Joe Brady's LSU offense was never going to quite fit in the NFL. All the RPOs, playing out of empty formations more than any NFL team last season, the massive talent advantage -- even Brady's biggest advocates this offseason knew his Carolina Panthers offense could not be a copy-pasted version of his LSU offense. That is not to say his entire LSU offense would go by the wayside, but the scheme would need a professional touch on it.
The hope was that Brady could bring the same ethos of abusing space and matchups then blend it to a modern NFL style. At least through four weeks, the rising-star coordinator has done just that. The Panthers offense ranks 14th in DVOA through the first month, coming in at ninth in passing and 12th in rushing. Seeing as the offense's best player, running back Christian McCaffrey, has been out for the past two weeks (and the foreseeable future), Brady has the Panthers offense rolling as well as anyone could ask.
Some of Brady's success is that ol' college magic. While he can not call RPOs and cheeky screen passes quite as often as he did in the SEC, Brady has still done well to sprinkle those concepts in for cheap yards here and there. McCaffrey was supposed to be a lynchpin for that kind of stuff, but even with the star running back out of the lineup, the Panthers have made it work.
This is as simple as it gets for the quarterback. Like on an RPO (run-pass option), quarterback Teddy Bridgewater just has to read a key defender at the snap and play based off of that. In this instance, Bridgewater is eyeing the weakside linebacker. If the linebacker sits or shuffles towards the isolated receiver, Bridgewater flips it out to the running back on the flare screen. Conversely, if the linebacker flies over with the running back, as he does in both clips here, Bridgewater hits the slant on the back side. Bridgewater and wide receiver D.J. Moore did not quite execute in the first clip, but it is still clear to see how easily that play can generate a handful of yards.
What has really impressed with Brady, though, is not how he has made some of the "college" stuff work in the NFL, but how he has adapted to the NFL. In just a few short weeks, Brady has already shown he can package together full-field concepts in an interesting way. He has also shown he can get to those concepts in a variety of ways, keeping defenses on their toes even when the base passing concept is the same. Nothing Brady has done is a revolution by any means, but he is doing well to manufacture space.
This concept, in particular, hit a number of times against the Chargers. Kyle Shanahan calls this "Shade" (hat tip @futbolguysguy on Twitter for the play-call find) and it works like a blend between Levels and Drive. Levels is usually run from a standard trips set, like what the Panthers were in before the motion. The two outside receivers run 5-yard in routes, while the innermost receiver gets vertical for a dig/bender. In this concept, however, those two outside receivers sort of switch places, which is why the No. 2 (middle receiver) bends his route outside at the beginning as the No. 1 (outside receiver) is replacing him inside. That motion-into-shallow route action from the No. 1 makes the combination between him and the No. 3 (innermost receiver) function like Drive, which is a high-low concept with a shallow crosser and a square-in.
Here is the first time the Panthers called it against the Chargers. As a high-low is intended to do, both of the defense's hook players prioritize the same route -- the vertical player, in this case. The weak hook player turns to carry the No. 3 up the hash, but the strong hook player also backpedals with the vertical route and loses track of the shallow flyer across the formation. Once Bridgewater sees the weak hook is "up" with the No. 3 and the strong hook is still sitting on his heels instead of driving on the shallow, he knows wide receiver Robby Anderson is free and hits him in stride for a nice gain.
A couple of drives later, Brady called the same concept from the same formation from the same side of the field. Heck, the Panthers were lined up on almost the same exact yard line. Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley tried to come with an adjustment, but it proved fruitless against this particular passing concept.
Instead of a zone Cover-3 look, Los Angeles is in a Cover-1 concept with a rat/robber over the middle. As Anderson comes in motion this time around, the cornerback follows him over. The slot defender has the No. 2, while the strong linebacker takes the No. 3. The weak linebacker (over the left hash) is the leftover rat. Right at the snap, the weakside linebacker catches a glimpse of Anderson coming across and closes on it, taking away the avenue with which the Panthers hit this play last time. Bridgewater does not panic, though, and knows that if a cornerback is following Anderson across, the Chargers are in man coverage and the strongside No. 2 has to be all alone now. Wide receiver Curtis Samuel, the No. 2 in this clip, gives the slot defender the work in space and provides Bridgewater a wide-open target for another big pickup.
Much later in the game, the Panthers got into a similar formation. They flipped it to the other side (because the ball was being snapped off the right hash rather than the left) and swapped out the No. 3 for a wide receiver instead of a tight end, but it was still trips to the field with the back to the boundary. Considering the Chargers had already seen similar looks a few times by then, surely they were waiting for the motion to tip them off to getting the same concept as before. Well, the Panthers did run the same concept, but did not give the Chargers a chance to spot it out with the motion this time.
If anything could have tipped the Chargers off this time, it is the ordering of the receivers. In the previous two clips, Anderson started out wide before motioning in. This time, Anderson starts as the No. 2 receiver, aligning right about where he had been motioning to previously. The Panthers could, of course, do the whole motion deal with Moore instead of Anderson, but that is not what they had been doing all day. With Anderson now aligned tighter to the formation, he already has the inside track he wants on the shallow.
As such, the Panthers run the same concept without the motion, meaning Anderson runs the shallow as the pre-snap No. 2 and the No. 1 receiver, Moore runs a 5-yard in from the outside. Without the motion, this concept gets spaced out a bit differently (and makes the outside route slightly tougher to throw), but it presents the same problems to the defense. The Chargers tried to blitz it this time, which makes sense seeing as it was third down, but they left Anderson with a ton of free real estate to work with.
It is not an original idea, but finding ways to get your fast receivers into space is a good way to run an offense. Seeing as the Panthers have a wonderful trio of receivers in Anderson, Samuel, and Moore, all of them with good (or better) speed across the field, it is only natural that this has become the identity of the offense.
Brady's craftiness in getting that identity to work as a first-year NFL playcaller is cool to see, though. His early success is not quite that of Kellen Moore's early in Dallas last season, but Brady's seamless transition looks to be an encouraging sign for other young playcallers coming over from the college game. Next weekend's game against the Atlanta Falcons may well be his best game to date, assuming the Falcons don't hit their annual midseason turnaround earlier this year.