Carolina Panthers' Punishing Ground Game

Carolina Panthers QB Sam Darnold
Carolina Panthers QB Sam Darnold
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NFL Week 17 - Late December football is about desperation. It's about teams on the fringe of the playoff picture fighting to keep or earn their spot in the dance. Saturday's game between the Detroit Lions and Carolina Panthers was supposed to be that kind of game. On one side, a Lions team that has battled back from a 1-6 start trying to mount an improbable playoff run. On the other, a Panthers team that has rallied behind its interim head coach and is gunning for a title in the muddiest division in football. It was a game that reeked of desperation before kickoff, a game destined to be a gnarly bar fight.

And then kickoff came and the Panthers ran the Lions out of Bank of America Stadium. The Panthers opened the game with five straight runs, cruising 78 yards to the end zone with a smattering of different run calls. At the time, maybe it felt like just a great opening script, but it never let up. The Panthers earned 240 rushing yards in the first half and finished the game with 320, the second-highest rushing total of any team this year. Only the Eagles' Week 11 brawl against the Packers tops it. The Lions, on the day, just did not have it.

It's not just that the Panthers ran for over 300 yards, it's how they did it. The Panthers won with misdirection, option runs, and plain ol' fashioned bullying, sometimes all at once and sometimes one at a time. Standard pulling runs such as Power and Counter were mostly left off the table, but the Panthers used just about every other run game tactic to displace and batter the Lions' poor front seven.



The Panthers wasted no time turning to misdirection. On the first play of the game, the Panthers called a windback run to the open side of the formation to bounce a huge run. Windback is a zone misdirection, a way to approximate counter without pulling a lineman. The pre-snap motion gets the Lions' second-level players to kick over, followed by the offensive linemen all stepping to the same side on what looks like a zone run at first. All of the Lions' second-level players get sucked inside, along with defensive end Aidan Hutchinson (97). Hutchinson is too flat and inside to recover, while the nickel (Will Harris, 25) gets crack blocked with ease because he is so far inside. The track to the perimeter opens right up, and all running back Chuba Hubbard has to do is follow his blocker into space.



On the next play (after a pre-snap infraction, technically), a different kind of misdirection saw its first use of the day. Rather than aiming to confuse an entire front, the Panthers turned to a trap play to catch one defensive lineman slipping. In this case, the Panthers are trapping Alim McNeil (54) at 3-technique. Right guard Austin Corbett pops up at the snap and flashes his hands at McNeill, but quickly moves to the 1-technique. The flash-fake gives McNeill almost no time to see the left guard pulling across, leaving him sealed out of the play while Corbett opens up the other side of the rushing lane by helping out the center. Linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez (44) had a chance to make a play but took himself too wide trying to read the pull on what he may have thought was Power, not a trap play with more of an inside track.



To open the next drive, the Panthers went with the same opening call as their first, this time into a tight end side. The longer surface to the run side means the defensive end becomes part of the blocking scheme by alignment, leaving the down safety (Ifeatu Melifonwu, 26) as the "free" edge of the defense. Melifonwu crashes hard and fast, forcing the run to cut more inside than last time, but the Panthers are just fine with that. Both the 3-technique (McNeil, 54) and defensive end (John Cominsky, 79) rip across the line with the initial run action. Linebackers Rodriguez (44) and Alex Anzalone (34) should be able to flow over behind them and make the defensive line right, but both play too soft and wide rather than trying to play tight to their linemen and squeeze the air out of the play. Running back D'Onta Foreman finds the crease between Cominsky and the two linebackers and takes off for another chunk gain.

The Panthers' use of deception also bled into using Sam Darnold the way he always should have been: as an option quarterback. Darnold isn't Lamar Jackson, but he can be Daniel Jones as a runner, whatever degree of compliment that qualifies as. Darnold ran option plays in college and should have been able to do more of it throughout his NFL career. In this game, the Panthers put that on display.



Carolina's first scoring drive finished off with a speed option play into the short side of the field. The tight end climbed to the cornerback and the right tackle moved up to the linebacker, leaving Darnold and third-string running back Raheem Blackshear to attack the defensive end Cominsky (79). Darnold does an awesome job getting vertical to threaten Cominsky and force him to play the quarterback. Once Darnold realizes Cominsky isn't going anywhere, he flips the ball out to Blackshear for a race against Rodriguez (44), who had little shot of catching up after getting hung up on a block initially.



Darnold got to handle more of the action himself two drives later. In the high red zone, the Panthers turned to this trips formation with the back to the passing strength. This is a common look for option plays and RPOs because the back gets to run away from the defense in a sense, while the quarterback gets to read the free defender or has an easy sightline to the receivers if a pass is tagged onto the play. Darnold, seeing the light box and two high safeties, opts to read the end and pulls it, securing a new set of downs inside the 5. Darnold scored a couple of plays later with another zone read to the left side.



The option series didn't end there. Later in the game, the Panthers again came out with the back to the same side as a trips set. The two-high, light-box structure again prompts Darnold to read the defensive end. Unlike the last time around, the defensive end doesn't squeeze down the line of scrimmage as much, making Darnold hand the ball off. Anzalone (34) gets caught in a sticky wicket; damned if he crashes inside the A-gap to get the double-team to come off the defensive linemen, damned if he plays it slow and allows the back to follow the double team. A better back makes a more inspired effort against the safety, but it's still a great gain without the back having to do much of anything.

It wasn't all smoke and mirrors, of course. A team doesn't run for 320 yards with just eye candy and favorable box counts. It takes a certain level of toughness and people-moving skills to drop three bills on an NFL defense. The Panthers had no issue playing those cards in between all their misdirection and option runs, and the Lions front didn't seem up to the physical challenge.



The Lions have the bodies to defend this duo run. They have eight defenders in the box to account for eight gaps and there's no threat of Darnold adding an extra "gap" as a runner from under center. It doesn't matter. Left tackle Ikem Ekwonu (who has played much better over the second half of his rookie year) and left guard Brady Christensen knock McNeil off the ball with ease, in part because McNeil stems inside at the snap. To their left, tight end Tommy Tremble clears out the nickel, who doesn't do a good job triggering downhill to create commotion. Linebacker Derrick Barnes fires across the center's face into the backfield from the other side, but the path in front of the back is so clear that he still plows forward for an efficient gain.



Early in the third quarter, the Panthers went back to duo. This time they have a wider surface to the play side and no defenders outside of their widest blocker, meaning they can wash everybody who isn't getting double teamed straight down the line of scrimmage. Both Cominsky (79) and Melifonwu (26) get washed down inside, forcing the running back to bounce and go one-on-one with the corner. Typically a good tackler, Jeff Okudah (1) doesn't squeeze the play enough and lunges for a poor tackle attempt to allow the back to gain about 15 yards.

From the Panthers' point of view, this game was a godsend. They won't do anything close to this the rest of the way, but finding more of what works in the run game is imperative to keeping this operation running. The Panthers, quietly, have been ninth in offensive DVOA since Sam Darnold took over in Week 12. That has been largely thanks to an OK running back taking on the bulk of the workload, leaving Darnold to be a low-volume passer living off shot plays. How long that can hold, who knows, but it has worked for them lately, and seeing a boost from their run game might just be enough to keep the operation on schedule for the next two weeks to get a playoff berth.

For the Lions, it's a disaster. Run defense hasn't been a strength for the Lions for most of the year, but they have been better lately, at least until Saturday. Worse than that, for a team built on discipline and toughness and all of that good stuff, getting 320 yards on the ground hung on you in a do-or-die game is a pretty demoralizing look. They're supposed to be doing that to the Panthers, not the other way around. The loss also took the Lions from almost a coinflip's chance at the playoffs to just 21.6% with games against the Bears and a potential win-and-in game over the Packers on deck. The Lions couldn't really afford to lose this game, especially this way, considering the rest of the NFC playoff contenders that could be waiting for them are some of the best rushing offenses in the league.

This game could have cleared up the NFC playoff picture, but instead it only muddied things up even more. The Panthers inched closer to a division title and the Lions put themselves in a position to need more of a miracle than they already did. Maybe the result of this game won't matter when both teams get knocked out in the end, but it was a fun and bewildering wrench thrown into the final stretch of the playoff push.


2 comments, Last at 29 Dec 2022, 1:03pm

#1 by Raiderfan // Dec 28, 2022 - 8:06pm

A great breakdown; very educational.

It looks to me as if Detroit would be better off keeping Goff—if they can do it at 25-30M or less—and use their draft capital on defense.  Their LBs looked horrible.

Points: 0

#2 by Joey-Harringto… // Dec 29, 2022 - 1:03pm

If they re-structured his contract to an Andy Dalton type contract (the one Dalton signed in the early 2010s), I wouldn't hate it (although would still prefer to take a swing in the draft).  The problem is that those middle-class QB contracts have kind of gone away.

The LBs had been playing much better as of late (especially rookie Malcolm Rodriguez).  This was an uncharacteristically horrific game for them.  But yea, I agree they should pour more resources into their defense.

Points: 0

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