Super Bowl 50 Retrospective: Three Plays Mike Shula Should Have Called

The Carolina Panthers number one ranked offense rolled into Super Bowl 50, but they came to a grinding halt against the Denver Broncos defense. The dust has settled and the MVP has been crowned, but what could have been done differently? Ted Nguyen looks at three plays Mike Shula should have called.

Although the Carolina Panthers offense adds refreshing diversity to the NFL, their scheme is nothing new at the collegiate level. Two years ago, head coach Ron Rivera made a commitment to the run-first spread offense that his quarterback, Cam Newton, had  great success with at Auburn. Ever since, the Carolina offense has “borrowed” additional college concepts to create a system with impressive volume. That system was good enough to help get the Panthers into Super Bowl 50, but not good enough to win see them hoist the Lombardi Trophy. Carolina was held to just 10 points after leading the league in scoring during the regular season.

As great as offensive coordinator Mike Shula’s  playbook was in 2015, he should have learned more about how college spread teams game plan against 3-4 defenses. The Panthers were outmatched physically and schematically by the Broncos. We know about Super Bowl MVP Von Miller’s dominating performance, but the defensive linemen wreaked havoc on the Panther running game with its 3-4 alignment and two-gapping technique. College teams like the  Oregon Ducks use screens to counter blitzes and adjust their run concepts to take advantage of the 3-4. Here are three offensive concepts that Carolina could have employed to change the outcome of Super Bowl 50.

Slip Screen

What Carolina Did:

[jwplayer file=”http://cdn.insidethepylon.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Cam-Sack.mp4″ image=”http://cdn.insidethepylon.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Cam-Sack-Still.png”]

Wade Phillips’ defensive game plan did not include many surprises. He was going to stay in his base 3-4, blitz, and dare the Panthers’ receivers to beat Denver’s stellar secondary. The Panthers attempted to punish the Broncos for loading the box with drop-back passing, but the Broncos’ ferocious pass rush stifled any chance the Panthers had of getting the passing game going.

The Broncos played a lot of Cover 1 along with green dog blitzes. Offensive coordinators slow down a rush or blitz by varying snap counts, keeping extra players in to block, or running screens. Surprisingly, Shula did not attempt a single true screen to slow down the rush against Denver. In this example, the running back faked a block and the linebacker blitzed, leaving the RB wide open. 

What Carolina should have Done:

[jwplayer file=”http://cdn.insidethepylon.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Inside-Screen.mp4″ image=”http://cdn.insidethepylon.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Inside-Screen.png”]

Attempting an inside screen on third down may have been advantageous for the Panthers. With the pass rush charging upfield as fast as it was, the Panthers should have tried a slip screen to the running back. Success on a few of these might have tempered the aggression of the Broncos’ defensive linemen. Successful screens may also have discouraged Phillips from calling as many blitzes as he did, giving Newton more time in the pocket.

Zone Read the 4 Technique

What Carolina Did:

[jwplayer file=”http://cdn.insidethepylon.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Lead-Zone.mp4″ image=”http://cdn.insidethepylon.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Lead-Zone-Still.png”]

The Panthers’ bread-and-butter play is the zone read, but it’s a challenging play to run against a 3-4 because that formation typically features three interior defensive linemen that specialize in two-gapping, which essentially takes away the numbers advantage that is essential for  zone read spread runs to work. It also muddies the reads that the running back has to make in a zone scheme, making him indecisive.

The Panthers attempted to run traditional zone read with a lead at the Broncos 3-4 front, but they were shut down for minimal gains in large part because the Broncos’ Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson dominated their match-ups. In a traditional zone read, only the last man on the line of scrimmage is the read man, which typically is an end or outside linebacker (Miller, DeMarcus Ware).

What Carolina should have Done:

[jwplayer file=”http://cdn.insidethepylon.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Zone-Read-the-4.mp4″ image=”http://cdn.insidethepylon.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Zone-Read-the-4-Still.png”]

An advantage of running option football is that the offense doesn’t have to block the best defenders, but can read them instead. Rather than having the offensive tackles attempt to block Wolfe or Jackson, Newton could have read the defensive linemen, and directed the play away. Oregon runs a zone read reading the 4 technique lineman, as well as reading the outside linebacker for a pitch option. If the Panthers ran this scheme against the Broncos, they would have read Wolfe or Jackson and left Miller or Ware unblocked as the pitch read. In the clip, the Oregon quarterback keeps the ball because the end crashes down on the running back, and he then pitches the ball when the outside linebacker crashes. This play would have given Denver problems given all the man coverage the Broncos played in the secondary.

Buck Sweep Midline Read

What Carolina Did:

Another base concept the Panthers had a lot of success with in the regular season was the buck sweep. In the Super Bowl, the Panthers struggled to get any sort of outside running game going, which allowed the Denver defense to be more aggressive crashing down on inside runs.

What Carolina should have Done:

[jwplayer file=”http://cdn.insidethepylon.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Buck-Sweep-Midline-Read.mp4″ image=”http://cdn.insidethepylon.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Buck-Sweep-Still.png”]

Here, the Oregon quarterback reads the nose guard, but the concept could also be adjusted so the quarterback could read the 4 tech as well. This concept works so well because the pulling linemen give the offense multiple blockers at the point of attack. If the read man chases the running back, the quarterback keeps the ball and runs into the gap that the read man vacates and quickly turns upfield. This play would have been perfect because the Panthers already employ the buck sweep, so running this concept with a midline read would have taken onlya slight adjustment. On top of that, finding multiple ways to get Cam Newton, probably the most powerful running quarterback in the game, running north-south would be a good idea.

It might be easy to say in hindsight that the Panthers should have used these concepts, but the Broncos didn’t surprise anyone with how they lined up against Carolina. Shula has largely done an amazing job of tailoring his scheme to his personnel by borrowing plays from college offenses, but if he looked a little closer at how those same college teams play 3-4 defenses, the Panthers’ offense might have met more success in Super Bowl 50.

Follow Ted on Twitter @RaidersAnalysis

Ted Nguyen is a former player and coach who has written about the Raiders run/pass packages, the Patriots use of formations to get favorable matchups, and the spread passing game.

All video and images courtesy NFL Game Pass.

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