just 125 yards and a touchdown in the 2013 game, and connecting on only 12 of 22 attempts for 171 yards and one interception in the 2014 tilt. In the divisional round game, Newton connected on 23 of 36 attempts, for 246 yards and two touchdowns. However, his two interceptions were decisive, and a primary reason the Seahawks won the contest.
For the Carolina passing game to be successful, the QB must show more patience against the talented Seattle secondary and let plays develop. On this play from their 2013 meeting, Newton sets up in the shotgun with 11 personnel. Olsen is the inside receiver in an inverted slot to Newton’s left, while WR Brandon LaFell (now with the Patriots) is the inside receiver in an inverted slot to the quarterback’s right. Seattle has its nickel defense on the field showing Cover 2 in the secondary:
Both sets of receivers execute an out route/deep route combination: The outside WRs run short out routes, Olsen runs a seam route on the left while LaFell executes a deep post pattern on the right. Using a quick outside cut to set up his break inside, LaFell is looking for inside leverage on the man coverage. In the secondary, the Seahawks roll their coverage late, with strong safety Chancellor (#31) flying forward to cover the outside flat.
From a clean pocket, Newton forces a throw to Olson, who is double-covered. On the other side of the field, LaFell is breaking wide open on his post pattern. If Newton works his progressions, he has a shot at a huge play down the middle. Instead, he delivers a ball to Olsen that is broken up, and exposes his tight end to a heavy hit.
In their 2014 regular season clash, Newton is again in the shotgun with 11 personnel, with a single-receiver split left and trips to the right. Seattle’s nickel defense is in the game showing Cover 3 in the secondary:
The tight end Olsen runs a short curl route over the middle from his inside alignment in the trips. The Panthers then execute a simple out/slant combination to each side of the field: On the left, the middle receiver runs an out, while the outside receiver runs a slant. To the right, the split receiver runs a slant, while the running back executes an out route from the backfield. Both crossing routes are looking to rub, or pick, a defender. At the snap, Newton reads this play to the trips-side of the formation and makes a quick throw, shown in this next still:
However, the QB chooses the wrong target. Both Olsen and the out route are open (circled in white). But Newton tries to squeeze a throw into the slant route, which at the moment is at least double-covered with the free safety crashing down. The pass falls harmlessly incomplete; indeed, Carolina is lucky this throw is not intercepted.
Opportunities exist to make plays against this Seattle secondary. But Newton needs to be patient in the pocket, let the routes develop, and make the correct reads. On each of these plays his offensive line kept a clean pocket, so neither throw was made under duress. Some more patient play and better execution will go a long way toward Carolina earning the victory.
Behind the MVP-worthy season of Cam Newton, the Carolina offense has turned in a solid season, despite losing top receiving threat Kelvin Benjamin for the season during training camp. A number of pass-catchers stepped forward to pick up the slack, most notably Olsen and Ginn. On the verge of the NFC Championship Game another receiver looms as a potential X-Factor for the Panthers against the Arizona Cardinals: Second-year wideout Corey Brown.
Here is a great example of Newton and Brown connecting on a vertical route, with exceptional execution from both players. With 49 seconds remaining in the first half against the Green Bay Packers, the Panthers face 3rd and 7 on the Packers 39-yard line. Newton is in the shotgun with 11 offensive personnel, flanked in the backfield by Olsen (#88) on his left and Tolbert (#35) on his right. Carolina deploys Ginn Jr. (#19) to the right, and a slot formation left, with Brown (#10) outside and Cotchery (#82) inside.
The Packers put five defensive backs on the field, showing Cover 2:
Green Bay rolls coverage to Cover 1 at the snap, and uses a rather interesting blitz design:
Linebackers Jake Ryan (#47) and Clay Matthews Jr. (#52) run a cross stunt on the inside, while safety Morgan Burnett (#42) blitzes off the right edge. Defensive ends Julius Peppers (#56) and Mike Neal (#96) drop into coverage. Note the position of free safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (#21), who begins this play shaded to the slot formation side of the field on the hashmark.
Ginn runs a deep out route, Cotchery runs a deep crossing route and Brown runs a vertical route.
The blitz comes and the protection holds. Tolbert and Olsen play a big role here, with the fullback cutting inside to help on the interior stunt, while the tight end cuts across the formation to pick up the blitzing safety. Newton shows great patience here, trusting the blocking before releasing a beautifully thrown deep ball to Brown. The receiver beats the coverage, hauls in the throw, and crashes into the end zone for the score:
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Looking from another angle, we see how Newton was able to buy time for his receiver. After taking the snap, the QB opens up to the right. This influences the free safety, who moves off the hashmark back toward the other side of the field. Newton then peels back to the left, where Brown is running free:
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The FS tries to recover, but he cannot get there in time to prevent the score.
Now let’s focus on the wide receiver. Brown begins this play out wide, standing at the top of the numbers at the snap. Demetri Goodson (#39) is lined up across from the WR in press alignment. Brown wins his matchup in the first few steps.
Off the snap he uses a quick stutter-step then drives off his left foot toward the inside of the field. The CB tries to get a jam with his left arm, but Brown is too quick and Goodson whiffs:
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The race is, for all intents and purposes, over. Goodson tries to turn and run with Brown, but because of the whiff, the receiver has inside leverage and a few steps head start. The CB almost closes when Brown shows a cut to the outside, but even after the two players come together for a moment, the WR is able to quickly re-establish his advantage.
From a pure route-running standpoint, Brown is deadly effective when running the deep comeback route. On this play from the divisional round against the Seattle Seahawks, he does just that. The Panthers face 2nd and 10 on their own 35-yard line. They line up with Newton in the shotgun and 11 personnel, with Brown split wide to the right across from Richard Sherman (#25). Seattle uses their 4-2-5 nickel, showing single high coverage before the play and free safety Earl Thomas (#29) shaded away from Brown:
Brown runs the deep comeback, while the Seahawks use a Cover 3 matching concept in the secondary. Strong safety Kam Chancellor (#29) is staying in man coverage on Olsen while the rest of the secondary rolls to Cover 3:
Watch as Brown drives vertically, closing the cushion on Sherman and convincing the CB of the vertical route before stopping on a dime and breaking back down the stem:
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Here’s one more look at the play, as Brown pushes up the field and demonstrates impressive change of direction, quickly getting to the outside:
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In addition to working downfield in the vertical game, Brown is a very effective option for Newton in a number of the short and intermediate passing concepts the Panthers run. On this play against the New York Giants, he runs the dig route in the Mills concept. Carolina has Newton under center with 12 personnel, with Olsen lined up on the right side of the offense with fellow tight end Ed Dickson (#84) aligned as an upback to the right side. Brown is in the slot on the left, with Ginn Jr. to the outside. New York has their 4-2-5 nickel defense set up showing Cover 2:
Newton executes a run-fake to Cameron Artis-Payne (#34) before retreating into the pocket. He wants to hit Ginn on the deep post route, but the coverage from safety Craig Dahl (#43) is perfect. So Newton brings his eyes down to his second option, where Brown is operating against the underneath zone defenders:
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Brown splits the linebackers, and pulls in a throw from Newton at midfield that gives the Panthers a fresh set of downs.
Another passing concept that Carolina uses is the levels design, giving Newton three receivers on one side of the field to choose from. Here, the Panthers employ a drive concept on the backside, setting up a high-low read for the quarterback. This gives Newton a full field read with options to both sides. Against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 16 the offense faces 1st and 10 with Newton is in the shotgun and 12 personnel. They are using a TE trips formation to the right and Dickson split to the left. Atlanta’s base 4-3 defense is in the game, showing two-high safety coverage before the play:
The Panthers run the levels concept to the left: Dickson running a deep out and Artis-Payne releasing into the flat from the backfield. Olsen’s crossing pattern carries him across the formation, and he ends up also serving as the intermediate option in the three-man passing concept on this side of the field. The drive concept also features Brown running a deep dig pattern with Ginn executing the shallower in-route:
The Falcons run Cover 2 on this play, and when Newton checks the levels concept side of the field, the coverage is in position to take away all three options. The press cornerback stays with Dickson on the deep out route, while two linebackers cover the flat and crossing routes from Artis-Payne and Olsen, respectively. Newton then glances to the backside, and sees his receiver wide open in the middle of the field:
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Newton hits Brown in stride for a 15-yard gain and an easy first down.
Finally, here is a look at how Brown can be a factor when the Panthers employ RPO designs, building off the strength in their ground game to freeze a defense. Against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Panthers line up with 11 personnel and Newton in the shotgun. Facing 1st and 10 near midfield, they use a tight end trips right, with Brown as the outside receiver, and with a single receiver left. Tampa Bay’s 4-2-5 nickel defense shows Cover 2:
Carolina uses a run-pass option design, with Newton taking the snap, meeting Artis-Payne at the mesh point and scanning the defense. On the trips formation side, Olsen runs a curl route while Cotchery simulates a bubble screen look from his middle alignment in the trips. Brown runs a slant route:
Seeing this, Newton pulls the football out of his running back’s belly and looks to throw. Both Olsen and Brown are open, and he chooses the wideout, hitting him in stride:
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Brown secures the pass and accelerates into Bucs territory, giving his team another first down.
While Newton grabs the bulk of the headlines, Brown has demonstrated the ability to be a vital weapon in this Panthers’ offense. Given the talented defense that the Panthers face this weekend, it might be the perfect opportunity for this young wideout to play a huge role – and help deliver his team to the Super Bowl.
Here is how Carolina used personnel and formation to isolate Olsen on a defensive back. Facing 3rd and 10 on the Jacksonville 16-yard line, Newton is in the shotgun with 11 offensive personnel on the field, in a 3X1 alignment. Three wide receivers bunch on the left. Olsen lines up as the only receiver to the right, using a split from the right tackle:
The Jaguars have their 4-2-5 nickel defense in the game, showing Cover 1 in the secondary. They walk linebacker Telvin Smith (#50) over Olsen prior to the snap, but with fellow LB Paul Posluszny blitzing on this play, Smith is actually responsible for the running back.
Leaving safety Sergio Brown in man coverage on the TE:
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Olsen runs an out route, and is able to shield the defender away from the football on the catch, picking up a first down.
The Jaguars have their base 4-3 defense in the game using Cover 1. At the snap Olson releases to the outside, drawing cornerback Davon House (#31) in man coverage. Dickson runs a wheel route to the outside:
With man coverage, the wheel route moves the play-side linebacker, and after selling House on a deeper route to the outside the TE breaks back to his QB on a curl route, occupying the area vacated by LB reacting to the wheel route:
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Newton hits his tight end for a nice completion ‒ which is called back because an offensive lineman drifted downfield prior to the pass. But the concept is the same: Get a big tight end in a non-traditional alignment and let him work against a defensive back. Given what the tape from Week 1 showed, Olsen will likely put up some better numbers this weekend against the Texans.
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Inside The Pylon covers the NFL and college football, reviewing the film, breaking downmatchups, and looking at the issues, on and off the field.
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