by Cian Fahey
The last remaining undefeated team.
Few expected it to be the Carolina Panthers -- a playoff team in 2014, but a playoff team on the back of a 7-8-1 regular season. From Week 7 to Week 13 in 2014, the Panthers didn't win a single game before feasting on the Cleveland Browns, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Atlanta Falcons to finish the season with four consecutive victories. Those soft wins preceded a wild card victory over the Arizona Cardinals -- who were led by Ryan Lindley. Despite Lindley's awful performance, the Panthers' win was hardly convincing. It appeared inevitable that the Panthers would go into Seattle and lose to the Seahawks, and they did. In many ways, it was easy to discount the Panthers' quality as a playoff team.
When their offseason (and a preseason injury to Kelvin Benjamin) left them with Ted Ginn as their primary wide receiver and a starting safety pairing of Kurt Coleman and Roman Harper, it became even easier to discount the Panthers as a potential contender in 2015. Part of the Panthers' success has undoubtedly been a soft schedule, but the problem with the NFL this season is that many teams have had soft schedules. The league is littered with bad football teams, so it doesn't take a great one to stand out. The Panthers aren't a great football team, but their strengths this season have reached such a high that their weaknesses are having less of an impact. They are similarly built to Jim Harbaugh's San Francisco 49ers when they were at their peak. Of course, the one significant difference is that Cam Newton is a better quarterback now than Colin Kaepernick ever was.
Newton and the defense's front seven are clearly the foundation of this football team. That's not a revelation though. If you've followed this season closely in any way you will know about Newton's great play and standout players such as Kawann Short, Thomas Davis, and Luke Kuechly. Add in Josh Norman and you have the whole set of players receiving widespread recognition for their play.
Running back Jonathan Stewart is sliding under the radar more than many of his teammates, but Stewart has been an integral piece of the Panthers' success this season. The Panthers can't keep pace with their opponents as a passing team because of their depleted receiving options and their limited offensive line. The Panthers have been forced to keep extra blockers in at an irregular rate to mask their inefficiencies at both tackle spots. As a result, the Panthers are averaging just 209.8 passing yards per game this season, good enough for 29th in the NFL. To counter their limitations throwing the ball, the Panthers have relied on the fourth most productive running game, as they are fourth in the league with 138.9 rushing yards per game. The offense ranks in the top 10 of DVOA, and fifth in rushing.
Stewart is just one part of the Panthers' running game, and his raw statistics don't stand out. He has carried the ball 211 times this season for just 832 yards, a 3.9 average per attempt, with four touchdowns. Newton has 98 attempts for 427 yards and seven touchdowns, while Mike Tolbert pitches in with 37 for 125 and one working primarily as a short-yardage back. Newton helps his running back more than he hurts, but his presence takes away from the position's production for obvious reasons. Theoretically, with Newton, Stewart's average per carry should be much higher than it is. Newton forces defenses to spread wider horizontally as they account for him keeping the ball on most handoffs. However, Stewart hasn't consistently been put in positions to succeed this season.
The 28-year-old back is being tasked with creating most of the yards he gets, often by breaking tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage. According to Sports Info Solutions game charting, Stewart has broken 40 tackles on running plays this season, second only to Doug Martin's 51. Those numbers, however, don't consider the yardage that Stewart has created through contact without breaking tackles. The running back rarely is stopped in his tracks, and regularly drags defenders with him as he finishes plays moving forward.
Against Washington two weeks ago, Stewart had his most impressive game of the season. It wasn't his most productive game of the year; he gained 102 yards and didn't score a rushing touchdown. It was the game when he created more yards than at any other point this season, though. Stewart is a heavy, powerful back, but he's not tall. His low center of gravity and bulky lower body allows him to be shifty in tight areas. This was highlighted on this play, when the defense came out with eight defenders in the box because they were tight to their own end zone. The Panthers created confusion in the defensive front by using an unbalanced line. Starting left tackle Michael Oher shifted across to the other side of the formation and lined up alongside the team's right tackle. With Mike Tolbert pressed close behind the right side of the line, the Panthers weren't masking their intentions.
The Panthers were running power by pulling their left guard to the spot where Tolbert and Oher were lined up. Oher was expected to block down his assignment so the pulling left guard could act as a lead blocker for Stewart. Before Stewart even got the ball, Oher had failed. His defender blew past his inside shoulder and met the pulling left guard behind the line of scrimmage. This was where the play was designed to go, so Stewart had no choice but to follow that design even though the play was broken before he even touched the ball.
Despite the blown assignment from Oher, the left guard didn't hesitate in attacking the defender in front of him. He delivered a heavy hit that stopped the defender in his tracks as Oher hesitated. The left tackle didn't appear certain of what he should do at that point, but ultimately stuck to his assignment and closed off the edge by double-teaming the defender who had penetrated past him. Because the Panthers had to use two blockers on one defender they were expecting Oher to handle on his own, Washington had a free linebacker on the second level who was able to work across the field and meet Stewart in the hole.
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As soon as Oher blew his assignment, this play was set to fail. Stewart should have been dropped for no gain or a loss by the linebacker in the hole. Instead, he showed off outstanding quickness and balance to make a subtle turn upfield past the linebacker's inside shoulder. Stewart made this movement at speed while squashing his upper body close to Oher so the defender had no opportunity to impact him with a desperation tackle attempt. After finding his way through the line of scrimmage, Stewart was met by a defensive back in space. The running back absorbed his hit at the 5-yard line and fell forward for 2 more yards, so the play gained 3 in total.
Stewart's shiftiness has made him a very dangerous receiving back in previous seasons, but scheme and usage has meant that he has had limited opportunities to show of this receiving ability this season. He has just 12 receptions for 54 yards and one touchdown in 2015. Instead, Stewart's shiftiness highlights his power and makes him even tougher to bring down.
It's rare that big, powerful backs carry out prominent roles in NFL offenses these days. That is because teams have figured out that a less powerful back with an ability to adjust quickly is tougher to stop than a back who simply attempts to run through tackles. Stewart's quick-twitch ability means that he is able to punish defenders who are aggressive at the tackle point by shifting his weight slightly, but his bulk means that he can also punish those who are more cautious in approaching him by being aggressive. Against Washington, he was able to repeatedly break tackles by exploding through contact.
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On this play, Stewart took the ball on a designed cutback run. The Panthers lined up with two tight ends to the left, and both players would be tasked with key blocks. The first of those blocks was by Greg Olsen. Olsen initially held up as part of a double-team, but was overmatched when left alone against the much bigger defensive lineman. That defender, Ricky Jean-Francois, attempted to tackle Stewart for a big loss, but the running back dipped beneath his tackle attempt and shrugged off the contact to continue moving towards the sideline.
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As soon as Stewart pushed away from Jean-Francois with his extended arm, the cornerback to that side of the field closed on him. Running over a cornerback isn't the most difficult of tasks for a power back, but Stewart was able to step through Chris Culliver without being slowed down. Most significantly, he did this from what was essentially a standing start. He couldn't rely on his momentum to carry him through the tackle, he had to generate all of the power himself. After Stewart broke that tackle, he skipped away from low tackle attempt from another defensive back to continue downfield before going out of bounds.
The blocking on this play failed. Stewart should have been stopped behind the line of scrimmage for a significant loss. Instead, he created 13 or 14 yards to gain 9 and a first down.
Stewart's reliance on creating yards is highlighted by how many of his runs go for short gains. Only Adrian Peterson has more carries that gained 3 or fewer yards than Stewart this season. All told, 119 of Stewart's 211 carries have resulted in 3 or fewer yards, while Peterson has been stopped for short gains on 136 of his 237 carries this season. Both Stewart and Peterson are in the top three of total rushing yards this season, but neither are relying on their offensive lines to lead them there. Peterson is consistently creating big plays, while Stewart is relying on his consistency against contact and his vision to finish plays moving forward. He isn't always gaining 10-plus yards -- he only has 20 of those plays this season -- but he is making the Panthers running game more efficient than it should be.
Against the Dallas Cowboys last week, Stewart's production was cut down by negative runs. He had four carries that combined for -7 yards, including plays that gained zero as negative plays. Stewart carried the ball 21 times, including goal-line carries, for 68 yards. He didn't have a touchdown, but he did consistently show off his technical ability to set up blockers to best exploit the actions of the defense. The veteran also highlighted his ability to work outside the tackles, getting to the sideline for this 6-yard gain.
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Sean Lee is one of the fastest linebackers in the NFL, while also being one of the smartest and most aggressive. On this play, he attempts to cut beneath the block of Jerricho Cotchery so he can beat Stewart to the edge. Stewart doesn't need to be exceptionally fast to beat Lee to the outside, but he does need enough speed to exploit the space he is given. Once he is past Lee, Stewart follows his lead blocker patiently. Rolando McClain arrives quickly to fill the next gap, but Stewart uses his footwork to press the hole before breaking to the outside at the perfect time to negate McClain's presence. He is able to turn the corner with his speed at that point and get downfield to set up second-and-4.
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This run doesn't result in a first down. It's not a run that would be considered explosive. It's a drive-starter, or a down-starter in this scenario. There's huge value in this type of play, and it's the type of play that Stewart offers to his offense on a consistent basis.
Like his quarterback, Stewart's raw statistics aren't going to come close to giving a fair representation of his performances this season. He has comfortably been one of the best backs in the league even if his average is low and his touchdowns are hindered by playing with two of the best short-yardage runners in the league.
In an offense lacking receiving options, the Panthers are stacked with options to run the ball. Newton is obviously hugely important for executing the types of running plays the Panthers use, but without DeAngelo Williams on the roster, Stewart is just as vital.