Don’t look now, but the Carolina Panthers are 4-1 and in first place in the NFC South. Cam Newton got off to a slow start but over the past few weeks, Newton and the Panthers’ offense have started to click. One aspect to their recent success is how they have used rookie running back Christian McCaffrey in the pre-snap phase of the game. Likely something they envisioned when they drafted the Stanford RB in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft, the offensive coaches are putting him on the move before the play, to create confusion on the defensive side of the football.
Facing a big 3rd and 4 late in the third quarter against Detroit in Week 5, Newton (#1) and the Panthers line up for the next snap. They use 11 offensive personnel, isolating tight end Ed Dickson (#84) on the right and using a bunch set to the left. McCaffrey is in the backfield next to his quarterback. The Lions show a 4-2-5 nickel defense with a Cover 1 alignment in the secondary:
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Looking at the entire play from the end zone camera shows both the confusion on the defensive side of the football, as well as the open space over the middle for Funchess:
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Of course, we all know how the Panthers were able to cross up New England’s secondary in Week 4. But it is worth taking a look at one of the plays to see how they effectively used McCaffrey before the snap.
Facing a 1st and 10 just outside the red zone, the Panthers line up for the play with an interesting offensive personnel package and pre-snap alignment. They have 21 offfensive personnel in the game, with McCaffrey and Fozzy Whittaker (#43) in the game. They line up with McCaffrey split wide to the left, and Whittaker in the backfield. New England’s 4-2-5 nickel defense is on the field, and they are confused already:
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Things get worse when McCaffrey comes in orbit motion:
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As the play begins, Newton looks to throw a swing screen to McCaffrey. But that is window dressing for the actual play they are running, a simple running back screen to Whittaker to the left:
Watch as both Devin McCourty (#32) and Stephon Gilmore (#24) – the players who were pointing at each other presnap – trail McCaffrey across the formation, opening up the entire left sideline for the screen pass:
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The end zone camera provides another angle. Honestly, you have to feel for left guard Andrew Norwell (#68) and center Tyler Larsen (#69). This is their chance to get some exercise and hit a smaller player in the secondary, but with all the presnap confusion, there is no one to hit!
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McCaffrey is a very talented player, but the Panthers are exploiting that talent in the early going. But putting him in motion before the ball is snapped, they are confusing defenses, and giving their offense some easy plays in the passing game.