Word of Muth
Dive into the details of offensive line play with a former all-PAC-10 left tackle

Word of Muth: Panthers' Run Game

by Ben Muth

Sunday's NFC Championship game wasn't as much of a game as it was a good old-fashioned country butt-whipping. Carolina got ahead early, poured it on the middle part of the game, and finished strong. The Arizona Cardinals looked outclassed on both sides of the ball. It was so one-sided, that rather than focus too much on the individual players on Carolina's offensive line, we're going to look more at some of the schematic things the Panthers did.

The first thing that jumps out when you watch Carolina is how diverse the Panthers' run game is. A lot of it is a small selection of concepts (inside zone, power, and counter) with different wrinkles that don't really affect the offensive line (inverted veer is blocked like QB power, but there's a jet sweep read attached; they'll block inside zone, but Cam Newton will have a triple option). But even acknowledging that they have a few base plays, they still break out enough plays outside of those concepts (I saw trap and a buck sweep that immediately come to mind) that you have a lot to prepare for. And that's just what they ran in one game where they were up by three scores from about the second quarter on. I don't think they went too deep into the playbook in the second half. It reminds of the San Francisco 49ers under Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman.

It has to be tough a tough offense to prepare for and even tougher one to play against. If I was an unblocked defensive lineman, I would have no idea what was coming. They could be reading you on an option or pulling someone to knock you out of your gap. Markus Golden's night for Arizona is a good example of the kind of pressure this puts on a defender.

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This is inside zone with a triple option attached to it. I don't know for sure that Golden (44) is supposed to close that space down when the left tackle (Michael Oher, 73) blocks inside, but judging by what everyone else does around him, I'm guessing he needs to be playing the dive back. But it's easy to get distracted with the Newton and the pitch man. It takes that one second of indecision to allow Jonathan Stewart through the hole for a big gain.

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Here Golden is unblocked again, but this time he's responsible for a keep and the inside linebacker (Kevin Minter, 51) is responsible for Stewart. The funny thing is I don't think the Panthers even have an option on this play. (Newton might be able to keep it, but it doesn't look like it, and there's no way he can hand off on the jet sweep unless it's a pre-snap read). But the Cardinals are still a man short because of the threat of the option.

I think this is just a straight inside zone with a slice concept. I think the tight end (Greg Olsen, 88) coming across the formation is the one making the read. If Golden closes down, Olsen kicks him out; if Golden plays soft or outside, Olsen curls up to the linebacker. The theory being that one defender will be responsible for the give, the other the quarterback, so you only need to block the one responsible for the give. If the blocker can read it, you can get the benefit of the option without risking your quarterback taking a hit.

If you read the column last week, you would have seen how important it can be to be able to leave an unblocked edge defender on run plays away. The Broncos have a hard time holding that defender, so he makes a lot of plays against them (though Peyton Manning did have a nice bootleg early in the AFC title game). The Panthers never have that issue.

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This is the same play design as the previous play, but the Cardinals are playing it differently. Golden is the one crashing to take the give away, so Olsen comes across and tries to cut him down. I actually think Oher may be working to the wrong linebacker here (or he worked to the wrong linebacker in other GIF) and he should be pushing to Deone Bucannon (20). If he works to that linebacker, there's no way Minter can make a play on the back with how hard he loops outside initially.

Watching the Panthers play against Arizona, it was surprising how rarely they actually give Newton the option to keep it. But then I remembered they were up by 28 most of the game and probably didn't need him to take any unnecessary hits. I bet he'll be a more active runner against Denver -- particularly because that would mean forcing Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware to think a lot, and thinking might be the best way to slow down Denver's defensive ends.

In the passing game I thought Carolina's OL did a great job in pass protection, both individually and as a unit. I really thought that Carolina had a smart game plan to deal with some of Arizona's blitz packages.

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This was a third-and-long that went for an 80-yard touchdown late in the first quarter. I could be wrong, but it looks like Carolina is in man protection with a hole call by the center (the way he backpedals straight back to get on the guards' level is why that's my guess for the protection, but I could be wrong). That would mean the offensive line is responsible for the four down defensive linemen and the Mike linebacker. Of course, the Cardinals have zero down, so you have to get creative on how you ID who is who up front. One thing that seems certain is that Calais Campbell (93) is labeled as a defensive end even though he's lined up as a 3-technique, so Oher is sliding down to block him man to man.

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Carolina seemed to check to this protection every time the Cardinals gave them double 3-techniques from nickel or dime personnel (something Arizona showed a lot on third downs). It really helped them sort out interior blitzes from the Cardinals. The advantage of the hole technique from the center is that all three interior offensive linemen end up on the same level, which makes it easy to pass off crossing blitzers.

Here, it worked great, but I can't imagine that we'll see a ton of it in the Super Bowl. The thing about man protections is they're great for the interior integrity of the pocket, but they really put a lot of pressure on your tackles. The Cardinals' biggest weakest on defense was probably their pass rush off the edge (even after the Dwight Freeney signing), so it made sense that Carolina would focus on pass protections that helped minimize some of the exotic interior blitzes Arizona runs. But Denver's edge rushers are absolute studs, and it will be interesting to see what Carolina does from a protection standpoint to minimize Miller and Ware.

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The one negative I did see in Carolina's pass protection was at center, where Ryan Kalil (67) got pushed too far into the pocket on some plays. It wasn't a huge deal because he usually had help, but against Denver (with those outside linebackers), that may not be the case. Here, Kalil is just too passive with his punch and his set. The center ends up giving way too much ground too quickly, and it affects Newton's ability to throw the ball. That actually plays into what I thought was Newton's worst habit on Sunday.

Newton is a mobile quarterback, but he doesn't move around in the pocket too much. Usually that's a great thing. Take the fourth GIF of this article. The Cards are bringing a heavy blitz directly right up the middle, but it doesn't phase Newton at all. He just sits at the top of his drop and makes a throw deep down the field. Newton's patience and calmness make the play.

But sometimes Newton is too content to sit back and let the rush get right up on him before just slinging the ball off his back foot. Newton doesn't do a great job of sliding in the pocket to create better throwing lanes. He tends to either escape the pocket completely, or he plants himself at the top of the drop and lets his arm make the plays.

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This ended up being a third-down completion on a 13-yard deep out that was perfectly placed. But if I just showed you the GIF and said he was throwing a deep out, you would probably assume it had been picked off. Newton can get away with throwing off his back foot a lot (and again, overall, I think his willingness to stay on the launch point is a big positive) but if it's a tight game, it could only take the one time it went badly for him to swing the game. If Kalil is constantly getting pushed back into Newton's lap, the odds of this coming back to haunt the Panthers greatly increases.

Comments

23 comments, Last at 17 Feb 2016, 2:09am

1 Re: Word of Muth: Panthers' Run Game

You've just swung my opinion straight from "Carolina should win pretty easily" to "oh, wait, how will Carolina score when their tackles aren't terribly great and Denver's edge is amazing?"

I'm now more excited for the game.

4 Re: Word of Muth: Panthers' Run Game

They are going to (try to) score by keeping Miller and Ware very vigilant against the run, and vigilant about keeping Newton contained in the pocket, thus getting just a microfraction of hesitation/delay on their speed rushes, thus providing Newton the time to throw.

I love watching Carolina's offense, and I love watching Denver's defense. I enjoy watching Carolina's defense. I can't say I enjoy watching Denver's offense, of course, but there is a certain strange appeal, like watching a tight rope walker with a mild case of vertigo, doing his act without a net. He's just trying to get through it without getting killed, but the adoring audience still wants to see a few tricks, and he's desperately trying to figure out which ones, and when he should attempt them, before he gets dizzy again.

6 Re: Word of Muth: Panthers' Run Game

"They are going to (try to) score by keeping Miller and Ware very vigilant against the run, and vigilant about keeping Newton contained in the pocket, thus getting just a microfraction of hesitation/delay on their speed rushes, thus providing Newton the time to throw."

That's what it all comes down to isn't it? If Denver can defend the run without sacrificing pressure from the ends I think they force a couple turnovers and win a very tight game. If they can't, I don't see how Denver can score enough to keep up with Carolina, presuming Newton takes what is available. To me, this one factor is an exceptionally huge determinant to the outcome of the game.

8 Re: Word of Muth: Panthers' Run Game

I guess they didn't have to do this on Sunday, but Carolina will max protect a lot. They will keep a TE or RB (or TE lined up AS a RB) in to block. It also gives them a lot of flexibility for Cam to call a running play without having to change formations.

The chess matches between Shula/Newton v Phillips and McDermott/Kuechly v Manning should be interesting to see. Do the Broncos audible much on Defense?

15 Re: Word of Muth: Panthers' Run Game

OP has a point, as do you. The Panthers have max protected into huge passing gains all year. A lot of the time, they were facing weaker run defenses that had to put 8 guys in the box, and therefore couldn't cover deep. If you leave 7-8 guys in coverage against 3-4 receivers, the chances of interceptions increase dramatically. The problem for Carolina isn't that Ginn and Brown can't get downfield, it's Phillips baiting Newton into turnovers with a disguised coverage. Everyone expects the Panthers to put up the numbers from the last couple of games, but they relied on turnovers for it. They had a turnover margin of 7-1 in the playoffs so far. They exploded for 500 yards against Arizona, but had only 295 against Seattle. They weren't a dominant offense in the regular season, and they're facing one of the best defenses of the last ten years. Don't expect a lot of points except when the defenses get the ball. Understand, I think the Panthers will win, but their defense has carried them this year, and it will win them this game as well.

16 Re: Word of Muth: Panthers' Run Game

If speed was all you needed to be a good WR, Darrius Heyward-Bey would be on pace to break Jerry Rice's records right now. Denver has two corners that run 4.3 40s (Roby & Webster) and two that run 4.4 40s and have plenty of technique. There's a reason their defense has allowed the least yards/pass attempt and the least yards/reception in each of the last two seasons, and it isn't because they haven't faced fast receivers the last two years.

7 Re: Word of Muth: Panthers' Run Game

Even as a Broncos fan, I literally laughed out loud. That was pretty embarrassing, and let's not forget the Chiefs loss in Week 10. It was 29-0 KC until under six minutes, then Denver scored 13 in garbage time. Pretty solid beatdown.

I'm hardly confident that we won't get blown out this time. (I'm tempted to put money on Carolina, giving away whatever the line is now, just because "I got $100" might help make up for how I'll feel if we lay another egg. You know, if gambling were legal.) It's not just "the ghost of Peyton Manning" either; the O line is just now hitting "week 3 on a middling team" if that, and if D Thomas breaks 100 against Norman I'll be shocked. He's been disappearing against far lesser CBs.

22 Re: Word of Muth: Panthers' Run Game

"But Denver's edge rushers are absolute studs, and it will be interesting to see what Carolina does from a protection standpoint to minimize Miller and Ware."

Answer : Nothing that worked. Hopefully you'll do a piece on this, Ben.
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23 Re: Word of Muth: Panthers' Run Game

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