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06 Nov 2012

Any Given Sunday: Panthers Over Redskins

by Rivers McCown

The last few days have been spent mostly in celebration of Andrew Luck, and it's well-deserved. But remember the second overall pick? The guy who was pretty universally lauded after Week 1's upset of the Saints? Whatever happened to him?

When the Redskins traded up to snag Robert Griffin with the second overall pick in the draft, it was both a continuation and a departure from the traditional operating strategy in Landover. After years of trying to spend their way to relevancy in free agency, the Redskins finally began to work the draft over the past couple of seasons. They traded down multiple times in 2011, and then traded up for someone who most thought (and we agreed) was going to be a franchise quarterback.

However, in making that move, the Redskins continued to value star power over a consistent depth-focused approach to team building. They dealt a second-rounder in 2012, and their first-round picks in 2012, 2013, and 2014 to acquire Griffin, leaving them without much to do on the first day of the draft for the next few years. There is no question that Griffin is a special player who can be worth that cost, but right now he's purely a one-man show.

You may remember Week 8's nine dropped passes by Redskins receivers. You may remember the fact that Griffin had to leave with a concussion delivered by Atlanta's Sean Weatherspoon in Week 5. What you may not know, if you haven't watched the Redskins for the past month or so, is the extent to which this offense is relying on Griffin right now.

The offense that Mike Shanahan selected for this team, from the beginning of the season, was a play-action-focused running attack that mixed in read-option, quick routes, and the pistol to keep offenses off-balance. When I first looked at this, I was tempted to conclude that Washington was handling Griffin with kid gloves to manage him through his first year, but at this point, I think the shackles are on this offense because he doesn't have any help.

The one home-grown Redskins player who really proved himself a viable threat in 2011, Fred Davis, is done for the year with a torn Achilles' tendon. Pierre Garcon, a Redskins free-agent pickup (surprise!) who wasn't that good to begin with in the eyes of DVOA, has been hobbled by foot woes for most of the season. 2011 third-rounder Leonard Hankerson has been inconsistent enough that the Redskins dialed back his snaps in Week 9. Outside of Hankerson, Griffin has mainly been throwing to Santana Moss, who can't get out of second gear at this point in his career, the perfectly mediocre Josh Morgan, and former sixth-rounder Aldrick Robinson. His main tight end, Logan Paulsen, was in the Going Deep section of FOA 2012. The offensive line has continued to be banged up, The Redskins have had games with a starting tackle tandem of Jordan Black and Tyler Polumbus this season. Yes, Jordan Black still plays football.

Sunday, Griffin was under pressure from the opening gun. This isn't the kind of scenario that Russell Wilson was generating earlier in the season, where the first read was covered and Wilson just started trying to scramble as soon as possible. Griffin is legitimately going through the progressions. But between the amount of time the offensive line is giving him (little) and the number of actual open receivers he has (few), the Redskins have basically been forced to keep everything within 25 yards of the line of scrimmage. Against the Panthers, the Redskins had three passes that traveled 20 or more yards -- two of them were completions of 20 yards and 23 yards. Given the inordinate focus on play-action and the fact that Griffin has some ability eluding rushers and a solid run game, you'd expect the Redskins to have plenty of time to get vertical. Between the offensive line and the receivers, that just hasn't happened. And keep in mind -- Chris Gamble wasn't out there for this game. Captain Munnerlyn and rookie Josh Norman were starting outside, and the Redskins receivers could barely do anything against them.

Outside of Garcon's long touchdown pass off a slant in Week 1, the Redskins have had just 12 plays where a receiver racked up 15 yards after catch or more in a single play. Nine of those 12 were originally caught behind the line of scrimmage (i.e. they were screens). We've brought up the subject of how many of Griffin's completions are "failed" completes lately because of his high completion percentage. Now you know the other side of that story.

So now the worry becomes: what if the Redskins, sans first-round picks for the next few seasons, can't piece together an actual supporting cast to take advantage of Griffin's unique skills? The Redskins finally have their quarterback for the future. Now they need to surround him with talent -- drafted talent, if possible.

By the VOA

In honor of today's presidential election, Mr. Truman decided to actually win out today, as the Panthers stymied the Redskins in both the box score and the VOA spread:

Dewey's Day Off
CAR 35.2% -12.6% -0.9% 46.8%
WAS -9.7% 25.6% -1.4% -36.6%

Call of the Game

Given the fact that his team has had problems creating explosive plays, Mike Shanahan and company do deserve some credit for taking an aggressive stance on fourth-down. In fact, on a long second-quarter drive, they went for it on fourth down three separate times: a fullback give, a quick-hitting play to Morgan, and a failed run by Griffin on fourth-and-goal.

Some (of the voices in my head -- no, I believe this was on NBC but I don't recall who to attribute it to) have criticized the fourth-and-goal call by saying that Griffin should have had the ability to pass or run in this situation, but I think it's a little silly to critique a unit that was eight-of-nine on fourth down coming into the game. Especially considering they'd just converted two more on this drive.

The Redskins wound up with no points despite holding the ball for more than ten minutes of game time. Despite that, I appreciate the aggression here. The Redskins have not been a great defensive team this year, and, as the Carolina VOA suggests, they had little answer for the Panthers on offense. Field goals weren't going to win this game for them.

Spotlight on: Panthers running game

To some extent, regression was to be expected from Carolina's running offense after it ran roughshod over the league last season, when they nearly doubled the second-place Saints in rushing DVOA. But the extent that they've fallen despite little in the way of personnel changes at the skill positions is a little startling. Yes, Ryan Kalil is out for the year now, but they were struggling even before he went down.

So let's look at this unit in a little more depth. Did they get figured out last year? One of the sure signs of that would be a midseason change of fortune in run DVOA, but the Panthers actually improved over the course of the season. Through Week 8, they had a 10.7% rushing DVOA, then in Weeks 9-17, it jumped to 30.1%.

Well, maybe they're just using Cam Newton too much? After all, you likely saw that stat FOX ran (and we reprinted in Audibles) that noted Carolina running backs came into this week having just six total yards on third down. Actually, that falls apart under analysis too -- of Carolina's 434 carries last season, 117 went to Newton (about 27 percent), while 297 (about 68 percent) went to Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams. This season, in 211 attempts, Newton has 57 carries (...about 27 percent), and Williams, Stewart, and Mike Tolbert have combined for 149 carries (about 71 percent). They are on pace for fewer overall carries this season as a team, but that falls right in line with how they haven't been as effective running the ball this season.

Is it perhaps that they don't line the ball up and run out of base formations more often? The Panthers had just a 7.9% DVOA out of non-shotgun runs last season. In the shotgun, they had a 34.2% DVOA. This year, the non-shotgun runs have yielded a -42.8% DVOA, and out of the shotgun, they're at 11.8%. They've ran out of shotgun slightly more than they have last season. No matter how you slice it, Carolina's problems don't seem to come from the perception that they have a "gimmicky" run game -- at least on the stat sheets.

Now of course, they did change some personnel this offseason, adding Tolbert and ditching Jeremy Shockey, but that shouldn't really be that big of a deal. Shockey was never regarded as an upper-echelon blocker, and Tolbert is arguably built from the same mold even if they don't technically play the same position.

The biggest difference so far, statistically, has been the performance of Stewart. After finishing fourth in DYAR and second in DVOA in 2011, you can currently find him 46th in DYAR ... among non-qualifying players. I decided that the best way to properly figure out what was wrong with the Panthers was to view all of Stewart's negative runs in our system and see what caused them. That's 41 runs that varied from four yards to minus-three yards.

One thing that stood out was how poor Carolina's guards are at pulling, especially outside of the tackle box. Another was that rookie guard Amini Silatolu has missed a lot of assignments. Even when combo blocking with the center or the tackle, he tends to just be so slow that opposing defenders can shoot the gaps before he can come off and stop them.

I came into this expecting to see that the Panthers were missing Legedu Naanee, who piqued Mike Tanier's interest last year with a spate of holding penalties. They do, a little. But most of Stewart's bad runs have come because of bad blocking. The talent is still there at the skill positions, but Carolina is just struggling up front -- as Adjusted Line Yards could have told you without all the tape.

Posted by: Rivers McCown on 06 Nov 2012

9 comments, Last at 22 Mar 2013, 4:10am by watchinus.com


by Michael LaRocca (not verified) :: Tue, 11/06/2012 - 7:57pm

I'm just stunned that we won one. If we quit playing hard only until the first celebration dance, and if we don't act like we're playing from behind when there are still 60 minutes on the clock, that's a good start.

by A. Diggity :: Tue, 11/06/2012 - 8:06pm

Loved the fact that somebody broke down Amini Silatolu a little; makes me long for Travelle Wharton, absolutely. He has been terrible in the run game and has been even worse in the pass game; yet another fantastic Hurney pick. (To be fair, though, he did come up with Josh Norman in the 5th, who has probably been the best part of our secondary this year, honestly.)

by Ryan D. :: Wed, 11/07/2012 - 1:40pm

I keep watching the Panthers every week, and I feel like they are good enough to be a playoff team, despite their results.

They had the 8-0 Falcons beat, in Atlanta, if not for a fluke fumble caused when Cam Newton ran into his own offensive lineman during a 3rd and 2 run that was already past the line to gain for a first down with under a minute remaining. If not for that fluky fumble, there is no need to decide what to do on 4th down, no need to stop Matt Ryan and Roddy White on their miracle heave from their own end zone, and no need to sweat out a field goal try at the end of the game.

On the road against 7-1 Chicago, all Steve Smith needed was the proper cleats to retain his footing on an out route and Tim Jennings doesn't get the gifted interception return for a touchdown that immediately spawned the 4th quarter comeback for Chicago.

With those two wins alone, the Panthers would be 4-4, while Atlanta would now be 7-1, and Chicago now 6-2.

You also have to think that the homes games against Seattle and Dallas were definitely winnable games based on the late-game situations. Against Seattle, the would-be game-winning TD pass on 4th-and-goal from the 1 with a few minutes remaining was simply thrown in the dirt in front of a wide open Ben Hartsock. That win would put the Panthers at 5-3, Seattle at 4-5, and would have the Panthers competing for a wild card playoff spot right now.

Although unlikely, the division lead would at least be within sight (down two games, but with the head-to-head win and one game left against Atlanta in Charlotte).

How can this team play well enough to compete every week, even against good teams on the road, but lose almost every single time?

by In_Belichick_We... :: Thu, 11/08/2012 - 8:52am

I'll admit upfront that I know very little about the Panthers.
However, my limited football knowledge is reminding me right now that the threat of a good TE passing game does wonders for the run game.
I'm surprised there wasn't any analysis of the current Panther TE passing game vs. their TE passing game of last year.
The TE blocking may not have changed after losing Shockey, but has the TE passing game threat significantly changed?

Entitled freeloader

by LionInAZ :: Thu, 11/08/2012 - 3:31pm

They still have Greg Olson, who has nearly 400 yards receiving this year, and has a higher DVOA than Shockey did last year.

by In_Belichick_We... :: Thu, 11/08/2012 - 3:38pm

I see. Thanks.
I was right: I know very little about the Panthers.

Entitled freeloader

by Ryan D. :: Fri, 11/09/2012 - 9:50am

The Panthers used a fair bit of two-TE sets last season with Olsen and Shockey. This gave them more flexibility in formations from base personnel. They were able to use Shockey as a safety valve in passing situations and as an extra blocker in power running plays.

While fullback Mike Tolbert might be the new guy in town getting most of Shockey's snaps, he doesn't offer quite the same versatility as Shockey, even if the Panthers coaches are trying to make him try (square peg in a round hole).

The Panthers have been trying to get Gary Barnidge on the field a little more in the past few weeks. He's a fifth-year career backup tight end that is tall and decently quick, but has a history of injuries that will probably keep him from ever being a reliable player in Shockey's mold from last season.

by perruques (not verified) :: Sun, 03/03/2013 - 1:58am

They still have Greg Olson, who has nearly 500 yards receiving this year, and has a higher DVOA than Shockey did last year.

by watchinus.com (not verified) :: Fri, 03/22/2013 - 4:10am

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